Alon Tal
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Conservative Judaism rising: A report from the field

Inspired by the unexpected vitality he found in the once waning synagogues of his childhood

Finding myself in the United States this fall, I thought I’d see what has become of Conservative Judaism on its Highest of Holidays. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family and involved in Israel’s Masorti/ Conservative movement, I was both curious and concerned. In recent years I have read many a eulogy for what used to be largest Jewish denomination. So imagine my surprise to discover myriad robust, creative and spiritual Conservative communities — not only hanging on, but flourishing.

These impressions of course are intuitive. Against all odds, Israel’s Masorti movement shows impressive, steady growth. But empirical data surely point to descending trends in the US: In the comprehensive 2013 Pew national survey, only 18% of American Jews expressed identification as Conservative Jews. An earlier 1990 poll reported that 43% of Jewish households identified with Conservative synagogues; a decade later it was 33%. The recent drop appears like a free-fall into oblivion.

Venturing into Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, my childhood “home court” on Rosh HaShanah, however, revealed a completely different story. To begin with, the synagogue as a matter of principle does not require participants to present a ticket at the door. In an age where High Holidays are big business and the best way to close budget shortfalls — unaffiliated Jews are expected to “Pay to Pray.” Not at Beth El. I’m sure they have to scramble like everyone else to meet mounting expenses. But all who seek to pass through the seasonal gates of redemption or simply engage in a bit of introspection are welcome at Beth El during the holidays: no questions asked. On our most sacred days, principle trumps profits.

When walk-ins like me arrive (after almost a forty-year absence) what do they find? A large sanctuary bursting to the seams with song, meditations, and prayers, as well as innumerable hugs and joyous reunions among dear friends. The geriatric dynamics of synagogues that suffer from population flight to new neighborhoods, or simply a younger generation that votes with its feet, appear to be largely absent. Demographic distribution seems remarkably balanced.

Ideologically, the community has evolved, with its embrace far more inclusive than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Since I grew up there, women have been successfully integrated into all aspects of the community. Indeed along with the venerable, veteran cantor (and world champion archeologist) Eric Meyers now shares the bimah with a most competent hazanit (cantor). At last year’s high holidays, Daniel Greyber, Beth El’s congenial and scholarly rabbi, apologized to his community for his past hesitancy on tolerance and gay issues. Rather than fight with Orthodox members over ritual matters and set the stage for bad blood and nasty successions — for decades, the synagogue wisely welcomed its “Orthodox minyan” from downstairs to a common kiddush upstairs after services. I was reminded that in our zealousness to valorize “pluralism”, we often forget the importance of unity and economies of scale. Not at Beth El.

But this doesn’t mean that Conservative services are any less complete or steeped in the traditional Hebrew liturgy than they were in my youth. It seemed to me, however, that many more people now can actually read the Hebrew. When that many voices rise together in prayer — one imagines that anyone listening on high will pay serious attention to the heart-felt petitions.

These were essentially the same dynamics I found at Congregation Beth Israel, Ann Arbor Michigan’s oldest synagogue ten days later on Yom Kippur. Sure, membership at the town’s Reform Temple is now substantially larger. But 460 families is more than enough for any synagogue that seeks a modicum of intimacy. Services are positively uplifting. A very competent University of Michigan professor chanting Kol Nidre gets plenty of backup from a congregation that clearly likes to sing. The pervasive informality and warmth is a reflection of the senior Rabbi Robert Dobrusin’s easy going style. He also has no trouble letting Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, his talented associate, give the “main event” sermon. She left me thinking for the first time about the significance of Living Wills. Who knew that it was actually a Jewish concept? The congregation seemed to identify with the expanded list of collective sins that the two read off as the day progressed — asking forgiveness for being dismissive about racial inequality or indifference towards gun violence.

In short — these synagogues inspired hope not only about the coming year, but about Conservative Judaism’s future.

Don’t get me wrong — there are still plenty of things in Conservative synagogues that can leave me cold. There is the sterility caused by the palatial size of some venues. Dress codes tend to be unnecessarily stiff. The disparity between High Holiday participation and typical Sabbath attendance remains troubling. And the services — well they can go on and on and on. Perhaps that’s the destiny of the middle path: Orthodox Jews fly through services — knowing that what matters most is to say every word, no matter the velocity. Reform Jews are quite comfortable abbreviating and editing to meet their endurance levels and timetables. But our Conservative congregations feel a need to include every word, while not wanting to give up on any of the touchy-feeling spiritual additions to engage congregants.

It’s astonishing to me therefore that there are magnificent Conservative communities that make a virtue out of these marathons. For instance, when attending Saturday morning services at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth last year, it seemed that members didn’t want to go home. Many would hang around, even after the bagel brunch, to enjoy supplementary lectures and classes. At Agudath Israel in New Jersey, many congregants never really go home at all on Saturday — stretching the Kiddush receptions into weekly social extravaganzas. That has something to do with the synagogues’ two remarkable rabbis (David Booth and Alan Silverstein) who create such extraordinary, haimish environments. It also shows what Conservative Judaism is becoming.

My friend Yam Erez often compares people’s theological inclinations to driving on a highway. The car that passes you is driven by a maniac who is going to get himself killed at that crazy speed. The car that’s slowing you down is a sluggish idiot who should never have received a license. The only person driving the “right” speed — of course — is you. And indeed when asked about my own religious preference for Conservative Judaism, I’ll joke that Orthodox play tennis with a net that’s ten foot high, Reform Jews take down the nets altogether, and we Conservatives get it just about right.

But this sort of an analysis may be part of the pathology. My wife is a particularly thoughtful observer on the matter. She says that Conservative Judaism’s problem is that it seems to have an obsessive need to define and justify itself according to everyone else. You’ll often hear protestations like: “But — honestly, we’re every bit as Halachic as Orthodox.” Or alternatively: “Really, we are so much less superficial and more authentic than the Reform.” This reflects an underlying inferiority complex and discomfort with the movement’s identity. It is high time to lighten up — stop judging other religious streams and simply celebrate the theological evolution and cultural synergism that can be found in modern Conservative Judaism.

I’ve heard it said that there are actually three kinds of American Jews: “Reform, Orthodox and…. Conservative Rabbis”. In fact, there has always been a glaring gap between the declared theology and religious constraints of Conservative Judaism and what members of congregations actually believe and do. This can probably be traced historically to Conservative Judaism’s dramatic rise in the 1950s, based on a second-generation of Americans who sought an alternative to the Orthodoxy of their parents. They also felt that Reform services at the time, with its organs and English prayer books, had gone too far. That generation is on its way out.

Their successors should not be seen as fossils or moribund last Mohicans. Rather, Conservative Judaism is becoming ‘leaner and meaner’: on the one hand a much more serious place, bolstered by decades of increased day-school participation, a higher Yiddishkeit literacy and far greater knowledge of Israel. And on the other, it is a much happier place. You find this new, improved version, in the diverse congregations and inspiring experiences offered from Austin Texas to White Plains New York.

That’s why it can be argued that the drop in numbers may actually be a blessing for Conservative Judaism. True — there will be fewer members and fewer synagogues. Yes, the Reform will get more votes in elections to the Zionist Congress. But what really matters is what happens in the innumerable Conservative communities that remain. My guess is that they will be a lot like these wonderful places: where Judaism is a joyful matter; where the ancient tradition is seamlessly integrated into a vibrant and spirited set of evolving rituals; where there is a sacred space for Jews to collectively look inward and reach upward to address the serious challenges associated with being Jewish, being mortal and being human.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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