Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

How to Save the Conservative Movement

In recent months there have been several op-eds in Jewish newspapers around the USA about the Conservative movement discussing what it should do to reverse its downward decline.

Before relaying my solution, here are some of the statistics that have insiders panicked. Over the past 30 years the number of Conservative synagogues has declined from 850 to 580. Over the past 25 years the number of Jews who identify themselves as being a Conservative Jew has declined by one-third; and over the past 15 years the number of Solomon Schechter Day Schools has declined from 63 to 40. As to be expected, the movement is also struggling financially. To cite just one example, the synagogue organization of the Conservative movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, recently sold a piece of property for $15.9 million dollars to help close its deficit.

The number of institutions and budget issues isn’t the whole story of the movement’s failings.  In a movement that posits the observance of Halakhah, or Jewish Law, only 30% percent of Conservative Jews say they keep kosher at home, 24% say they light Shabbat candles every Friday, and the average weekly attendance rate at Shabbat services among those who are a member of a Conservative synagogue is just 13%.

Apparently permitting one to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, ruling that cheese does not need a Kosher symbol, full egalitarianism, the drastic reduction of Hebrew school hours, allowing the playing of musical instruments to accompany Shabbat services, and the ordaining of gays as rabbis has not been enough change in their “Tradition and Change” motto to fill synagogue pews when one isn’t invited to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The Conservative movement’s leadership has tried to put a spin on its decline by boasting that its intermarriage rate is only 39% — then quickly pointing out that it is the only non-Orthodox movement on the better side of the national intermarriage rate of 51%.

To reverse the movement’s shrinkage, many Conservative rabbis have recently proposed adopting patrilineal descent, some rabbis have suggested allowing Conservative Rabbis to perform intermarriages, and there is talk about about merging with the Reform movement.  The Conservative movement has even hired a branding specialist.  It’s probably a safe bet that the new motto that is costing the movement $350,000 to create will not make a significant difference.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Conservative movement.  In high school I was the vice president of my synagogue’s U.S.Y. chapter, and for the first three years after obtaining my rabbinical ordination I was the principal of a 175-student Conservative Hebrew school.  Although in recent years I’ve shifted my affiliation to Orthodox (I actually hate using such labels!), it pains me to see the Conservative movement struggling so much. I feel that a revitalized Conservative movement is necessary to maintain a strong American Jewry.  So what can be done to revitalize the Conservative movement?

Adopting Patrilineal descent and allowing its rabbis to perform intermarriages are not the answers. These are just “hail mary’s” that will add momentum to the downward spiraling of American Jewry.  Just look at the Reform movement as a test case and one will see the catastrophic failure of these practices.  Finding a third generation Reform Jew in a synagogue on Shabbat is like finding a needle in a very, very large haystack.  Demographers have looked.  The practical difference between the Conservative and Reform movements needs to be more than just 20 years, but ideological.

What the leadership of the Conservative movement has always failed to recognize is that people are thirsty for spirituality and authenticity.  Leadership is about envisioning what the future should look like, crafting a plan, and getting the masses to buy into it.  Leadership is not catering to the masses in hope that the masses retain their membership. Therefore, instead of focusing on keeping up with the latest vogues of Political Correctness and making the practices of Judaism easier, the movement should do the opposite by focusing on promoting the learning of Torah and observing Commandments, or Mitzvot.  At first this may seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes the most sense as I will explain.

The two reasons why I posit the advocacy of learning Torah and Mitzvah observance as the answer for saving the Conservative movement are as follows:  1. Theologically, if one believes that God desires that Jews do Mitzvot, no matter how one theorizes how the Mitzvot came to be, then doing Mitzvot need to be promoted, not discarded.  Judaism has always been about learning Torah and doing Mitzvot, not bagels and lox.  2.  Pragmatically, learning Torah and doing Mitzvot is contagious.  When a person learns Torah or does a Mitzvah his/her soul feels the pleasure of the connection with God that the Mitzvah facilitates, therefore, his/her soul desires to learn more Torah and do another Mitzvah despite some dissonance in his/her mind.

I’m not saying that Conservative rabbis need to turn into “Mitzvah Police,” that would send most of those who are left running toward the door; and by Torah I do not only mean “The Torah,” but also the wisdom contained in Torah commentaries, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, Hasidut, etc.  It is my proposal that the Conservative movement utilize the following strategies to begin to promote Torah learning and Mitzvah observance.

1. Conservative Rabbis invite at least two to three families to their house for a Shabbat meal every Shabbat.  

In Jewish outreach circles it is said, albeit half-jokingly, that the most important segment of time in adult Jewish education is in between the soup and the chicken.  Every Jew who has become Orthodox began their journey, unknowingly to them at the time, by accepting a dinner invitation by an Orthodox Rabbi.  This is because there’s a transformative beauty to Shabbat, and a dinner setting allows one to build more intimate relationships.  Few people on their own decide to start keeping kosher, make Kiddush, light Shabbat candles, attend synagogue services more frequently, engage in a Tikkun Olam project, etc. without first experiencing such practices; and it’s most-often an intimate relationship with a rabbi and/or his/her spouse which fosters one to be open to engaging in more Jewish experiences, Jewish learning, and eventually independently doing Mitzvot.  (Oops, I just gave away the main secret tactic of Orthodox outreach organizations!)

The synagogue president should also not be immune from periodically having guests for a Shabbat meal; and perhaps one of the requirements to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue is that the family has to have five Shabbat meals at the rabbi’s house in the year prior to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

2.  Conservative Rabbis teach Torah to as many people one-on-one once per week as possible.

Our Sages have taught that the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is equal to all the Mitzvot, and it almost goes without saying that Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival.  Although taking a class is great for acquiring knowledge, it’s the side discussions in a one-on-one learning situation which promotes the integration of knowledge that then leads to doing more Mitzvot.  One-on-one Torah learning can take place in a person’s office, in their home, or at a Starbucks.  One may think that a rabbi spending, let’s say, a quarter of his/her time per week teaching just 10 people one-on-one as not being a very effective use of his/her time, but anecdotal feedback from outreach rabbis relay that doing so is in fact the most affective use of a rabbi’s time. The cantor and director of education, if knowledgeable enough, should also be encouraged to teach people one-on-one or in small groups, especially the teenagers.

3.  Synagogue boards to support #1 and #2 above.

Synagogue boards need to have the leadership to provide a budget line for the rabbi to offset the food costs of having so many Shabbat guests, and possibly providing a stipend for the spouse who is sure to encounter extra cooking and cleaning.  Boards will also need to figure out a way to reduce their rabbi’s “lesser essential” job tasks so s/he has the time to learn with individuals one-on-one.  This may necessitate fierce debate on what should be the role of a rabbi given today’s spiritual crisis.  What is a more productive use of the rabbi’s time, attending Interfaith, Black-Jewish, Jewish Federation, and ADL meetings or using those hours to teach Torah to more Jews one-on-one?

Given the choice of option a: the upper leadership of the Conservative movement to allow its rabbis to perform intermarriages and adopting patrilineal descent, or option b: the boards of Conservative synagogues requiring their rabbis to host a few families for a Shabbat meal every week and to teach several individuals one-on-one once a week, option b seems like a better plan for reinvigorating the Conservative movement and American Jewry.  And if the movement feels it still needs a new motto, I won’t even charge if they adopt my off-the-cuff “Modernity and Mitzvot.”

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman has been an educator for 22 years which has included teaching, administration, developing innovative programs and curriculum, research, writing articles, facilitating workshops, and speaking nationwide. Links to most of his 35+ published writings can be found on his Linked-In page at
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