The Evolving Religious World and Conservative Judaism’s Challenge

There is a great deal of talk swirling around about my movement- the Conservative movement- and its state of being. The lead article in this week’s print edition of The Jewish Week reports on a new strategic plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the changes that it is intending to make in both its organizational structure and sphere of operations. The article implies- not too subtly- that the proposed changes reflect an organization, and a movement, in crisis.

There is no doubt that the Conservative movement faces enormous challenges. The strategies and institutions that governed us over the past decades are very much in need of re-invention, but that, in and of itself, is as much an opportunity as it is a crisis. Of course, framing it as a crisis makes for a much more compelling news story.

But it is also possible to see this very challenging moment as the early emergence of a new iteration of a great movement, one that will serve this century’s Jews as well as the older iteration served the American Jews of the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Having said this, I nonetheless believe that the issues facing the Conservative movement and United Synagogue are not unique to them. While there are certainly issues that are movement-specific, the truth as I see it is that virtually all of modern Judaism is in a state of morphing into something other than what it has been for the past fifty or sixty years.

What the Conservative movement has encountered is something like a
”perfect storm” of demographic challenge, evolving patterns of affiliation in which people- especially younger people- are reluctant to join institutions the way their parents did, rapidly changing models of religious authority, a horrific economy that has thrown many synagogues and non-profits into serious financial disrepair, and more still.

Reform Judaism is also encountering similar challenges, and struggling mightily to creatively and effectively meet them. They have retrenched significantly over the past two years.

The conventional wisdom about Orthodoxy is that they are somehow immune from all this. It is certainly true that their consistently high birth rate has spared them the kind of demographic challenges faced by the non-Orthodox movements, and that is much to their credit. We would all be much better served- and the Jewish community as a whole would- by having larger families, having our children marry younger, and living in tight-knit, cohesive communities.

But having lots of children does not spare the Orthodox world from its own set of challenges, in their own way every bit as daunting. The large numbers of children strain the finances of families to the extreme, especially because Day School education is a given in the Orthodox world.

The growth and democratization of Torah learning in Orthodoxy has been an incredibly powerful phenomenon, but the increasingly learned laity has also served to reinforce Orthodoxy’s precipitous move to the right, both religiously and politically.

Being a liberal rabbi in the Orthodox community, either politically or religiously, is a very, very difficult and lonely task. In my community, the laity pulls to the left. In the Orthodox world, it pulls to the right.

Ask “modern Orthodox” parents about their fears that their children will go to study in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem for a year and return- if they return- unwilling to eat in their homes, or accept the very lifestyle in which they grew up.

In my movement, being a rabbi means dealing with a laity that is, largely, reluctant to accept the fundamental tenets of the religious Jewish life. I have many people who respect me and my learning in my synagogue, but I do not consider myself to be anyone’s “Rebbe.”

The Orthodox world is filled with “Rebbes” who increasingly teach their students that withdrawing from Western culture is the true “Torah way,” and it can wreak havoc with family and community. It’s a bad enough problem here, but in Israel, it threatens the very fabric of Israeli society.

So yes indeed, we all have our crises to work on. I have great faith in the resilience of the Conservative movement, in the understanding of Judaism that it represents, and in its continued ability to speak to today’s Jews of all ages. There are difficult times ahead, and we are living through a time that is testing our mettle. But I also value my sister movements and their prolific contributions to twenty-first Judaism, and I wish them great success in meeting the challenges they face as they go forward. Hopefully, a better future awaits us all. We all have what to offer today’s Jews.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.