The Painfully Slow, Fits-And-Starts Healing Of Conservative Judaism

The American Jewish punditocracy is expert at opining darkly about what is making our Jewish community hemorrhage its way toward being pronounced Dead-On-Arrival. This is certainly the case with the very recent release of the Pew Research Foundation’s study of the state of American Jewry, whose portrait of the Jewish communal family is engendering the predictable hand wringing. This has also long been the case with Conservative Judaism, the denominational “movement in the middle” whose detractors hold it up as an example of the poet, W.B. Yeats’ observation that, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” As a Conservative congregational rabbi, I know I should ignore most of these eulogies – some of them intoned gleefully by spiteful triumphalists who have no capacity for self criticism – and just focus on what people like me do best: help the people I lead to be good, fulfilled Jews. Instead, I tend to hang my head in resignation mixed with despair, recognizing that our critics are not entirely wrong. Conservative Judaism is indeed sorely troubled demographically and institutionally, having passed its heyday close to thirty years (and many radical changes in American and world Judaism) ago. Like many Conservative religious leaders in the field, I have learned to seek inspiration almost exclusively from what happens in my tiny part of the Jewish world, with little optimistic expectation that this fractured, aging movement can actually move any of us.

This past week, the centennial celebration of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism allowed me to take a hopeful pause in my despair. Commonly known by its acronym, USCJ, the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism marked its 100th birthday by challenging American Jews to begin a new conversation about its role in 21st century Judaism. Two years in the making, this conference brought together more than 1200 committed Conservative Jews, many of them dynamic high school and college students, along with a Who’s Who of cutting edge Jewish visionaries from across the worldwide Jewish spectrum. My colleague, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the organization, his dedicated staff and lay leaders did this by setting a unique tone, using a three pronged approach. They humbly reached beyond narrow denominational boundaries to seek the wisdom of many others; they thoughtfully asked, whither Conservative Judaism, while refusing to get sucked into useless, perseverative questions about whether Conservative Judaism is withering; they wisely created an atmosphere that blended youthful energy, caring community, and Jewish joy. In his opening address, Rabbi Wernick made clear that “We reverse the narrative of decline by affirming three pillars of Conservative Jewish life: tradition, kehillah (caring community) and renewal.” Judging exclusively by what was a truly fine centennial conference, I am more optimistic that our old, negativistic narrative is slowly dying, and that Conservative Judaism is turning a corner toward genuine revival.

Yet, as anyone who ever crashed into another person upon turning a corner can attest, trust in the future should always be balanced with a healthy dose of skeptical anticipation. In the spirit of our new conversation, and as a faithful Conservative Jew, I pose three questions for our future that are inspired by Rabbi Wernick’s three affirmations.

How can Conservative Judaism lead in developing an old/new narrative about Jewish tradition that compels and completes American and world Jewry? This answers to this question must transcend the tired, played out debates about our halakhic legitimacy and demographic viability, as well as old, rigid fixations on denominational loyalties.

What should the mission of the Conservative kehillah – the Jewish religious community – of the future actually be? Should we create big tents of diverse Jewish spiritual connection and religious practice? How far open on all sides can the tent walls be? Will offering to be all things to everyone result in being nothing to anyone?

Why should Conservative Judaism and its institutions even bother to engage in renewal? I do not ask this question pejoratively but to encourage much more passionate and critically thinking conversation about why this approach to Judaism matters or should matter deeply to us and to the world.

Here is my small contribution to that conversation. For me, Conservative Judaism and its communities are a small but significant part of a vital worldwide religious and moral center that must hold, if society is to hold together and to hold steady. The increasingly polarized dimensions of extreme secularism and religious extremism are both responses to the radical changes in personal and corporate life wrought by freedom and technology, among other factors. Both polar extremes are distorted responses to our quest for a meaningful life. Secularism too often posits the individual as a sacred, sovereign Self whose personal autonomy reigns without boundaries. Religious extremism turns God into a plantation boss in whose name profanations of human sanctity are often committed by religious authoritarians. Conservative Judaism is indeed a middle path, one which Jews and humanity need more than ever. It is uniquely capable of helping us to express spiritually passionate commitments without parking our moral and intellectual brains at the door of the synagogue, the home, or the polling booth. It is a voice articulating a uniquely religious way for Jews to help God heal the world. I am thankful to God that it is slowly, painfully on the way to healing itself.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.