Dan Ornstein

The Real Jews Behind Pew

Since the release several weeks ago of the Pew study’s statistics on the American Jewish community, its observations about the decline of Conservative Judaism have inspired several well publicized reflections about the denomination’s supposed imminent death. Some have come from former Conservative Jews explaining in very personal terms why they left after finding it to be an inadequate spiritual home, while others have come from women explaining why its critics misunderstand its importance for their spiritual empowerment.

These reflections are the latest in a steady flow of prognostications about Conservative Jews’ viability that are several decades old. Much, though not all, of the opining comes from members of the Orthodox community across the globe who seem to feel the need to sound this death knell incessantly, often with a tone of disparagement and triumphalism. The disparagement is unhelpful and un-Jewish. Further, from where I sit as a Conservative rabbi deeply engaged in relationships with these “Jews behind Pew,” it is clear to me that the disparagement is based, at best, upon half truths. It is time for these death knell ringers to stop stereotyping and writing off their fellow Jews whom they don’t actually know, save for what they read in a two-dimensional research study. Summarily dismissing the legitimate religious experiences and struggles of others from a distance is convenient and comfortable, but it is also lazy and cowardly. An up close view of real Conservative Jews reveals people on very rich, complex Jewish journeys who struggle to bring God and Torah into their lives all the time. In this respect, Conservative Judaism is alive and well and not ready for burial just yet.

I’m blessed to have friends, family, colleagues and teachers who live solidly within Orthodoxy. I recognize that the frum (Orthodox) community is no monolith and that, behind closed doors, denominational labels mean little as each of us struggles to find personal meaning. Further, I respect how much and how deeply Orthodox Judaism has contributed to that search for meaning, including my own. I’m just not interested in being Orthodox.

I like sailing this broken down “shipwreck” called Conservative Judaism, and a lot of other people still do too. Beyond the silly numbers games, the hand wringing statistics, and the ledger books recording how many mitzvot they do, I see how and what these people are like as Jews. Many of them are trying to figure out how to make Judaism a substantive guide for their less than perfect lives. Many of them seek out the rabbis, the Torah, the Shabbat morning and weekday minyanim in my and other Conservative synagogues. They truly care about Judaism, the Jewish people and God, even if they choose not to hang out at the local Orthodox shul. They are the people whom some in the Jewish community feel they have the luxury to dismiss as unworthy of our concern; they are, after all, too feminist, too gay, too intermarried, too ignorant, too secular, too non-practicing, too non-conforming…the list could go on. I, however, have no such luxury. Given how many of these, our fellow Jews, have been marginalized by some Jewish religious communities yet still choose to reconnect to the Jewish people, neither does Conservative Judaism. They are here, they are searching for the anchors and self transcendence found in Jewish life and community, they are finding these things in Conservative Judaism, and Conservative Judaism has no intention of abandoning them. Why should that invite disparagement?

Behind the abstract statistics and the poorly informed critiques are real lives, real souls, real relationships, and real, beautifully pock marked experiences and imperfections. They give the lie to the triumphalism and the pious denominational obituaries which too often are hypocritical, cynical deflections by religious leaders from their own communities’ very serious problems.

So, I ask my brothers and sisters in the frum communities who choose to beat up Conservative Judaism: why would you engage in such cheap behavior, especially toward your fellow Jews whom you do not really know? If in your eyes we are an irrelevance, why bother calling attention to us in the first place? If you truly believe that every Jew matters to God and the Jewish people, why not help communities like mine doing the work of keeping them Jewish?

Come find out who we really are and support us. Call up your local Conservative rabbi, sit with him or her in a havruta and learn together, not in order to preach to them, but to learn from and with them. Offer your skills and Jewish knowledge to the people in the Conservative synagogue in your neighborhood, not on your terms, but on their turf. Instead of attacking us then bemoaning our impending deaths, show us some good old fashioned Ahavat Yisrael and Ahavat Ha-Briot, love and respect for one’s fellow Jew and one’s fellow human being.

Otherwise, we may all wind up a statistic.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at