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Towards a Thriving Conservative Movement

Image by Jewish Theological Seminary

Over the decades, we have heard the rumblings many times that Conservative/Masorti Judaism is “near death” and “needs to be saved.”  

They said that when we made important changes in our religious policies to include women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and interfaith couples and families. They said it when they saw their local synagogues merge, or when key institutions decided to partner, such as the two organizations that I am honored to lead: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Rabbinical Assembly.

Today, we are hearing those rumblings again. It’s happening as our movement updates our approaches, reorganizes our structures, and reaches beyond synagogue walls to meet Jews where they are. And once again, to paraphrase that erudite rabbi Mark Twain, “The reports of our movement’s death are greatly exaggerated.”

As we prepare for Shavuot and recall the powerful moment when the freed slaves came together to commit as a united people to the mitzvot of the Torah, I’m struck by our own current moment. Just as our ancestors stood at Sinai on the precipice of a new journey of peoplehood, our movement is embarking upon a renewed journey. 

I won’t minimize the challenges. Many of the institutions and programs designed to meet the needs of a post-war generation in the 20th century have simply not adapted to the realities of today. 

In areas with declining Jewish populations, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are merging or closing. Young adults are largely not gravitating towards “institutional religion.” Most of all, today’s increasingly polarized society doesn’t always align well with the centrist and nuanced religious expression that defines our century-old movement, which has always been rooted in tradition while reaching for modernity.

But where others see decay and inevitable mortality, I see an opportunity to meet the needs of a new generation of Jews. I also see ample evidence of a bright and thriving future.

Within the USCJ, many of our congregations are thriving and growing, especially in the South and West. Our teen group, USY, had more than 5,000 participants this year – double-digit growth even as we move beyond the previous regional structure. ExploringJudaism.org, our new website filled with teachings from the brightest minds in our movement, reaches tens of thousands of people every month. We recently established Young Adults, Leaders & Alumni (YALA) to grow programming for those in their 20s and 30s adults. And we’re creating a new center for social action through a generous gift. 

Across the broader Conservative movement, Camp Ramah is sold out with waitlists throughout the US and Canada. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has seen an increase in applications to rabbinical school and its other programs (defying a national trend), while the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles has dropped tuition by 80%, thanks to its donors, making rabbinical training more accessible than ever. Additionally, rabbinical schools at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler expect larger incoming classes in the fall.

These signs point to a vibrant movement with potential for growth despite the real obstacles we face. 

To reach this potential, USCJ is committed to building on what’s working as we expand our focus to become an engine for engagement in Torah study, spiritual experience, love of Israel, and social action through five initiatives:

  • Thriving congregations
  • Teen engagement and leadership
  • Young adult engagement and leadership
  • Engaging new audiences, especially through digital platforms
  • Renewing our Conservative/Masorti Movement institutions and ideas

We’ve set the ambitious goal of doubling our annual impact in 10 years. We want to reach 1.5 million North American Jews each year and provide a spiritual sukkah — a warm and sheltering space —  welcoming to all who want to share in our version of Jewish life and belief. 

The Jewish people and the larger world need a diverse array of Jewish expression, including the balanced and nuanced approach of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, in which both tradition and modernity have a voice. The very DNA of our movement is a belief that Judaism and the Jewish people have adapted and evolved over millennia to ensure that the great wisdom revealed so many generations ago at Sinai remains relevant and alive in our generation and for future generations.

While neither people nor institutions are immortal, I often think of my grandfather, Simon Zipper, z”l.  As a child I’d ask him how he was doing, and he used to answer, “Well, I checked the obituaries this morning, and I’m not listed, so I guess I’m doing great!”  He saw every day as a blessing, defied every expectation, and lived a long and vibrant life well into his 90s. It’s an outlook that serves our movement well.

We’ve got lots of work to do, but I know that if we continue to adapt and evolve with creativity and relevance, our Conservative/Masorti movement will continue to engage our people through Torah and Jewish experience for a long time to come. 

About the Author
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal is the CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Previously he served for over 20 years as founding rabbi of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
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