Conservative Judaism Today
Smaller but more committed, the movement is seeing vibrant, sometimes divisive debate as it navigates between tradition and change.
One of the Conservative movement's mottos is "Tradition and Change," and the history of the movement might best be understood as a tug of war between these two concepts. The movement professes obedience to halakhah (Jewish law), but at the same time is open to making normative adjustments in response to societal changes. However, while a religious life that balances tradition and change might sound ideal, navigating these two poles is never simple. As the contemporary world drifts further from traditional values, the conflicts and contradictions that arise from this balancing act have increased.
If demographics are an indication of a denomination's health, then the prognosis for the Conservative movement may be troubling.
For decades, more American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement than any other denomination. This is no longer the case. The Reform movement is now the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, and the number of Conservative Jews dropped from 38 percent in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey to 33 percent 10 years later. Jack Wertheimer, the Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)--the Conservative movement's flagship educational institution--who directed a study of Conservative congregations in the mid-1990s, found that the movement has been in demographic decline for two generations.
A woman studies a text at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Photo credit: the Conservative Yeshiva.
What's caused this demographic shift?
Intermarriage--which has greatly affected Jewish demographics generally--is one answer. According to Steven M. Cohen, three out of four intermarried Jews who grew up in the Conservative movement leave the movement or never join as adults. Many of these people become affiliated with Reform Judaism, which is more welcoming to intermarried couples and accepts patrilineal descent (meaning Reform Judaism recognizes as Jewish the child of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, contrary to traditional Jewish law, which requires the mother to be Jewish). In addition, the Conservative movement has an older constituency, with as many as twice the amount of affiliates over 65 than the Reform movement.
But numbers aren't everything.
Those younger Jews who do affiliate with the Conservative movement may be more ideologically committed than the older generation, who tend to be dropouts from Orthodox Judaism. Formal education for Conservative Jews has also experienced something of a renaissance. Today, there are 50,000 Conservative day school students in the United States studying at community schools and the movement's 75 Solomon Schechter schools. In 1995, the Conservative Yeshiva was founded in Jerusalem and has grown from five to 50 students.