The leaders of Conservative Judaism can be excused a fondness for the oft-misquoted Mark Twain line “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Critics question whether Conservative Judaism “represents the vital, radiant center of Jewish life in North America,” as proclaimed on the website of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Those at the heart of the movement reject suggestions of its doom.
“There have been many times in recent history where the death knell sounded for one movement or another,” said Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb.
“I think it is reflective of the culture in which we live and the world in which we live,” Rabbi Lewis said. Extremes “are the most attractive … easy to embrace. … The politics of the right and left are ascendant, and that leaves the center weakened. In religion we see the same thing, a polarization, an attraction of those on the right and those on the left, which weakens the center.”
“Shape the Center” is the name United Synagogue has given its biennial Nov. 13 to 17 in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill. Some 1,000 people, including at least a dozen from Atlanta, are expected.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Conservative movement claimed the center between the Orthodox and Reform streams, creating a space to remain faithful to Jewish law and tradition in a rapidly modernizing America.
(Note: The author’s family has historical and current ties to the Conservative movement.)
The “big three” movements now share the landscape with smaller denominations such as Reconstructionist (founded by a prominent Conservative scholar) and growing numbers of unaffiliated Jews.
“The convention is a platform to celebrate our successes and set the stage for the work that needs to happen in the future,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s executive vice president and CEO since 2010.
That work includes a discussion of how the denomination identifies itself and whether change is warranted on such sensitive issues as patrilineal descent and intermarriage.
The center to be shaped at the biennial is shrinking.
Conservative Judaism represented 38 percent of Jewish households in 1990 but only 18 percent in the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews.
Reform holds the largest share, at 35 percent, with 10 percent Orthodox, 6 percent belonging to other denominations and 30 percent reporting no affiliation, according to the Pew study.
The number of USCJ-affiliated congregations has declined from 850 in 1985 to some 650 today, including six in the Atlanta area: Etz Chaim, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, Congregation B’nai Torah, Congregation Beth Shalom and Congregation Gesher L’Torah.
Rabbi Wernick acknowledged the “shrinkage” but declined to discuss numbers.
“The measurement is not how many congregations but how many Jews we’re impacting,” he said, making a distinction between United Synagogue as a denomination and Conservative Judaism as a movement.
He cited the children attending Camp Ramah from families not affiliated with Conservative Judaism and mentioned “independent minyanim” in several cities — congregations that are not dues-paying members of United Synagogue but are led by rabbis educated at Conservative seminaries.
The center also is graying.
The average age for adults in the Conservative movement is 55, compared with 54 for Reform and 40 for Orthodox.
The Pew study found that among adults ages 40 to 59, Orthodox Jews reported having, on average, 4.1 children, compared with 1.8 for Conservative Jews and 1.7 for Reform Jews.
The number of the movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools, including the Epstein School in Sandy Springs, has declined from 63 to 39 in the past 15-plus years, while enrollment has declined from about 17,560 in 1993 to about 9,700 last year.
Rabbi Joshua Heller of B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs believes that Conservative Judaism needs to focus its efforts well before the years of marriage and child-rearing.
“In order to have a long-term future, the movement needs to figure out how to build and maintain relationships with young Jews as they head off to college. Engaging millennials is a critical and challenging task, but it would be much easier to accomplish if we had not lost touch with them from the time they graduated high school,” Rabbi Heller said.
The biennial includes sessions about increasing engagement with teens, students and millennials.
Critics say the center appears less than fully committed.
While Conservative clergy are observant, the Pew survey found that only 31 percent of Conservative Jews kept a kosher home in 2012, 34 percent lighted Sabbath candles, 76 percent fasted during all or part of Yom Kippur, and 80 percent attended a Passover seder.
Rabbi Lewis described the message in Orthodoxy as “This is halachah (Jewish law), and this is what you do. You don’t question; you follow.”
Reform offers its adherents “spiritual autonomy to make whatever choices they want” without halachah “hovering over them as anything more than a suggestion,” Rabbi Lewis said.
In Conservative Judaism, “things are not simplistic,” he said. “People flee to the left and the right because it’s easier there. The middle requires thought.”
“Is there tension in being an authentic Conservative Jew? There is, no question about that,” Ahavath Achim Rabbi Neil Sandler said.
“Too often we don’t really solidify the personal commitment that comes in the relationship of being Jews, and I think that in Conservative Judaism we have maintained that aspect,” said Margo Gold, an Atlantan who is the international president of United Synagogue, which has affiliated congregations in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba.
The center’s finances have suffered.
United Synagogue has reduced a deficit reported to be in the range of $3 million to $5 million by selling its Manhattan headquarters and laying off staff.
“I inherited a system that was disintegrating,” Rabbi Wernick said. “We’re doing the work, and we’re making improvements, and some of it is slow, and some of it goes faster than others.”
Gold said United Synagogue is putting several million dollars from the proceeds of the sale of the headquarters into a foundation to support its work well into the future.
The center’s self-identification is on the agenda.
“The way by which American Jews construct identity and meaning is not the way our parents and grandparents did it,” Rabbi Wernick said.
An “idea lab” session at the biennial will consider the movement’s tagline — “a movement of tradition and change,” which dates to the 1950s — and perhaps the USCJ name itself.
“Conservative is too often misconstrued to mean right-wing politics. … The language has gotten away from some of the dynamism of what that has meant,” Rabbi Wernick said. A new name, “by which we can articulate our core values and core beliefs,” is worth discussion, he said.
Gold, who has served as the president of two Conservative congregations, is less concerned about linguistic shorthand. “Those who are Conservative Jews don’t fit into a tagline,” she said. “There are many things that speak to them and bring Jewish meaning in their lives. You can’t condense something that’s that big and that personal into those kind of words.”
“It is important for us as Conservative Jews to be proud of who we are and what our message is,” Rabbi Lewis said. “This context is critical. We should not define ourselves as diluted Orthodox Jews or as ‘traditional’ Reform Jews.”
Tradition will be challenged at the biennial.
The program lists a session called “Intermarriage: Conservative Congregations at a Crossroads.”
Over the past decade, 58 percent of all Jews marrying (and 71 percent of non-Orthodox) have wed a non-Jewish spouse.
Conservative Judaism adheres to Jewish law, by which Jewish identification comes from the mother. A child born to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is not considered Jewish without conversion.
Conservative rabbis are barred from performing interfaith marriages, whether between a Jew and gentile or between a Jew and a Jew through patrilineal descent. The rabbis may not even attend such weddings as guests.
Conservative rabbis may officiate at same-sex weddings of two Jews, though such unions are not accorded the same status of kiddushin, or sanctification, as those involving a man and a woman.
“As a movement that is considered to be a pragmatic, rational center, by definition you are constantly challenging regular assumptions and working to find solutions to the problems of your day,” Rabbi Wernick said.
“In the issue of how we welcome and address the issue of patrilineal Jews, there is room for a creative, halachic and ceremonial solution,” he said without discussing specifics.
Rabbi Lewis looked to the future.
“What will happen here is that a new wave of rabbis will have different allegiances to halachah and commitments to what is, what was and what should be,” he said. “As the Conservative movement moves on and some of the more traditional elements, myself included, kind of move out to the pastures of retirement, it will open the way for the next generation to figure out what they are going to do.”
Any change on patrilineal descent would come from the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, whose voting members are rabbis named by the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Theological Seminary and United Synagogue.
The Rabbinical Assembly would decide on any change on officiating at intermarriages.
The Rabbinical Assembly rejected as “unscientific” and “unrepresentative” an email survey by an outreach group called Big Tent Judaism, in which nearly 40 percent of the 259 respondents (the Conservative assembly has 1,700 rabbis) said that they would like to perform intermarriages.
Changes regarding patrilineal descent and intermarriage could make Conservative Judaism more attractive to those drawn to Reform Judaism but not without further blurring the lines between them.
“These are very, very big issues, complex issues. With a change in either, it will become more difficult, to nigh on impossible, to distinguish between our two movements because the differences will not be seen as particularly different,” Rabbi Sandler said.
“Conservative congregations have to be recognizably more traditional than Reform congregations,” he said, citing as an example the amount of Hebrew used in services. “From a public standpoint, we do need to maintain some distinction.”
The Atlantans believe that Conservative Judaism can retain — or regain — its “vital and radiant” status.
“We follow the tenets of Torah. We believe in performing mitzvot. That’s what elevates us as a people — that we understand that the Torah is a living document. It needs to be relevant to our lives, but we need to be relevant to it at the same time. That’s what makes Conservative Jews special,” Gold said.
“Conservative Judaism rested on its laurels and assumed that life would always be the same,” Rabbi Lewis said. “The demographics have caught up with us. … We should come to terms with what we are and who we are and recognize that the glory days are perhaps behind us, but we should not give up the quest to create, publicize and promote the center as an extremely legitimate place to be in Judaism.”