There’s no quick fix for what ails the Conservative movement. In all probability, there is no fix at all, even far down the road. Membership and synagogue attendance will continue to decline and, more importantly, internal conflict and religious and theological confusion will place an even greater strain on the movement’s leadership. This is bad news for American Jewry, including the “We told you so” crowd. With few exceptions, those who are defecting are not heading in the direction of greater religiosity. They are moving further away from Jewish commitment and continuity.
The Conservatives made a bet against history and they have lost. They calculated that by shedding a portion of our heritage they could concoct a brand of Judaism that retained much of our theology and practices in a way that would accommodate droves of Jews who were not comfortable with the rigors of Orthodoxy. They eliminated the mechitza and in a series of ever more radical departures from tradition, they yielded to feminist pressure and also chipped away at Sabbath observance.
It’s accepted that the turning point came in the mid-1950’s when its halacha committee sanctioned driving to synagogue on Saturday. Since dates and events facilitate the understanding or presentation of history, this decision is a legitimate way of looking at the story of Conservatism. But the emphasis that has been placed on it masks two realities, the first being that there was much that preceded it which separated the Conservative movement from our religious tradition. The other is that advanced assimilation was already impelling Jews further away from observance. This situation was dynamic, so that irrespective of any official laxity in halacha, the outcome would have been the same, as Conservatives were abandoning the world of their fathers.
There is an interesting clue supporting this view in what happened during the same period among Orthodox-affiliated Jews who were nominal or marginal in their religious commitment. They once constituted much of American Orthodoxy; now they are gone with the wind.
For quite a while, it seemed that the Conservative bet had paid off. Hundreds of synagogues – many of them large – were built to accommodate the exodus to suburbia and expanded membership. There was intellectual ferment at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative rabbinate included many of quality and learning, often men who had studied at yeshivas. Yet, there were disquieting signs. The Conservative laity which once consisted of Jews who were Jewishly literate and knowledgeable experienced a steady erosion as the older generations passed on and their offspring knew less and could care less. Nowadays, perhaps half of those who are identified as Conservative are by affiliation alone and they practice rather little. Even among the other half, there has been a considerable decline in observance.
Inevitably, Conservative rabbis of a more traditional bent have retired or passed away. The younger rabbis are in the aggregate distant from the attitudes and theology that once characterized the movement. If Seminary students are an indication of what’s blowing in the wind, as they must be, what awaits us is a Conservative rabbinate that is committed to conserving very little. The internal battle over Gay Rights is one omen of what lies in store. There is also a geographic divide, as New York reflects the views of those who are struggling to keep the movement within somewhat traditional bounds and California which is growing more powerful within Conservatism is being led by those who advocate greater liberalization.
Under these unpromising circumstances, there may be little that Conservative leadership can do to stem the tide, to abort what is already in the womb of time. I have, just the same, several suggestions, beginning with the abolition of the halacha committee. Its sole function is from time to time to put a veneer of religious acceptability on additional departures from traditional practices. While its abolition will not result in Conservatives becoming more observant, it will mean that violations of religious law will result from the actions of individuals and not from the permissiveness of rabbis who in the name of halacha are anti-halachic. In a sense, the Conservative movement should learn from Chabad synagogues, notably the newer ones in outlying areas whose members drive to shul on Shabbos, without either the approval or reprobation of local rabbis.
Secondly, there must be downsizing, starting with the reduction of synagogue size. Cavernous sanctuaries are not inviting. The Havura phenomenon needs to be revitalized. Downsizing also means lower financial expectations. The Golden Calf syndrome in Jewish life inevitably results in younger families being turned off and turned away. Membership needs to be affordable and not every activity needs to have a dollar sign attached to it. Here, too, Chabad can point the way because while they very much want people to contribute, they don’t make it a precondition for coming to services.
Downsizing may mean a smaller movement. Conservative leaders should worry less about losing members and more about the loss of identity. Smaller can be stronger, particularly if the movement attempts to recapture lost ground by becoming more religiously purposeful.
Next, the commitment to day schools should be ratcheted up. It is telling that enrollment in Solomon Schechter schools has been stagnant and too few schools have been established during the past decade, a period marked by increased acceptance of day schools. In various communities, the emphasis has been on establishing Community or trans-denominational schools. It’s my observation that Solomon Schechter schools do a better job than Community day schools.
Most importantly, unless the Conservative movement is to morph into an extra-strength brand of Reform, it must take a stronger stand on Shabbos and the observance of mitzvot. Because the barn door of American Jewish life has been opened wide for so long, whatever the movement does, it will experience further membership loss. So be it. To survive, the Conservative movement has to learn to swim against the tide.