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Redefining Conservative Judaism: The Conversation

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I argued in my last post that Conservative Judaism needs to re-define itself in a way that speaks to the real lives of the majority of American Jews. Instead of simply being the halachic halfway point between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, it should be a cauldron where of all strains and expressions of Jewish life can be experienced by a nation of diverse and independent minded American Jews. A practical consequence of this theoretical shift would be to allow a more open and accepting approach to interfaith couples and families, which now comprise 65 % of Jews who married since 2010.

10 key findings about Jewish Americans

10 key findings about Jewish Americans

Subsequent to that posting, I solicited responses to my position from Conservative movement leadership, congregational rabbis, rabbinical students and various Jewish lay persons. What follows is an attempt to continue the conversation.

One Conservative seminary leader asserted that defining Conservative Judaism more pluralistically would result in a reform-ward drift that could be self-defeating because “Reform movement affiliation is also plummeting,” an observation shared by several within Conservative Jewish academia.

However, the Pew Report suggests otherwise. Their survey, reflecting the most recent trends, indicates that 25% of American Jews say they were brought up in Conservative Judaism, yet only 15% currently describe themselves as Conservative Jews. By contrast, 28% say they were raised within Reform Judaism and 33% now identify with the Reform movement. Interestingly, although some point to the strength of Orthodoxy, this group actually showed a slight outflow of self-identified individuals, and still represents the smallest of the major American Jewish denominations.

Given the inherent limitations of even the most rigorous surveys, I attempted to obtain some actual affiliation numbers from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union of Reform Judaism. According to Barry Mael, senior director of operations and affiliations of USCJ, the affiliation numbers are a bit challenging to crunch, but the number of affiliated USCJ synagogues probably dropped from 573 to 552 from 2011 to 2021. He points out that these numbers to some degree reflect mergers, not just closures. However, it is reasonable to assume that most mergers resulted from non-viability of individual congregations in the face of declining membership. Unfortunately, no information was available regarding age distribution of membership, but the Pew data and anecdotal observations suggest an aging Conservative Jewish membership base.........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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