Witnessing 65 years of the decline of Conservative Judaism
Witnessing 65 years of the decline of Conservative Judaism

“The Conservatives long ago abandoned Sabbath observance as being necessary to Jewish survival. The dietary laws were no longer maintained and as Jewish history has shown time and again, Conservatism, as borne out by surveys and polls, is about to become an obsolete and disappearing movement.”

---Rabbi Berel Wein

“What do Conservative rabbis do all day?” asked the Chabad rabbi in Asia. The question was not asked in a mocking tone. Rather, the Chabad rabbi was genuinely curious.

I could not answer the question about Conservative rabbis. But I should have been able to, since my family were members of Conservative congregations from 1939 until 2005.

And during those 66 years we were there to witness its strengths and its decades-long disintegration.

The Conservative congregation we joined in 1939 on Chicago’s north side was largely made up of eastern European Jewish immigrants. As children, the men had attended cheder in their shtetls, towns and cities. The majority of them had studied Torah and possessed an all-encompassing yiddishkeit, due to their having lived lives centered around their shuls.

The Conservative Jews of the 1930s and 1940s knew how to daven, many of their homes had kosher kitchens and a large number of Conservative families kept shabbat.

Critically, the majority of these Conservative Jews grew up in a world of extraordinary anti-Semitism among European Christians---and continued to see American life as a place where it was best for Jews to remain “below the radar” to avoid bringing trouble upon themselves.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that the early Conservative movement provided a bridge for those immigrants who sought to become modern Americans, while still retaining their Judaism.

I was present to witness the next generation of Conservative synagogues, populated by the children of the eastern European generation. This next generation of men and women had grown up during the great depression of the 1930s, and virtually all of the men had served in uniform in World War II.

And serving in the war had been the great equalizer for that generation of Conservative Jews, allowing them to at last feel as though they were true Americans.

It is to be remembered that this World War II generation, mostly American-born, had also witnessed anti-Semitism---on the playgrounds, at the universities, in the workplace---and it left a bitter mark on them. They were always on the lookout for anti-Jewish discrimination, just as their parents had been.

For reasons I do not understand, that earlier generation who came to Conservative synagogues from eastern Europe---who had training in Torah---chose not to educate their sons in Jewish text.

Why? Because they had come to a new world and were anxious to become fully part of it? But surely their rabbis must have seen what was occurring: that their children were ignorant. Why did the rabbis remain silent? Did they fear they would lose their jobs if they spoke out?

The World War II generation took over leadership of the North American Conservative synagogues in the late-1950s. They also began building Conservative synagogues in America’s new suburbs.

At its height in 1965, the Conservative movement had 800 affiliated synagogues throughout the United States and Canada. By 2015 that number had fallen to 594.

But just as it reached such remarkable strength as an organization, the Conservative movement was experiencing extraordinary decline among its membership. Not a decline in its numbers of members, but in there being so very few educated and observant Jews in their synagogues and leadership.

My suburban Chicago synagogue had a membership of 600 families in 1965, with perhaps 2,500 people. There were 1,400 children in the afternoon Hebrew school. The vast majority of men were in their 40s, and there were very few retired men to make up the minyons.

The result was, just as often as not, the synagogue could not raise a minyon. My memory as an 11 year-old is sitting in a very hot, pre-air conditioned shul on a summer Saturday morning as someone opened the synagogue office and had to make phone calls to raise a minyon.

And, remarkably, just one generation since the eastern European Jews had made up the synagogue memberships, the concept of learning Torah had disappeared. The Conservative synagogue, the “shul,” had become a place to celebrate life-cycle events, but never for seriously studying Jewish text.

Yet, Conservative Jews would become defensive when asked about not offering study and would respond, “But we study once a week with the rabbi.”

Of course, the Conservative rabbis knew a Jew cannot learn Torah by studying one hour per week. Still, the rabbis would schedule one hour torah classes weekly or monthly for those interested. One hour! The rabbis knew this was not how Jews had learned Torah for thousands of years.

Further, by the late 1950s the Conservative synagogue boards were now composed of Jews who were Judaically illiterate, not observant, and did not know how to supervise their rabbis and insist that they teach.

The boards also did not know how to set up schools that would properly educate their children, resulting in untold millions of dollars wasted on classrooms and teachers that graduated students who were catastrophically ignorant of Jewish text, history, and liturgy.

A terrible truth, is that the members of the Conservative synagogues of my years had more in common with Reform Jews---from their ignorance of Jewish text, lack of observance of shabbat, to even how their synagogue services were conducted in an orderly Protestant manner.
In fairness, it must also be recognized that the Conservative movement did things that were quite meaningful. Their Camp Ramah program and Solomon Schechter day schools were the crown jewels that created committed Jews who not only lead the Jewish world today, but are are raising their own children to become educated, observant and proud Jews.

Also, the Conservative youth movement, United Synagogue Youth (USY), had a remarkably meaningful impact on tens of thousands of North American Jewish teenagers. Indeed, it often proved to be the only positive Jewish experience in the lives of so many of these young American Jews.

A terrible truth, though, is that the members of the Conservative synagogues of my years had more in common with Reform Jews---from their ignorance of Jewish text, lack of observance of shabbat, to even how their synagogue services were conducted in an orderly Protestant manner.

Tragically, today’s Conservative movement seems to inevitably remain only a few years behind Reform Jews in its embracing fashionable trends, such as the 21st century Hellenism of social justice, gay rights, women’s rights, black rights, children’s rights and animal rights, as they spend an enormous amount of time helping everyone in the world…...except their fellow Jews.

And we have watched as a new and tragic truth has unfolded. For the greater the Jewish ignorance among western Jews, the greater they embrace social justice as their newly invented Jewish alternative.

And what is the result today? The Conservative movement is experiencing the end of their movement, just as Reform Judaism is, with 50 to 70% of their children marrying non-Jews. And solely for business reasons, their synagogues will seek to create their own Judaism and invite non-Jewish spouses to become members, and even assume leadership roles within their synagogues, accelerating the closing of their doors.

Back in Chicago, my 91 year-old mother recently asked me to drive past our now-closed Conservative synagogue. She was one of the founders who started our synagogue in a small storefront in the 1950s.

Our Conservative synagogue is today an eastern Catholic church, displaying crucifixes and statues in front of the building.

Seeing what had become of her shul, my mother cried.

So I fear that we will all shed an ocean of tears in the years ahead for the Jews of Conservative Judaism who will no longer be Jewish; forever lost from Torah, mitzvot and the Jewish people. Unless...