What happened to the Conservative Movement?

What caused the decline of a movement that once was seen by many as a force, for good and for bad, in American Jewish society?<br/><br/>

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 10:30

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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I have an acquaintance in the United States with whom I occasionally converse and share ideas. He is a retired Rabbi who for many years was a leading figure in the Conservative rabbinic movement in the United States. Even though we have long agreed to disagree on theological matters, nevertheless all relations are cordial and sometimes even interesting and stimulating. Neither of us are youngsters any longer and in our dotage are given to nostalgia and reminiscing.

I mentioned to him that one of my fondest memories from my pre-adolescent childhood was listening to the radio on Sunday mornings when a major radio network in the United States provided a half-hour of time to the Conservative movement, which produced an excellent radio program on Jewish topics. The program was called The Eternal Light.  It was produced in a most talented and professional manner with excellent acting and inspirational musical background.

The topics then centered around Jewish tradition, the horrors of World War II and the nascent State of Israel. I remember that the program was always introduced by a cantorial rendition of a verse taken from the morning prayers of the traditional prayer book. That radio program, I believe, spoke to all Jews then living in the United States at that time. It advanced no theological agenda, it had no political or even social goal, its sole purpose was to give the listener a sense of Jewish pride and traditional self identity.

To the best of my knowledge, no such program exists any longer in the general media in the United States. There is much Jewish content on specific Jewish radio programs and naturally on the Internet but almost all of it is narrowly constructed and usually speaks  to a specific base and not to the Jewish people as a whole.

I remarked about all of this to my acquaintance in our last conversation. He agreed with me that he thought that the radio program The Eternal Light was one of the finest contributions that the Conservative movement ever made to the cause of American Jewry. He then proceeded, without much encouragement from me, to detail the decline of that movement in numbers and influence. I asked him what he attributed to be the causes of this decline of a movement that once was seen by many as a future force of American Jewish society.


Official Orthodoxy... has many defects and failings. However, it has managed... to build an educational infrastructure that provides tens of thousands of Jews with basic Jewish knowledge, values and vision.
He answered, somewhat ruefully, that… “we thought that societal, liberal Judaism would suffice and that any concentration on Jewish studies and traditional observances was really no longer necessary. Well, we were very wrong in that assessment.” It is obvious that Jewish concerns are not at the head of the list of much of American Jewry.

Jewish students, brainwashed by very liberal professors and the atmospheres on American college campuses, no longer feel it necessary to identify themselves as Jews. It is sufficient that they just consider themselves to be human beings and that that somehow will make everything right and bring about the fantasy world  that is always promised to the naïve utopians.

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.

Official Orthodoxy, both in the United States and Israel has many defects and failings. However, it has managed to retain and save the Sabbath, the strength of the observance of dietary laws, and family purity, to build an educational infrastructure that provides tens of thousands of Jews with basic Jewish knowledge, values and vision.

Because of this, it not only survives despite its imperfections and human failings, but is constantly expanding and is the vital machine that drives all Jewish life. It sees itself as the heir to a great historical past and an even greater future. And despite all criticism to the contrary, it reflects a spirit of care and concern for all Jews wherever they may be found.


I do not revel or rejoice in the decline and near demise of both the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States. Their failure has created a spiritual disaster for millions of Jews who have lost everything and do not even realize what it is they have lost. But the inexorable rule of history is that tampering with the Torah to make it fit perceived current and future society will always lead to disaster. The Eternal Light has proven to be only temporary on the Conservative Movement scene.








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