In his recent article, titled “The Non-Negotiable Judaism My Parents Gave Me,” Gil Troy laments the “collapse” of American Conservative Judaism and the overall failure of the Conservative movement. He takes the fact that by 2017, just 16% of American Jews identified as Conservative (compared to the time when it was the major movement in America) as proof of its failure. However, I disagree. I believe the movement did exactly what it was meant to do, even though it did not visualize the critical role it would have in ensuring the growth of traditional Judaism in the United States.
It is clear that the movement has been decreasing in strength and importance for some time. As early as the late 1970s, when I was Midwest regional president of United Synagogue of America (the congregational arm of the movement), I, along with Dr. Saul Shapiro (z”l), a senior statistical analyst for IBM and regional president of the Metropolitan New York Region, conducted a survey of 10% of the movement’s member families in the United States and Canada. Our goal was to find out enough about the religious practices and aspirations of the movement’s membership to chart a program for the continued growth of what was then the largest religious movement in the North American Jewish community.
The results of the survey were devastating. We were able to show, with a high degree of statistical accuracy, that the movement in the United States had no long-term capacity to replicate itself. We found that while many adult members of the movement came from more observant backgrounds, in the absence of any long-term commitment to religious observance, they had not been able to convey the same level of religious feeling to their children. As Troy’s article rightly points out, the movement was, and remains, composed mainly of observant clerical leadership with very few observant lay followers, even among the lay leadership itself.
I recall speaking in 1979 at Chicago’s Rodfei Zedek Congregation, a pillar of Conservative Judaism on the South Side, and being introduced not only by my title but also as “a Sabbath-observant Jew” — as if this were a novelty. At the time, I remarked to the assemblage that our future as a movement was bleak indeed, when it could not be taken for granted that the lay leadership was observant.
In an article which I penned for Commentary magazine in 1984, I predicted that, as a result of this dichotomous situation, the traditionalists in the movement would move to the modern Orthodox camp while the reformists and those anxious for further change would move toward the Reform movement, which, itself, would become more traditional. All that, of course, has occurred, although modern Orthodoxy is also in danger of being challenged as not sufficiently observant, at least in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. The continued reluctance of the movement to have taken unequivocal stands on major issues of religious import, coupled with the desire to be all things to all people, in the end, simply accelerated the defection of the movement’s members.
So in light of all of this, why do I believe the movement was a success? Because the movement should be acknowledged by one and all, especially by today’s Orthodox, as having been a transitional movement that “conserved” American Judaism for the ultimate resurgence of Orthodoxy. Recall that at the end of World War II, nobody thought there was a future for Orthodoxy any longer. The Holocaust had decimated the religious communities of Europe; American Jewry was suburbanizing itself with little interest in traditional observance; and those who arrived in Israel from Europe were little more than a thread of Orthodoxy.
It should be acknowledged as a transitional movement that “conserved” American Judaism for the ultimate resurgence of Orthodoxy.
What the Conservative movement did do, and for which it should be eternally proud, is establish a framework in which American Jews could hold on to their connection with traditional Judaism while being permitted to live a lifestyle concomitant with the social mores of the times. To accomplish this, the movement established large synagogue/community-center complexes, encouraged family prayer and organized a successful youth program, United Synagogue Youth (USY), a first-rate Hebrew-speaking camping experience (the Ramah Camps) and an Americanized day school system (the Solomon Schechter Schools). Thirty years later, when Orthodoxy began to take hold once again and increased learning and observance became the norm, there were Jews in America for Orthodoxy to recruit.
One would be very surprised to find how many leaders of modern Orthodox synagogues in America grew up in Conservative homes. Sitting around the Shabbat table in Los Angeles some years ago at the shalom zachor of our youngest grandson, I noted that 80% of the people there, all members of Orthodox congregations in Los Angeles’s Pico-Robertson area, grew up in Conservative congregations. The Conservative movement deserves accolades for holding the middle ground during an era of religious uncertainty.
As far as the Conservative movement is concerned, it should admit that it was indeed a transitional movement and that, as we have seen over the last years, it is a shrinking element of the mosaic that is American Judaism. Nevertheless, it need not be ashamed of what it accomplished during a most difficult period in American Jewish life.
Gil Troy, along with me and many others who now live modern Orthodox lives, represent the success of that movement which was, for want of a better title, a product of its times.
Sherwin Pomerantz was formerly chairperson of the Council of Regional Presidents and a national vice president of the United Synagogue of America. He currently serves as president of Congregation Ohel Nechama, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood.