September 16, 2019

How to save the Conservative movement

In recent months, there have been several op-eds in Jewish newspapers nationwide about what should be done to reverse the decline of the Conservative movement.

Before relaying my contribution to the discussion, here are some of the statistics that have insiders panicking.  Since the 1990s, the percentage of American Jews who identify as a Conservative Jew has declined from 43 percent to just 18 percent; the number of Conservative synagogues has declined from 850 to 580; and the number of Solomon Schechter Day Schools has declined from 63 to 40. Additionally, in a movement that posits the observance of halachah, or Jewish Law, only 31 percent of Conservative Jews say they keep kosher at home, 34 percent say they usually light Shabbat candles, and the average weekly attendance rate at Shabbat services among those who are a member of a Conservative synagogue is just 13 percent.  

Apparently, permitting one to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, ruling that cheese does not need kosher certification, full egalitarianism, the reduction of Hebrew school hours, playing musical instruments at Shabbat services, and the ordaining of LGBTQ rabbis has not been enough to fill synagogue pews when one isn’t invited to a bar or bat mitzvah.   

The Conservative movement’s leadership has tried to put a spin on its decline by boasting that its intermarriage rate is only 39 percent — then quickly pointing out that it is the only non-Orthodox movement on the better side of the national intermarriage rate of 58 percent (or 71 percent among non-Orthodox Jews).  

To reverse the movement’s shrinkage, many Conservative rabbis have proposed adopting patrilineal descent and allowing rabbis to perform intermarriages. There also is talk about merging with the Reform movement. The movement has even hired a branding specialist.   

In my opinion, what the leadership of the Conservative movement has always failed to recognize is that people are thirsty for spirituality and authenticity. Leadership is about envisioning what the future should look like, crafting a plan and getting the masses to buy into it. Leaders do not cater to the masses in hope that the masses keep paying their membership dues.  

To get an idea of what will result if the Conservative movement adopts patrilineal descent and the performing of intermarriages, one only needs to look at the Reform movement. A third-generation Reform Jew is almost an oxymoron. Good luck finding one in a synagogue on a random Shabbat. 

Instead of focusing on keeping up with the latest vogues of political correctness and making the practices of Judaism easier, the Conservative movement should do the opposite by focusing on promoting the learning of Torah and observing commandments, or mitzvot.  At first this may seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense for two reasons: 

1. Theologically, because the movement posits that God desires Jews to do mitzvot, no matter which theory on how the mitzvot came to be, then doing mitzvot should be promoted.   

2. Pragmatically, learning Torah and doing mitzvot is contagious.  When a person learns Torah or does a mitzvah, his or her soul feels the pleasure of the connection with God that the mitzvah facilitated. The soul then desires to learn more Torah and to do another mitzvah, despite some dissonance in one’s mind.  

To promote mitzvah observance and Torah learning, I propose the following strategies:   

1. Conservative rabbis host three families for a Shabbat meal experience at their home three times a month       

In Jewish outreach circles, it is said, albeit half-jokingly, the most important time in Jewish education is between the soup and the chicken. Every Jew who has become Orthodox began their journey, unknowingly to them at the time, by accepting a dinner invitation by an Orthodox rabbi. This strategy works because there is a transformative beauty to Shabbat, and a dinner setting allows one to build a more intimate relationship with their rabbi. Such a relationship is essential because few people decide to start growing in their Jewish knowledge without first engaging in Jewish experiences and having encouragement and support.  

Because intensity is key, hosting 25 families four times each per year is best. Of course, synagogue boards should provide a budget line to compensate the rabbi for the additional food costs.

2. Conservative rabbis teach Torah to the same three individuals one on one every week

It almost goes without saying that Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival.  Although taking a class is great for acquiring knowledge, it’s the side discussions in a one-on-one learning situation that promotes the integration of knowledge that then leads to religious growth. These sessions can take place in a person’s office, in their home, or at a Starbucks.  

I call my plan the “3-3-3 Plan” — three Shabbats per month, the rabbi hosts three families for a Shabbat meal experience, and teaches Torah to the same three individuals one on one every week.    

Given the choice of Option A — the Conservative movement allowing its rabbis to perform intermarriages and adopting patrilineal descent, or Option B — 600 Conservative rabbis implementing the 3-3-3 Plan, which results in 15,000 families engaging in 60,000 Shabbat meal experiences, and 1,800 Jews learning one on one with a rabbi every week, Option B seems like a better plan for reinvigorating the Conservative movement and American Jewry. 

Joel E. Hoffman is an ordained rabbi, but works as a special education teacher at a public high school in Massachusetts.