Conservative Judaism at 100

Rabbi Steven Wernick says the Conservative movement “only exists ... to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.” (David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Wernick says the Conservative movement “only exists … to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.”
(David Stuck)

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism just observed its 100th birthday. And even according to its most ardent supporters, it is suffering serious signs of old age. At its Centennial conference this week here in Baltimore, the movement’s leaders sought to play up Conservative Judaism’s strengths and energize the faithful, while using new language in an effort to deal with a quickly changing Jewish reality.

Quite simply, the new Jewish reality is challenging the future existence of United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, which serves some 800 synagogues. For one, the number of synagogues that choose to affiliate with the group is in decline. And in the process, United Synagogue is losing touch with some of the movement’s up-and-coming rabbis.

Second, the organization finds itself in a multiyear budget hole — more than $1 million in the red in 2013. That’s less than in previous years but almost twice as much as projected. Budget concerns have forced the group to take a hard look at how it deploys dwindling resources and has led to the decision to cut the movement’s college outreach program, Koach. Meanwhile, the number of Solomon Schechter day schools, a Conservative institution not under the United Synagogue umbrella, has fallen sharply.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, affiliation with the Conservative movement is dropping fast. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center study published earlier this month, only 18 percent of U.S. Jews currently identify as Conservative, which is a significant decline from 43 percent in 1990.

Seeking to address the concern with an upbeat message, Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, argued that affiliation with the movement is not the top priority. Rather, “the movement only exists in order to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life,” and that is the focus of United Synagogue on a going-forward basis.

While it is unquestionably refreshing for an organizational leader to argue for the primacy of an idea rather than an institution, the new approach is not without risk. That gambit will only succeed if leaders can convince stakeholders, including ordinary synagogue-goers, to embrace the attitudinal changes now being advanced. We hope they succeed. But a change in view is not going to pay the bills. And given the sharp falloff in affiliation with the movement over the past decade, the challenges are clear.

There was much talk at the Centennial conference about the switch to intangibles — relationships and worldviews — and how the ideas of the movement are as strong and vital as ever. That sounds good, and we hope the claims hold true. But at the end of the day, a movement is about people. And unless the movement succeeds in attracting more followers, the marketplace will speak in ways that leadership fears most.

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