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The Future of Conservative Judaism

There was an article in the Forward newspaper recently about the future of the Conservative movement. In the piece, J.J. Goldberg notes the movement’s decline in numbers over the last twenty years, and how today’s leaders are trying to figure out the best way to reverse that trend. It’s an insightful piece, but one issue went unmentioned – intermarriage. This omission prompted JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin to write a letter to the editor. In it, he said:

If the omission is reflective of the lack of conversation about intermarriage within the Conservative movement itself during the search for new leadership, that will not bode well for the movement’s future. As much as I agree that issues of geographic migration and transdenominationalism are relevant, they’re not the elephant in the room. It’s the inability to effectively welcome significant numbers of intermarried families that is the single most important factor in the Conservative movement’s decline, and it’s one that can be fixed.

Many Jews like me who grew up in the Conservative movement tacitly understand that if we intermarry, we shouldn’t bother coming back to the congregations where we celebrated earlier simchas. This is not about our loyalty to the movement (“transdenominationalism”), it’s about the movement’s loyalty to us. Many of the unwelcoming policies still on the books are cultural rather than religious decisions based on unfounded fear. Hundreds of thousands of intermarried families raising Jewish children over the past two decades prove that intermarriage in and of itself is not the end of Jewish continuity.

We know the Conservative movement is capable of creating a more inclusive environment – just look at the steps they have taken to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America, is currently searching for a new executive director. Paul thinks one of the most important questions that should be asked of anyone considered for the job is “How will you help our movement better welcome intermarried families?” The answer might just determine the future of the Conservative Movement.



15 Comments

  1. The fastest growing branch of Judaism is the branch most hostile to intermarriage.

    I suspect that Conservative Judaism will becoming more accepting of intermarriage over time. But as practically every decision Conservative Judaism has made has lead to fewer numbers, I wouldn’t consider such a decision much of an endorsement.

    And as to reaching out to gays and lesbians, I hardly see how incuding more members who have very few children will lead to increasing numbers.

    (That’s my letter to this editor)

    Comment by Dave — February 22, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  2. if anyone is hostile, it’s you. i’m getting tired of reading your negative comments on this site all the time.

    Comment by h. — February 22, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  3. Don’t like negative comments? Post positive ones.

    Would you rather there were no comments?

    Comment by Dave — February 23, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  4. i’d rather there be no comments.

    Comment by h. — February 23, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  5. The you’d better get the webmaster to change the website.

    Comment by Dave — February 23, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Differring opinions can be a contructive way to build relationships if people talk to each other and not at each other. I don’t know Dave but I do know that his comments almost always have that cutting edge - sort of in your face take it or leave it - I’m right you’re wrong. Certainly that’s no way to have an honest dialogue, sharing different opinions. When Dave comments it’s a slap in the face which can either be ignored or slapped back! Slapping back does not promote healthy discussion. I think we would all be better served by just ignoring his comments - his only motive is to get a reaction and not to discuss issues.

    Comment by Ell — February 24, 2009 @ 8:00 am

  7. you’re right, Ell. everyone has a different opinion. but it’s really irritating everytime i check this site to be informed about what’s happening in the news, only to find an “i know everything, you know nothing” comment below the article or one that constantly touts Orthodoxy as superior to other denominations because they produce more kids and have hardly any intermarriage. the Orthodox may be ahead of everyone else in these areas, but it doesn’t mean they are perfect. they have their own flaws, which make them as human as the rest of the denominations.

    Comment by h. — February 24, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  8. Dave is helping to expose the enemies of Judaism like the JOI. This group is anti-semtic and wants to turn Jews into a Gentiles under the guise of “diversity in the Jewish community.” It’s sickening!

    Comment by JOI is destroying Judiasm — February 25, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  9. Hmmmm. I don’t think I get the connection. How is trying to help someone to feel more comfortable with Judaism and to have the Jewish community be more accepting of them the same as turning Jews into Gentiles?
    I think that one should really try and understand what it is exactly the JOI is doing and then maybe they wouldn’t make such inane statements.

    Comment by Ell — February 25, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  10. While different people can have different opinion about Orthodoxy, my comments usually concern their demographics in relation to other Jews.

    It is not my ‘opinion’ that they are growing faster than other groups of Jews. The facts are (and I give examples, never contradicted) that they are growing faster than other groups of Jews. While my comments can be deleted, no one so far has ‘dialogued’ my arguments away. If they can they should go ahead and do it. To quote a well known non-Jew, “Seek truth from facts”.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Everyone is not entitled to their own facts.

    Comment by Dave — February 26, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  11. I dispute you on the facts, Dave. You’re citing zero sources. We’ve been through this for years now, so go dig up the other times when I’ve refuted your “facts” with actual citations of (for example) the National Jewish Population Survey, which found the Reform movement to be the fastest growing movement. What’s happening is that the middle is dropping out, not that Orthodoxy or liberalism is winning. And yes, the Orthodox have more children, but they also have way more denominational defection than the other movements, again according to the NJPS. Which is why they only went from around 10% of the Jewish population in 1990 to 12% in 2001. That’s not the kind of rapid growth that’s going to overtake any of the other movements anytime soon (even Conservative).

    Comment by Paul Golin — February 27, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  12. Thanks for the last comment, Paul. The Orthodox tout the ba’al teshuvah phenomenon, as “proof” for all of us being potential Orthodox Jews, who will one day see the “truth”. Inside their own communities, especially the Ultra-Orthodox, they have a very active discussion about what they call “kids at risk”. This is the term used for teens, who do not follow the party line. The term, of course, sees everything from teen drug use to not laying tefillin every day, as basically the same thing. It also, of course, implies that not being Orthodox means there must be something wrong with you. People like me do confound them, as we are not teens, ans seem pretty normal, so they somehow make up some other ad hominem related reason for our “heresy”, rather than facing up to the fact they have a demographic problem too.

    Comment by Rabbi David S. Gruber — February 28, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  13. From that Jewish Population Survey (www.ujc.org/local_includes/downloads/757.pdf

    Page 3

    Jewish children

    O-205K C-211K R-267K ‘Just Jewish’-187K

    The Orthodox aren’t going to overtake the Conservatives anytime soon?

    Too much about children? Well let’s take a look at the adults.

    Page 9

    Percentage of each group’s adults that falls between:

    18-34 O-33 C-19 R-23 JJ-24

    75+ O-8 C-18 R-11 JJ-13

    As to the notion that children brought up O stop being O when they become adults (which certainly used to be the case as the survey shows-page 7 to be helpful), as the above stats about the 18-34 group shows, that is over.

    Comment by Dave — March 1, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  14. As I wrote, “the middle is dropping out.” It’s quite possible that by the end of this century there will be more Orthodox than Conservative Jews (yet with all the challenges facing the Conservative movement, there’s still currently twice as many total Conservative Jews than Orthodox Jews). Regardless of what the movements are called in the future, I’m confident that Orthodox Jews will remain the minority of the overall U.S. Jewish population for the far future, because the requirements of Orthodoxy are so strict and the pull of secular American life so strong. But the bottom line is: neither of us can “prove” our arguments, because it’s all speculation.

    I have had the same conversation with a well-known demographer in the field who admitted that just because 33% of Orthodox Jews are currently between ages 18-34, it tells us nothing about retention rates, whether that cohort will continue to age within the Orthodox movement, or when the most drop-out occurs. (It’s pretty safe to assume the drop-out doesn’t happen before age 18 for most, and maybe not even until they are well into the late 20s or 30s). I see the vague reference on page 7 to how “at least at present, data show Orthodox Jews are reversing earlier patterns of defection and increasingly retaining the allegiance of younger Jews who are being raised Orthodox.” Note how the person who wrote that line doesn’t back it up by referencing the specific “data,” and hedges by writing “at least at present.” That is an acknowledgment that they have no real longitudinal data on retention rates.

    But yes, odds are the Orthodox movement will indeed do a better job of retention, and that won’t be a huge challenge considering that only 42% of Jews born Orthodox say they still are Orthodox (on page 6 of that report, the correct URL of which is: http://www.ujc.org/local_includes/downloads/7579.pdf).

    Even if they can get their retention rate up to 60% or 70%, which would be remarkable, it will still mean we are never going to have an Orthodox-only Jewish community in the U.S. More importantly, I believe an Orthodox-only Jewish community in the U.S. would be a complete disaster for world Jewry and I wonder why you seem to be advocating for such a thing by constantly suggesting only Orthodoxy Jewry is growing (especially considering that in past conversations I believe you said that you yourself are not Orthodox!). The overwhelming majority of Jewish achievement in the history of the United States — which is far disproportionate to our numbers — has come from non-Orthodox Jews. Joe Lieberman is the anomaly, not the vanguard of the Jewish future; the future Jewish senators and supreme court justices will continue to come from the ranks of liberal Judaism, as will the future Academy Award-winners, Nobel Prize-winners, etc. It is the ongoing diversity of Jewish expression, thought, and even denominationalism that makes the U.S. Jewish community so dynamic and contributes to its high achievements, and I just don’t understand why you seem to hope that will go away anytime soon.

    To put it a different way, if Orthodox Jewry has all the answers and meets all of your needs, why are you still engaging with this website after all these years?! ;)

    Now having said all of that, it should also be pointed out that there actually are Orthodox allies of JOI’s work, and there are Orthodox Jews who absolutely recognize that denominational diversity in the U.S. is a good thing. These folks are not Orthodox because it’s “the only way Jews are going to survive,” They’re Orthodox because it meets their spiritual needs. And we at JOI encourage that. I have personally referred individuals who were looking to convert Orthodox to rabbis who would work with them. I have personally heard from a Chabad rabbi after a presentation I did that he agreed wholeheartedly with JOI’s methodology and even our mission: to engage more Jews in Judaism, regardless of their current family configuration or Jewish involvement. So this is not about liberal Judaism “versus” Orthodox Judaism. There is room for great diversity under a “Big Tent Judaism.” What I am refuting is the notion that outreach is a waste of time because one day every Jew in the U.S. will be Orthodox anyway. You are waiting for Godot on that one. In the meantime, the rest of us will be here doing the actual work rather than naysaying from the sidelines.

    Comment by Paul Golin — March 1, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  15. Hi Rabbi Gruber. Thanks for your comments! We at JOI were just looking at your website the other day and I’ve added you to my rabbi-referral list. ;)
    Hope to one day meet in person,
    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — March 1, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

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