The Decline of Conservative Judaism


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Joseph Pew, erstwhile the CEO of Sun Oil, left in his will a large sum of money to be used for social research. This endowment resulted in research concerning religion in America, including Judaism. In 1990, Pew Research reported that 43% of American Jews were affiliated with Conservative congregations. Yet, in 2021 only fifteen percent of Jews were still members of a Conservative congregation even as membership was declining further.

Pew Research did not explain this precipitous decline. Therefore it is reasonable to do so here.

Conservative Judaism was founded in America with a view of maintaining Jewish traditions within its American environment. Therefore, Conservative Judaism and synagogues (Greek for assembly) differed from the usual expectations regarding fundamental beliefs and practices only in that women and men sat together at religious services. Other than that, tradition was maintained.

Now, however, much of what was once Conservative Judaism has been discarded by Conservative congregations wo are competing  with Reform in several ways.

Most egregious is the elevation of deviant sexuality into a major Jewish holy day.  This despite the admonition in the Torah, “If a man lies with a man  as with a woman it is an abomination.”

Now that Conservatives marry men to men and women to women, numerous former members have left the conservative denomination. Some left because they joined the Reform movement, as Reform is much more authentic reformed than the conservative imitators. Others now attend Orthodox services because they seek real Judaism and not a simulated “reconstructionism.” Those who have now joined the Orthodox need not live an Orthodox life. However, they want real substance and not remote imitations of authentic Judaism.

Another reason for the dramatic decline of Conservative Judaism is the failure of Jewish education within the conservative movement. That so called education enrolls children in afternoon schools meeting between four and six p.m. Children enrolled in these schools have already spent the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in school and cannot absorb even more restraints and classroom discipline. Exhausted, they learn nothing except to resent their long and ever longer school day. Afternoon schools are a failure. The only successful Jewish schools are day schools, which conservative parents, with some exceptions, are unwilling to use for their children. Most conservatives view day schools as “too Jewish.” 

There is yet another, somewhat hidden condition which has reduced the membership in Conservative Jewish congregations. That condition is best understood if we look at  the book De Natura Deorum by the Latin writer Cicero. He explains that Religio is derived from Res Legare or “The Thing that Binds.” Cicero holds that people who associate frequently for mutual prayer and other functions of religion become friends and close associates.

It is this lack of friendly relationships within the Conservative movement which is probably most responsible for its decline. Conservative Jews are seldom in attendance at Saturday services. Most attend only three days a year to celebrate the New Year and Yom Kippur. Obviously, it is hardly possible to feel bound together with people only in attendance three days a year. In fact, most Conservative Jews do not know one another because they see each other so seldom. Furthermore Conservatives, unlike the Orthodox, do not welcome newcomers or Jews they do not know. While the Orthodox are eager to welcome anyone attending any of their events, Conservatives do not talk to outsiders, nor do they invite unknown persons to conversation or to a kiddush. Conservatives talk only to those with whom they went to grade school or who is important to their business or who may vote for them. Other newcomers are ignored. This behavior insures that Conservative congregations must decline, as few people would be willing to sit alone without any sign of recognition from 9 a.m. to noon without being given “the time of day.” Anyone who has visited an Orthodox congregation will know that the Orthodox welcome all who come. They talk to newcomers, invite them to kiddush, call them to the Torah, and let them know that they are glad to see a new face. The exact opposite is true of Conservatives (with a few exceptions, of course).

In 1920, the German sociologist Michaelis wrote an essay called “The Iron Law of Oligarchy” (Das Eiserne Gesetz der Oligarchie) [Oligarchy is Greek . It means rule of the few]. Here Michaelis describes how many voluntary organizations are used by a few politicians to enhance their status by holding numerous offices, needed or not. Those who belong are therefore most happy about their status, while all others are given no role and are excluded. This is particularly true of poor Jews, who are admitted by the Orthodox but shunned by Conservative and Reform congregations.

The Latin writer Lucretius wrote a book De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in which he wrote Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. That was true then, that is true now, and that sunk Conservative Judaism.

Finally, it is evident that our high intermarriage rate is reducing membership in the Conservative movement for two reasons. Members who married a non-Jew generally join the Reform movement because Reform has a long history of accepting non-Jews. There are also Conservatives who feel uncomfortable with the widespread, 74% intermarriage rate within Conservative congregations. These Jews join orthodox congregations. Consequently intermarriage hits the Conservatives twice and threatens to reduce the membership even further.

Shalom u’vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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