Although the data has been pointing to the popular decline of Conservative Judaism for several decades, only recently has institutional leadership come around to accept and address the matter. More and more, past failures are being reviewed, and steps are being taken to correct them. Across synagogues, schools, and seminaries, new leaders are providing much-needed energy to the vital outreach efforts that must be undertaken if the movement is to regain its standing. It is unlikely that correcting institutional failures will make the challenges go away, but it will help. We are battling strong cultural and sociological trends that have changed the landscape for nearly every religious community across Canada.
Conservative Jews tend to see themselves as integral participants in a modern, secular society. They attend secular colleges and universities, and balance professional, civic and social activities with the many demands of traditional Judaism. They have a sort of dual loyalty, replete with tension that is becoming evermore difficult to sustain. In the West, civic life is increasingly non-religious and sometimes even anti-religious. What were once culturally supported norms of behaviour and practise (like regularly attending a house of worship) are now counter-cultural, turning the religious battle uphill. The trend is toward a bifurcated “all or nothing” choice: be completely religious or completely secular. The area in between, once the heart of the Jewish community, has narrowed.
Demographic trends in the Jewish community will dictate the shrinking or growing of the various denominations, as they have for the last century. There is no sense worrying about these things, over which we have little control. That is why my fears for Conservative Judaism have less to do with its numbers and more to do with its continuing ideological crisis. Responding to the challenges of modernity, some of my colleagues continue to veer dramatically off course from the foundational principles of the movement. They proudly proclaim a post-halachic Judaism or come up with convoluted halachic reasoning to justify endless accommodations to the preferences of their communities. Canadian Conservative Judaism used to be an exception to this trend, but that is increasingly no longer the case. The movement, which was founded in ideological opposition to Reform Judaism, is today often practically indiscernible from Reform.
We must reach out to those who still value tradition and articulate proudly our commitment to Torah and mitzvot, even when that commitment is counter-cultural. We need leaders who are forward-looking and who can inspire a new generation with the confidence that Jewish tradition still has a place in our lives and in the midst of our secular society. We have to remember our ideological foundations and start caring more about integrity and less about popularity. Thus might we be able to preserve Conservative Judaism, and affirm a Conservative Judaism worthy of being preserved in the first place.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover is spiritual leader at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto.