Conservative Jewry fights to survive in US

By Elicia Brown, July 30, 2009

Elie Kaunfer, 35, is exactly the type of Jew the Conservative movement would love to claim. Passionate about Jewish tradition and ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, he feels most at home with the egalitarian services which are popular in the centrist stream.

Yet Rabbi Kaunfer will not say he belongs to the Conservative movement — indeed, he will not put any label on his Jewish identity. As co-founder of the wildly popular Hadar, an independent minyan in New York, he knows many young Jews who feel the same.

This summer, the Conservative movement hopes to start attracting young members back to its fold, ending a long-standing decline.

It has just appointed two rabbis in their early 40s to its top positions — Rabbi Steve Wernick, 42, who became executive vice president and CEO of the movement’s synagogue arm; and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, 43, who is the new chief executive of its rabbinic arm.

Their appointment completes a generational shift begun in 2007, when Rabbi Arnold Eisen, 58, took over the reigns as chancellor of JTS, the largest of the Conservative seminaries.

“The Conservative movement in part has suffered from a lack of clarity of what it means, stands for and its goals,” admits Rabbi Wernick.

It has been in crisis for almost a decade, since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey showed that a third of American synagogue members belonged to the Conservatives.

While this is substantial, especially compared to its cousin, the Masorti movement in the UK, which represents less than two per cent of synagogue members, it is a significant drop from the 43 per cent it attracted a decade earlier. It was also the first time that the more liberal Reform movement drew a greater share of American Jews.

The movement’s golden age came after the war, when its blend of modernity and Jewish law appealed to immigrants and their children.

In the past 40 years, however, as American Orthodoxy strengthened and grew more right-wing, and Reform Judaism embraced ritual and welcomed intermarried Jews, the centrist movement struggled to retain its appeal. It was also hampered by in-fighting over issues such as the role of women and gay rabbis in Jewish life, and an aging synagogue membership.

“There’s a joke that the Conservative Jews have been so busy fighting each other that they forgot to have children,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “There are fewer children in the Conservative synagogues than in either the Orthodox or the Reform. And since children grow up and become adults, it could be a disaster.”

At a conference last month at the JTS, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove described the movement as “poised on the rooftop” — implying its imminent demise.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University, was even more blunt, telling the Jerusalem Post this spring: “We’ll soon say Kaddish for Conservative Jewry.”

Conservative leaders, however, insist the movement has a bright future — although they are only just beginning to work out their game plan.

In his new role, Rabbi Wernick is planning to visit communities across the continent to assess needs. His focus will be reinvigorating synagogues, and engaging teenagers and young adults.

Rabbi Schonfeld says she plans to “bring Jewish tradition to light and to life”, and is in the process of appointing “a five-part advocacy cabinet” to publicise the denomination’s messages about issues such as social justice.

“The fact that there’s a new generation in charge of movement makes the community very open to the need to reinvent itself,” she says. “I think the movement is really in the process of reclaiming what it has had for most of its life.”

And perhaps it is too early to say kaddish. Says Professor Sarna: “If you look historically at the Reform and Orthodox movements, they were both written off. When movements are down they are often at their most creative.”

Last updated: 4:44pm, July 30 2009