Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary

About Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation

Almost everywhere I have traveled since I was first named the next chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Jews (and others) have asked me insistent and deeply felt questions about the nature of Conservative Judaism and its prospects. What does Conservative Judaism stand for, in its teachings and its practice, that distinguishes it from other movements? What is the future of Conservative Judaism? What can we do together to make sure that its future is bright?

Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
JTS Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

I too feel the urgency of these questions—as a parent, a teacher, a leader of Conservative Judaism, and a 21st-century Jew. This is a critical moment in the history of our Movement, as it is for the North American Jewish community as a whole, and it seems more important than ever that we reflect together as Conservative Jews on where we should be going and how best to get there.

That is the purpose of this extended dialogue. Over the coming weeks, I will also reflect on major issues facing our generation of North American Jews, accompanied by solicited responses from a diverse set of Conservative lay leaders, clergy, educators, academics, and students. I hope that other readers will post responses as well. My reflections are addressed both to the lay leaders whose decisions in coming months will have a major impact on the future of the Movement and to all of us who care deeply about Conservative Judaism and the larger Jewish community. I hope that the conversation will be as rich and far-reaching as the issues at stake.

What will be the future of our Movement? Let me say unequivocally: I have great hope for Conservative Judaism. I am convinced that its best years lie ahead. Let me explain why.

Conservative Judaism’s future is bright because it is needed. The Jewish community requires a type of Judaism that urges and facilitates full and authentic engagement with the texts, practices, and traditions of the Jewish past, combined with full and authentic engagement with the present-day society and culture of which we are a part. Conservative Judaism to my mind does this in a way unmatched by any other form of Jewish life. We provide meaning and community of infinite value to Jews seeking those goods in life. We connect individuals and kehillot to the "Tree of Life": Torah, to which Jews have held fast for many centuries.

The second reason for my confidence in the future of Conservative Judaism is the immense resources that our Movement possesses and can bring to bear on the task of transformation. These include: hundreds of fine synagogues and schools, youth groups and camps; thousands of talented and dedicated lay and professional leaders; innumerable buildings, curricula, and programs, many of them highly successful; and significant financial resources, actual and potential. For all that some efforts in our Movement are failing, many more are quite successful. Yes, Conservative numbers are down. Our membership is aging. But that membership still includes close to 600,000 card-carrying Conservative Jews, many of them extremely knowledgeable, committed, and proud of Judaism as they know and practice it. Thousands more identify with Conservative Judaism, live and think as Conservative Jews, but are not currently members of affiliated institutions. They too want Conservative Judaism to flourish and their help is needed for it to do so. We need to work with and learn from serious Jews of every (or no) denomination.

What sorts of changes are required for the revitalization of Conservative Judaism?

The Conservative Movement needs to work on quality. At a time when Jews in North America choose, at multiple points in life, whether or not to be Jews and what sorts of Jews to be, every institution, every program, and every experience we offer must be excellent. Mediocrity is not a luxury we can afford. We can be confident that Conservative Judaism can achieve excellence in its synagogues, schools, camps, programs, and activities because in many places already does.

We need a more effective structure: organizational forms adequate to the current and future needs of Jewish individuals and communities. The recent changes in the mission, curriculum, and organization of JTS represent a major advance toward better structure in the Conservative Movement; so do the changes adopted and contemplated by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

And we need to do a better job when it comes to message: articulating and communicating our distinctive vision of Torah, using a variety of media and methods in this age of the Internet and smartphones, to reach and listen to Jews of diverse backgrounds, generations, sensibilities, and needs.

That is the purpose of Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation. My reflections and the accompanying responses and posts begin with Covenant—the larger purpose granted to Jewish life; the story to which we are heir; the conversation that awaits our word and deed. Other topics include: the need to create caring Communities of Torah; the global community that we call the Jewish people, and its center in the Land and State of Israel; Conservative Judaism’s distinctive approach to Learning; the responsibilities, joys, and discipline of Mitzvah; the encounter with God, one another, and ourselves in Tefillah; the rewarding and often problematic set of relationships between Jews and non-Jews, including the challenge and opportunity of intermarriage in contemporary North America; and, finally, the continuing uses and proper role in our day of Denominations.  Back to Top ^