Good News

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 1, 2019 / 26 Shevat 5779

Summary: As Congregation Neveh Shalom marks its 150th year, Rabbi Kosak shares the recent good news about Conservative Judaism.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been sharing my thoughts about what Conservative Judaism is, and how a fundamental feature of Jewish culture is our embrace of change. This week, I want to look at the movement through a sociological lens. After all, for more than a decade, pundits have spoken about the death of the Conservative movement. Morale has been low in many congregations. People wondered if there was any future to Judaism lived from the center. What caused this general malaise?

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released the last comprehensive study of Jewish population in America. This poll parsed out a tremendous amount of information about Jewish practices, beliefs and affiliation rates. Indeed, this is the report which is responsible for how the Conservative movement became the favorite whipping child of the press. Doom and gloom was predicted for the movement, because of the changes observed since the year 2000, which had been the previous population survey report.

These included: a drop in the percentage of Jews who identified as Conservative. In 2000, around 27% or so self-identified with the movement. In 2013, that number had dropped to 18%. Additionally, only 11% of young Jews identified with the Conservative movement. The newspapers claimed we had become irrelevant and a movement that had lost its way. As a consequence, many allocations to Conservative synagogues were reduced around the country because of this population decline. Indeed, if I had a dollar for every time a Federation leader told me that synagogues are a thing of the past, most of my children’s college education would be funded.

There’s just one problem. None of the above is accurate. My friend and former congregant, Jack Wertheimer, is the leading sociologist of American Jewry, and in his recent book, “The New American Judaism,” he explains why. The 2013 Pew Report counted 1.4 million more Jews to the roster than it did in 2000. The problem was that Jewish population had not changed in the intervening years. Indeed, birth rates have been stable and there’s been no major immigration to America. What happened is that Pew changed who it counted as Jewish, expanding the rosters to include a new category, “Jews of No Religion.” These were not people who had drifted away from participation since the year 2000; they simply weren’t studied or included because they did not participate in the institutions of Jewish life.

Looked at again, what becomes clear is that the Conservative movement is doing very well. Our numbers have been flat, not declining. In an age where fewer individuals belong to any house of worship, that is a positive indicator. Moreover, Wertheimer’s studies also demonstrate that after the Orthodox, Conservative Jews are far more active and engaged than any other type of Jew. We attend services more, send our kids to day schools and Jewish camps in greater numbers, observe some sort of Shabbat at home and a third of us keep kosher within our homes.

We also have a higher level of synagogue skills and knowledge, and view our Jewish identity very positively, care about Israel and believe that Judaism is important in our lives. Not only are these indicators all positive, but Wertheimer actually makes the case that the movement is poised for growth. When looking at younger Jews (25-39), more Conservative Jews are synagogue members than Reform Jews!

If you’ve been paying attention to Neveh Shalom, this shouldn’t surprise you. While we certainly have our challenges, including our need to build a substantial endowment for our future, our building is bustling with Jewish life. We are blessed (yes, blessed) with many dozens of educational and social opportunities. We are experimenting when experiments are called for, and holding tight to those parts of our religion which are strong and traditional.

Do you know what this reminds me of? In the early years of the 20th century, the pundits predicted the death of Orthodox Judaism. They claimed it had no real hope in the brave new world of America. And yet Orthodoxy is thriving, and they are doing so precisely because they invested in education and maintained a culture of commitment to Jewish living. Yes, they suffered a drop in their numbers once upon a time, but by staying focused on what mattered, they turned their imminent demise around.

What does this mean for us here at Congregation Neveh Shalom? I think we have a bright future. We have a dynamic professional staff, committed and talented lay leaders, intelligent and kind congregants—and our city of Portland is growing. We are fortunate. That hardly means we can be complacent. We all need to invest in our future by embracing our present. I’m not only talking about our endowment. We have real challenges.

For example, people spend tremendous amounts of their time on cell phones. The pull the world has on us is thus far greater than most other generations had to deal with. Apart from the anxiety these devices create, our consumption of social media has led us to become less civil along with our fellow Americans.

When we were more insular, it was easier to pass on our heritage and religion, and to reject some of the negative forces of the larger culture. We may have more Jewish knowledge than many other denominations, but that doesn’t mean we have sufficient Jewish knowledge to address the complexities of contemporary life.

Additionally, increasing numbers of us fall in love with and then marry non-Jewish spouses. That’s not something we had witnessed in the last two thousand years—but it is something that we experienced long before that! The Bible is full of such examples.

But two thousand years is a long time. As a consequence, there was a time when the larger Jewish community was so frightened of inter-marriage, and was so vociferous about its dangers, that we effectively drove away those who fell in love with non-Jews. They felt rejected and didn’t believe they could find a place in our Conservative congregations.

What we’ve learned since then is that a beautiful partnership is possible in which we embrace the family and provide them the tools they need to live meaningful Jewish lives. They meet us halfway by committing to enrich the lives of their families through consistent Jewish experiences. In many ways, that doesn’t look different than how we educated families where both parents are Jewish. And that’s the point. Judaism enriches those who are open to it. So we have an obligation to be open to those who are open to it—to those who seek the power Judaism has to offer.

Finally, we need to always keep in mind that Judaism isn’t only for children or for families. Just as we’ve learned to be inclusive of people with many different orientations and backgrounds, we still need to do a better job at making synagogue life comfortable for those without families. We need to commit ourselves to adult Jewish learning and to adult social activities that aren’t only geared for couples. The good news is that all of this is achievable.

In short, I’m arguing that there are only three resources we need in order to secure our congregation for the next century. We need financial resources, educational resources and resources of passionate meaning, engagement and welcoming.

Each of us has a responsibility to learn and grow Jewishly, to give back, and to endeavor to live more joyously. Let’s get busy!

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D


Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What’s the last Jewish book you read?
  2. What is the next Jewish book you intend to read?
  3. What is your favorite thing about Conservative Judaism?

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In Place of Torah Sparks Commentary This Week