No Devil in These Details

As his attorney friends say, he will “stipulate” that we face some troubling statistics. But for the past few months, Rabbi Steven Wernick has been digging deeper into Pew, looking beyond the sound bites for a more nuanced read on Conservative Judaism today.

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Rarely does a document come along that grabs the attention of the Jewish community as much as last fall’s Pew Survey. But though I care very much about Klal Yisrael – the entire Jewish people – I’d like to talk here about Conservative Judaism and what Pew tells us about the health of our specific approach to Jewish life.

I can hear what many of you are thinking: “I already know what the Pew Report told us about Conservative Judaism – we’re in deep trouble!”

As my attorney friends say, I will “stipulate” that we face some troubling statistics. But for the past few months I’ve been digging deeper into Pew, looking beyond the sound bites for a more nuanced read on Conservative Judaism today. I’ve been helped by two eminent scholars, Alan Cooperman, who oversaw the Pew study, and Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of research and analysis at Jewish Federations of North America and an adviser on the survey.

Let’s start with those headline-grabbing numbers. According to Pew, 30 percent of American Jews do not identify with any denomination. Thirty-five percent identify as Reform; 18 percent as Conservative; 10 percent as Orthodox; and 6 percent as other.

That 18 percent Conservative number was rightly disturbing to adherents of a stream of Judaism that once defined North American Jewish life. But there’s more to the story.

As the Pew researchers will tell you, because they used different methodologies than previous studies (the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 and 2000), their number for the total universe of American Jews was substantially larger than in the past. That means that the subset of Conservative Jews – an estimated 1.2 million people – seems smaller.

Clearly 1.2 million still represents a lot of Conservative Jews. And while our percentage of the whole may be nothing to cheer over, it also may be understated.

Still, there are some troubling numbers. Among those who identify as Conservative, the median age is 55 (compared to 54 among Reform and 40 among the Orthodox). What’s more, only 11 percent of Conservative Jews fall in the 18 – 29 age range, and only 16 percent in the 30 – 49 range. Plain and simple, we aren’t reaching enough young adults and young families.

Another difficult truth: 30 percent of those in Reform congregations were raised Conservative. Why did these people leave? Pew doesn’t say, but a likely reason is intermarriage and the perception that Conservative synagogues are not very welcoming to these families. And what about our services and the sense of community we engender? I wonder if these are compelling to younger Jews who today primarily seek meaning and engagement.

There’s some good news, though, or more accurately, some important numbers that show us the strengths we can build on. For instance, look at people who belong to synagogues: here Conservative Jews make up 29 percent. Or look at intermarriage. Some 73 percent of Conservative Jews marry other Jews, compared to 50 percent of Reform and 31 percent of Jews identifying with no denomination. As for the next generation, 88 percent of Conservative Jews are raising children Jewish, compared to 60 percent of Reform and only 19 percent with no denomination. And finally, 30 percent of Conservative parents have their children enrolled in Jewish day school, and 50 percent in another kind of formal Jewish education, such as synagogue schools. In Reform Judaism the numbers are: day school, 9 percent; other formal Jewish education, 28 percent.

Conservative numbers are similarly higher for participation in Jewish youth groups and camping, and for religious observance and support of Jewish communal organizations. Clearly, among non-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews stand out in their commitment to Jewish living and to raising Jewish children.

These are the strengths we must build on – and better articulate. For those considering joining a synagogue, we might say something like this: “If you join our family you will be part of a community committed to raising Jewish children and teaching them the values, ritual skills and ethics to build sustainable communities of the future.” We can also tell them that they will join a group of people for whom Judaism is a central source of meaning and identity.

Weaknesses? We need to continue to discuss intermarriage and how we articulate a preference for in-marriage and welcome people when intermarriage occurs. We must better at connect with teens, young adults and young families. We must create synagogues imbued with a meaning, purpose and personal connection. We must feed hunger for Jewish learning.

These are the imperatives shaping United Synagogue’s agenda for the next several years. I look forward to sharing details with you in the coming weeks and months. I hope you will join us in building on the real strengths of Conservative Judaism, and in shoring up its weaknesses. The Pew report, contrary to signaling our inevitable decline, offers invaluable knowledge for bringing those within and outside our communities closer to the richness of Jewish life.