Resuming after a little vacation. Peace has not broken out in our time, certainly not for Israel, but I do not want to spend all summer writing about that. Let me start the new It’s Wednesday cycle (which always begins in August) by putting a virtual end to last year’s synagogue theme, Conservative Judaism. You recall it was the 100th birthday of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group for congregations such as ours, and we devoted effort in many ways to a dialogue about the reasons we have chosen affiliation with the Conservative Movement as well as the opportunities and challenges the movement faces in making an impact on the Jewish world.
You all must know by now that the Pew Survey, released last fall, told us that our movement seems in deep trouble, at least in terms of identification. Whereas we were the largest movement 40 – 50 years ago, by now Reform has 35% of those who identify with a movement and we have but 18% (Orthodox is at about 10% and 30% don’t identify.) Are we on the path to oblivion? Not quite, and I want to share some new analysis of the Pew data.
Because Pew used different methodologies than previous studies, they found a lot more Jews, and among them is our subset of Conservative Jews which numbers an estimated 1.2 million. That is a lot of Jews, so we aren’t disappearing that fast. But our average age is 55, and only 27% of us are below 49 (Beth El is a big exception to that), and 30% of those identifying with Reform were raised Conservative.
There was some good news as the numbers got crunched more. Look at intermarriage, which is not an issue with Beth El families but is worrisome because on the average a small minority of children of intermarriage end up being raised Jewish. 73% of Conservative Jews are married to other Jews, compared to 50% of Reform and 31% of secular Jews. 88% of Conservative Jews are raising their children Jewish, compared to 60% for Reform and only 19% for the secular. 30% of Conservative parents have their kids enrolled in Jewish day schools and 50% in religious schools; for Reform the numbers are 9% and 28%. So, we exhibit a strong commitment to Jewish living and to raising Jewish children. These are strengths to build on and to shout from the rooftops. For those considering joining a synagogue, we might say (with Rabbi Steve Wernick of USCJ): “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.”
Of course we face challenges. The middle has disappeared in American life. Young Jews, like their non-Jewish counterparts, are not into affiliation or brand loyalty; we need to have better strategies for connecting with them. We must create more synagogues imbued with meaning, purpose, and personal connection, and we must help nurture the thirst for Jewish learning that can be so transformative.
There is much food for thought about Conservative Judaism in these new pieces of data, less need to panic and good reasons to redouble our efforts to build the movement to be strong again. We will continue to have that as part of our agenda. In the coming year we will move to a tasty new theme; you can remain in suspense a little longer. Hoping you have a good Wednesday and can enjoy the last lazy hazy days of summer. Bill Rudolph
P.S. As part of the theme year, we emphasized our connections to the Conservative movement’s camps, schools, and institutions, and Beth El clergy and families played a key role in the creation of a Ramah Day Camp for the D.C. area. It launched this week with more kids than we hoped for and a great staff and program. This is just the fourth such camp in the country, and so far so good.