Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Pew Report and Conservative Judaism

Two items about Conservative Judaism to note in the Pew Report.

First, the percentage of Jews identifying as Conservative has been falling over time. Conservative Jews were 37.8% of the adult Jewish population in the 1990 NJPS, 27% in the 2000-20001 NJPS, and 18% in the 2013 Pew Report. To a large degree, this reflects the odd demographics of the Conservative movement. In the 1940s - 1960s, the Conservative movement attracted many Jewish families. They liked the modernity and flexibility of the movement, but with a strong traditional component. But a large percentage of their children and grandchildren tended to become Reform, non-denominational, non-religious, or not Jewish.  The Conservative movement rode the demographic wave up in the mid 20th century, and it is now riding the same demographic wave down.

Second, an interesting chart on p. 49 of the Pew Report showing Denominational Identification by Age. Of Jews of different ages, here are the numbers who identify as Conservative: 18-29 (11%), 30-49 (16%), 50-64 (20%), and 65+ (24%)  It is hard to know what to make of these numbers, especially in light of the previous set of numbers showing an overall decline in Conservative membership. My guess is that there are three different effects occurring here.

- Many non-Orthodox Jews do not belong to a synagogue or identify with a denomination before they are married and have children.  (They are not necessarily non-observant or non-participating.  They might belong to independent minyanim, not attend services but still take Jewish classes or engage in other types of non-denominational Jewish activities.)  But when they get married and have children, they may then join a synagogue primarily for the pre-school, day school, religious school, etc.  Some of these people may self-identify as Reform or Conservative, but others may not.  But this group of people may show a drop in denominational affiliation in their 20s.

- Many non-Orthodox Jews do not maintain a synagogue membership after their children have celebrated their bar- or bat-mitzvot.  And some of these people may not consider themselves Reform or Conservative when they no longer belong to synagogue.  This is especially true of Conservative Jews.  I have met several Jews at Conservative synagogues who informally said that their practices or beliefs are "Reform."  When questioned more deeply, they simply mean that they are not observant of many rituals like attending services or keeping kosher.  (Similarly, many Jews label a higher level of observance as "Orthodox".  I was once speaking with someone about restrictions on bar-mitzvah celebrations during the 3 weeks, and he asked me "How Orthodox are you?"  I am not Orthodox -- this was at a Conservative synagogue! -- but what he meant was "How important are the halachic restrictions to you?")  This effect should reflect a drop in Conservative self-identification of people in their 50s and later.

- As noted in the first point, there are a lot of older Conservative Jews.  This simply means that that there should be a higher percentage of Conservative Jews who are older.

The bottom line is that I do not think the Conservative movement is on its way out.  As noted in the last post, under current conditions, there might be a bi-modal distribution within self-identified Conservative Jews.  One group engages in speciifcally Jewish practices and tends to pass along their religious Judaism to the next generation, and a second group that does not.  If so, the movement may be asymptotically approaching a lower steady-state limit.

Importantly, nothing says that current conditions will remain.  The good news for the Conservative movements is there is an easy population for outreach:  less religious members of Conservative synagogues.  The goal is simply to set forth a religious understanding of Judaism that is compelling, worthwhile, and coherent to contemporary American Jews.

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