Launching a five-day meeting in Baltimore today, the world's Conservative rabbis will debate the future of a movement that is struggling to maintain its link to tradition while engaging the modern world.
Conservative Judaism lives in the tension-filled theological center, a position it has staked between the liberalism of the Reform movement and the traditionalism of the Orthodox.
"We try to weave a philosophy and practice that's faithful to Jewish law, at the same time trying to make the necessary interpretations for contemporary times," said Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the body representing 1,400 Conservative rabbis that is holding its 99th annual convention at the Inner Harbor Sheraton Hotel through Thursday.
The movement urges its members to keep kosher and observe Halakha, the law of the Torah. It encourages its men to always wear a yarmulke. It discourages marriages to non-Jews, and its rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings. It retains a significant amount of Hebrew in its liturgy.
But Conservative Judaism also ordains female rabbis and cantors. It has made concessions to modern life not permitted by the Orthodox, such as allowing men and women to sit together during services and permitting its members to drive to Sabbath services. And it is wrestling with the question of whether to admit gay men and lesbians to its seminaries in New York and Los Angeles.
"One way of looking at Conservative Judaism is to see it on the border between tradition and modernity. It is constantly working to reconcile the disparate values, often conflicting, that derive from these two sources of commitment," said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. "So all the tensions in this confrontation you will find here in Conservative Judaism."
In fact, many of its members and leaders feel the name Conservative is a misnomer.
"The word `conservative' is a terrible word," said Rabbi Mark Loeb of Baltimore's Beth El Congregation and national chairman of this year's convention. "I'd like to change it, personally."
The philosophy of Conservative Judaism "really means to preserve and conserve, as you would with a great painting," he said.
Founded in the late 19th century as a reaction to Reform Judaism's rejection of traditional ritual and practice, Conservative Judaism found fertile ground among the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States and sought to assimilate into their new culture. Its greatest growth came after World War II, when returning Jewish soldiers were were drawn to the compromise Conservative Judaism offered.
"During the post-World War II decades, the Conservative Movement became the largest, the fastest-growing, seemingly the most dynamic of the Jewish religious movements," said Jack Wertheimer, director of the Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary. During the 1950s, there were years when 100 to 150 synagogues were founded.
A growth slowdown
At the end of the 20th century, that era of untamed growth has ended.
"The Conservative movement is not growing," said Wertheimer, the seminary provost who edited a 1996 survey of Conservative synagogues, which estimated the number of Conservative Jews in the United States at 1.8 million, 36 percent of all American Jews who identify with a denomination. "It represents a significant percentage of American Jews, but that sense that the future belongs to us, that has dissipated."
Among active Jews in the United States, 38 percent belong to the Reform movement, while the Orthodox claim 6 percent, Reconstructionists 1 percent and various others 19 percent.
While still among the largest groups, Conservative Judaism is struggling to forge an identity. In contrast to the Reform and Orthodox movements, which had clearly stated platforms that laid out their ideologies, Conservative Jews were deliberately vague about their beliefs. In a sense, the movement defined itself as being not Orthodox and not Reform.
"That doesn't cut it anymore," said Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills. "It's less common to hear someone say, `I am a Conservative Jew' as you would hear, `I am a Reform Jew' or `I am an Orthodox Jew.' They may say, `I belong to a Conservative congregation.'
"We have a long way to go in teaching our lay people what the Conservative movement stands for," Goldstein said.
That ambivalence is played out in the fact that although Conservative Jews are officially to observe kosher food laws, it is estimated that only about a quarter or fewer actually do.
"It's a remarkably small number, and it's a small number for a movement that began in opposition to Reform," said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor and author of "Conservative Judaism: The New Century."