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Conservative Judaism: Reassessing numbers from 2013 Pew Survey

Jewish decision-makers and funders in Israel, the United States, and around the world in part shape allocations and the dispensing of positions of influence on the basis of demographic studies. When interpretations of these studies are misapplied, too often pivotal policy mistakes are made.

Jack Wertheimer’s “The New American Judaism” offers a fresh assessment of the oft-cited 2013 Pew data, refreshed by hundreds of interviews with local rabbis and lay leaders. Wertheimer calls into question some commonly held conclusions derived from Pew. In particular, he addresses harmful misunderstandings of the current state of Conservative Judaism.

Wertheimer begins with a quotation from Israeli journalist Yair Ettinger, due to conversations with “a spectrum of American Jewish religious leaders.” Ettinger concludes that “Conservative Judaism is a synonym for failure.” This damning assessment is based upon Pew’s declining numbers of Conservative Jews [only 18 percent of 6.8 million American Jews]. Wertheimer offers a cautionary tale. He opens the door for a re-assessment of Pew.

First, the Pew numbers should be re-examined. The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey pointed to 1.2 million self-identified American Conservative Jews. The 2013 Pew revealed an identical number. This is not growth but neither does it represent a dramatic decline.

Yes, the overall percentage of Americans who identify as Conservative Jews has declined from the high 20s in 2000 to 18 percent in 2013. Most of that decline is due to Pew’s expanded definition of who should be counted. The 5.3 million American Jews of 2000 “grew” to nearly 6.8 million in 2013. Due to immigration of Jews into the United States? No. Due to increased birth rates? No.

The “growth” was caused by expanding to 1.4 million the category of so-called “Jews of No Religion.” If you restrict the Pew analysis to the 5.4 million “Jews by Religion,” 26 percent self-identify as Conservative Jews [only slightly lower than 2000]. Similarly, 29 percent of American synagogue members are Conservative Jews [only slightly below the margin of error relative to the 33 percent in 2000].

Who are these “Jews of No Religion” in the Pew study? Fifty-seven percent were raised as Jews of No Religion. Another 5 percent were raised only partially as Jewish by Religion. Twenty-eight percent were raised as “Jewish aside from religion.” Twenty percent were raised as Christians. Three percent were raised in some other non-Jewish religion. Sixty-seven percent currently are raising their children “as not Jewish in any way.” Three quarters did not identify with any denomination in Judaism. Of the minority who do self-identify, almost all call themselves “Reform.” It should be no surprise that very few [6 percent] of these 1.4 million folks identify as Conservative Jews.

Second, don’t lump Conservative Jews into an arbitrary category of “non-Orthodox Jews” [90 percent of American Jewry]. Wertheimer draws upon his previous posting [“The Pew Survey Reanalyzed”], written in collaboration with Steven M. Cohen. Cohen/Wertheimer had pointed to “a denominational gradient” among American Jews [e.g. Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Jews of No Denomination, Jews of No Religion]. The pattern is clear: greater intensity of Jewish living yields higher levels of Jewish identification.

Cohen/Wertheimer assert, “… if we take non-Orthodox Jews as a whole, there has been a striking decline in Jewish activity or commitment among those under the age of 50. But when we compare specific denominations of the non-Orthodox, we find striking differences in levels of Jewish engagement. In fact, those differences [among denominations] are more pronounced among younger Jews than among their elders…”

Wertheimer and Cohen pointed out that the most intensively Jewish engaged “Non-Orthodox” are self-identified Conservative Jews. As stated once again in “The New American Judaism,” “On every measure of religious participation, Conservative Jews today score higher than all other Jews except the Orthodox.”

Wertheimer asserts: “They [Conservative Jews] are the most likely to attend religious services with some regularity, to observe Jewish holidays in their homes, and to put a strong emphasis upon Jewish education.” Similarly, Wertheimer notes that “more than any other non-Orthodox group, Conservative Jews give to Jewish causes, support Jewish organizations, travel to Israel, and socialize primarily with Jewish friends…. Much of Jewish organizational life, moreover, is beholden to Conservative Jews working as professionals and volunteer leaders and investing themselves in the needs of the Jewish people.”
Wertheimer adds that “nor is it true that the majority of local Conservative congregations are floundering…

Unquestionably, congregations [not just Conservative] have experienced a decline in membership [reflecting the aging of Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964]… [Yet] in the face of these hard realities, energetic [Conservative] synagogue leaders, clergy and board members alike, have sprung into action.”

Additionally, the Jewish identity behavior among Conservative Jews remains impressive.

A re-examination of Pew data reveals that 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish. Ninety-three percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives. Ninety percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish.” Eighty-eight percent express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” especially the 56 percent who have visited Israel. Four out of 10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least one time per month. Fifty percent of these Jews are current synagogue members.

Cohen and Werthimer conclude, “it is blindingly clear that so-called liberal [non-Orthodox] Jews are not all the same. … Large gaps open between those raised Conservative and those raised … [in Reform and other Liberal denominations as well as those raised in No Denomination]: when it comes to levels of attachment to Israel, participation in religious life, joining Jewish organizations, and having mostly Jewish friends …”

They observe that “Jews select and remain in a particular denomination because its ethos conforms to their own self-understanding and style of Jewish living. If anything, that tendency has grown over time.” In his new book, Wertheimer’s research confirms that “for the preponderant majority of affiliated Conservative Jews, what they seek is a style of service and a certain ambiance [Traditional and Egalitarian]…. a different balance of tradition and change than in [more Liberal] temples.”

In contrast to other non-Orthodox groups, Wertheimer found that “a significant minority of synagogue members affiliated with Conservative congregations incorporate religious observances into their lives. Significant numbers mark the Sabbath weekly in some way and roughly one third claim they observe kosher laws at home [as compared to 7 percent of Reform Jews]. … Conservative synagogues also tend to include a higher proportion of people who have basic synagogue skills and an understanding of how Judaism works … most apparent in the dozens of congregants found in many Conservative synagogues who are able to lead the Hebrew services, read Torah and chant the Haftorah.”

Third, Pew misleads the reader when it asserts that only 11 percent of “Jewish” young adults (20s and early 30s) currently self-identify as “Conservative.” This misleading number climbs right away to 15 percent once “partially Jewish young adults [not raised exclusively as Jews]” are removed from the calculation. Of the remaining 85 percent, a plurality of these young adults self-identify as “Just Jewish.”

Why? Are they permanently rejecting future synagogue involvement? No. For many this is an issue of “stage of life.” Conservative synagogues have been structured to serve families once children arrive. Yet, even more than in 2000, “non-Orthodox” Jewish young adults are marrying and having children later and later. More than 50 percent in the 25-39 age range currently are single. They are prolonging what sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the “Odyssey Years”: seeking a mate, a career, a community, the start of family, and so forth.

Few of these “non-Orthodox” young men and women as yet self-identify with any denomination. Yet as noted by Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, a substantial number will join Conservative congregations once they marry and do have children and seek a community. “Klal Yisrael” [“Just-Jewish” identity] is part and parcel of the Conservative movement. Conservative Jews serve as the backbone of UJA, AIPAC, Israel Bonds and Jewish communal organizations.

Another misleading claim by Pew pundits is that Conservative Jews are “old” in contrast to Reform Jews being “young.” In fact, the median age of Conservative Jews is 55, Reform Jews 54, and Jews in general 50.

Wertheimer’s data reveal that “in comparing Conservative-raised to Reform-raised individuals in this age group, we find that the former are far more likely to fast on Yom Kippur; twice as likely to belong to a synagogue and to feel being Jewish is very important to them; three times as likely to send their children to day schools; four times as likely to light Shabbat candles usually; and five times as likely to maintain what they regard as a kosher home.”

Here Wertheimer’s new book offers “a bombshell” demographic prediction. “The New American Judaism” assesses that “the positive effects of a Conservative Jewish upbringing are most dramatically evident among the younger population of Jews, those 30 to 44 years old.”
Consequently, Wertheimer points out that “data derived from the Pew study suggest that there may even be a reversal in the numerical decline [of Conservative Judaism’s numbers]. … Looking at the distribution of synagogue members, Conservative-identified Jews lagged behind their Reform counterparts in the population over 55, but among those between 40 and 55, Conservative and Reform are roughly neck and neck, and among those [synagogue members] between 25 and 39, the peak child years, more Conservative Jews are synagogue members.”

The Pew study data needs to be reanalyzed. It must not be permitted to create a false reality upon which communal policy and allocations are misapplied. In actuality, among 2.1 million Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide, 1.2 million are American Jews. These folks comprise 26 percent of America’s “Jews by Religion,” 29 percent of synagogue members. They perform best among all non-Orthodox Jews, based upon all measures of Jewish identity. This is not a sign of “failure” but rather of playing a vital role in support for Israel, and for American Jewish institutional life and future.

This article first appeared as a Times of Israel blog.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D. has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey, since 1979. He served as president of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement and the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and currently directs Mercaz Olami. His books include “It All Begins with A Date: Jewish Concerns About Intermarriage” and “Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.