Let’s merge the Movements: A Not-so-modest proposal

A guestpost from Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

A little more than 130 years ago, at a Cincinnati hotel, a small group of rabbis departed in a huff from the dinner celebrating Hebrew Union College’s first class of ordained American rabbis. There was just too much traif on the menu, and the culinary baccanalia was indicative to them of a Judaism that had just gone too far in an acculturative direction. Shortly thereafter, the Conservative movement was founded. From this point forward, American Judaism would proceed with three very robust and successful movements, with millions of members finding spiritual meaning in three very distinct iterations.

At one point the largest of the three major Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism has experienced a much-reported slump in recent years; as the Pew survey revealed, only 11% of American Jews identify as Conservative Jews.

Equally as troubling are the falling affiliation rates within the Reform movement. A larger and larger number of Jews are choosing to simply not define themselves within a movement, or to eschew organized religion altogether.

Much handwringing has transpired over the Pew Survey’s results. However, no bold proposal has yet to be laid down, at a time when we the American Jewish leaders need to re-evaluate our direction in the 21st century. So let me make one.

Let’s merge Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Why would you say such a thing?

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this. The last well circulated discussion of a merger between the two, however, was less mutual collaboration of like-minded souls, and more a suggested hostile takeover. The rabbi who suggested it back in 2004 assumed that Conservative Judaism was doomed to go the way of the dodo, and essentially offered that C. Jews should convert or die. Not surprisingly, this did not begin a dialogue of brotherhood and mutual cooperation.

But there are a lot of good reasons that the two should merge.

1) It would make American Judaism stronger.

2) We are more theologically and philosophically aligned today than ever before.

3) Although there are some real hurdles, it is absolutely possible, from a practical standpoint.

4) And last, it would be a moment for rebooting, rebranding, and rebirthing that might attract many of the Jews who find themselves alienated and adrift from the organized Jewish community.

Better Living through Unity

The fragmentation of an American Jewish community into different sects is a historical fact for 4000 years. From the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah, to the Pharisees and Sadducees; Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai to Ashkenazi and Sephardi; we have a history of splitting up. Sometimes it’s necessary, and in other times the division weaken us and spells our disaster.

Everyone is trying to read the latest Pew survey to figure out what it means. Many, I might add, seem to be using it to bolster their already well-worn opinions on the bright or bleak future of the American Jew. I am no prophet, nor am I a demographer. But I find it hard to read the Pew survey as good news. American Jews are attending synagogue less than ever before; Jews are becoming members of synagogues less than ever before. The individual synagogue, and the movements to which they belong, have fewer members, less money, and more of an uphill struggle.

Having a unified front of liberal Judaism: Jews that accept the equality of the sexes; that recognize the equal rights of homosexuals to engage in loving and sanctified relationships; that acknowledge that Judaism changes through time; and desire to put God, Torah, and Israel in their lives; would improve our collaboration, our cooperation, and our effectiveness.

When asked why people join their synagogue, there are a variety of reasons. Usually, people respond that it is where they grew up or their parents or grandparents belonged, or that they liked the pre-school, or the rabbi, or that it is the closest to their house. It is fairly rare to find a Jew who chooses a shul solely on the ideology of the shul. Even more to the point: if you asked 100 Reform or Conservative congregants about the core beliefs of their movement, I suspect that no more than 10 would be able to accurately explain what defines their movement as opposed to the others. If Jews are not joining synagogues for ideological reasons, why are we still separating synagogues by ideology?

A merger between Reform and Conservative would allow for a merger of some of their national organizations in such a way that would cut overhead, eliminate redundancy, expand programming and create a larger resource pool, both in capital and in people. A merged United Synagogue and Union of Reform Judaism. A merged Rabbinical Assembly and CCAR. Conservative Judaism would once again have a college campus presence. The Reform movement could have a robust yeshiva and Gap-year program in Israel, and reach into a deep talent pool of Ramah grads with strong Hebrew skills. The UAHC/Ramah Summer camps would cover more kids in more regions with more special activities than ever before.

And the two could collaborate much more effectively on their international programs, not only in Europe and South America but in the place with the most dire need for progressive Judaism: Israel.

We mostly agree; We even agree that it’s ok to disagree

Reform and Conservative ideology has come a long way since 1885. That was the year that the Reform movement’s ‘Pittsburgh Platform’ rejected the belief in a messiah, the need for a state of Israel, and the components of Mosaic law that lacked an ethical or moral component (like abstaining from shellfish and putting on tefillin). Back then, it made perfect sense for a movement that rejected those reforms, but wanted to be more modern and willing to engage in the modern, scientific and academic world.

For the past two decades, however, the Reform movement has come full circle, embracing more traditional observances. While HUC still churns out plenty of rabbis who do not keep kosher, many are traditionally observant, and HUC is ok with that. When I was a kid growing up in a Los Angeles mega-shul and decided to wear a tallit and kippah to Yom Kippur in 1990, I got a lot of strange looks. In my father’s generation, the venerable Rabbi Egdar Magnin would declare ‘Sir, please remove your kippah in this synagogue.’ Those days are long over.

Meanwhile, Conservative Judaism has embraced things once thought unthinkable. Instrumental music in Shabbat services. Women rabbis. Homosexual marriage. But more importantly, the personal practices of Conservative Jews is virtually identical to that of Reform Jews, not counting the rabbis. Most Conservative congregants do not keep kosher or observe Shabbat in the traditional sense; it has long been observed that the biggest difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism isn’t the ideologies but rather the distance in practice between the rabbi and their congregants. Merging would simply acknowledge the status quo- it is hard to tell a Conservative Jew from a Reform one, in terms of practice.

Both movements embrace a ‘big-tent’ Judaism in which a variety of practices within a certain range is perfectly ok. So why not expand both sides of the tent a little? A congregation in which some folks come regularly, and some do not; some are more stringently observant, and some not at all; some Jews engage in text study and Jewish exploration, and some are more interested in social and cultural outlets for their Jewish life. Not only would all of those things be acceptable in a new ‘Liberal’ movement- most of things already are occurring in ever Reform and Conservative synagogue in the US.

Philosophically, it might be best for both movements to embrace the notion that the individual Jew should choose to do the traditional mitzvot, or not. The new movement could have a halachic and non-halachic wing. Or perhaps this is already unnecessary- both Reform and Conservative Jews are encouraged to perform mitzvot. The only real difference is in the nature of what it means to transgress a mitzvah: is a person who violates a commandment repudiating the entire system? Are they in a Rosenzweig-ian state of ‘not yet’ ? Or did they just not do one mitzvah? The Reform movements 1999 ‘Statement of Principles’, calls the performance of mitzvot “the means by which we make our lives holy.” While not ‘binding’, it sure sounds like each and every mitzvah has the potential of being personally relevant and important. The new movement Judaism might do well to adopt some take on this language, rather than assert, as Conservative Judaism has until now, that all mitzvot are ‘binding’ on Jews who, until now, have made no indication that they accept that premise.

Agree or disagree on these matters, both movements would accomplish more tackling these issues together than they would separately.

Can we do it? Yes We Can! (But there are some necessary compromises to work out)

There are clearly a number of questions that would need to be addressed in a merger. How would it affect congregations and rabbis right now? Probably not a lot. Most rabbis and shuls would continue to do many of the same things they already do. In shuls with two or more rabbis, it might affect future hiring more dramatically- synagogues would be more diverse and more able to attract a broader population if it drew rabbis from both sides of the ‘tent’: a Reform and a Conservative.

What would the prayer service look like? Services in some synagogues might change. Synagogues that offer only one kind of service would need an ‘alternative’ minyan, with more English or music, or a ‘traditional’ minyan with more Hebrew. Smaller shuls might have to rotate their services from one week to the next. Many congregations in the US already do some of these things already.

With regard to rabbis performing intermarriages: the new movement would permit rabbis to decide for themselves. Boom. Done. That is the Reform movement policy already, and it looks like Conservative is moving in that direction.

Synagogue kashrut might be a touchy issue. Both movements would have to agree to a compromise. Reform shuls would have to eliminate ‘high treif’- shellfish, pork, mixing meat and milk. Sorry, Temple Sinai of New Orleans, but no more crawfish boils in a merged movement. Formerly-Conservative shuls would need to accept three sets of dishes in their shul kitchens: Kosher milk, Kosher meat, and Kosher-style, with two separate prep areas, strict kosher and kosher-style. For smaller synagogues where kitchens aren’t big enough for this accommodation, they simply keep the kitchens as they are; kosher or not, dairy or meat.

Rabbinical schools wouldn’t have to change at all; HUC, JTS, and AJU could (and ideally, should) keep turning out very different types of rabbis with different skill sets and areas of focus. Congregations would be stronger with a more diverse group of rabbis with very different attitudes towards prayer, Torah, God, and Halacha.

The one sticking point, and it is very large, is the problem of who is a Jew. Reform Judaism holds that one Jewish parent, mother or father, can be Jewish for a child to be considered a Jew. Conservative (like Orthodoxy) has maintained the opinion that a child must have a Jewish mother to be considered a Jew.

I’ll be quite frank in saying I don’t know how to solve this. For the Reform to surrender patrilineal descent would suddenly alienate a significant number of its members; for Conservative to accept Jews of only a Jewish father is a reversal of their halachic view that would be intolerable for many rabbis. Perhaps a compromise could include some kind of ‘affirmation ceremony’, like a conversion, for any child of only one Jewish parent (mother or father). Although this issue is the hardest to solve, the game-changing importance of a merger should encourage us to not allow this difficulty to de-rail the entire endeavor.

A new name for a new era

Both Reform and Conservative are terrible names for movements, and outdated. Starting over together with a new name is a great opportunity to truly clean the cobwebs and develop something that reflects a effort at moving in new direction with a new partner.

Reform Judaism was a kind of cool idea for a name, but really, it has never worked. I don’t think there’s a rabbi in America in any movement who hasn’t nearly lost their mind in the presence of a Jew calling themselves ‘Reformed’. The word Reform, despite the great contributions of Isaac Mayer Wise and Eugene Borowitz in crafting it and defining its parameters, is just a terrible name for a movement, and at this point, it is time to move on. It is a word that implies constant change: something that people, deep down, don’t want out of their religion. It is also a word that implies that the movement IS constantly evolving, which it isn’t. A huge movement like the Reform movement changes slowly and methodically.

Conservative Judaism has always been confused with being a political label, or a term that describes a lack of desire to be interesting, contemporary or innovative, i.e. “we can’t do something radical or out-of-the-box… we’re C(c)onservative!” What a terrible tag to hang on your synagogue. And yes, for those in the know, it stands for a lot more than that. But if you are trying to draw an unaffiliated 20 or 30-something Jew through the door, the name is certainly not value-added. More than a few people have suggested a name change already, such as Covenantal Judaism. That’s not bad, but very specific in its theological implications.

I like ‘Liberal Judaism’ for the new movement. Or perhaps ‘Progressive Judaism’. Both are already used as place-holders for the two non-orthodox movements, so just merge them and make it official. A new name would bring new people in who had written off the old movements because they thought they knew them. A new name might better describe the movement. And a new name would be an opportunity to truly go in a new direction.

Perhaps I am misreading the Pew survey, and Jewish movements are doing just fine. Or perhaps I am mistaken and the Conservative and Reform movements are only in need of some minor tweaks in order to restore their former glories. But I see two strong movements with more in common than the things that separate them, with a chance to build on each others successes and create a stronger movement that would be in the best interests of Judaism. I say let’s merge. We could even throw another banquet. We might want three sets of dishes this time, though.

25 Responses to “Let’s merge the Movements: A Not-so-modest proposal”

  1. Wow, a Jewschool post I agree with. Sort of like the Lusitania coming to the rescue of the Titanic.

    As for the patrilineal bit-the conservatives will cave.

    One very small quibble. There are conservative and reform congregations in Canada and the term ‘Kosher-style’ is actually illegal for foods sold in Canada-so it might be a problem (might not)


    Dave Boxthorn · December 17th, 2013 at 10:19 am
  2. The Pew results are meaningless because the study defines Jews who consider themselves as non-religious as non-Jews. Because of this, the study can easily be interpreted in the opposite manner to mean that American Jewry is strong, varied, and growing.

    Reform Judaism is also growing, on the same terms as above. It has no need to merge with any other movement. The entire issue here is the decline of Conservative Judaism. It’s up to that movement to address its own problems.


    Michael Benami Doyle · December 17th, 2013 at 11:39 am
  3. Michael Benami Doyle writes:
    The Pew results are meaningless because the study defines Jews who consider themselves as non-religious as non-Jews.

    No, it doesn’t. The study distinguishes among Jews by religion, Jews of no religion, and non-Jews.

    (The second category is people who said “none” to “What is your religion?”, and then “yes” to “Do you consider yourself Jewish?”)


    BZ · December 17th, 2013 at 4:21 pm
  4. [...] this first: Let’s Merge the Movements for [...]


    A Response from a Reform Rabbinical Student: Let’s Merge the Movements | A Pirate Studying Torah · December 17th, 2013 at 5:54 pm
  5. BZ,

    Please bring out the value of a large denominational/institutional movement, like Reform/Conservative/Orthodox in today’s world.

    Or, perhaps, why shouldn’t Judaism devolve to the individual community/congregation/shul and the home, where I would argue it largely spent the better part of this longest exile.


    Victor · December 17th, 2013 at 9:09 pm
  6. Me? Why me?


    BZ · December 17th, 2013 at 9:35 pm
  7. Perhaps I’ll write that post defending denominational movements, but, for now, I’ll focus on this piece. The discussions on merging denominations always seems to lose track of the problems and benefits.

    Just to go through the 4 main points of the post:
    1) It would make American Judaism stronger.
    The benefits come down to managerial inefficiencies of having multiple denominations, but there is no reason to believe that one super organization will be any more efficient. A super-organization with many constituencies with different goals might very well be less efficient.
    It’s also worth noting that the non-Orthodox denominations already collaborate a lot and are building more collaborations. I don’t see how formally merging would be required to increase collaborations even more. Most of your examples regarding Ramah alumni, college groups, etc are possible or are happening today. There are ways to increase awareness in Reform congregations about the Conservative Yeshiva and gap year in Israel programs, but these doors are already open.

    2) We are more theologically and philosophically aligned today than ever before.
    3) Although there are some real hurdles, it is absolutely possible, from a practical standpoint.

    There are still major differences. You say that more synagogue attendees couldn’t tell main principles of their movements, but I’ll make a bet if you place most of them in a synagogue service, they’ll be able to tell fairly quickly if it’s Reform or Conservative. Conversion, conducting intermarriage, and patralineal descent are still huge differences that simply can’t be brushed over by saying they’re close enough now. They aren’t that close now and I strongly doubt they’re getting much closer.

    More importantly, for all the places these Jewish communities can invest there time and effort, the amount of time, energy, and money to just not hash out these philosophical differences, but also merge organizations would be immense. For that much work, I just don’t see the payoff. If the two movements think they can collaborate to create real interdenominational youth education resources or Israel gap year programs, that’s wonderful, but it simply doesn’t require a full movement merger.

    4) And last, it would be a moment for rebooting, rebranding, and rebirthing that might attract many of the Jews who find themselves alienated and adrift from the organized Jewish community.

    Rebranding is overrated. If these organizations are doing things that interest people, they’ll attract people. If they’re not, they won’t. A merger won’t change that.


    Dan Ab · December 17th, 2013 at 10:09 pm
  8. Well, since you asked, I’ll weigh in. Yes, I agree with Victor on some level, but as long as large denominational/institutional movements are going to exist, I largely agree with this post (and therefore with Boxthorn – is mashiach at hand?).

    But I agree for somewhat different reasons. For me the point isn’t the increasing similarities between the two movements, but the differences, which I see as a feature, not a bug. Among the reasons I’ve heard for why denominational institutions should continue to exist, none of the ones that I find cogent depend at all on unity of religious ideology or practice.

    Merging the existing movements would result at first in a bimodal distribution of communal practice, but precisely because the two poles are different, I think over time this would lead to wider diversity (and giving voice to the diversity that already exists in both movements). And I would hope that this diversity would express itself in a more nuanced way than “halachic and non-halachic”. I agree that offering multiple prayer services under the same roof is a plus (and eventually, the multiple options need not resemble the current “Reform” and “Conservative” standards).

    However, I don’t see any need for forced compromise (on kashrut or anything else) at the local level. Individual congregations could continue in their current practice. I don’t think individual congregations would need to change much of anything. Overall kashrut standards would only be an issue at national meetings.

    Similarly, there’s no need for unity on “who is a Jew”; individual congregations could set their own policies (in the same way that the Conservative movement currently doesn’t have a uniform standard on gender egalitarianism, and the Reform movement doesn’t have a uniform standard on the requirements for conversion).


    BZ · December 17th, 2013 at 10:09 pm
  9. It looks like BZ and I were writing at the same time. I don’t think we’re as far apart as it might seem at first glance. I think a denomination as a a cluster of organizations and practitioners with a distinct perspective is perfectly fine to keep on existing, but more effort can be made to merge organizations which would be strengthened by multi-denominational or non-denominational commonalities.
    A merger of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College makes as much sense as a merger of JTS and American Jewish University. On the other hand, is there an unmet need for more/better institutions focused on supporting non-day school Jewish education through training, resource sharing, grants, and consulting? Probably. Does it need to fit within a single denomination? Probably not.
    I think the tension of denominations pulling in different ways, but being willing to actively collaborate and institution-build together whenever it makes sense is another way to get to the goal of a wider and more nuanced diversity. As long as denominations are willing to internally improve, adapt, and collaborate, I see no reason why the radical and costly step of an movement merger is necessary.

    As a semi-aside, I think the “who is a Jew’ discussion does benefit from movements. Whatever the current mess of this issue is now, at least, when someone converts within a movement, they know where they will be accepted as a Jew. Saying “who is a Jew” is left to individual congregations means that every convert will need to be queried about conversion specifics every time they try to join a new community and potentially undergo repeated conversions. This sounds disastrous to me.


    Dan Ab · December 17th, 2013 at 11:06 pm
  10. I write as a member of the Masorti stream in a truly pluralist congregation www.emanuel.org.au which has Reform, Masorti and Renewal streams and rabbinic leadership. I have experience of pluralist jewish community building for over 20 years since our masorti minyan, the first in Australia, was founded. Pluralism is about recognising, honouring and even accentuating difference, while also valuing our intrinsic unity as Jews. Simple minded ideas such as these will only divide our people, for the more traditional elements of Conservative/Masorti in the US and around the world would surely rebel against it. As we should….

    The whole basis of the piece is flawed. 40% of Reform rabbis in the US will officiate at mixed marriages. 40%. Of course, none will in other countries, particularly Israel. Patriarchal descent is advocated in the US. It is by and large accepted in Australian Reform as well. It is not in other countries, particularly Israel. The list is endless. the suggestion is not only wrong, it is, my view, fundamentally dishonest. I wish American Jewry of all streams (a more appropriate word than denominations) would stop being so parochial in their approach to the future. Masorti has a big future around the world, and it is perhaps time that Conservative merged with it!!!


    eric lundberfg · December 18th, 2013 at 12:10 am
  11. @BZ

    I’m sorry, I thought I had read your name as the author of the piece. Of course, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the author. I’m having a fun time imagining your surprise at being asked such a thing out of the blue. My apologies.

    @Dan Ab

    If you’re up for it, I would like to read a post offering the advantages of denominational movements to a devolutionary approach, especially in today’s world. Perhaps you (or BZ, feel free to jump right in on the Reform side) could discuss why denominational movements, as institutions, were first created to begin with.

    I think the point you make about “who is a Jew” is not really resolved by denominational “blanket” definitions, which are presumably unenforceable on a membership that is encouraged to hold a spectrum of belief. For example, I’ve met Conservative Jews (at a Matisyahu concert) who (despite my beard, open tzitzis and a head covering) were in full agreement among themselves that I wasn’t a real Jew because I couldn’t reply to them in Hebrew, matrilineal descent be damned. I’ve also known Reform Jews who believe, strongly, that no one can convert to Judaism, and that any such “converts” are not to be trusted or considered to be Jews (and really only converted to “steal” – i.e. marry – Jewish boys and girls). So, I think it’s fair to say there is incredible diversity/confusion among the membership of these movements as to what they (should?) believe.

    But perhaps you could elaborate on this point if you end up writing the piece.

    I don’t mean to distract from the main point of the piece, which is advocacy for the merging of Reform and Conservative. I happen to find the question of “denominationalism” more interesting, in today’s age, but we can take that discussion to the comments of whoever writes that piece. (Do it, Dan Ab!)


    Victor · December 18th, 2013 at 12:48 am
  12. Not gonna happen unless/until USCJ is about to declare bankruptcy and there is nothing to lose. Leaders/staff of both R and C national organizations have vested interested (i.e. keeping their jobs) in not merging. Congregations will likely merge on their own.

    But even mergers at local level still won’t help. R and C have done a reasonable job of providing synagogue affiliation for Jews who still have some attachment to Judaism, but have failed to transmit an imperative for living a Jewish life that is distinct from non-Jewish life (i.e. Shabbat, Kashrut, the things that make Judaism different from liberal, progressive politics and Christianity). The vast majority of R and C members want nothing to do with living such a Jewish life, and use Judaism as a demographic proxy for their political beliefs. Sad, but true.

    No amount of investment in youth programming by Rabbi Rick Jacobs will fix it either. Youth will not be “converted” to a life of more ritual mitzvot because their families and peers have no interest in it either. “Do as I say and not as I do” doesn’t work very well. And any rhetorical logic and factual education promoting being meaningfully distinct from non-Jews cannot overcome the lack of emotional attachment to ritual and identity in families and the social conformity of peer pressure.

    Non-orthodox Judaism is not doomed to disappear, but rather to become irrelevant. Even in Israel, it is pursued almost entirely by olim, not native Israelis. Any uptick in Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is temporary, transient, and will not outpace the population growth of kinder, gentler Religious Zionism / Modern Orthodoxy and the Charedi world populations.


    Rob · December 18th, 2013 at 1:06 pm
  13. The Reform and Conservative movements are not “strong.” Both have committed cores of lay and rabbinic leadership, but have been consistently hemorrhaging members for the past 30 years, largely due to rampant assimilation and intermarriage among their memberships.

    The way to fix the two movements is not to merge into one big movement that allows different rabbis and synagogues to address complicated questions about intermarriage and the role of non-Jews on their own. (Such a proposal would inevitably result in many Conservative rabbis being pressured to relax their standards, and would prompt few Reform rabbis to move in the opposite direction.) Such a proposal would amount to rearranging the seats on the Titanic. The combined “Liberal” movement would continue to steadily bleed members, at as fast or faster a rate as the Reform and Conservative movements are currently shrinking.

    The real solution is to follow the suggestions of HUC sociologist Steve Cohen, who urges the liberal movements to recognize and confront the challenges posed by intermarriage and assimilation. According to Cohen’s research, the best way for the Jewish community to prevent intermarriage and assimilation is by investing in day schools, as well as in youth groups, summer camps, Birthright, and youth Israel experiences. Instead of continuing to invest large amounts of money, time, and focus on “outreach” to intermarried families, the movements should focus on instilling commitment and promoting meaningful Jewish experiences for young people who still have not decided what role Judaism will play in their lives.

    The Conservative movement may be in a better position to adopt Cohen’s proposals, because it has maintained a harder line on intermarriage, and has not traveled as far down the “outreach” dead end. However the Reform movement has growing summer camps and Israel programs, and a strong network of youth groups, and still could adopt many of Cohen’s recommendations.


    Daniel · December 18th, 2013 at 2:45 pm
  14. @Victor, As I said & you note, conversion and “who is a Jew” is currently a mess, but I think the denominations make it a bit less of a mess than it would otherwise be. As an example, the Conservative movement’s rabbis are in the Rabbinical Assembly. If someone works on conversation with an RA rabbi, stands before a Beit Din of RA rabbis, and if that Beit Din deems them Jewish, then they can walk into any Conservative (and probably any Reform or Reconstructionist) synagogue and be considered Jewish. The Rabbinical Assembly is essentially vouching that a conversion conducted by its members includes certain steps. Individuals might argue about various aspects of the process, but the institutionalization smooths things out. If that institutionalization goes away then every time a convert joins a new community, the religious leader will have to query everything about the conversion process.


    Dan Ab · December 18th, 2013 at 5:54 pm
  15. @Daniel, Membership has been declining in the Reform & Conservative movements, but there is surprisingly little data showing the causes of the decline. The rise of nondenominationalism makes it hard to put a percentage on the effects of assimilation/intermarriage.

    If those are Steven Cohen’s positions, they are so horribly wrong that they’re depressing to read. I don’t know enough about the Reform movement, but the Conservative movement does invest massively in day schools, summer camps (Ramah), and youth groups (USY). This has been an utter failure for the movement. The shift from focusing supplemental programs to day schools has been extremely expensive while the movement has failed to convince more than a small fraction of Conservative families to abandon public schools and send their children to day schools. Ramah camps are great, but also only get a fraction of the kids in the movement. That means 4/5 of Conservative children aren’t getting their formal education in the programs that the movement is pushing most of it’s resources. If one is looking for possible failure points, that’s a good place to start.

    Ironically, while the Conservative movement talks a lot about outreach and interfaith families, it has invested very few resources into either. Besides a few meetings and position papers, what money is the Conservative movement investing in intermarriage. For outreach in general, the Orthodox world (e.g. Chabad & Aish Ha’Torah) immensely dwarf Conservative kiruv spending.


    Dan Ab · December 19th, 2013 at 12:37 am
  16. One big mistake, which might have been a typo. According to the study 18% of Jews are Conservative (p. 48). You might have accidentally quoted the figure on the next page where 11% of 18-29 year olds are Conservative. This is actually a thing and not just a quibble. The Orthodox community, which has been taking a number of victory laps because of the study, comprises 10% of the Jewish population. Despite their serious demographic advantage over other communities, this percentage has remained steady since the beginning of the 20th century. (yes, the beginning of the twentieth century) This means that the Orthodox movement is bleeding folks far faster than the other movements. This, actually, is not a surprise on the Orthodox street. Despite protestations to the contrary by the official mouthpieces of Orthodox Judaism, it is a known fact that lots of folks leave every branch of Orthodox Judaism, from Hareidi to MO. There is even an organization (“Footsteps”) that helps folks who are leaving the Hareidi/Hassidische world.
    So, it is way too early to write the obituary of any movement. The PEW poll is interesting for many things, but should not be the basis for sweeping policy changes.


    Aryeh Cohen · December 19th, 2013 at 1:37 am
  17. IMO the intermarriage and “who is a Jew” questions may be insurmountable obstacles to this proposal. The Reform and Conservative movements simply hold incompatible views on the topics. Serious Conservative rabbis won’t be willing to compromise their standards, and serious Reform rabbis won’t be willing to drop theirs from the other direction.

    Also why would Reform synagogues relinquish their autonomy in areas like kashrut and opt for stricter standards?

    The above is mostly about policy. But I think there’s a more fundamental issue that haunts both movements, and that’s “Why bother?” IOW I just don’t get the feeling that your average Reform/Conservative shul out there is giving serious answers to the existential questions that are at the heart of the religious quest.

    If a religious organization lacks such answers (or even such questions….) in what sense does it have religious value?

    Rabbi Goodman writes: “Even more to the point: if you asked 100 Reform or Conservative congregants about the core beliefs of their movement, I suspect that no more than 10 would be able to accurately explain what defines their movement as opposed to the others.”

    Well here’s a question: Can R and C rabbis explain what their core beliefs are about and why those beliefs are substantive? Can they explain what makes Judaism a serious existential system and not a Hebrew-tinged weekly social club with a taste for “tikkun olam”?

    B/c if 90% of the R and C congregants can’t even explain the basics, it makes me think that alot of their rabbis and teachers also aren’t explaining. And maybe they honestly don’t know.

    Bottom line from my POV: Administrative solutions can address administrative problems. But institutional reorganization isn’t adequate to fill a spiritual/intellectual/existential hole.


    Eric · December 20th, 2013 at 12:52 am
  18. I like Dave B’s analogy of the Lusitania coming to the aid of the Titanic. (I would have chosen K-Mart merging with Sears.) The point is that both movements are shrinking, failing to attract new congregants. How will merely merging the two create a new, vibrant movement that will attract members?

    Even if most of the halachic differences could be papered over, what is the net gain to congregants on either side? Jews, especially young Jews, will ask themselves, “what’s in it for me?” and will not find an answer.


    Meir Levy · December 21st, 2013 at 1:16 pm
  19. As some of you know, I’m neither reform or conservative, but I will say this: at the turn of the last century, the “orthodox” or more traditional movements in Jewry were facing attrition rates that make current trends look like statistical hickups. We had millions of formerly observant central and eastern european Jews submerge into the American cultural meatgrinder, by design, as assimilation (in which intermarriage with WASP culture was key) was the goal, never again to return to Jewish life.

    The “orthodox” didn’t panic, didn’t alter core beliefs to attract followers, didn’t merge with anyone… Instead, and this took a good 50 years, they built firewalls, yes, but also underwent a philosophical revolution for how to merge modernity and faith, for how to live as an observant Jew and still particulate in the wider culture, and even to influence that culture. The fruits of that work are seen today. And, by the way, it’s not all rose petals as some of the previous commenters have made seem, but that’s a separate issue.

    It seems to me the reform and conservative movements are outrageously successful if you judge them against the core philosophies that brought them into being more than a century ago. It is the natural extension of their success that they have made themselves increasingly less relevant in the lives of American Jewry. Assimilation, intermarriage, loss of affiliation… These are not bugs in design, they are features, implanted in the heart of these movements by painstaking design. They should be recognized as such. Perhaps, however, the modern age calls for a new set of philosophies.


    Victor · December 22nd, 2013 at 2:32 pm
  20. Participate, not particulate. Still getting used to my new keyboard’s autocorrect.


    Victor · December 22nd, 2013 at 2:43 pm
  21. Victor writes:
    Assimilation, intermarriage, loss of affiliation… These are not bugs in design, they are features, implanted in the heart of these movements by painstaking design.

    I don’t think I understand what you mean. Assimilation, etc., were what the liberal movements were responding to. In fact, I would describe their original goals the same way you describe the modern goals of Orthodoxy: “for how to merge modernity and faith, for how to live as an observant Jew and still particulate in the wider culture, and even to influence that culture.” (Of course, the movements differ on what “observant” means.)


    BZ · December 24th, 2013 at 4:34 pm
  22. BZ,

    Far from grappling with assimilation, I think the reform and conservative movements’ primary driver at the turn of the last century was anti-semitism. I will posit that, in America, assimilation – a process of deliberate counter-differentiation with the prevalent culture – was seen as the antidote to the hatred. (In Europe, conversion was the preferred antidote.) I am not making a moral judgement here, simply relating the situation as I believe it was, and speaking in the general sense, of course.

    And by assimilation, I mean a process of relegating as much of the distinguishing features of the Jewish faith and tradition to irrelevancy as one’s membership and conscience could stomach in that generation, as publicly as possible.

    I am not a student of the Reform movement’s history, so perhaps you’ll correct me, but I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform, and believe nothing I’ve stated above deviates from that platform’s primary aims. If memory serves, it wasn’t another 40 years until another platform was adopted.

    As for the conservative movement, I’m familiar with Solomon Schechter’s “The Catholic Israel”, which, if I remember correctly, and it’s been a few years, called the continued belief, application and practice of mosaic law illegal, immoral, and impossible.

    Thus, when I write that, “Assimilation, intermarriage, loss of affiliation… These are not bugs in design, they are features, implanted in the heart of these movements by painstaking design,” I don’t see myself engaging in hyperbole or distortion. Insert disagreement here.

    The Reform movement’s most recent platform (from 1999?) is document far removed, intellectually and spiritually, from the Pittsburgh Platform, true. But we’re talking about making (significant, but still small) course corrections against a century of institutional momentum. And part of the question, which I raised above, is whether enough Reform Jews (the product of that momentum) even know what the platform is anymore, what it means, or why they should take time out from “Duck Hunt” to care… because their WASP neighbors certainly won’t miss Duck Hunt, and neither will they, which is a kind of success, if you think about it.

    Just to be clear, nothing I’m writing here should be taken as advocacy for or glorification of orthodoxy, or chassidism. That’s a completely separate bag of beans, in my mind.


    Victor · December 24th, 2013 at 8:14 pm
  23. I am not a student of the Reform movement’s history, so perhaps you’ll correct me, but I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform, and believe nothing I’ve stated above deviates from that platform’s primary aims.

    This is not correct. People whose primary goal was assimilation became secular (or Christian). The 19th-century Reform movement responded to this trend by providing a way for people to remain religious Jews.


    BZ · December 25th, 2013 at 1:13 am
  24. Enough with the small talk. Let’s get the intermarried lesbian rabbis from the various movements (I’d add ‘Open Orthodoxy’ to that mix) together to get things going. Reconstructionist, renewal, you too. It think it should start with the women first.


    Dave Boxthorn · December 30th, 2013 at 8:36 pm
  25. Actually, I realized that what I wrote in the above comment was basically something I already wrote 5 years earlier.


    BZ · March 27th, 2014 at 8:02 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik