The Big

The prognosis isn’t good for the Jewish movement that isn’t Reform and isn’t Orthodox. So how about a second opinion?
by David Holzel

Conservative Judaism has a problem. And it’s much worse than declining membership, rising intermarriage rates, lax Jewish observance, fuzzy ideological focus, a rift over homosexuality, interminably long services, malaise, fatigue, dysphoria, dyspepsia, overage charges and stretch marks. Not to mention uncomfortable seating.

These are, I believe, merely symptoms of what really ails the Conservative movement. That sprawling piece of Jewish real estate between Reform and Orthodoxy has lived with this chronic condition since it was founded as America’s first homegrown version of Judaism in the 1880s.

And like anyone living with a chronic ailment, it has a tendency to kvetch, to bore others with a litany of its latest aches and pains, and fear the worst while somehow operating synagogues, camps, day schools and a couple of seminaries.

Lately, Conservative Judaism has given itself a thorough physical and come up with a grim diagnosis. The prolific and rather handsome Conservative rabbi David Wolpe hit the nail on the head in his recent “A Manifesto for the Future.
Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, asked “colleagues, friends and congregants to define Conservative Judaism in one sentence. It was a dispiriting experience. Some had no answer at all. Others found themselves entangled in paragraphs, subclauses and a forest of semicolons. Sensible people began to sound like textbooks.”

Like most Jews who try construction work or even everyday home repairs, Wolpe may have hit the nail on the head, but he also left stray hammer marks and splintered semicolons all over the floor.

Rabbi Wolpe

This is the treatment he suggests for the patient:

When I reflect upon the beliefs with which I was raised and how I have grown in my faith, I realize that the word “Conservative” does not best fit who I am and what I believe.

I am a Covenantal Jew.


Covenantal? That’s way worse than “Conservative.” At least Conservative is a noun. It sounds like a real word. “Covenental” takes a noun and adjectivizes it, rendering it fit for mission statements, annual reports and anything else you don’t want people to understand. But certainly not something you want to say out loud.

With a straight face.

How about a second opinion?

A second opinion

For that, we turn to Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, of Shelter Rock Jewish Center in New York. Rabbi Cohen put it most succinctly when he wrote:

My personal dream would be to see a return to the twin core values that characterized the movement at its inception: an unwavering commitment to spiritual and intellectual integrity, and an equally firm commitment to the kind of halakhic growth that is as organic as it is wholly faithful to the principles of halakhic development (i.e., and not merely a pretext for doing whatever seems expedient or politically useful at any given moment.) Like sailors so paralyzed by the fear both of Scylla and Charybdis that they forget that their journey actually has a destination (and that the point of undertaking the journey in the first place was not simply to avoid meeting with disaster along the way), we have allowed our detractors on both the left and the right to occupy our attention (and, thus, to set our course for us). More often than not, we seem somehow to have forgotten that our journey too has an actual destination, and the point of undertaking this journey is not (and was never supposed to be) merely to avoid the opprobrium of others with their own agendas, their own philosophical stances and theological outlooks, and their own rational or irrational beliefs about the “true” nature of halakha. We need to become who we are and then to move on to becoming who we can and should be, not simply allow ourselves to be content with being who others are not.

This is far easier said than done.


Not necessarily.

If we now have irrefutable proof of anything about the Conservative movement, it is that is tone deaf.

Worse, it can’t lip sync.

Wolpe is right when he implies that Conservative is a terrible name. It sounds like a placeholder. The guy who came up with the movement’s original ideas called them “Positive Historical Judaism.” So it’s clear that even a desperate B-list choice like "Conservative" must have been seen at the time as a positive historical improvement.
The trouble is not just that most Conservative Jews can’t explain what Conservative Judaism is. It’s also that most aren’t even conservative. No wonder everyone is confused and sensible people are talking like textbooks.

Think Orthodox, and a flood of stereotypes immediately come to mind. Black hats. Tzitzit. Beards. Long dresses. Wigs. Sometimes even on the same woman.

Rabbi Wolpe

The same with Reform. Classical Reform is organ Reform, bareheaded Reform, rabbis mispronouncing Hebrew Reform. Contemporary Reform is guitar Reform, kippa-and-tallit-wearing-women Reform, “Rabbi First Name” Reform.

Conservative Judaism is...what? It is usually defined by what it isn’t – No charisma. No star power. No buzz.

Neil Diamond and Kenny G.

Try this experiment. Well, it’s a game, actually. It’s called “Who would belong to a Conservative Synagogue?”

Of the Three Stooges:
Moe would be Orthodox.
Curly, Reform.
And Larry? Conservative.

Now, the Marx Brothers. Even Zeppo wouldn’t be the Conservative Jew. Gummo would. Gummo.

Great Jewish songwriters of our time: Bob Dylan–Orthodox. Paul Simon–Reform. Neil Diamond–Conservative.

One more. Saxophonists.
Coleman Hawkins–Orthodox. Charlie Parker–Reform. Kenny G.–Conservative.

What it will take to save this patient is obvious. Marketing. Slick, expensive, clever, irresistible marketing.

If Target can rebrand itself and go from tacky, tacky, tacky to a store every upper-middle-class person must enter once a week at least, the Conservative movement certainly can, too.

Rabbi Wolpe

Let’s begin by renaming the brand. This name will go on every product the movement offers, be it synagogue, camp or school.

One thing we don’t want to do is point to the difference between the Jewish movement and the identically named movement of George W. Bush and Tony Danza. Referring to us as “The Big C” is not going to put things in a more attractive light.

We could follow the Kentucky Fried Chicken paradigm, and reduce Conservative Judaism to its initials, thereby removing information about the product that could discourage consumers. That gives us CJ. Or CeeJay.

The movement could embrace its inner middle-of-the-roadness with a name like MOR Judaism. "MOR Judaism. It isn’t less Judaism." "Mor" is also Hebrew for "myrrh," giving the concept an automatic visual tie-in.

For more bad news about Conservative Judaism, click here.

  Now we're warming up. Once you start brainstorming, you wonder why nobody tried this years ago:

How about “J-One.” Simple. Straightforward. Confident.

Or, “Condenoxx” – reflecting the messages of “Conservative,” “denomination,” and the ox on which, depending whose it is, everything rests when it is gored.

JudaSystems     MonotheTech     Emetation     Godway     AleiNew     ShulBrief     UniShema     Jewvoxx     Consequentia     Value House     Syntastic     Bimastein’s Star1     MetaSyn     Nefeshtek     Asynmetry     Ivristar     Shir Delight     Rabbiotics     JewSolutions     Shalomation     Jewture     Jewmora     iGod

I envision a brand mascot. And a television cartoon adventure series tied-in to a line of super hero toys. Select locations would offer, in addition to a sanctuary, a religious school, a library and whatnot, a coffee bar, called Jacob’s Latte.

These are the hard decisions the movement ought to be making. Doing so will eliminate the fundamental problem that has plagued the Conservative Judaism from the start. And the time to do it is now.

Before any more semicolons are lost.

Copyright © 2006 by David Holzel

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First the Bad News
There are more than 700 Conservative congregations, with more than 1.5 million members.

That's good!

No, that's bad. In 1990, the Conservative movement represented 43 percent of the American Jews who belonged to a synagogue, according to that year's National Jewish Population Survey.

That's good.

No, it's bad. In the 2000 survey, the Conservatives were down to 33 percent.

Meanwhile, those who identified themselves as Reform rose from 35 percent to 39 percent, and Orthodoxy grew from 16 percent to 21 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose from 2 percent to 3 percent.

That's only 96 percent.

That's bad. The survey also revealed that a whopping 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement whatsoever.

That's good!

No, that's bad. It means that a full 56 percent of Jews, only a majority, align with some movement.

I see what you mean. That's bad.