Dear Young Conservative Jews who are upset with your movement and feel abandoned, fear the death of it, or are trying to somehow assign blame for the imminent death of your movement:
I understand your problem. Really, I do. You see, I grew up in a family that identified as “stalwartly left-wing Modern Orthodox” at a time when most people thought Modern Orthodoxy to be on its way out as a movement. They called it unsustainable. I grew up with the knowledge that I might enter high school, and, later, college, as one of the few remaining people who shared my theology. The friends I grew up with all seemed to have moved either to the further right, choosing to attend same-sex middle and high schools, or to the left, to their Conservative roots. At the time, those to the religious right and left (centrist Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism, respectively) seemed to be the future of Judaism.
Now, it seems, the tables have turned: instead of the movement of my childhood dying, it’s yours. Young Jews, looking for a forum for expressing their Judaism in a way that they feel is more committed, turn to tradition and observance. And I understand that the idea of choosing to leave Conservative Judaism is scary for you, because it represents a whole new community with a completely different approach to the study of Jewish texts.
At the same time, however, I feel that I currently live in the void that seems to be filled by the same young Conservative Jews who are writing about the death of their movement. While those around me might have since moved farther to the religious right, I did not. I grew up in a world where both women and men worked, where I studied Jewish texts alongside female classmates, and was exposed to the outside world, a world with values of egalitarianism and equality. I was taught that Judaism wanted me to emulate those values. I wanted to study Judaism academically, and understand not just the Orthodox standpoint on issues that mattered to me, but the pluralistic standpoint. In terms of practices, however, I’ve maintained many of the practices of my youth: I still keep Shabbat, still eat kosher foods, and am still committed to the study of Jewish texts.
Ultimately, the desire to study Judaism in an academic way was what drove me to choose the college program I did. At the same time, however, I’m studying at the hallmark institution of Conservative Judaism—the Jewish Theological Seminary. In so doing, I’ve also found a community whose sole goal is, it seems, to carry on a movement that many herald as dying. And in so doing, I’ve come across those same young Jews who are all committed to their Judaism and to the modernity that Conservative Judaism represents: egalitarianism, an emphasis on social justice, acceptance of previously excluded groups (the LGBTQ community and women come readily to mind).
I chose JTS because I wanted to find the same things for which you are also searching. I wanted to find a community that is pluralistic and progressive in looking forward, but respectful and knowledgeable in looking back.
So, young Conservative Jews: let’s talk. There is a wide, grey area between Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. Let’s create our own movement. Let’s combine forces, and create a movement that is committed to the study of traditional texts, traditional observance, and modernity. Let’s realign our stances, and work to create a Jewish world that is more hospitable to those looking for the exact same things as we are: a community where progressive, egalitarian virtues are extolled, but, at the same time, so is a commitment to Jewish history, historical Jewish texts, and traditional observance. Let this be a call not just to explain why the Conservative Movement is dying, but to make it the movement in which you grew up and the movement that so many other young, committed Jews are trying to find. Let’s work from both sides of that grey area between Modern Orthodoxy and Traditional Conservatism to create a space where we can both feel comfortable, and share that space with those who are looking for the same.
Instead of talking about the death of a movement, let’s start taking about redefining the movement.
A young, Modern Orthodox Jew who is, in reality, committed to the same things you are
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.