The Conservative Movement in Judaism

Dilemmas and Opportunities

By Daniel J. Elazar & Rela Mintz Geffen

Subjects: Religion
Series: SUNY series in American Jewish Society in the 1990s
Paperback : 9780791446904, 256 pages, September 2000
Hardcover : 9780791446898, 256 pages, September 2000

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Table of contents


Introduction: Conservative Judaism: Past and Future

The Conservative Achievement
Confronting Difficult Issues
Methodology of This Study
Looking Toward the Future

Part I: The State of the Movement

1. A History of Ambivalence

A Reluctant Separation
The Movement As a Party
From Party to Camp?

2. Institutions

The Changing Position of the Seminary
The Congregational Heart of the Movement
The Variety of Congregational Models
A Note on Youth Movements
New Institutions Emerge
The Ramah Camps
The Havurot
The Solomon Schechter Schools

3. Ideology and Theology

God, Torah, and Israel
Shifts and Stages
Benchmarks and Boundaries

4. Style

Sephardim and Litvaks
Elite and Mass
Rabbinical Preeminence
Religious Observance

5. Demographics

Concentric Circles of Jewishness
Decline in the Fourth Generation
Orthodoxy Resurgent
The Changing Family
A Note on Regionalism in the Conservative Movement

6. Leadership

In the Movement
In the Congregations
In the Jewish World
Voluntary Leadership in the Existing Institutional Framework

7. The World Movement

The New Context of World Jewry
The Scope of the World Conservative/Masorti Movement
The Movement in Israel
A Missed Direction
A New Partnership

8. What the Movement’s Leadership Seeks

Raising the Halakhic Profile
Enhancing Conservative Intellectual Life
Addressing the Spiritual Needs of Conservative Jews
The Communal Approach
The Zionist Approach

Part II: Next Steps

9. Ideology, Halakhah, and a Broadened Base

The Need for Ideological Clarification
Fostering a More Serious Halakhic Movement
Broadening the Base
Confronting the Demographic Challenge
Building a Real World Movement
Building a Masorti Movement in Israel
Is Conservative Judaism Best Served through a Single Movement or a Multi-Movement Community?
Links to the Jewish People

10. Internal Unity

From Congregationalism to Community
Reducing the Gap between the Circles
Integrating the Movement’s Parts into a Whole
Broadening the Leadership
The Role of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Strengthening Rabbinic Leadership
Learning from History: A Summary and Final Word




Illustrates how the American Conservative Movement in Judaism can continue to prosper amidst ideological and institutional challenges.


Viewing the Conservative Movement at a turning point, this book analyzes the problems facing the religious movement with the largest synagogue membership in the American Jewish community and outlines a plan of action for the future. Elazar and Geffen suggest: clarifying ideology, mission, and purpose, finding the right balance between traditionalists and advocates of change, unifying movement institutions in a cooperative effort, staunching the decline of membership to the left, recapturing the loyalty of lapsed adherents, closing the gap in observance between the laity and the standard bearers of the movement, developing the Movement in Israel and world-wide, and strengthening ties with Jewish federations and other Jewish communal bodies. The authors propose that the Conservative Movement's remedying of these problems will benefit not just American, but all world Jewry.

Daniel J. Elazar was the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor Emeritus of Intergovernmental Relations at Bar-Ilan University. He was the author and editor of more than seventy books, including, with coauthor Harold M. Waller, the National Jewish Book Award Winner Maintaining Consensus: The Canadian Jewish Polity in the Postwar World. Rela Mintz Geffen is Professor of Sociology at Gratz College. She is the editor of several books including Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, and with Marsha Bryan Edelman, Freedom and Responsibility: Exploring the Dilemmas of Jewish Continuity.


"This account of the present and prospects on Conservative Judaism realizes the promise of the social study of a religion. It is informed, critical, enlightening, factual and well-grounded, and it goes right to the heart of matters. I cannot imagine a better study of the politics and sociology of a contemporary religious movement." — Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies

"…thoughtful criticisms and proposals for change …" — South Florida Jewish Journal

"It is informed, critical, enlightening, factual and well-grounded, and it goes right to the heart of matters. I cannot imagine a better study of the politics and sociology of a contemporary religious movement. An implicit philosophy of the social order permeates the book. Conservative Judaism emerges in the authors' presentation as a 'Movement,' by which they mean, an organization of Judaism.Elazar and Geffen have written the single best book on Conservative Judaism since Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism (1955) exposed a religious movement for what it was, a phase in the sociology of an ethnic group." ― The Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies

"This book should be a welcome addition to every Jewish household. In addition to the detailed discussion of the Conservative Movement, the authors provide an in-depth analysis of current American Jewish identities." — Nitza Druyan, Hofstra University

"Elazar and Geffen's volume is much needed in Jewish life today. Interpreting the Conservative movement through the lens of political science and sociology, the work advocates bold decisions, new institutional frameworks, and holistic strategies. It offers world Jewry competitive alternatives to Reform and Orthodox Judaism and develops strategies for those looking for tradition, and especially reaches out to the Israeli Sephardic population. The authors challenge Conservative members to reconceptualize the Movement's foundation and to entertain changing the Movement's name from Conservative to Masorti." —Henry Green, University of Miami