Bob Gates/Library of Congress
West End Synagogue, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982Bob Gates/Library of Congress
Navigate to Community section


The rise and decline of Reform and Conservative Judaism

Danny Schiff
February 27, 2023
Bob Gates/Library of Congress
West End Synagogue, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982Bob Gates/Library of Congress

The arrival of emancipation in the 19th century was, unquestionably, a transformative moment in Jewish history. As Professor Robert Seltzer observed, emancipation prompted a “drastic and far-reaching” reconceptualization of Jewish life that led to the “destruction of the old corporate status of Jewry” and “the end of the quasi-political functions of the kehillot.” Yet despite these profound changes, the ostracization of Jews persisted. Quotas and institutional roadblocks remained palpable realities. Indeed, the sheer extent of Jewish social exclusion illustrates something crucial about the nature of emancipation up until the late 20th century: It was only partial. To be sure, a revolution had taken place in the 19th century: Jews had achieved citizenship, were full economic participants, had non-Jewish friends, attended prestigious institutions, and some attained positions of communal prominence. Any societal obstacles that remained for Jews were rarely highlighted, so Jews lived with the sense that they had been accepted; and, compared with the long centuries of seclusion, modernity unquestionably provided expanded freedoms, commercial opportunities, and possibilities for social interaction.

Yet it is now apparent that this first stage of emancipation was anything but complete. Insofar as European emancipation required a Jew to become a Christian to be fully accepted, a largely insurmountable hurdle to full emancipation remained in place. Even when that obstruction disappeared, the exclusion from colleges, professions, institutions, and clubs that remained—both in Europe and the U.S.—restricted emancipation. Jews continued to lack the type of complete social penetration that might have been expected had emancipation been allowed to reach its ultimate logical conclusion.

During this period of “partial emancipation,” Jews not only worked hard to build institutions to serve Jewish needs, they also created social structures that would allow young Jews to meet and marry. Since, during the first half of the 20th century, Jews and gentiles had little interest in marrying each other, a Jew who wanted to marry needed to meet other Jews. Encountering other Jews occurred primarily at synagogues, youth organizations, and other communal bodies that promoted such interactions. The desire to marry essentially compelled Jews to look inward, to depend on their own communal institutions, and to socialize within a Jewish context. The ghetto walls might have fallen, but invisible barriers remained. Given that Jews were still required to form their principal social contacts within the Jewish community, Jewish emancipation was still a “work in progress.” Jews were free, yet not wholly accepted; liberated, but not totally admitted. So long as exclusion remained a practical problem with which Jews had to grapple, Jews were not truly able to move in society with the same range of options as those that existed for non-Jews. Hence, insofar as the goal of emancipation was to make Jewish identity into a wholly “private commitment”—a choice of the individual, without external pressures or social dictates—it was unfinished.

It follows that the effective ending of most all social exclusion that took place between 1960 and 1980 represented a notable opening. From that point on, no longer were affiliations with Jewishness or with the Jewish community predicated upon a reality of limited alternatives. Jews became fully free, without external constraints on their choices to remain within the Jewish fold or to leave. The outcome that emancipation had originally portended, but had never wholly delivered, had arrived.

The response of a vast number of Jews to this new reality was unambiguous: Given that the intermarriage rate was no more than 7% prior to 1960 but was in the vicinity of 40%—and rising quickly—in the 1980s, it is clear that emancipation and assimilation were linked. Many Jews who intermarried did not intend to abandon Judaism; some hoped to raise Jewish children and stay connected. Given the nature of intermarriage, however, this resolve often remained an aspiration. Despite the fact that it became increasingly plain that intermarriage was a likely pathway to assimilation, Jews continued to marry non-Jews in ever greater numbers.

It would be a mistake, however, to limit consideration of assimilation to the phenomenon of intermarriage. Intermarriage is, after all, an indicator of a broader phenomenon. The 2020 Pew study found that around one quarter of U.S. Jews are Jews of “no religion,” meaning that they have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but do not identify Judaism as their religion, regarding themselves instead as cultural or ethnic Jews. Tellingly, the report observes that “Jews by religion are far more likely than Jews of no religion to say that being Jewish is very important to them (55% vs. 7%); 55% of Jews of no religion say being Jewish is of little importance to them.” These numbers demonstrate that in an environment where the barriers to leaving Jewish life are virtually non-existent, a large number of American Jews are prone to assimilate.

There seems to be little prospect that trends in the surrounding society will turn in a direction that will make assimilation less likely. Indeed, in the 21st century, it is possible to assert that Jews have gone beyond full acceptance. Various cultural signs suggest that Jews and Jewish folkways are “trendy” in American culture. Thus, Jon Stewart, one of America’s most watched early-21st-century comedians, liberally inserted Jewish references into his daily delivery of mock news with the reasonable expectation that they would be widely appreciated. Some non-Jews, not content with merely attending bar and bat mitzvah observances for their Jewish friends, adopted such celebrations for themselves. And President Obama, enthusiastic to practice a quintessential Jewish tradition, introduced an annual Seder ritual to the White House. Indeed, a 2014 study showed that, of all the religious groups in the U.S., Americans felt most warmly toward Jews. When the study was repeated in 2017 and again in 2019, it came up with the same result: Jews continued to receive the “warmest ratings.” In a brief three decades, Jews went from being unwelcome at the country club to drinking four cups of wine in the home of the leader of the free world. Perhaps not since Joseph in Egypt rose from being a foreign prisoner to a national leader had Jews leaped in standing so far, so fast.

The embrace of the trappings of Jewish culture by the wider society has caused Jews to feel more accepted in America, not more attached to Judaism or the Jewish community. It is, consequently, reasonable to assert that the 21st century has become a period of what might be termed “hyper-emancipation.” In the U.S., home to more than 70% of the Jewish diaspora, not only have the barriers to full Jewish participation been removed, but the wider society now exerts a magnetic attraction upon Jews to move beyond the Jewish orbit. This age of hyper-emancipation that began post-1980 represents a break with the Jewish past almost as significant as the initial move toward partial emancipation two centuries ago.

In the 19th century, even though full acceptance remained a distant prospect, the changes brought about by emancipation were significant. Jews were offered citizenship in the emerging nation states of modernity, provided that they dissolved their autonomous communal existence in which Jewish law held sway. For the most part, it was an offer they could not refuse. But accepting the bargain meant that Judaism needed to adapt to a new environment and, in the process, had to be remade. It could no longer be the lived expression of a separate nation with its own laws, customs, and practices. Becoming a nation within a nation was not an option. The solution for Judaism was, in short order, to become a religion. Judaism effectively became “Christianized,” with its parameters and its relationship with the state modeled on those of the church.

The embrace of the trappings of Jewish culture by the wider society has caused Jews to feel more accepted in America, not more attached to Judaism or the Jewish community.

Hence, virtually simultaneously, Judaism was recast as a religion, and Jews became citizens of nation-states with broader societal access than they had experienced in centuries. The vast majority who remained Jews sought to maximize the gains of citizenship by demonstrating that they could be loyal, productive citizens and that their reformulated Judaism was ready for smooth incorporation into mass society, no longer encumbered by its “shtetl” past. Not only did Judaism have to become a religion, it had to become the type of religion that was conducive to the zeitgeist of the modern state.

Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism represent the three major 19th-century solutions to making Judaism function on religious terms within the non-Jewish states of modernity. There would, of course, be other responses. Some groups attempted to enshrine Judaism within the framework of cultural or benevolent organizations. Some attempted to resist the advances of the state, preferring to continue a cloistered existence on the margins of society, to the extent that it was possible. Zionists proposed an altogether different solution: to recreate an autonomous Jewish polity within a Jewish state.

From a sociological perspective, Reform and Conservative Judaism began as attempts to forestall assimilation while embracing the ethos of modernity. To be sure, the two movements approached these goals with considerably different solutions: The Reform movement made the individual the arbiter of Jewish practice. The Conservative movement, by contrast, committed itself to halakhah and effected its changes through the mechanism of rabbinic decisions. Both movements emphasized that “visionary change” was necessary to adapt Judaism to modern times. Orthodoxy took a different path. Having come into being in reaction to the modernizing movements, Orthodoxy distinguished itself by its determination to offer an “orthodox” form of traditional Judaism, that was to some extent impervious to the currents of modernity, but still operated within the new “religionized” structures necessitated by the nation-state.

Reform and Conservative Judaism were both products of Western Europe, where they established solid foundations. But their real success came in post-war America. Reform Judaism had been a rising force in 19th-century American Jewish life. However, between 1880 and 1924, some 2 million Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, most of them Orthodox, fled persecution and made their way to America. As a result, in the first decades of the 20th century, despite the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism, Orthodoxy was the largest movement in American Jewish life. That reality changed swiftly. By the middle of the 20th century, a new generation, largely born in America, turned away from Orthodoxy, associating it with an old world that lay in ruins. Orthodoxy seemed less well suited to the freedoms of America and the spirit of rebirth and renewal that animated post-Holocaust American Jewry: In the words of Professor Rodney Stark, “They had, after all, immigrated not only to escape poverty and anti-Semitism but in pursuit of ‘modernity.’”

Not surprisingly, the most popular destination for those leaving Orthodoxy was the Conservative movement, where the philosophy and aesthetics were more familiar than those of the Reform movement. The historian Jonathan Sarna paints the picture of what happened: Between 1945 and 1965, the Conservative movement added 450 new congregations, “more than the number of new Reform and Orthodox synagogues combined.” While the Reform movement was not in first place, it too made strides. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, the number of Reform congregations doubled, and the number of affiliated families tripled. By the late 1950s, the synagogue affiliation rate reached 60%, “a figure never exceeded.” America was moving to the suburbs, and Jewish life was going through a renaissance: “Between 1945 and 1965, well over 1,000 synagogues and temples were built or rebuilt.” Secularism was not in vogue, belonging to a congregation was fashionable, a “baby boom” of young Jews needed to be educated in new synagogue education buildings, and post-Holocaust theological inquiry was popular. By 1970, a national survey reported that 42% of Jews identified as Conservative, 33% as Reform, and 11% as Orthodox. As noted earlier, this level of non-Orthodox vigor lasted till somewhere around 1990, by which time the Reform movement at 38% had overtaken the Conservative movement at 35%, with Orthodoxy at a low of 7%. It is clear that by the third quarter of the 20th century, the Reform and Conservative movements had become the foremost hubs of Jewish life in the U.S., the world’s largest Jewish community.

In truth, though, it is unlikely that the strength of non-Orthodox Judaism between 1950 and 1990 was due to widespread enthusiasm for the ideological core of what the movements offered. Ironically, even as Reform and Conservative Judaism were ascending, there was “every indication” that their adherents were “actually becoming more lax in their religious practice.” It was not “belief, synagogue attendance, [or] the regular practice of Jewish rituals” that best described the reasons why Jews built, buttressed, and belonged to non-Orthodox institutions. Rather, it was because the reality of exclusion, or perceived exclusion, left little choice.

It was in the synagogues—the Conservative and Reform synagogues—that Jews found the education that would lead to bar mitzvah and where youth groups would open the door to marriage partners. The more people that joined synagogues, the more magnetic the synagogues became as places where social and business connections were forged. This was particularly true in the mushrooming suburbs and in the newer urban communities, where the non-Orthodox synagogue was often the only outpost of Judaism and regularly served as a substitute for far-distant family ties. Jewish cultural organizations were not nearly as adept at filling these roles. By the time Jewish exclusion began to evaporate, the synagogue building boom was in full swing, and non-Orthodox synagogues were simply “the place to be.” Momentum, and long-embedded habits, ensured that robust non-Orthodox identification continued for some time even after the social ostracizing of Jews had diminished. Yet it cannot be an accident that the noticeable decline of Conservative and Reform Judaism began little more than a decade after Jewish exclusion had effectively come to an end.

A generation later, with the non-Orthodox proportion of the American Jewish pie shrinking, it is worth reflecting on what happened.

A generation later, with the non-Orthodox proportion of the American Jewish pie shrinking, it is worth reflecting on what happened. Looking back, it seems clear that the manifold 20th-century successes of the Conservative and Reform movements ought to be considered within the reality of the partial emancipation that prevailed when the two movements became ascendant. The rise of the non-Orthodox movements essentially took place behind a firewall of social separation and was fueled by the need to build families and communities in multiple locations. Hundreds of thousands of Jews belonged to these movements more by default than by devotion, such that their ongoing exposure to the movements did not reliably result in durable commitments to the practices or the institutions of Conservative or Reform Judaism—or even to the importance of transmitting Judaism itself.

In 1990, with 73% of American Jews identifying as Reform or Conservative, only 10% of American Jews attended synagogue weekly, only 12% reported that they kept kosher, and only 19% “usually” lit candles on Friday night. Given that some of the Jews who engaged in these practices must have been Orthodox, these were plain indicators that the religious eagerness of Conservative and Reform Jews was low. It is hard to imagine that intermarriage rates would have risen as steeply or that the pace of movement contraction would have been as pronounced had there been a robust dedication to the positions of the movements. After all, both movements continued to express plain opposition to intermarriage throughout the last quarter of the 20th century. Yet hundreds of thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews paid no heed. The same held true for fidelity to ideology: Many Jews who described themselves as Conservative did not have a systematic approach to Judaism that might be described as halakhic, and few Reform Jews were “committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot” or “to the fulfillment of those mitzvot that spoke to them.” In short, while describing themselves as Reform or Conservative, a considerable proportion was rarely interested in more than a glancing involvement with movement practices or philosophies. Small wonder, then, that when hyper-emancipation arrived, many would detach themselves from these affiliations. While non-Orthodox Judaism had thrived behind a barrier of exclusion that impeded assimilation, there was insufficient loyalty to stop the outflow once the levee was breached. As Stark put it, a large number of American Jews had “lost all religious basis for sustaining a distinctive identity, and the protective encapsulation once provided by their Jewishness collapsed.”

It is easy to level blame at the Conservative and Reform movements themselves for their contraction. Voices from within Orthodoxy sometimes opine that American Jewry would not have experienced such sustained assimilation were it not for the positions taken by the “compromising” non-Orthodox movements. This claim has little credibility. It assumes that the main reason why Orthodoxy fell from its peak in the first half of the 20th century was because of the alluring siren song of non-Orthodox Judaism, and that if Orthodoxy had been the sole option the situation would have been healthier. In reality, had Orthodoxy been the sole option available, a more moderate alternative would have been invented; many Jews living in free societies would not have constrained themselves within traditional boundaries. It is certainly possible that, for some, identifying with a non-Orthodox approach made abandoning Judaism an easier step. It is equally possible that, for others, being non-Orthodox kept them involved in Jewish life in a way that otherwise would not have been a consideration.

There is yet another criticism that is sometimes advanced. According to this viewpoint, the Conservative and Reform movements are in decline principally because they did not do enough to be accommodating to the needs of those who sought intermarriage; if only they had been more responsive, the argument maintains, many more might have remained connected to their Jewishness. It is, of course, impossible to know what might have happened, but what did happen in response to every act of amelioration and accommodation is clear: The intermarriage rate never plateaued but continued to rise no matter what was attempted. The Reform movement introduced patrilineal descent and an outreach program in the 1980s, and an ever greater number of Reform rabbis moved to officiate at intermarriages. The Conservative movement introduced a keruv (drawing close) program and made sure that every social barrier to acceptance of the intermarried melted away. In the final analysis, none of it mattered. The intermarriage rate climbed ever higher, no matter what the movements did. Hyper-emancipation offered extensive possibilities for connecting beyond the Jewish milieu and that reality proved far more powerful than the decisions of non-Orthodox rabbis.

Though the 21st century has been marked by a discernible uptick in antisemitism, the hyper-emancipation thesis remains intact. Societal doors continue to be almost fully open to Jews in a way that was not the case a century earlier. Just as the Reform and Conservative movements flourished within the conditions of partial emancipation, they are plainly now struggling in a world of hyper-emancipation where Jews have virtually unrestricted public opportunities. It was not, however, just the place of Jews in the broader society that was evolving in the last decades of the 20th century. The world of ideas and the needs of Jews were also shifting. In many ways, those transitions would prove to be even more formidable for the movements of modernity.

Excerpted (and slightly modified) from “Judaism in a Digital Age: An Ancient Tradition Confronts a Transformative Era,” recently published by Palgrave Macmillan (Cham: 2023).

Danny Schiff is the Federation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and divides his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem.