Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges

Synagogue 3000‘s Synagogue Studies Institute has released, Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges.

U.S. Jewish congregational life is showing signs of stagnation, with few young adults, many older members and more than adequate sanctuary space, according to a new survey of Jewish congregational life. The survey, which included responses from leaders in 1,215 synagogues, offers the most comprehensive view of Reform and Conservative movement congregations to date. Conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen for the Synagogue Studies Institute of Synagogue 3000, the survey is part of the larger Faith Communities Today (FACT), a national data set of American religious congregations. The survey shows the Conservative movement is struggling, with smaller congregations in older suburbs, fewer innovations in service styles, ambivalence about the need to change, and strained financial resources. Reform congregations, by contrast are larger, more geographically dispersed, offer a more diverse set of programs and enjoy higher morale. Both Jewish movements suffer from lackluster attendance and pallid attempts at recruitment of new members.

A Dearth of Young People

Among the survey’s most alarming findings, young people between the ages of 18 and 34 represent a scant 8 percent of Reform and Conservative congregations. By contrast, there were three times as many members aged 65 and older, or about 24 percent of synagogue member- ship. In smaller congregations with less than 250 families, elderly members number more than 30 percent.

“Synagogues have not known what to do with young people after 9th grade and until they get married and have children,” said Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, Synagogue 3000’s chief executive. “We’ve turned the Jewish spiritual development of these kids over to Hillel. But once they graduate from college, what’s available to them is far from adequate.”

Younger adults are scarce in Christian churches as well, but the problem may be especially acute in Jewish circles where educated young adults marry later, bear children later, and have competing opportunities for social interaction and spiritual searching. Making matters worse, religious commitment among the newer generation appears to be tapering, said Rabbi Larry Hoffman, co-president of Synagogue 3000.

The complete report is available here.