The Sanitizing of Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism’s origins lie in a donor plan to neutralize and refine the radical Jewish immigrant masses.
Banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff.
AS 2018’s HEATED MIDTERM CYCLE reached its heights, with candidates vying to rebuke or reaffirm then-President Donald Trump’s leadership, Rabbi David Wolpe, leader of the 1,500-family Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Newsweek’s 2012 “most influential rabbi in America,” took to the local Jewish Journal to explain “why I keep politics off the pulpit”: “I am endlessly besieged by requests to take a stance on this or that political or social issue . . . All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.”
Yet Wolpe’s plea for apoliticism is, to put it generously, selective; as a few of his more progressive colleagues observed in public responses, he showed no such qualms about vocally aligning himself with AIPAC against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—nor, more recently, about signing onto a 2021 anti-cancel-culture letter for Jewish leaders aimed at the left, decrying “the ascendency of an ideology that . . . sees the world solely in terms of oppressed versus oppressor” as “a familiar and frightening development for the Jewish people.”
Wolpe articulates a common political posture among the intellectual leadership of his denomination, the Conservative movement, which, despite decades of attrition, remains a primary source of community for Jews around the country, with over one million American Jews identifying as Conservative. In its sole statement following the 2016 elections, the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s clergy arm, declared itself “one [family] sensitive to and aware of the many and varied views held by our members and members of our communities about any political figure or public issue.” A few weeks earlier, Marc Gary, chief operating officer at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the movement’s rabbinical school and intellectual center, had pointedly avoided criticizing either candidate by name, instead lamenting in general terms the “dire condition of widespread poverty.” (Like Wolpe, JTS has checked its avowed centrism at the door when it comes to Israeli foreign politics, hailing President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.)
This particular brand of centrism among Conservative leadership is a feature, not a bug, of that leadership’s hundred-year history, and a legacy of their consistent aversion toward radicalism. While this stance has been shaped by a number of broad historical trends like upward economic mobility among white American Jews, its origins lie in the movement’s infancy more than a century ago, when a cadre of donors took over JTS, the intellectual wellspring of what would become Conservative Judaism, as part of a larger strategy to smooth out the rough edges of a Jewish community teeming with recent immigrants. Those donors—including giants of American Jewish philanthropy Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall—understood political radicalism and Old World religious observance as interrelated obstacles to the goal of seamless Americanization, and in response they created an institution meant to serve as a force of acculturation. Their vision would enjoy a long-lasting afterlife as an axiom of the emergent institutional Jewish status quo. If Judaism was to become truly American, they decided, political, economic, and social opposition to the mainstream ultimately had to go.
THE EARLY EVOLUTION of JTS is in large part the product of an ethnic, economic, and political clash between well-established German Jews and Eastern European arrivals. As immigration swelled the American Jewish population by 500,000 between 1880 and 1900, a relatively acculturated German establishment valiantly strove to meet the staggering humanitarian needs of the hour. At the same time, they harbored a paternalistic distaste toward Eastern Europeans. As one 1889 editorial in the German American Hebrew Standard (cited in Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd) declared, “The thoroughly acculturated American Jew . . . is closer to the Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews.” This establishment also feared the influence of immigrants’ leftist politics and broad support for trade unionism, which they saw as contrary to the nation’s ethos: The German-dominated Central Conference of American Rabbis voiced a lurking dread in 1891 that “there should grow up in our midst a class of people not imbued with American ideas,” bringing upon all Jews “ills of which none may be guilty.”
The work of Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall, JTS’s primary philanthropic champions, exemplified these ambivalent impulses. Schiff, deemed the “benevolent despot” of American Jewish philanthropy by his biographer Naomi Cohen, lavished his $100 million banking fortune across the gamut of New York nonprofits, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Jewish settlement houses and mutual aid funds. On occasion, Schiff’s sense of Jewish solidarity overrode his personal interests: Though opposed to union militancy, he repeatedly helped feed families of striking Jewish garment workers in the 1910s. But Schiff’s deep-rooted economic conservatism tempered his humanitarian impulses. Trust-busting, he wrote to Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, would mean shaking “the structure on which our prosperity rests to its very foundations.” And Schiff’s personal encounters with moneyed Protestant antisemitism left him concerned about the optics of Jewish labor strife. Solicited by Jewish labor hero Joseph Barondess in 1912 to fund a network of socialist Jewish primary schools, Schiff deemed the proposal “too unreasonable to deserve consideration . . . I do not like radical methods.”
Marshall, Schiff’s friend and colleague at the helm of American Jewish philanthropy, shared his core convictions. A German American corporate lawyer from a modest upbringing, Marshall tirelessly championed a united Jewish front through his founding of the American Jewish Committee and the short-lived New York Kehillah. (His wide-ranging influence spawned a running joke of the 1920s that New York’s Jews lived under “Marshall law.”) Like Schiff, he opposed organized labor both on principle—he characterized the historic 1902 coal strikes to a friend as “workers creating imaginary differences with their employer”—and out of fears that it would ignite antisemitism. As historian Matthew Silver describes in his biography of the magnate, Marshall took to the Forward during Jewish socialist Morris Hillquit’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1917 to voice his alarm that, on account of the campaign, “the Jews of New York shall be charged by the American people with virtual treason and sedition . . . nullifying all that has been done through these many years to prove that the Jew is a loyal, faithful American citizen.” What Jews needed, Marshall wrote to a colleague in 1907, was a concerted effort to “cast out that which is grotesque and uncongenial to a mind influenced by American culture.” Schiff and Marshall believed that the Eastern European Jews who jeopardized Jewish inclusion in America were not just the radicals, but also the Old World religious traditionalists: In contrast to the “orderly and decorous methods” of American public assemblies, Marshall wrote to the editor of the Jewish Daily News in 1907, traditional Jewish religious community instilled in youth “a sense of shame.”
Philanthropist Jacob Schiff (lower right corner) and JTS President Cyrus Adler (directly next to Schiff) in a 1918 gathering of the Joint Distribution Committee, founded to distribute WWI relief money raised by American Jews.
Eager to avoid the appearance that Jews were spearheading class warfare, Schiff and Marshall repeatedly stepped in to mediate highly visible strikes in the predominantly Jewish cloakmaking industry. But the two men had greater ambitions than ad hoc interventions. They bet that a long-term investment in Jewish rabbinical education would help soften the community’s rebellious spirit—both Schiff and Marshall would later call such a project a “solution of the Jewish question of this country.” The philanthropists carefully sought out a fitting vehicle for their project. Though Schiff and Marshall both actively identified and served as Reform lay leaders, they ultimately predicted that the same acculturation that drew them to Reform would drive away traditionally inclined immigrants: Hebrew Union College, American Reform’s rabbinical school, was already broadly failing to recruit Eastern European students. So Schiff and Marshall settled on JTS as an alternative vehicle for their strategy.
Created in 1886 by a faction of moderate Orthodox pulpit rabbis open to Westernization, JTS proved a natural fit for the philanthropists’ agenda: It advocated for aesthetically polished, decorous services to “make the young feel that their faith is based upon civilizing principles,” in founder Sabato Morais’s words. But the school floundered due to the lack of a recruitment base and financial support, graduating only one student a year from 1886 to 1901. When its president died in 1901, JTS appeared on the verge of collapse, and Schiff, already a board member, seized his moment. Within weeks, Schiff, Marshall, and a small circle of donors rounded up $500,000 for a new endowment fund. In exchange, they obtained full control over the board, replacing rabbis with their own appointees and installing Marshall as chairman, in a power grab that the historian Mel Scult has termed a “coup d’etat.”
The new board members did have a sincere and deep commitment to fostering a vibrant Jewish future, but they also acted on what Schiff and colleagues referred to as the “missionary” motive. One JTS supporter (probably Schiff himself, his biographer Naomi Cohen argues) laid out this motive explicitly in a 1902 editorial in the Reform-leaning American Israelite: “If to the Seminary there can be attracted young men from the tremendous colony, who will be educated uptown and then return to the Ghetto, it is believed Russians there will accept them for guidance.” In its first year, the new board recruited as president Solomon Schechter, a charismatic scholar whose blend of traditionalist credentials and Westernized manners attracted a growing body of Eastern European students. Schechter shared Schiff and Marshall’s zest for decorum and their concerns over what he deemed the political and religious extremes of American Jewry: In a 1902 interview with the moderate daily Yidishes Tageblatt cited by historian David Weinberg, Schechter called the typical immigrant “either a tsadik [pious man] or a radical. And when he is a radical, he is such a rosche [evil man].” Schechter’s immense charisma left its mark on his disciples, a group of whom would go on to formally found the modern Conservative movement shortly after his death. By the end of his 13-year tenure, however, Schechter came to resent what he saw as the board’s religious insincerity: “No consideration would ever have induced me [to assume] the post,” he fumed to a friend in 1913, “had I known the Seminary was largely meant for [the purpose of] reconciling the most unruly element in Jewry and giving it a little religious refinement.”
Meanwhile, the new board laid out clear cultural expectations for a generation of future Jewish leaders. Writing to JTS faculty early in his term as chairman, Marshall sized up the student body as “mental and physical cripples” who “lack polish, fluency of speech, refinement of manner, and even cleanliness”—conditions the board set out to remedy. This meant putting distance between students and the unfolding Yiddish political and cultural renaissance of the Lower East Side, quite literally; Schiff insisted on relocating the campus uptown to Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University, as a condition of funding, forcing students and staff to either move or commute to the elite academic mecca. Even as the board targeted potential students from Eastern European communities, it effectively weeded out those unwilling or unable to Americanize: According to Weinberg, the historian, JTS filtered for such candidates by requiring a bachelor’s degree, tacitly excluding yeshiva-ordained Eastern European scholars as unfit candidates for the project of cultural refinement. Finally, board rules strictly forbade Yiddish in classrooms, and students who failed to speak satisfactory unaccented English within two years were asked to leave.
Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold privately decried the JTS’s dead spirit of “Schiffian Judaism”; theologian Mordechai Kaplan raged in a journal entry the same year that “the moneyed powers” were leveraging JTS as “nothing but a social pacifier.”
Socialist and traditionalist opponents quickly caught on to the school’s intentions. “What’s the use of lying?” the Tageblatt asked in 1905. “The Seminary is not popular among the people. The great Jewish masses look upon this rabbinical school as upon some rich man’s uptown institution.” Traditional immigrants would be “a thousand times better off” in solidarity with non-religious socialists rather than “pseudo-religious capitalists and their toadies,” argued a 1904 Forward piece cited by Weinberg. Even JTS mainstays balked: In 1905, trailblazing female scholar and Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold privately decried the JTS’s dead spirit of “Schiffian Judaism”; theologian Mordechai Kaplan raged in a journal entry the same year that “the moneyed powers” were leveraging JTS as “nothing but [a] social pacifier.”
DESPITE THIS FORCEFUL BUT SCATTERED OPPOSITION, Schiff and Marshall’s JTS efforts left a lasting imprint on Conservative Jewish history, due in large part to their successful wager that the school would appeal to the children of Eastern European immigrants who were suspicious of the Reform movement but anxious to belong in America. By the 1940s, this demographic made up two-thirds of JTS’s burgeoning student body. The once-moribund program rapidly outpaced its Reform and Orthodox competitors, producing 65 rabbis from 1902 to 1915 and another 236 from 1916 to 1940. Its success was so great that in 1927, the woefully underfunded Orthodox Yeshiva College (later Yeshiva University) proposed a merger, which Marshall, then chairman, dismissed to his board as an attempt to “Russify the Seminary.” Schiff served on the board until his death in 1920, establishing a teachers’ training program in addition to coordinating the move to Morningside Heights; Marshall was chairman for a quarter-century and presided over a steady growth in enrollment and the Conservative movement’s institutional formation. For 70 years after the philanthropists’ takeover, their associates and successors wielded influence over JTS administration: After Schechter, the presidency was filled by Cyrus Adler, who had worked closely with Schiff on the board, and then by Louis Finkelstein, Adler’s protégé and a Schechter student.
In the long run, the donors’ vision of a religiously refined, politically deradicalized Jewish center essentially came to pass. While broader trends of upward Jewish social and economic mobility no doubt bear significant responsibility for forging this new culture, JTS leadership and graduates did their best to help those trends along. On the religious front, Conservative congregations gradually abandoned an Eastern European model of bustling, chaotic prayer life in favor of a Protestant-influenced standard for etiquette. Some JTS graduates became missionaries for that cause: Rabbi Solomon Goldman, a Schechter-era graduate seeking to move his Cleveland congregation from Orthodoxy to Conservatism in the 1920s, distributed cards to every synagogue entrant declaring that “worship without decorum is unworthy of an intelligent congregation” and asking members to “refrain from all conversation” while inside. By the 1950s, as recorded in the sociologist Marshall Sklare’s interviews, the unrestrained emotional range of much Eastern European prayer had fallen into thorough disfavor. Sklare details a national campaign of the Conservative movement’s umbrella group entitled “How Good are You on Synagogue Etiquette?” urging rabbis to impress on their congregants the need for proper appearance and appropriate conduct. “We have ushers, and they watch you pretty carefully so there is no disturbance of any kind,” one Conservative interviewee told Sklare, describing the new synagogue environment. “People used to get up and walk up, but the rabbi made them stop that.” Another congregant recalled: “Years ago all the men wore their own hats. There was no such thing as uniformity . . . The rabbi urged us to check our hats and wear skull caps.” Yet another Sklare subject was explicitly in favor of the shift toward decorum, but even so felt a lingering suspicion that something had gotten lost along the way:
I was born and bred in an orthodox shul with the accompanying multitudinous prayers, jams of people and children all joined together in a cacophonous symphony of loud and sometimes raucous appeals to the Almighty. Here it was so different. A large group of Jews, men and women, sitting quietly together for hours at a stretch, subdued prayers, no mass movements, no rustling and bustling, no weeping and wailing, no crying children, just the music of the choir and the cantor alone . . . It is so different for me. Like another world. Religiosity in the sense that I have been accustomed to is strangely absent.
In the long run, the donors’ vision of a religiously refined, politically deradicalized Jewish center essentially came to pass.
Politically, JTS leadership opted for a middle-of-the-road, mostly hands-off approach. Though a significant socialist contingent remained among the JTS community into the 1930s, Cold War tensions and broader trends of assimilation inched the liberal rabbinate toward the center—most notably during the influential chancellorship of Louis Finkelstein. Serving from 1940 to 1972, Finkelstein presided over a historic expansion of the midcentury Conservative movement among upwardly mobile, generally suburban Ashkenazi Jews. He projected a polished, erudite, moderate Judaism to the broader American public through initiatives like interfaith dialogues on world peace and his NBC-produced radio show Eternal Light. As historian Baila Shargel has documented, Finkelstein kept to a resolute centrism: In a letter to a colleague, he laid out his course to steer clear of “political commitments,” arguing that any political stance could only get in the way of the school’s work. Campus turmoil of the 1960s put Finkelstein’s political phobia on full display. JTS faculty and staff later recounted to Shargel how in response to the Columbia student demonstrations of 1968, Finkelstein hectored students to “pay no attention to outside events, but rather concentrate on Torah, the true path to world salvation.” At one school assembly, Finkelstein publicly chided a small group of anti-Vietnam activists: “We don’t need students; we can run the seminary without you.”
Even in the face of this discouragement, individual luminaries, most famously the theologian and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel, bucked the hardening centrist consensus. But even Heschel’s case illustrates that a consensus had indeed emerged. Biographer Edward Kaplan recounts how by 1972, Heschel was isolated among faculty in his support for the McGovern candidacy; when he took a day off to visit his friend Daniel Berrigan, at the time in prison for anti-Vietnam War protests, he feared administrative backlash and had to invent a doctors’ appointment to obtain a substitute lecturer.
With some individual exceptions, the Conservative centrist consensus remained solidly in place through the 2000s. More recently, however, that status quo has been shaken by the political turmoil of the Trump era and the pandemic, and a tentative shift seems underway. Between 2017 and 2022, in addition to issuing its customary statements on supporting Zionism and combating antisemitism, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative clergy weighed in to condemn family separations, systemic racism, the January 6th insurrection, and assaults on abortion rights. This July, JTS veered from institutional tradition by appointing Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, former head of an LGBTQ congregation and a liberal Zionist critic of the occupation, as the first female dean of its rabbinical school. And during hostilities in Gaza in 2021, ten JTS rabbinical students signed onto a public letter decrying an American Jewish narrative that “supports violent suppression of human rights [and] enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and the threat of annexation”—language that provoked public backlash from individual rabbis but none from JTS itself.
The question now is just how far opponents of the movement’s centrist approach can push from within a structure explicitly founded to counter and contain them. Schiff, Marshall, and nearly a century of JTS leadership would have understood the very notion of a countercultural Conservative politics as incoherent: How radical can a set of institutions created as an answer to social and economic radicalism really become? The early philanthropists wagered that immigrants’ descendants would set aside intemperate politics and religious practice in pursuit of American decorum—and until now, they appear to have won. It’s left to a new generation of traditionally committed and politically progressive Jewish leaders and laypeople to prove that a genuinely countercultural alternative is possible.
Allen Lipson is a rabbinical student and community organizer learning at Hebrew College and the Yashrut Institute. He has organized with UNITE HERE and Faith in Action, and his writing has been published in Review of Rabbinic Judaism and Zeramim.