It was not until the Jewish people began to migrate across the pod to American that the various terms for Judaism appeared – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.
Jews in the United States
For some Jews coming to America meant trying to blend in with American society. They were no longer in a shtetl where everyone was Jewish and the town was run according to Jewish law. At the very worst the Jewish population in Europe found themselves in a single community even in the larger cities. There was no need to try and fit in because everyone believed the same. Not so in America. For a Jew the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. The predominately Christian America worshiped on Sunday.
As a result, the Jewish population who immigrated to America found themselves at odds with their new neighbors and their own people. Some saw the way to fit in was to lessen the strictness of their laws. Some went very lax and kept only a minimum amount needed to maintain their Jewish identity while trying to blend in with the rest of the community. These people became known as Reform Jews.
Others strived to keep the old ways and settled into communities where they could keep the life they knew.
And then there is the group who wanted to keep the old ways as much as possible while still fitting in with the community in which they lived. This group became known as Conservative Jews. But the term Conservative covers a wide area depending on just how much of the old ways were left behind. The biggest change comes with the role of women in the congregation. In Europe women and men sat apart. Often the women were in a balcony above where the men sat. In America the new Conservative movement allowed men and women to sit together. For the first time a wife could sit beside her husband during the service.
The Laws of Kashrut
In Conservative Judaism the laws of kashrut – diet – and all other aspects of life remain; only the role of women and how much they are allowed to participate in service like counting in the minyan (the 10 required to hold a service) and reading from the scrolls are decided among the congregation members.
Some congregations understand that feeling of how devout a member is varied amongst the congregation; therefore, the congregation will pass rulings that let each member decide what level of participation is made. For instance, the congregation may allow women to count in the minyan but not all men (and women) choose to agree. In this case, the proper number of prayer books to achieve a minyan are placed in a specific spot. Whoever wishes to be counted in the minyan takes one of those books; those who don’t want to be a part of the mixed minyan will take a book from another spot. When all minyan books are gone or 10 men are present a minyan is achieved. there is no pointing of fingers and all members can feel comfortable in their position on religious participation.
Conservative Judaism allows a person to blend in with the community while still feeling comfortable with who they are.