We are so used to Conservatism sitting in the middle of the Jewish religious spectrum between Reform and proper Torah observance that we sometimes forget that the movement began not as a breakaway from Orthodoxy but from Reform.
Unlike their counterparts in Germany who initially moved slowly towards a rejection of Torah and traditional Jewish beliefs, American Reformers in the late 1800's had no hesitation to toss the whole kitten-kaboodle out the window at their famous Pittsburgh Conference. Conservatism was created as a reaction to this rapid abandonment of Judaism, creating a "catholic Israel" in which ritual and historical connection would be maintained along with a new method for updating the halacha to keep it in line with prevalent cultural values.
In the period immediately after the Second World War, Conservatism was ascendant for precisely this reason. After the war many people who had been raised in traditional communities back in Europe found themselves in America surrounded by a new and very secular culture. Conservatism allowed them to have the best of both worlds - they could continue to engage in limited Jewish behaviours while remaining mostly indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbours in most external things.
Over the last couple of decades, however, Conservatism has begun a path towards disintegration. While immediately after the war a religion that rejected extremes might have been attractive, the current mood in society is away from compromise and towards those once rejected extremes.
In addition, the Conservatives have become trapped by their desire to keep halacha trendy so that they can fit in with secular values and mores. As a result, they have created rules that undermine any sense of Jewish distinctiveness. In many ways, they have evolved into a ritual-heavy version of Reform.
Which is where this article from The Jewish Week comes in:
When members of Congregation Bet Breira in Miami attended an evening study session on Shavuot last week, it marked the first time their Reform congregation practiced the custom.
It was the first of many changes that will occur after members of a neighboring Conservative congregation move in as part of a seemingly unlikely merger that will take effect July 1. Bet Breira’s kitchen will become kosher; only glatt kosher meat will be served. And the religious school classes that had met on Saturdays will now meet on Sundays "so that everyone will feel comfortable," according to Rabbi Jaime Klein Aklepi, Bet Breira’s spiritual leader.
"There were things that we had done, such as coloring and cutting with the
little kids, that would not work with the observance of Shabbat," she explained.
But Rabbi Aklepi said that rather than merge with either of two neighboring Reform congregations, it was decided to merge with Temple Samu-El Or Olom, a Conservative synagogue four miles away, because "we both have the same mission and vision."...
Although dual-affiliated congregations have been around for years, observers believe the economic downturn may prompt more congregations to merge, regardless of affiliation. And given the increasing perception that differences between Conservative and Reform Jewry have narrowed over the years — an increasing use of Hebrew, kipot and tallitot in Reform synagogues and the admission of women and gays in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school years after their acceptance by the Reform movement — dual affiliation may increase.
To be sure, there are still fundamental differences between the movements — including the definition of who is a Jew — but for some living in one-synagogue towns in Middle America, and even in some big cities like Miami, the distinction is often lost
The difference between Orthodox and non-Orthodox life is quite easily noted. Separate seating in worship, strict adherence to dietary limitations inside and outside the home and shul, and a strict observance of Shabbos, to name three. However, it's obvious there is very little difference left between Reform and Conservative save in the amount of ritual during the prayer services. A Conservative can feel right at home in a Reform Temple and vice versa. The article itself notes that probably the last distinctive difference between the two groups is the acceptability of patrilineal descent but with their membership numbers falling fast, how long will it be before the Rabbinical Assembly votes to allow it?
American Jewry is finally moving towards a point where there will be two honest choices: you are either observant, or you're not.