Congregations must change to deal with this trend, even as they educate members about the need for Jewish communal ritual and observance, said Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"They have adopted a more consumerist orientation to Jewish institutional belonging. They will support and buy into communities, agencies and people where they find purpose and meaning. If not, they are prepared to walk away," he said Monday.
Cohen spoke at the first joint meeting of five major organizations of Conservative Judaism, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.
On Tuesday, Rabbi Jerome Epstein of United Synagogue was to present a list of six commitments he feels members should make to living a Jewish life, such as keeping kosher and lighting Sabbath candles.
The movement, which obeys most Jewish traditions while allowing some innovation, faces increasing competition from Judaism's other branches. The stricter Orthodox have retained their younger members. The more lenient Reform movement has been more willing than Conservatives to welcome the growing number of intermarried couples.
About 18 percent of the estimated 6 million American Jews join Conservative synagogues, compared with 16 percent joining Reform and 6 percent Orthodox. Still, the Conservative movement anticipates its membership will shrink in the coming years.
Cohen is among Jewish thinkers who feel Conservatives can create more vibrant, attractive synagogues by demanding more from members.
He cited research on Christian churches that concluded that setting higher standards created stronger congregations with more resources.
Studies also have found that young adult members of Conservative Jewish congregations are better educated and more observant than their parents, providing a core to build on, he said.
"At times of high anxiety about Jewish stability and continuity, our tendency is to demand less, become less judgmental and more inclusive," Cohen said. "In fact, this strategy is counterproductive."
Some critics say most Conservative Jews largely disregard religious law and should join Reform synagogues, which have embraced traditions they once deemed meaningless, such as worshipping in Hebrew and keeping kosher.
Conservatives reject this argument but see a lesson in the Reform movement's success in attracting new members. Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey, noted the Reform leaders aggressively track Jewish population shifts and often establish synagogues in new areas. Conservative leaders should follow suit, he said.
"The challenge today is to be demographically progressive," Silverstein said.