Conservative group calls for greater role in movement’s future

United Synagogue President Ray Goldstein says he is "excited" about working with a new coalition of Conservative clergy and lay leaders who are seeking a greater voice in setting the organization's strategic priorities. (United Synagogue)

United Synagogue President Ray Goldstein says he is “excited” about working with a new coalition of Conservative clergy and lay leaders who are seeking a greater voice in setting the organization’s strategic priorities. (United Synagogue)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The leadership of the Conservative movement’s synagogue arm has acceded to a request for an “urgent” meeting from a new coalition of clergy and laypeople to discuss new strategic directions for the organization.

Ray Goldstein, the president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, told JTA that the meeting could take place as early as next week.

“I look forward to working with this group,” Goldstein said. “I’m really excited about having their passion and willingness to work to strengthen the United Synagogue, and through the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement.”

The proposed meeting was triggered by a letter sent to Goldstein last week by a group of Conservative synagogue leaders, among them officials of some of the movement’s largest and most vibrant congregations, which asserted that only fundamental change in the United Synagogue would enable its future success.

“We don’t believe that it can happen if ‘business as usual’ reigns, with merely a change in the identity of the leadership,” the letter stated.

The Conservative movement, once the nation’s largest synagogue denomination but since overtaken by the Reform movement, has been anguishing over its future for years. But a major leadership overhaul — at present, the three major arms either have recently installed new leaders or are preparing to — has sparked hope that the movement’s fortunes are primed for a turnaround.

The United Synagogue is nearing the conclusion of an effort to replace its retiring, longtime executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein. In 2007, Arnold Eisen assumed the chancellorship of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld will take over the Rabbinical Assembly this summer.

About 50 rabbis, cantors and synagogue lay leaders, brought together under the banner of Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, signed the letter to the United Synagogue.

The group, which includes well-known pulpit rabbis such as David Wolpe of Los Angeles and Gordon Tucker of New York, was formed over the summer in reaction to Goldstein’s decision to keep the selection of a new United Synagogue executive strictly an internal process.

As opposed to JTS, which invited representatives of the movement’s other organizations to sit on the search committee that tapped Eisen, the United Synagogue kept the process closed. The committee charged with finding the United Synagogue’s new chief executive did not even include a pulpit rabbi.

“Needless to say that didn’t sit well with us,” said Rabbi Michael Siegel, spiritual leader of a large Chicago congregation and the Hayom chair. “We decided to begin a process to find a more direct way to speak with the leadership of the United Synagogue and to begin a process of developing a long-range plan.”

Siegel said there is a “general dissatisfaction” in the movement regarding the services that communities receive from the United Synagogue. The organization, he said, suffers from a gap of creative strategic thinking. Hayom’s objective, he added, is to create “an outside agitating force” to press for change.

“The United Synagogue is far less inclusive than the other” arms of the movement, said one Conservative rabbi who signed the Hayom letter. “The United Synagogue deserves the attacks, honestly. They have failed in a major way to meet the major needs of Conservative Jews.”

In fact, the United Synagogue did initiate a strategic planning process that yielded a 2004 report by the management consultant Jacob Ukeles. Among Ukeles’ recommendations was that the United Synagogue bring representatives from the major congregations to its board.

“It’s very much an organization that marches to its own drummer,” Ukeles said of the United Synagogue. “It tends to be very insular, very self contained.”

Goldstein, who has been accused of shelving the Ukeles proposals or acting on them too slowly, rejected the criticism, noting that the organization’s by-laws require that the board include representatives from the other arms of the movement, as well as regional delegates that represent current or recent synagogue presidents.

“Some of them actually attend our meetings and participate,” Goldstein said. “Some do not.”

As to the search for a new executive, Goldstein said the organization was in negotiations with a final candidate and that an announcement should be made in about a month. He conceded that keeping the process closed may have been an error, but said he had sought informal input from the movement’s other arms, including from Eisen.

“I never received a call,” he said.

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