Looking to reinvigorate, Conservative synagogue leaders set for parley

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the United Synagogue's new executive vice president and CEO, acknowledges that he is working to restore the effectiveness and credibility of the organization. (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism)

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the United Synagogue’s new executive vice president and CEO, acknowledges that he is working to restore the effectiveness and credibility of the organization. (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism)

PHILADELPHIA (Jewish Exponent) — As the congregational arm of the Conservative movement continues its structural overhaul — brought on in part by a decline in membership and a $1.3 million budget deficit – some 500 people are expected in Cherry Hill, N.J., next week for the group’s biennial convention.

In the past year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has been seeking to reassert its relevance after 30 congregations nationwide opted to withhold dues and disassociate. Over the course of a decade, the movement has dropped from 800 synagogues to approximately 650.

Leaders within the movement have charged in recent years that the United Synagogue has lacked transparency and not provided needed assistance as synagogues confront a host of economic and demographic challenges.

In March, a group of about 50 rabbis and lay leaders, known as the HaYom group, sent a letter to the organization demanding reform.

“Most of the time, most synagogues are not even aware that the United Synagogue office exists,” said Rela Geffen, a Philadelphia sociologist and co-author of the 2000 book “The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities.”

The recent upheaval comes as synagogues across denominational lines have struggled to adapt to shifting spiritual and demographic landscapes.

Yet the Conservative movement faces its own particular challenges. It has lost adherents to both Reform on the left and Modern Orthodoxy on the right. Its various arms have not always worked well together. And as a branch committed to both Jewish law and adapting to modern times, it has faced intense internal debates, most recently over its decision to approve the ordination of gay rabbis.

At the same time, Conservatives have a new crop of professional leaders who have sought to reinvigorate the movement, including Arnold Eisen, in his second year as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to head the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

And there’s Rabbi Steven Wernick, the United Synagogue’s new executive vice president and CEO.

When the group’s conference opens Dec. 6 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, observers say all eyes will be on the man charged with infusing new life into the congregational body.

Tapped in March to head the organization, the former religious leader of Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa., has spent the past months meeting with congregations across the United States and Canada.

“I hope that we create a new vision that provides hope and confidence that United Synagogue is prepared to play a significant role in the life of Conservative Judaism,” said Wernick, acknowledging that he’s working to restore the effectiveness and credibility of United Synagogue.

He said the agency is in the midst of creating a long-range strategic plan.

“This is one of those seminal moments in history, and we are going to rise to the occasion and create the foundations for a resurgence of Conservative Judaism,” he said.

Geffen said that Wernick is “going to have to present and defend a lot of his decisions” at the conference.

“It will be very interesting to watch his public role and see him as an advocate of the movement,” Geffen said.

Those decisions include an announcement in September that United Synagogue plans to cut 10 percent of its staff and downsize from 15 regional offices to six district offices. That move followed a similar downsizing undertaken by the Reform movement.

The four-day biennial also will feature a public meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Laws and Standards, which provides guidance for religious practice.

The body is expected to debate a responsa — a body of written legal and policy decisions — that would encourage Jewish cemeteries to create a separate section where non-Jewish spouses could be buried next to their Jewish mates.

The committee also will debate appropriate forms of contraception according to Jewish law and whether families should keep violent video games out of the house.

Rabbi Robert Layman, who led the local United Synagogue office for more than a decade, said he always believed that more Reform Jews identified with the Reform movement as a whole, while the vast majority of Conservative Jews identified more closely with their particular synagogue rather than the theology and ritual practice of the Conservative movement.

Many of the issues and debates sure to arise at the biennial — outreach to interfaith families, the changing nature of the synagogue and community, the challenge of engaging “post-denominational” Jews — were on the agenda at a recent program sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s alumni association.

More than 90 people attended the Nov. 22 panel discussion at Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa., featuring Eisen, the chancellor at JTS, and three recent graduates, all clergy currently working in the region.

Since the trends in Judaism are favoring smaller communities, minyans and study groups, the panelists wrestled with just how the Conservative synagogue can serve contemporary needs.

“It’s definitely time, when the world has totally transformed itself within the last 20 years, for a new look at the institutions in the Jewish community,” said Eisen.

Rabbi Michael Uram, incoming director of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, said that too much time is spent worrying about the future of the movement rather than the wider Jewish world.

“We always seem to be asking questions about how do we advance an institution, how do we build a movement,” said Uram, who added that thinking needs to shift toward serving communities and individuals rather than serving a movement. “Is the goal an institution or is the goal Judaism?”

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill said he faces this conundrum as a congregational rabbi: How many different study sessions and minyanim can we have going on until we don’t feel like a congregation anymore?

“How much community do we cede in doing that?” Peltz wonders.

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