Leading Conservative Rabbis Push Hard For More Input


The international president of the Conservative movement’s synagogue arm has agreed to meet with a group of influential rabbis, cantors and lay leaders pressing for swift and radical change.

The official, Raymond Goldstein of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said the meeting would be held to help develop “a strategic plan for renewing the Conservative movement,” but that it would have to wait until after his organization selects a new executive vice president. He said negotiations are underway with one of a handful of candidates who were interviewed, and that he hoped to have the process “wrapped up” as early as next week.

[The Jewish Week reported on its Web site Wednesday afternoon that Rabbi Steven Wernick, spiritual leader of the Adath Israel Congregation in Merion Station, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, has been chosen to succeed Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who has led the organization for two decades.

Rabbi Wernick is a product of the movement, having been ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and attended Camp Ramah and the United Synagogue Youth group. A public announcement is expect to confirm the appointment soon.]

The 50-member ad hoc group of rabbis, cantors and lay leaders, who call themselves HaYom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, requested the meeting in a strong letter last week to Goldstein that reflected a deep sense of frustration with the pace and workings of the United Synagogue in particular and the movement in general, asserting that “nothing less than the future of the Conservative movement” rides on the outcome of such discussions.

The group included Rabbis Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, Gordon Tucker of Westchester, David Wolpe of Los Angeles and Jack Moline of Virginia.

“This is a prominent group who want to bring their expertise and resources to the United Synagogue and transform the movement,” said the group’s chair, Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago. “They want to develop long range plans and think about how to re-engineer all of the branches of the movement so we can work together in harmony. We hope this will be a positive experience.”

In their letter, the group wrote: “Part of what has eluded us in recent years has been connecting these many religious communities together in a vision and mission that would give us a sense of common cause.

“The [United Synagogue] has always been the organization to which we have looked for making that happen, and although candor forces us to say that we have often been disappointed in the past, we continue to believe that with the right kind of re-engineering to suit the needs of the times, with the right professional leadership, and with a commitment to work together with the rabbis, cantors and lay leadership of individual congregations, it can still happen.”

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

It was unclear why the letter, which expressed disappointment that the search process had not been more inclusive, was sent at the end of the selection process for Rabbi Epstein’s successor rather than earlier.

Goldstein said Rabbi Siegel and Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had both asked to place representatives on the search committee but that the request came too late in the process. He said the committee was confined it to lay and professional leaders of the United Synagogue.

Those familiar with how the letter came to be said it reflected a deep sense of disappointment with the leadership of the United Synagogue and how it has operated. But in emphasizing the positive, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the incoming executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said she had seen the letter and that it “shows a tremendous commitment on the part of our rabbis to the revitalization of the Conservative movement.”

“The letter is very clear that they desire to work in a partnership with the United Synagogue to build our future, and I think what it demonstrates is the commitment to bring renewal and revitalization,” she added.

Rabbi Siegel said the group is called HaYom [today] because the changes needed in the Conservative movement cannot wait until tomorrow.

“The United Synagogue has to evolve and change,” he added.

“Often change does not come from within but from outside agitating forces that create the evolutionary moment. We will be that group. We no longer are going to wait patiently.”

The letter stressed that the signatories “are looking for serious conversations to take place without delay at this moment of opportunity, conversations in which no visionary idea will be excluded simply because it has not been done in the past, conversations that will involve leaders from all arms of the movement, conversations that will have as their goal the emergence within a reasonably limited period of time, a strategic plan for renewing the Conservative movement.”