Revitalizing United Synagogue


Rabbi Charles Savenor, former dean of admissions at the Jewish Theological Seminary, last July assumed the position of executive director of the Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism representing 108 synagogues. In remarks March 18 to METNY’s synagogue leadership conference, Rabbi Savenor spoke of the need to revitalize the organization. He recently spoke with The Jewish Week.

Q: Is the Conservative movement here dying?
A: I don’t think so. One of the things that surprised me in the most positive way since I came to work here is the vitality of our synagogues. At the same time I think there is a need in this economic downturn for synagogues to return to what their core missions are — and supplying
religious services is not the only thing they do.

What are you referring to?
A vital part of revitalization is creating a supportive community in our synagogues. There should be a feeling among the congregants that the synagogue is looking out for their spiritual needs on as much of an individual basis as it can. It will involve course programming and Facebook and the Internet. We have to create opportunities for people to get to know one another and connect with one another. I want to create intimacy and community within our synagogue; running programs is not enough.

One of the things that helped the Orthodox movement is that people live close to the shul. I’m trying to capture that sense of community and make it a priority among our shuls. We’re not just measuring how many members you have, but what is the esprit de corps in the synagogue itself.

Is it true that you no longer want the United Synagogue to simply run programs for congregations?

I don’t think we will be running random programming anymore. Our board is comprised of lay leaders with a wealth of experience, and my vision is that we create relevant leadership training modules for synagogue leaders around the region and that we offer them on a regular basis.

You said, “Our best and brightest have moved to either the Orthodox movement or to independent
minyanim.” Why is that and what do you plan to do about it?
I think we rely heavily on our clergy to lead us. And one of the trends that is coming out of the independent minyanim is that the next generation of Jewish leadership wants to have a voice and to be able to share words of Torah and to lead tefilah [prayer]. This is a conversation I’m going to have with our rabbis and cantors — how to do we utilize the talents of those in the independent minyamin in our synagogue?
Some Conservative shuls here have suffered a serious drop in membership. How many are dying?
Between five and 10. And some are on their last legs because the neighborhoods around them have changed. I am also inspired by some of our synagogues that are doing very, very well. I would say about 20 of our synagogues are experiencing growth.