Leaders of Conservative Judaism: ‘This Is Our Time’


Cherry Hill, N.J. — The most often heard words here this week at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism were “transform,” “transition” and “revitalize.”

Leaders of the organization — which has seen its membership drop in the last 10 years from 720 congregations to 670 — insist that the Conservative movement will be rejuvenated because of structural changes that were overwhelmingly adopted Monday and the fresh ideas of a new executive vice president and CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick.

“My goal is not simply to maintain United Synagogue,” Rabbi Wernick told the 500 congregational leaders here Sunday night. “My goal is to work with you and provide the necessary leadership to enable your congregations and communities to create a rich Jewish environment for individuals and families — to see and feel what it means to be part of a community of serious Jewish learning and living committed to Torah, God and Israel.”

He went on to admit that “Conservative Judaism has its work cut out for it.” But he said the changes that will be made over the coming months are crucial “if we are to revitalize United Synagogue and Conservative Judaism.”

Richard Skolnik, the group’s incoming international president, had a simple messages to the delegates: “This is our time. We must feel proud we are Conservative Jews; we shouldn’t hide under a rock.”

The financial crisis helped to prompt the structural reorganization of United Synagogue, according to Steven Wolnek, a past president of the group. That reorganization has seen the firing of scores of employees, a reduction of the United Synagogue board from 200 to 75 members, and the elimination of the 15 regional offices in favor of six district offices.

“We understood there is a financial crisis and that we had to downsize and do the job better and more efficiently,” he said. “About 80 to 85 percent of our budget is personnel.”

On Wednesday, a new management consultant was to be announced to officially launch a nine-month process that will develop a strategic plan for the organization’s future.

“Working together with professional and lay leaders from a number of our synagogues, we are dedicated to the very serious work of engaging our congregations more deeply about what business we should be in, how best to structure ourselves to achieve maximum success, and how to finance it,” Rabbi Wernick said.

In an interview, Rabbi Wernick was enthusiastic about the movement’s future, emphasizing morale more than specifics at this point.

“There is a pervasive sense that now is the time for a renaissance of Conservative Judaism,” he said. “Why? As we see in the general culture there is a move back to the center — a balance between the extremes.”

He said that since succeeding Rabbi Jerome Epstein in July, he had crisscrossed the country to speak with synagogue leaders about their needs and what they hoped to get out of United Synagogue. He said they told him they were looking for expertise in sustaining vibrant communities, sharing models of success with one another, reinvigorating their youth groups, and receiving the administrative and spiritual support necessary “for bringing bold change while holding onto the traditions that we cherish.

“We need to be able to articulate to ourselves and others what we are about, and what we care about,” Rabbi Wernick added. “One of the key questions for revitalization is to determine what is United Synagogue’s mandate. What role is it expected to play in nurturing and supporting Conservative Judaism?”

Once the strategic plan is complete, he said, he would expect the organization to have a “clearly defined mission, a vision for United Synagogue, and a structure of how to accomplish and pay for it. If that process is done well, I expect to grow United Synagogue and reach out to congregations that have not felt so confident about us in the past.”

During a question and answer session with leaders of the key arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive director, was asked about the “conflicting positions of the Conservative movement” and whether “if we stand for everything, can we truly stand clearly on anything?”

“This is one of the challenges our movement faces,” she replied. “We’d fail if we had pat answers. We have to live according to the ideals of Torah, ritual and ethical mitzvot, and to study and care about one another. … Conservative Judaism’s adherence to the basic principles of our tradition remains true and unambiguous.”

Asked by another delegate if the movement shouldn’t change its name to be more relevant, Rabbi Wernick said one of the biggest challenges facing the movement is its “need to find a way to articulate its values more consistently and what we believe in and why. We’re going to be judged not only by what we call ourselves but by what we do.”

When a delegate questioned whether rabbis should support the Conservative movement’s Schechter schools and Ramah camps, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in California replied that the Schechter schools work for some children.

“For us to fixate on one form of education is a tactical and religious mistake,” he said. “I’m for the best interests of each individual child. I’m a big lover of Camp Ramah. … … I’d like us to recognize that multiple portals are necessary. Success is when we bring them to the portal that allows them to flourish as Jews.”

Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the movement’s Cantor’s Assembly, told the synagogue leaders that he would like to “create many more authentic Conservative Jews … who adhere to halacha [Jewish law]. One is not a Conservative Jew by virtue of the fact that he or she is a member of a USCJ congregation.”

And to help attract Jews, he suggested that the movement “take a few pages from the Chabad playbook. They have attracted many who are unobservant; individuals who observe neither kashrut nor Shabbat. There is a lot of Chabad-bashing that goes on within our ranks. I, too, am troubled by much about Chabad, including their philosophy and practices. But, at the same time, we would be foolish not to learn from their success. In short, we need to do whatever we can within reason and without compromising our principals to grow our congregations.”

At the same time, Stein warned that in their desire to compete against neighboring synagogues that demand much less of their members, “we cannot forsake our values, especially in areas such as Jewish education.”

And he called upon the spouses of Jewish professionals to “step forward as leaders in our congregations [because] our congregations need as many positive Conservative role models as they can muster.”

Mindful of all the gray hair among the leaders here — the vast majority of whom appeared to be over the age of 50 — the last questioner asked what the movement planned to do to attract Jews in their 20s and 30s. Rabbi Wernick pointed out that attending the convention were 35 young adults under the age of 45 who were members of the newly created Young Leadership Institute. And he said professionals in the newly created six districts across North America would also be asked to identify and nurture young leaders.

Incoming president Skolnik said young leadership development would be among his highest priorities as he assumes office, succeeding Ray Goldstein. He said he has asked the 35 young leaders at the convention to join a United Synagogue committee.

“We’re looking for emerging leaders,” he explained. “Somebody who comes to shul every Shabbat or is on a youth education committee. … It’s like the Yankee’s farm operation.”

Rabbi Wernick said the movement is now developing a “system-wide leadership development program to train North American synagogue leaders” just as it now trains synagogue presidents.”
One of those attending the Young Leadership Institute, Ron Abelow, 45, of Manhattan, said he found the convention productive.

“How often are you able to get men and women in their 30s and 40s from all over the country to come and have dinner together” to exchange ideas about the future of the movement, he asked.

Rabbi Wernick added that many of these young people are already leaders in their chosen professions and so the need is to teach them “how to interact with the particularism of synagogues. … Being a synagogue leader is a sacred task. It can’t just be about budgets but about improving the sacredness of the community.”