Standing Again at Sinai


One of Judaism’s most profound ideas is the notion that each year at Shavuot each of us stands at Mount Sinai, poised to receive the Torah as if for the first time. The holiday, in other words, is an annual renewal of the relationship we Jews as a people experience with God through Torah.

It is incumbent upon us at Shavuot, then, to consider to what we are renewing ourselves. As a proud Conservative Jew, standing again at Sinai, I commit myself to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian and traditional.

There’s a problem, though. Too many Conservative Jewish synagogues and institutions – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism included – have forgotten the passion, the joy, and even the accessibility. They have been too bland for too long.

Conservative Jewish leaders have carried out the routine daily tasks of planning services and events, celebrating mitzvot and simchas, helping arrange shivas, and soliciting new members. These are important tasks, and if they are not done correctly our synagogues flail and disorder reigns, but they are not enough.

This is keva – the fixed tasks that define a Jewish life – and it is part of the balance every Jewish community needs.

But these kinds of tasks are not the reason why our kehillot – our synagogues, our sacred communities – exist, and the kehillot that go about their work in this routine way are missing something incredible.

Kehillot should exist to transform Jewish lives, to foster a community that empowers Jews to seek the presence of God, to find meaning and purpose in Torah and mitzvot, to fully engage with Israel and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world. Going to shul should find our emotions affected and our passions engaged. Our hearts should beat faster. The more kavannah – the more intentionality – we bring to our kehillot, the more spiritually rewarding it will be.

From the bima to the boardroom, from preschool through adulthood, at day school, religious school, USY, Camp Ramah, the college campus and Torah discussions over coffee and the Shabbat table in between, what we as Conservative Jews do best is apply our ancient values and traditions to modern settings. We seek to benefit from the dynamism of today’s scholarship and inquiry by using our knowledge of Jewish texts and modern life to live Jewish values in this world.

When I stand at Sinai again this year, I will recommit myself to these values. And these are the values to which United Synagogue is committed as we work to strengthen and transform kehillot across the continent. As we stand at Sinai at this moment of renewal we commit to a mission to identify, create, nurture, and deliver the multifaceted support that will enable each of our kehillot to fulfill its own sacred mission.

We commit to creating a web of connections that brings each kehilla closer to other kehillot, and to the many centers of energy that comprise Conservative Judaism’s common sense of community, shared mission, and purpose.

Chag Shavuot sameach.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.