The Conservative challenge
Amid signs of decline, convention airs calls for innovation, action
Some 100 members of United Synagogue Youth stand on chairs to welcome convention-goers with Hebrew folk songs at the start of the centennial celebration.
October 16, 2013
BALTIMORE — Despite a survey’s ominous findings of sharp declines in the Conservative movement, its leading umbrella group opened its 100th anniversary conference with an upbeat pledge to question “who we are, what we stand for, and what we contribute to the Jewish landscape — in our communities, across the continent, and around the world.”
Those words from Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, kicked off the organization’s “Conversation of the Century” at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
Just days before, the Pew Research Center released a survey on U.S. Jews reporting that, as Wernick described the findings, “the proportion of American Jews who identify as Conservative has shrunk to 18 percent, a drop from 43 percent in 1990 and 33 percent in 2000.”
“Let’s be real,” Wernick, a Caldwell resident, urged the audience of 2,250. “There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting. And tweaking…. It is our hope that this centennial serves as a turning point — a pivot between an uncertain present and a promising future. It happens by building a big tent, a free market of ideas, inspiration, and action.”
Wernick called on Conservative Jews to “build bridges wherever we can. Let’s unite on issues that matter to all of us, whether it is the scourge of gun violence in the U.S., or social justice matters, or the environment, or access and acceptance for people with disabilities and special needs, or supporting Israel.”
Seconding Wernick’s theme of inclusion was Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s Manhattan-based seminary.
Eisen proposed a three-fold strategy to confront what he called this “time of unprecedented challenge and change” for Conservative Judaism: being as welcoming as possible to bring in more Jews, taking Conservative Judaism beyond the bounds of the synagogue, and providing more money and time to the movement.
Jewish families, “whether they are baby boomers of my generation or millennials or younger than millennials, whether they are gay or straight, whether they are women or men, whether they are Jews by choice or Jews by birth or non-Jews sharing their lives with Jews — I think they want to live seriously and they want to live well.
“They want guidance on setting their kids on the right path. They need help in facing up to difficult moments.”
The theme of change and the readiness of the movement to embrace it sounded throughout the convention, which brought together rabbis, lay leaders, and synagogue professionals for workshops, governance meetings, and pep talks.
“The challenges are clear,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, as he arrived at the convention. “We need to be much more mindful and effective and proactive in engaging people in their 20s and 30s and keeping empty-nesters engaged. We can’t just be pediatric institutions,” said Silverstein, who has held leadership positions in the Conservative movement on the local, national, and international level.
“There are a lot of things we could be doing better and a lot that has to do with basics,” agreed Patricia Wershulz of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford and the past chair of Service to Congregations at USCJ.
“People aren’t coming through their youth with a feeling of what it means to be Jewish like it was a generation ago. Being Jewish means something different to them now, and we need to understand what that is and meet them there.”
Standing beside his congregant, Beth-El Mekor Chayim’s Rabbi Ben Goldstein said, “Every community sometimes thinks it is the only one facing a problem. It is nice to come together with so many people who have the same shared values and vision.”
Ned Gladstein, a North Caldwell resident and Agudath Israel leader as well as a board member of both USCJ and JTS, said the goal was to strengthen Judaism as a whole, not “win” a competition among denominations.
“To me it is a matter of what’s good for the Jews,” said Gladstein. “A strong Orthodox community is good for the Jews. A strong Reform community is good for the Jews. A strong Conservative movement is good for the Jews. How do we all move forward? That is what this conference is about.”
Barry Mael of Highland Park, director of kehilla (community) operations and finance at USCJ, was among those who said he was eager for change.
“People have to rethink what were certain beliefs and expectations 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he said. “People joined congregations because that’s what you did. Now people want a reason. They are looking for something, and you need to meet that need.” Mael is the former executive director of the NJ region of USCJ.
“Leadership has to rethink what we do. What makes our community one that people want to be part of?” he said. “We have to get back to relationship-building. There have been times when we took relationships for granted. We can’t take relationships for granted anymore. We must look at new models and not assume the old ways are going to work.”
Among the opening day speakers was Erica Brown, the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
She assigned her audience some “homework,” calling on them “to become positive disruptive innovators.” Rather than trying to fix the world, she suggested they “go out and do a little damage. Disrupt the world. Change it and question it…to force meaning into the world of creative Jewish life that matters and attracts others.”
A movement by any other name
AS DELEGATES to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism conference held in celebration of its 100th anniversary contemplated broad changes to their movement, one theme under consideration was a change of its very name.
“Conservative” dates back to 1913, when Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, helped found the United Synagogue of America, as the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations was then known. The idea was to “conserve” Jewish tradition in the face of challenges from both the liberal Reform movement and a rigid Orthodoxy.
Mindful that the word “conservative” is laden with secular political meanings that might not reflect their own leanings, an informal survey by NJ Jewish News found some Conservative Jewish leaders would favor a rebranding.
“That conversation has been taking place for quite a while,” USCJ CEO Steven Wernick told NJJN. “The challenge is that Conservative Judaism is more of a federation of organizations. It is something that perhaps we do have to address again and find a way to get through, but no one organization has the ability to make the change on our own, and that is part of the challenge.”
“I wish I could come up with the right word,” said Ned Gladstein, a North Caldwell resident and USCJ board member. “‘Conservative’ has a whole different meaning today than it did when Solomon Schechter was walking the earth 100 years ago. When you are dealing with something as intimate as a Jewish way of life, it is hard to come up with one word that sums it up, but I think it is time to do it.”
Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell and a leader of the worldwide Conservative movement, is a fan of the word “masorti,” or traditional, as the movement is known in Israel and other countries outside North America.
“I have often advocated — and I’m very biased because I was president of the World Masorti Movement — that ‘masorti’ is a better term,” said Silverstein. “Today, because we have over 200 Masorti synagogues outside the U.S. and they are growing, it would make a lot of sense to adopt that name.”
“In the modern American political dialogue the word ‘Conservative’ gets misconstrued,” said Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford. “It is an incomplete picture of what Masorti Judaism is.” However, he added, “on my list of things to change, the name is not very high on the list.”
“I am aware that people feel the name might not be appropriate,” said Barry Mael of Highland Park, director of kehilla operations and finance at USCJ. “I am open to a healthy conversation about it.”
— ROBERT WIENER
Wooing the ‘independents’
ONE VEXING PROBLEM for the Conservative movement is the flight of many of its most promising young leaders away from formal affiliation with the movement. They include Rabbi Sharon Brous, a former New Jersey resident who heads the influential IKAR community in Los Angeles, and her fellow Jewish Theological Seminary graduate Rabbi Shai Held, cofounder and dean of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva in New York that also does not affiliate.
Both rabbis were asked to present at this week’s biennial conference of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (Brous said she declined due to a scheduling conflict). The invitations were part of a larger strategy by Conservative leaders to co-opt the successful congregations, institutions, and communities started by JTS graduates that have shunned the Conservative label.
Both USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick and JTS chancellor Arnie Eisen said the important thing is not whether such groups identify as Conservative, but whether they promote the kind of Judaism espoused by the movement. If they do, they’re Conservative — whether they admit it or not.
“If good things are happening out there and they are fully in accord with what JTS wants to happen and they’re nearly identical to Conservative Judaism — and they don’t fly the flag of Conservative Judaism, I’m very happy with that,” Eisen said.
Wernick agreed. “I don’t think that affiliation with the movement is really the key,” he said. “The movement only exists in order to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.”
That approach gives Conservative leaders an alternative to the narrative of decline in movement institutions.
Several years ago, a group of synagogues refused to pay their USCJ dues, saying they were not getting anything in return. In January, it was reported that USCJ ran a cumulative budget deficit of nearly $6 million over the previous two years. Along with the drop in the number of member synagogues, the number of Solomon Schechter day schools has fallen sharply. And in June, USCJ announced it was shutting down Koach, its college outreach organization.
In Wernick’s view, the decline in the number of formally affiliated Conservative synagogues is beside the point; popular egalitarian minyans like IKAR and Manhattan’s Kehilat Hadar ought to count, too.
In an interview, Wernick would not put a figure on the number of USCJ member synagogues. “That’s a conversation I’m not having anymore,” he said. A spokeswoman later said the number is about 630.
“There’s two urgent questions here,” said Held. “One is the future of Conservative Judaism, and the second, which is not entirely overlapping, is the struggle of United Synagogue for continued relevance.
“From my conversations with rabbis in the field, there is a lot of skepticism out there.”
— URIEL HEILMAN, JTA