dan pine, staff writer
The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent staff contributed to this report.
Morey Schapira is feeling pretty good about the direction of Conservative Judaism. The Palo Alto–based executive director of the Northern Region of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism just returned from last week's biennial, and he says the convention left him upbeat. "If you want one word to describe the convention, it's 'change,'" Schapira said. "The second is 'rededication.' That theme came up repeatedly."
The convention confronted many issues, large and larger, facing the movement. Among them: Do Conservative Jews need a new way to pray?
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, apparently thinks so.
During his installation speech at the biennial, which concluded last week, Wernick called for innovative ways to tackle a variety of issues, including prayer. "Many of our congregations report that [prayers] in many of our synagogues do not speak to them, do not inspire them, and do not reach their heart or their souls," said Wernick, who in July took the helm of United Synagogue, which represents North American Conservative congregations.
Wernick noted that many participants of the movement's Ramah camps and United Synagogue Youth programs, for example, "come home to find the excitement and spiritual engagement they experience elsewhere missing in their own communities."
More than 500 lay leaders and professionals from across the United States and Canada attended the conference, held in Cherry Hill, N.J. They also heard from speakers such as Israel's U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren and Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
The four-day conference took place as United Synagogue undergoes structural changes brought about in part by the dissatisfaction of congregations claiming they haven't received enough value for their dues.
Earlier this year, 30 Conservative congregations withheld their dues and left United Synagogue. Over the course of a decade, the movement has dropped from 800 synagogues to approximately 650.
The parley came at a time of declining synagogue membership and a $1.3 million budget deficit at the United Synagogue. Wernick announced a new strategic plan for the United Synagogue, as well as key structural changes, including reducing the number of board members from 300 to 75.
"The movement has to have better coordination within the movement arms," Schapira added. "The good news is the change at the top leadership. Within the last two years at Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly and at United Synagogue, we're seeing a next generation of leadership."
At the seminary, that leader is former Stanford professor Arnie Eisen. At United Synagogue, it's Wernick.
"I think he's doing a good job," said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham. "I was inspired by him and what he's trying and doing. He knows he has to make changes, but he's listening to people."
Bloom's congregation may pay closer attention to Wernick than most. Eugene Wernick, the father of Steven Wernick, served as Temple Beth Abraham's rabbi in the late 1970s.
But today's congregants may focus more on Wernick's themes for strengthening the Conservative movement. Those themes include reaching out to young adult Jews, defining Conservative Judaism more clearly, and codifying best practices for stable synagogue management.
Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga attended the convention. He says he takes a somewhat contrary view in that he feels his congregation has gotten its money's worth from United Synagogue. That's because he and others asked directly for help. "The Conservative movement has become the whipping boy of American Jewish life today in a lot of ways," Pressman said, "and a lot of the problems are really exaggerated in some of the Jewish media. There are a large number of robust, creative vital congregations. We're very strong in the grassroots."
Pressman's synagogue won three Solomon Schecter Awards at this year's convention, including first-place honors for its young adult program, Jews Next Dor, and for its outreach program.
Those programs are part of Beth David's determination to make synagogue life more meaningful, relevant and fun. That includes prayer. "We've worked hard to be welcoming," Pressman said. You walk in and people greet you. We're very participatory and lay-led, with a lot of congregational singing. We reconfigured the space so it's three-quarters in the round, so we're not separated. Do I think adding a rock band would make a critical difference? I do not."
Making prayer and worship meaningful has long been a challenge. Pressman points out that even in the Talmud, the sages debated how to keep people praying with kavanah, or deep intention. In his convention speech, Wernick said that too often, worshipers feel they are "prisoners" to the traditional prayerbook, and that diversity needs to be encouraged. He also said clergy need to better explain the poetry and symbolism inherent in the liturgy.
A positive step in that direction is the publication of a new High Holy Day prayerbook created by the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement's rabbinic arm. One local synagogue taking on the new prayerbook is Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. Congregational president Martha Amram said it's been a long time coming.
"People are struggling to define what it means to be a Conservative Jew," she said. "How do we reach [young people]? They're twittering, and we're sending out printed newsletters."
As a kind of Web 2.0 upgrade, Amram noted that last fall a few creative Kol Emeth congregants made a video, posted on YouTube, which pitched the synagogue as a great place for High Holy Day services. Not only did it get many views, it worked. Several young adults new to the congregation showed up.
At Temple Beth Abraham, Bloom has tried to walk a careful line when it comes to making prayer more relevant. "Yes, we want to do more to inspire people in prayer," he said. "How is that done? On one hand you want more transliteration, make things shorter and more creative. On the other hand, if you cut it too much you risk losing your more seriously observant people. They don't want shorter services."
However the Conservative movement addresses these issues, it will likely continue grappling for survival as Judaism's middle way between more liberal and more Orthodox denominations. "We're doing fine," said Bloom. "It's the curse of the middle, which is also the benefit of the middle. You get the advantages and disadvantages. It's Maimonides' golden mean: All in moderation. It's a wonderful way to live life."
by Adam Kredo, Staff Writer
Bryan Schwartzman of The Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.
If the first step to recovery is admitting there's a problem, the Conservative movement's congregational arm could be on its way to righting a ship that many say is riddled with leaks.
Guarantees of substantive reformation, in fact, drove the narrative last week at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's annual biennial, a four-day gathering of Conservative lay leaders and professionals from across the country.
Though attendees spent the bulk of their time mulling the organization's multiple programmatic and institutional shortfalls, few reported arriving at an adequate blueprint for change.
"There's a a feeling that the organization needs to change, but not a lot of consensus on what that means," said Brian Israel, the president of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, who spent Sunday and Monday of last week at the gathering in Cherry Hill, N.J., discussing USCJ's institutional woes.
"The organization has obviously taken a lot of hits over the last years, and they're very focused on change," Israel said, adding that, on the other hand, few could agree on any concrete plans for reformation.
As the USCJ undergoes an unprecedented structural upheaval -- brought about in large part by the dissatisfaction of congregations claiming that they weren't receiving enough programmatic and other kinds of guidance in exchange for their dues -- lay leaders and professionals who attended the four-day powwow expressed a sense of skeptical optimism.
Many were unsure if the United Synagogue has the wherewithal to transform itself into an entity that helps congregations become more dynamic, welcoming and fiscally stable.
High hopes, however, are being pinned on the back of Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue's newly installed executive vice president.
Entering his term with an explicit mandate to implement change, Wernick has attempted to rekindle USCJ's focus on North America's 650 or so Conservative congregations. (That number has dropped precipitously in the past decade from about 800.)
Lay leaders "want to give Rabbi Wernick the benefit of the doubt," said Ohr Kodesh's Israel, describing the new exec's much-anticipated installation speech as "inspirational."
During that talk, Wernick outlined the "calculated risk" he's taking by implementing a slew of changes at USCJ.
"I want to talk about taking risk and how calculated risk, when infused with wisdom and courage, can pay off in important ways," Wernick said, admitting that "in recent years we haven't been all of what we could be; we haven't been enough of what you wanted us to be. We understand, I understand, very clearly that we have much to do to merit your support and approval."
Wernick then went on to outline several of the substantive overhauls recently implemented at United Synagogue, including whittling down its 15 regional offices to six and reducing the size of its board by about half. (Talks also were held about changing the formula for determining the dues that congregations pay, and the biennial served to jump-start a nine-month process in which United Synagogue will adopt a new long-range strategic plan.)
David Sacks, president of Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring, said that while the newly crafted changes are minute, Wernick's speech "left me with the sense that he understands the problem."
Sacks, one of the lead organizers of a dissident group of congregational lay leaders who recently threatened to break away from USCJ, seemed optimistic that the organization is beginning to reform.
"We have to give this thing a shot," Sacks said, explaining that as a longtime critic of the USCJ, he feels obligated to help it survive.
"If I'm going to sit back and nudge them, I should roll up my sleeves ... and come help," he said. "It's not because I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, but as a lay leader if you want to see things improve, you've got to roll up your sleeves."
As for the opposition movement, which calls itself Bonim, Sacks said "the letter-writing campaign is done," and that the group will put its breakaway plans on the back burner for the time being.
Jerry Kiewe, Ohr Kodesh's executive director, found Wernick's proposals wanting.
"I don't think it went all that far ... I don't think it was groundbreaking" Kiewe said, explaining that in his experience, USCJ has not been "sufficiently concerned with synagogues." (Though, he also admitted, his shul often has neglected to take "advantage" of United Synagogue's services.)
As the wheels of institutional change begin to grind slowly, Kiewe noted that patience will be a virtue.
"Anyone expecting to find the one magic silver bullet ... that's not possible," he said. Wernick is "entitled to some time."
Meanwhile, during an hour-long panel discussion with USCJ's leading figures, the audience had an opportunity to raise pressing questions confronting the movement. Among them: What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew in an age when far fewer Jews identify with denominational labels? How can the movement attract more members in their 20s and 30s? Is the name itself outmoded? How can the arms of the movement work together better?
"While we have considerable problems, I think we continue to have the best product," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
Wernick; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to head the Rabbinical Assembly; and Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly were also on the panel.
Schonfeld said that in an age when many are asking if movements and denominations have outlived their usefulness, Conservative Judaism can offer up a new working definition of what a denomination can look like.
"That new denomination," she said, "as opposed to being boxes in which we put people, is going to be more like an ecosystem -- more like an interdependent and complex world in which there is room for all different kinds of Jews."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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