Dec 7, 2009

Rabbi Steven Wernick's Address to USCJ Biennial Convention

Rabbi Steven Wernick's Address to USCJ Biennial Convention

December 6-10, 2009, Cherry Hill, NJ

Thank you Ray for your kind words, for your leadership of United Synagogue these past several years and for your guidance and friendship these past six months in particular. And thank you Rabbi Lindemann. Since the day we met you have been my friend, my frequent source of counsel, my teacher and it seems my go to guy for installations! Let me also thank the Biennial chairperson Carole Korowitz, the entire convention committee, and Rabbi Paul Drazen for all his work as the convention professional. I must also acknowledge and thank the entire staff of United Synagogue, who through a very tumultuous time continue to demonstrate great professionalism and commitment to all of us through their dedication to their work. Thank you. And let me also acknowledge and thank Rabbi Jerry Epstein for his 30 years of service to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 23 as the executive vice president and CEO. During this transition you have been a great source of support. Thank you.

I also want to acknowledge the many friends, colleagues and family members who are here with me tonight for all of your hizuk and support. I owe special thanks, and probably a lot more, to my wife Jody and my three beautiful daughters, Ziva, Hannah and Alana, with whose love and support I am here with you in this new role. Jody, you have given so much to our family and to me during this time and at all times. You've even given up a birthday celebration, "choosing" instead to spend your special day here this evening with 500 of our closest friends. I didn't want you to be totally left out so I bought you this gift (from one of the vendors), there's a birthday cake for the reception and I thought we'd begin this evening with Yom Huledet Sameah. We'll see how that goes over later!

It's a pleasure for me to be here with you today in Cherry Hill and in this hotel in particular. The very first USY international convention I ever attended was held here. I have many fond memories of that convention and continue to maintain very close personal relationships with the people I shared it with. At that time I never could have imagined that almost 30 years later I would again be at this hotel in Cherry Hill, but this time as the executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. And through all the years that I was a rabbi in this community, I must have driven past this hotel thousands of times. Not too long ago the Cherry Hill racetrack was across the street. Every time I would pass it I would be reminded of a story told by one of this area's and Conservative Judaism's great rabbis, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg.

The man sitting on the park bench across the synagogue was a picture of dejection. His shabby clothes looked as if he has slept in them, and his tired face was covered by a scraggly beard. The rabbi, overcome with pity, pressed a five dollar bill into his hand, whispered, "Godspeed," and was gone.

A few hours later the stranger burst into the rabbis study, and with obvious delight threw a fistful of bills on the rabbi's desk and shouted, "Thank you. Thank you rabbi!"

The rabbi was confused. "Thank me for what?"

"Rabbi," he exclaimed, "Godspeed paid fourteen to one!"

Now, clearly the rabbi was not encouraging the man to go to the racetrack when he said Godspeed, but gambling is not foreign to Jewish tradition. Here's a little item many of us will encourage our children to play with starting this Friday night—a dreidl. You all know the game. It traces to medieval Germanic countriesand probably was taken from a game of chance that was popular in the general, non-Jewish culture of the time. Jews adopted it to pass the time on long, dark, cold winter nights, and it became associated with Hanukkah in particular because of the letters of the words by which the game is played: Nicht – nothing, Gans – take everything, Halb – take half, and Shtel – put in. The letter sounds of those words became Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – A great miracle happened there. And perhaps this implies that there might never have been a miracle if the Maccabees hadn't been willing to take a gamble, to risk their future on a course of action that we have come to celebrate as Hanukkah. They bet their lives on it – and we, the Jewish people, won.

Tonight, I want to talk about taking risk and how calculated risk when infused with wisdom and courage can pay off in important and significant ways.

We find Conservative Judaism today at a moment of great complexity. We all know the challenges that face us: a competitive marketplace of ideas and allegiances in a nano-second culture; shifting demographics; intermarriage, assimilation and apathy; an increasing polarization of the right and the left; limited resources exacerbated by a kind of economy that most of us have never seen in our lifetimes; and varying perspectives on how to address these challenges both within our organizations and among them. Due to these demographic, social and economic realities our numbers have decreased and many of our synagogues and institutions are struggling or are performing less effectively than we know that they are able to and that they would like to. As a result of all of this some have prophesized our imminent demise. I'm sure the Maccabees had to put up with plenty of false prophets too. There are always those who would prefer to curse the darkness rather than kindle a candle.

But you know what…you're still here, and I'm still here, because, like those who have gone before us, we find Conservative Judaism a compelling way of life and we're betting it has a bright future. Conservative Judaism has influenced every significant element of my identity: from growing up in a home with a father who is a JTS ordained rabbi and a mother (z"l) who was a religious school principle; to community of friends formed through USY and at Camp Ramah who I believe redeemed me spiritually and emotionally in very real ways; and the privilege of serving as rabbi of two great local Conservative synagogues – Temple Beth Sholom here in Cherry Hill and Adath Israel in Merion Station, PA.

I am a Conservative Jew because of what Conservative Judaism is – we seek to uphold our sacred Jewish traditions while embracing the liberty and wisdom to be found in modern North American life. I am a Conservative Jew because living such a life allows me to be fully rooted in modernity while constantly experiencing the sacred and reaching toward heaven. I am a Conservative Jew because seeking to simultaneously uphold tradition and embrace modernity demands that we focus on honest, open and respectful discussion on almost any issue. And we do. When it came to the role of women, the acceptance of homosexuality or the welcoming of those who are intermarried into our communities we learned from each other, we debated each other and we reached conclusions that were not always neat, but precisely because we focused openly and honestly on them, they are always authentic Jewish responses to the challenges of our day. As a community that values pluralism we celebrate the vitality of a Judaism that is built upon a foundation that fuses our classical texts and modern sensibilities in informing the lives we live. This is what makes an authentic, emotionally enriching, ritually relevant and intellectually satisfying modern Judaism. In many ways the struggle over the relevancy of United Synagogue is a struggle over the relevancy of Conservative Judaism itself. And this is why I chose to leave a congregation that I valued and that I believe valued me to assume the leadership of United Synagogue at a time in which the landscape of the organization is being greatly tested. We are here because we want all Conservative congregations and communities to succeed. And I can think of no greater challenge and no greater calling than that. And I'm betting that you feel the same way, and together we can take some calculated risks that will pay off big for the Judaism we believe it.

I'd like to say one more thing about why I believe the challenge that we must engage in now for the future of Conservative Judaism is critical. In particular I want to say something to those who suggest that the middle has not and will not hold. The middle is an indispensable part of every social structure. I believe represents the ideal or the practice of promoting moderate practices that lie between different extremes. It is graduates from the Jewish Theological Seminary that created the educational basis for every Jewish studies program in every major university in North America. Much of the leadership for Jewish causes on campus, in federations, at the head of Israel advocacy and in many other significant national and international Jewish organizations is made up those who grew up in Conservative synagogues. And a majority of the much-talked-about and successful independent minyanim are made up of the children of Conservative Jews. Just think for a moment, then, what the demise of the middle would mean in practical terms to North American Jewry. Our struggle to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism is also the struggle to reinvigorate the center of North American Jewish life. We are, therefore, an essential element of K'lal Yisrael together – the community of Israel.

As the new executive vice president and CEO I believe that the United Synagogue can and will play an important role in the future of Conservative Judaism. But before I speak about that, let me acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room. 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. You are we and we are you. So let me state unequivocally that my goal is not simply to maintain United Synagogue. 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.

Since July, when I began this new job, I have crisscrossed the continent listening to what congregation members, rabbis, presidents, executive directors, cantors, educators, board members, federation leaders, Hillel students and professionals want from United Synagogue. In all of our visits together you've told me that you share this passion and love of Conservative Judaism and that you want United Synagogue to be better than it is. It is striking that in every place I go I am told the same thing. Members of our affiliated synagogues – in other words, you – want the same four things, as surely as there are four facets on this dreidl.

First, you've told me that you want bold initiatives to create and sustain vibrant communities that care for one another, communities that share uplifting prayer experiences and communities that study Torah together not just as an intellectual exercise, but as motivation for greater Jewish living. You've told me that you want a United Synagogue that is skilled in areas of synagogue management, leadership development, board governance and strategic planning. And you want us to provide ongoing, relevant and expert consultation in order to support your communities. Nicht. Nothing less will do. No Halb. No half-way measures.

Second, you've told me that you want to see the type of transformation that will allow us all to share best practices and models of success so we can learn from each other.

Third, you've told us that you want to reinvigorate our youth groups so they are once again as good as they possibly can be. And you've told us that you want to make sure we're reaching out to and engaging our college kids on campus and making connections to young adults. All the literature suggests that this new generation requires different approaches and techniques to engage their interest and commitment. We must employ all the options available to find our youth where they are and bring them closer to our communities.

Finally, you want us to work together with the other groups that make up Conservative Judaism so we can all share a vision and have the words to describe it, both to ourselves and to others. We, as the leadership of Conservative Judaism, must work together to provide both the spiritual and administrative support necessary for bringing bold change while holding on to the traditions that we cherish. Shtel Ein – you are willing to put in, to contribute to making the future for all of us. Ganse – all, we are in it together. And that, of course brings us to the critical difference from the way we play driedl. we are not going to just spin the top and let it fall at random. We cannot and will not leave the future of Conservative Judaism to chance.

The more I hear, the more sure I am that we all know where we want to go and how to get there. I am listening, really hearing what I'm told, and trying to responding honestly and openly to the message. The message that I am hearing is extraordinarily consistent, and I want you to know that we get it.

While it is true that today we face great challenges, like generations before us we are going to confront these challenges courageously and we hope wisely. First, the lay and professional leadership of United Synagogue has made some difficult, important decisions in order to meet our budget. We have launched a process of consolidation to create six districts from our current 15 regions and restructure our central staff to better meet your expectations of us. This change is based primarily on a previously developed management reorganization plan informed by several years of additional thinking and work. Doing this has not been easy. We are keenly aware of the very real human impact of these decisions.

Second, we've begun to take necessary steps to further refine our mandate and seek input on the preparation and the implementation of a comprehensive plan that will best position the United Synagogue to not only meet the challenges of 21st century Conservative communities, but to lay a solid foundation for future growth. This is the work of our long range Strategic Planning Commission, formed in partnership with Hayom: The Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism. 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 to best structure ourselves to achieve maximum success, and how to finance it. This Wednesday during the USCJ: Hear and Be Heard session we will introduce our new management consultant and officially launch what we estimate will be a nine month process from fact-finding to a final implementation plan culminating in a renewed United Synagogue that we can all be proud of. The circumstances in which we find ourselves today were not created overnight and they will not be fixed overnight either. We understand the urgency of the moment and we are taking very serious steps to address it, but we need your partnership and patience in this process to fully realize our potential. Moreover, this is not a one time process. We plan to be continually reflective engaging in heshbon hanefesh on a regular basis. We are betting that you will all be with us in this effort as you are here tonight.

The rabbis of the Talmud understood the message of Hanukkah very well, and they didn't want the story of the oil or the Maccabees to lead people to believe that Jewish survival and continuity could come about simply by waiting for God to perform miracles. That's why they taught: Ein Somkhim Al HaNes – We don't rely on miracles. Two thousand years after the Maccabees, a Jewish leader was fighting for a Jewish state, and probably unintentionally he spoke in the same spirit as the Talmud. Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first president of Israel, said: Miracles sometimes occur, but we have to work terribly hard for them. I would add that this confirms that some risks have to be taken.

We are energized by the new opportunities all this provides us, but we also know that we cannot wait for the outcome of a long-range plan. We cannot wait. For example, one of the essential elements of our plan is to create what is known as a double matrix management system. In such a system district staff members will have two primary responsibilities. The first will be to become a congregation-centered consultant. Beginning next month, as we complete the first stage of our reorganization, we will begin the work of refocusing our efforts on you and on creating a proactive relationship in which we will learn to anticipate what resources will have the greatest impact. Second, district staff will have a particular area of specialty in synagogue strengthening, from the nuts and bolts of synagogue operations to the core issues of building sacred community and exploring ways to make tefillot more engaging.

In each specialty area we will be most successful when we work closely with you. We will seek partners who have particular skills in each area to imagine with us what excellence will look like and to create a plan to achieve it. We know that as we consolidate, figuring out how to marshal our resources to do more with less is a challenge, and we pledge to confront it head on. One way to do so is to engage with each other as adjunct consultants, as we currently do with NAASE through the Congregational Consulting Service for administrative guidance and review.

We are going to focus on two specific areas in the next few months. First, leadership training. From our conversations I know that many congregations feel they need it. Three years ago I established the Tuttleman Leadership Institute of Adath Israel, which trained emerging leaders to identify their own personal leadership styles, to understand how those skills can best serve their own synagogues, and to filter both through a Jewish lens. In collaboration with the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Outreach Partnership of Philadelphia and with input from UJA Federation of New York we have begun to adapt this model to the international arena. We aim to bring this to you by the end of this fiscal year.

Tefillot is the next area we need to address. Many of our congregants report that tefillot in many of our synagogues do not speak to them, do not inspire them and do not reach their hearts or their souls. Many of our kids, particularly those who have been most involved in USY, Ramah and Koach, come home to find the excitement and spiritual engagement they experience elsewhere missing in their own communities. We have to change that. It's time for a movement-wide task force to confront this issue and deal with it. We have to start on this immediately.

Conservative Judaism still has its work cut out for it. The problems and complexities of our generation and the opportunities that they generate, therefore, are going to be best addressed in collaboration. Just as someone can pray without a minyan and in any setting, an individual synagogue could address all of the challenges of our day alone too. But our tradition advocates for communal prayer, for praying in a minyan, because we know that being a part of a community -- that being a part of something larger than the self -- adds to the holiness of the experience. It heightens our joys and deepens our comfort.

That's why the first word of our name is also, perhaps, our first priority. UNITED we are the synagogues of Conservative Judaism. We are the organization that unites Conservative synagogues. We represent the minyan of Conservative communities. We are a congregation of congregations. The synagogue is the only place where everyone meets: congregant and professional, Woman's League and Men's Club, USY and Camp Ramah, Israel experience and Masorti, JTS, AJU; everyone. You name the "arm;" it connects to the "body" in shul. United Synagogue is the muscle that connects all of our "bodies" together.

According to the Book of Maccabees, Mattathias rallied the Jews with his stirring cry: Whoever is zealous for Adonai, follow me. I am not Mattathias; I do not pretend to be that brave, nor do we need to be called to war – thank God.

I am not Mattathias. I am merely Rabbi Steven Wernick, but as I assume the leadership of the United Synagogue, I call upon all of you, upon all of us to be zealous in our commitment to Conservative Judaism.

Now is the time, therefore, for all the arms of Conservative Judaism to unite and build upon our collective successes while we create new models to assure healthy, vibrant and spiritually fulfilling Conservative communities locally, regionally, in Israel and around the world. United Synagogue looks forward to its role in all of this as the group that unites, as a facilitator and as a conduit of Jewish life through which all our congregations, all our communities and all our organizations will be able to share and replicate the great ideas and successes of the many members of our communities who identify with and support us.

None of this has been nor will be easy. In many ways you could call it a gamble, because it seeks a commitment to new ways of thinking and new approaches to accomplishing our goals. Kol hathalot kashot, says the Talmud, all new beginnings are difficult. But these are beginnings we must take if we are to revitalize United Synagogue and Conservative Judaism. And we will be successful only if we come together and we make a new and renewed United Synagogue a priority. So I ask you to do so. Make a commitment to share your experience at this biennial and with new ideas and skills to unite the individuals and families of your congregation in the task of building sacred community locally and throughout United Synagogue. And I ask you to join with us in reshaping United Synagogue to be a greater value to you in confronting the challenges of our times with wisdom and courage.

Ein Somkhim Al Ha Nes. We do not count on miracles, but we can count on each other, on the meaning we find in Conservative Judaism's message and on our continuing capacity to make Conservative Judaism speak to others as it speaks to us, such that it continues to be the strong center of Jewish Life. I believe we can accomplish all this and more. You can bet on it.

Godspeed. And Happy Hanukkah. Thank you very much.


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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