May 19, 2009

Ray Goldstein in the Jewish Week: "For Conservative Shuls, A Moment Of Challenge"

Jewish Week Op-Ed: "For Conservative Shuls, A Moment Of Challenge"
by Ray Goldstein
Special To The Jewish Week

Recently the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has been criticized harshly, both from outside the Conservative movement and, more troublingly, from within it as well ("New Rump Group Levels Fresh Attacks On USCJ," May 15).

The critiques are not wholly without merit. This is, undeniably, a moment of challenge and change for the United Synagogue, which represents Conservative synagogues in North America.
The demographics we face are challenging. Today there are fewer people who identify themselves as Conservative Jews than there used to be. An increasing number view themselves as post-denominational, choosing independent minyanim over our synagogues. Others jump from shul to shul, or from movement to movement. Some delay going anywhere altogether until they marry and start families — a cycle that is being postponed later in life than ever. And some simply do not affiliate with synagogues.

Some Conservative synagogues are merging. Some, sadly, simply are closing. And a few are leaving United Synagogue altogether — although an equal number are joining.

Our communities are changing. They are reshaping themselves, discarding some of the mid-20th century forms they have inherited, sometimes discarding the labels that identify them as Conservative, but clearly still part of us.

But we know as well that the movement, with its insistence on the discipline of halachic living and at the same time on balancing that discipline with the evolving truths of a changing world, continues to offer an approach to Jewish life that resonates with vast numbers of Jews.

We stand at the crossroads with eyes wide open, recognizing both the significant challenges we face and the need for meaningful change these challenges demand, as well as the opportunities they present. Soon we will install a new executive vice president and a new lay president. We recently launched a process to fully reassess our mission and long-term strategic plan – a process that we undertake in concert with some of our harshest critics. In the meantime, we continue to take the concerns of our constituents with the utmost seriousness and are actively making changes to best meet their needs.

As our incoming leadership team prepares to take charge — and as we current leaders get ready to step back — we all pledge ourselves to move toward change and transparency. Our budget process must be more open. Therefore, I have instructed our finance department to put the budget in more understandable form and to post it on the web as soon as possible. We also are in the process of re-evaluating each of our programs. Those that prove ineffective or inefficient may be eliminated. We already have had to take the painful step of eliminating some staff positions.
Over the course of this year, our executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, and I, along with other lay and professional leaders, visited all of our regions' conventions to hear first-hand about local concerns and issues. We have begun to implement organizational changes that will enable us to come to members' aid more quickly. We now quickly put together conference calls on topical issues and offer webinars that help congregational leaders deal with pressing problems.

Our critics say that we have been too slow to implement change. Simultaneously, though, they demand that the United Synagogue act more democratically. Their argument is paradoxical: We are a large movement, representing many hundreds of congregations. Swift, large-scale changes imposed from our headquarters in New York would violate the very spirit of greater transparency under which we are committed to operating. We need time to build consensus among our international membership.

Despite the clear challenges, there is much evidence that the Conservative movement is vital. Our Hekhsher Tzedek project, which is focused on creating an ethical certification process for kosher foods, has captured the attention of the Jewish community, including the Orthodox. Our seminaries are continuing to produce new rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators. Conservative congregations are sprouting in Israel and Europe. Our Ramah camps are vibrant, successful, and in demand, and our Schechter schools graduate well-educated, well-rounded, committed young Conservative Jews. Yeshiva University's Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm, is dead wrong — as well as offensive — when he says it's time to recite Kaddish for our movement.

Part of the problem we face is related to the economy. Our job has always been challenging, but the economic downturn has made things much tougher. We are well aware, however, that some of the United Synagogue's difficulties are of our own making. Much of what the United Synagogue does is not readily apparent to our members. Our synagogues do not all know enough about what our mandate is and what we do on a day-to-day basis. We have not been as effective as we could have been in making sure they know about the training we offer to synagogue leaders, the support we provide synagogue professionals, the instruction in synagogue skills we offer to congregations without rabbis, and the successful work we do each day on college campuses. We have not made our members fully aware of the assistance we provide on adult education, committee structuring, synagogue libraries, personnel, Kadimah and USY youth groups. We must do better.

There are those among our critics who want to effect change from within. To them we say, bruchim ha'ba'im, welcome. Let's continue to work together. There are others, however, who wish only to tear down. To them we say: this is not the way forward. The Conservative movement, which since its inception has balanced tradition and change, will continue to change as we face this new economy with new leadership. We are confident that we will not only endure but grow and flourish. 

Raymond B. Goldstein is international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to