Apr 22, 2010

Cleveland Jewish News: "Conservative movement makes changes with eye on youth"

Cleveland Jewish News: "Conservative movement makes changes with eye on youth"

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By Douglas J. Guth
Senior Staff Reporter
Published: Thursday, April 22, 2010 4:22 PM EDT
Conservative Jewish leaders acknowledge that recruiting, retaining and engaging younger members is an ongoing aim of the aging, shrinking movement.

However, it's unfair to blame young Jews for not wanting to join synagogues or take on time-consuming leadership roles within the denomination when the movement's governing body is largely at fault, says Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. He was in Cleveland earlier this week to visit with local Jewish leaders.

"They didn't abandon us; it's more like we abandoned them," Wernick, 42, told the CJN during an interview at B'nai Jeshurun Congregation. "We gave them a model (of Conservative life) and just told them to fit in."

During his first year on the job as United Synagogue's executive vice president and CEO, Wernick has been working to streamline the organization with the long-term goal of making Conservative Judaism more attractive to prospective new members. The restructuring has included shrinking United Synagogue from 15 regions to six and eliminating five positions in the main office.

The umbrella organization, which receives dues from individual congregations, had been too unwieldy, explains Wernick, a Philadelphia resident who replaced the retired Rabbi Jerome Epstein last July. The changes are meant to make the organization "smaller" and therefore more directly accountable to the synagogues it serves, he notes.

While strengthening congregations continues to be United Synagogue's fundamental mission, making inroads with a new generation means refurbishing the programming available outside of temple walls, Wernick says.

As part of the group's reorganization, United Synagogue will place programming for youth and young adults under one department as well as provide "seamless programming" for members as they grow within the movement, Wernick reports.

For example, the group offers a continuum of  social networking programs: Kadima and USY are geared toward middle-school and high-school students, followed by Koach for college students, and Kesharim for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

Wernick's organizational restructuring includes plans to grow Kesharim, currently a small committee that offers minimal grants to burgeoning minyanim, into a larger body that provides more resources to young adults and emerging congregations. The idea is to directly impact young Conservative Jews by addressing their programming needs, Wernick says.

"We have to cater" to this critical demographic, he adds. "The synagogue may be the most important portal of Jewish involvement, but it's not the only portal."

Wernick, son of longtime Conservative Rabbi Eugene Wernick, has spent half of the last 12 months on the road, talking to leaders within the movement.

A surprising theme of those conversations has been "the depth of the angst and concern about our future," admits the rabbi. The worldwide economic downturn is part of that worry, and has been exacerbated by the denomination's changing demographics.

While United Synagogue estimates there are 1.4 million members in about 760 Conservative congregations throughout the country, the National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America reports that membership in Conservative synagogues fell from 43% of Jewish households in the late 1980s to 33% in 2000.

 The hoped-for makeover Wernick is spearheading will be difficult and will likely happen in stages, he notes. Kick-starting youth programming may only be one aspect of this sea change, but motivating the next generation of leadership to get involved will go far to boost other facets of the movement, he believes.

"People want to see a transformation," Wernick remarks. "This is an exciting time for us."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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