Conservatives Get New Leader Amid Calls for Overhaul

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 11, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
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Conservative Judaism is being roiled by potentially tectonic changes that could lead to both new leadership for the movement and structural changes in how the movement’s organizations work.

After a months-long search, the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has selected Steven Wernick, 41, a Philadelphia area rabbi, as its new executive vice president, pending negotiations and board approval.

At the same time, some of the denomination’s most prominent figures have demanded and secured a meeting with United Synagogue’s leadership to discuss a major overhaul of the way the troubled movement functions.

In a letter addressed to Ray Goldstein, United Synagogue’s international president, a coalition of more than 50 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders argued that time was running short for the Conservative movement and that dramatic action should be taken.

“We are writing to you to continue what we believe is an urgent conversation on which hangs nothing less than the future of the Conservative Movement and the fulfillment of its enormous potential in which you and we deeply believe,” wrote Rabbi Michael Siegel, a prominent Chicago rabbi, in the letter, dated March 2. Siegel is chairing the coalition, which calls itself HaYom (Hebrew for “today”).

The letter demanded a meeting within one month with Goldstein and other leaders to discuss restructuring the United Synagogue, adding, “Time is not on our side as a Movement.”

The plea comes at a time when Conservative Judaism, once the nation’s largest Jewish religious denomination, is seen as facing a potentially grave period of decline. Membership is shrinking and aging, and many younger Conservative Jews have split off to start their own prayer and study groups. Many have seen the hiring of the new executive vice president, who will replace the outgoing Rabbi Jerome Epstein on July 1, as critical to the movement’s future.

Judy Yudof, the immediate past president of United Synagogue and a member of the search committee that selected Wernick, said that both the letter from HaYom and Wernick’s expected hiring could energize the Conservative movement.

“It’s kind of a happy concurrence of events,” Yudof told the Forward. “With new leadership coming in and new leadership in two of the other arms of the movement”— Arnold Eisen, who took over as chancellor of the flagship Jewish Theological Seminary in 2006 and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who will take over as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis’ professional association — “we have, I believe, people who are willing to look at things differently than they’ve been looked at in the past.”

In an interview, Siegel emphasized that the members of HaYom wanted to work cooperatively with the United Synagogue leadership. But the relationship is already off to a rocky start. Electronic copies of the letter, which Siegel said was intended to be for just Goldstein and other United Synagogue leaders, were leaked to the media, along with an accompanying press release. Representatives of the group said that the letter was intended to remain private and that the press release was merely a contingency.

“I think the letter is an excellent letter, and I think we all know that the movement has challenges, and I look forward to meeting and working with the group of people who have offered to assist in working with the United Synagogue for the transformation of the movement,” Goldstein told the Forward. “However, I’m disturbed by the fact that nobody contacted me in advance of letter and nobody spoke to me about the content of the letter.”

Goldstein noted, too, that the electronic document’s properties file identified its “author” — computerese for “the source computer” — as Rabbi Julie Schonfeld. “That sort of disturbs me,” he said, without elaborating. Interagency rivalries have been known to surface within the movement in the past.

Nonetheless, Goldstein and Siegel are scheduled to meet during the week of March 16.

Schonfeld is not a signatory to the letter. She and Siegel both said that she had not been involved in the group and that she had been sent the draft simply as a courtesy. She offered a few comments and then sent it back.

In addition to Siegel, co-chair of Hekhsher Tzedek (the new ethical certification program), signatories of the letter include Rabbi David Wolpe, a popular rabbi in Los Angeles; Rabbi Gordon Tucker, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Chicago, a recording artist and treasurer of the Cantors Assembly. The letter had 57 signatories in all.

In an interview, Wernick, who is in his seventh year as pulpit rabbi of Temple Adath Israel in Merion, Pa., said he looked forward to working with HaYom and others and that he shared their sense of urgency.

“Every synagogue is doing their budget and looking at how to respond to the economic crisis at hand, and they’re saying, ‘We’re investing a lot in United Synagogue, and we’re not satisfied with everything that we’re receiving from it,’” Wernick told the Forward. “This sense of urgency provides a sense of opportunity for us to look at where are, where want to be, and to put our forces together to get there.”

One issue in particular that the letter raised was its concern that the search for the new professional head of the United Synagogue has not been transparent enough to members of the movement outside the organization’s leadership.

Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, a Philadelphia-area pulpit rabbi who has worked with Wernick, and who signed the HaYom letter, said that some of Wernick’s greatest skills were his ability to listen, elicit feedback, and bring more people into the decision-making process.

“I’ve seen him do that in Philadelphia,” Glanzberg-Krainin told the Forward. “If he can do that on a national level, and really engage people in becoming partners, then that will bode well for the national organization.”

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