Conservative Leaders Say They're Ready For Change As Biennial Conference Looms

Pew Study Shows Only 18% of Jews Identify Conservative

By Uriel Heilman

Published October 08, 2013.
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“If good things are happening out there and they are fully in accord with what JTS wants to happen, and they’re nearly identical to Conservative Judaism and they don’t fly the flag of Conservative Judaism, I’m very happy with that,” Eisen told JTA.

Wernick stressed the same point.

“I don’t think that affiliation with the movement is really the key,” Wernick said. “The movement only exists in order to perpetuate a worldview of Jewish life.”

That approach gives Conservative leaders an alternative to the narrative of decline in movement institutions, particularly United Synagogue.

Several years ago, a group of renegade synagogues refused to pay their United Synagogue dues, saying they were not getting anything in return. In January, JTA reported that United Synagogue ran a cumulative budget deficit of nearly $6 million over the previous two years.

Along with the drop in the number of member synagogues, the number of Solomon Schechter day schools has fallen sharply. And in June, United Synagogue announced that it was shutting down Koach, the movement’s college outreach organization.

In Wernick’s view, the decline in the number of formally affiliated Conservative synagogues is besides the point; popular egalitarian minyans like L.A.’s IKAR and Manhattan’s Kehilat Hadar ought to count, too.

In an interview with JTA, Wernick would not put a figure on the number of United Synagogue member synagogues.

“That’s a conversation I’m not having anymore,” he said.

A spokeswoman later said the number is about 630.

Held of Mechon Hadar says the open-minded line touted by conference organizers is a good start, but the question is how far the movement is willing to take the conversation.

Would Conservative Judaism be better off without United Synagogue, with member congregations having the freedom to redirect the $30,000 or so they pay in annual dues toward investing in family education?

“There’s two urgent questions here: One is the future of Conservative Judaism, and the second, which is not entirely overlapping, is the struggle of United Synagogue for continued relevance,” Held said. “From my conversations with rabbis in the field, there is a lot of skepticism out there.”

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