Conservative United Synagogue Centennial Highlights Tough Times Ahead

Convention Centered Around Ensuring the Future

100 Years: Rabbi Steve Wernick addresses the Conservative movement’s centennial gathering.
mike diamond photography
100 Years: Rabbi Steve Wernick addresses the Conservative movement’s centennial gathering.

By Uri Heilman

Published October 15, 2013.
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(JTA) — It will be years before it’s clear whether or not this week’s conference of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was a success.

To be sure, the centennial gathering in Baltimore by nearly all accounts was a far more dynamic and well-attended biennial than those of recent years, drawing some 1,200 people.

But the Conservative movement is in serious decline — evidenced by the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews recent findings, the shrinking number of synagogues that affiliate with the movement and the empty pews in Conservative synagogues across the country.

RABBI STEVE WERNICK

Under that shadow, the central preoccupation of the centennial wasn’t celebrating the past century of Conservative Judaism – the milestone was hardly marked at all during the three-day confab – but how to ensure that Conservative Judaism has a future.

“Our house is on fire. If you don’t read anything else in the Pew report, we have maybe 10 years left,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., at a session Monday morning that caused a major buzz at the conference.

“In the next 10 years I see the rapid collapse of synagogues and the national organization that supports them,” he said. “If we continue what we are doing, our house will burn down.”

There is broad recognition from the movement’s leaders on down that significant rejuvenation is needed if Conservative Judaism is to reverse its negative trajectory. The conference, whose theme was “The conversation of the century,” was billed as an opportunity to talk about how.

“Since last week, all anyone wants to do is talk about the Pew study; I don’t,” Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said in a speech at the gathering. “It’s time to stop talking and start doing.”

The movement’s leaders offered few specifics, instead sticking to broad outlines.

Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, proposed a threefold strategy of being as welcoming as possible, taking Conservative Judaism beyond the bounds of the synagogue, and getting members to commit more money and time to the movement.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue, called for turning synagogues into communities, for which he used the Hebrew term “kehillot.”

Author and movement giant Rabbi Harold Kushner argued for emphasizing the discipline inherent in Jewish commitment, suggesting the movement adopt the bumper sticker mantra of “kadsheinu b’mitzvotecha” – sanctify us with your commandments.

The nitty-gritty of strategies for counteracting the movement’s erosion came in breakout sessions and in the hallways, where everything from whether the movement should perform intermarriages to how synagogues can reinvigorate services came up for discussion. No decisions were made – except, perhaps, in closed-door sessions of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – but there was plenty of debate. For that, even longtime critics of United Synagogue gave the organization credit for facilitating the discussions.

“I think they understand there has to be the grassroots development in order for Conservative Judaism to continue,” said Marsha Davis, president of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pa. “Leadership has to happen bottom-up. You’re involved and encouraged to be part of the decision.”


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