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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.