The new head of Conservative Judaism’s congregational arm has asked his fellow rabbis to forgive him in a Sept. 17 letter apologizing for a recent interview with the Forward in which he said Conservative rabbis lack “missionary zeal,” and work instead “to get paid.”
“I talked before I thought,” wrote Rabbi Steven Wernick, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s new CEO and executive vice president, in the letter, sent to Conservative rabbis across the country. “What I said came out as flippant and hurtful to our many colleagues and partners who strive each day to create the dynamic communities to which we all aspire. I am sorry. They were my words, and I own them, and I apologize for them.”
Wernick addressed his letter to the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbinic association, which distributed it to its national membership.
In his Sept. 10 interview with the Forward, Wernick, discussed the relative success Orthodox Judaism has had with outreach to unaffiliated Jews compared to the Conservative movement and said, “We don’t have that missionary zeal. They’re missionaries! We want to get paid. We don’t believe. What do we believe in? That is the problem of progressive Judaism.”
He now writes, “What I was trying to say is that we are not missionaries. We are not enflamed with missionary zeal, and we do not have a network of people ready to swoop in for no money to win souls. Instead, we try to give our congregants meaningful, moving, engaging programming, free of hidden agendas and our congregants look for a high level of intellectual sophistication, expertise, and professionalism in the speakers and scholars we choose. All that costs money.”
In his regretful letter to the Rabbinical Assembly, written just before the High Holiday Days of Awe, when Jews traditionally review their conduct and seek forgiveness, Wernick criticized himself for being “too loose lipped,” explaining, “In reading these comments, I understand that I was not clear enough.”
Wernick, who assumed the helm of USCJ on July 1, recently pushed through a sweeping reorganization plan for the congregational umbrella group to deal with a $1.3 million deficit and a percolating dissatisfaction among constituent congregations with the organization’s performance. Affiliation with USCJ dropped to 676 constituent synagogues from 710 just two years ago. The reorganization, approved by the USCJ board Sept. 13, involves staff cuts of 10% and a $1 million budget cut that will bring next year’s budget down to $13 million. At the same time, Wernick plans to increase funding for the organization’s youth programs.
Referring to his ambitious reform plans, Wernick wrote, “My unfortunate choice of words seems to have obscured the real accomplishments of the last few days. On Sunday, I stood before United Synagogue’s board of directors and I said that if we do not take care of congregations, if we do not help our communities achieve the excellence they desire and deserve, then what are we? We’ll continue to be irrelevant. And the board agreed with me overwhelmingly. That is a decision that we should celebrate as we move forward together.”
One prominent Conservative spiritual leader said that Wernick could have expressed himself more delicately in discussing the outreach intensity gap with the Orthodox.
“What upset the rabbinate was the statement about wanting to get paid, which suggests that Conservative rabbis are fat cats and Chabad shlichim [outreach representatives] are the real deal,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Anshei Chesed in New York. “It’s a foolish thing to say, even if it is partly true.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman