Some of Conservative Judaism’s top leaders found little to criticize within their own movement when they gathered together December 7 for a panel discussion on the future direction of their troubled denomination.
The plenary forum at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism saw one panelist tout renewed involvement by rabbinic spouses in congregational life as a crucial tonic. Another lamented that the movement’s “detractors” failed to recognize Conservative Judaism’s far-reaching and vital role in Jewish life. Yet another acknowledged generically that the movement had “failed to live up to our own best ideals,” but did not specify how.
Meanwhile, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary — traditionally seen as Conservative Judaism’s titular leader — was nowhere to be seen on the dais or even in the audience. Though spotted having dinner just minutes earlier with USCJ’s new executive vice president, Rabbi Steven Wernick, who served as a panelist, it was announced from the podium that Chancellor Arnold Eisen had been invited to participate but was “unable” to make it. JTS spokeswoman Sherry Kirschenbaum did not deny a report that Eisen declined to take part in the panel because he wanted, but was denied, the role of moderator.
In some ways, the event seemed to distill the crisis of leadership facing Conservative Judaism, once American Judaism’s dominant stream, as its membership continues to decline while Judaism’s Reform and Orthodox wings grow.
But this gathering of Conservative Judaism’s congregational arm also saw a strong internal reform effort by Wernick take wing, one designed
to bring forward his own group as the central solution to the movement’s malaise. And some of his own remarks suggested that he saw himself as the Conservative leader who would thereby rise to the fore.
Citing the Book of Maccabees under the shadow of Hanukkah, Wernick invoked the battle cry of Mattathias, the Maccabee family patriarch: “Whoever is zealous for Adonai, follow me!” he told some 500 delegates in his inaugural keynote speech as the USCJ’s new leader. “I am not Mattathias,” he quickly added, “But as I assume the leadership of the United Synagogue, I call upon all of you, upon all of us, to be zealous in our commitment to Conservative Judaism.”
Few contest that the movement needs a renewed vision and reinvigorated leadership. Over the past two decades, affiliation with Conservative Judaism in America has dropped sharply, from 43% in 1990 to 33% in 2001, the most recent year for which information is available. Reform Judaism has surged ahead as American Judaism’s largest religious stream. Debate bubbles up about the movement’s relationship to Halacha, traditional Judaic religious law, as — to the consternation of movement traditionalists — Conservative rabbinic scholars have endorsed ordination of women and gays and lesbians. Conservative rank-and-file members, meanwhile, remain largely uncommitted to Halacha.
The USCJ, traditionally viewed as the movement’s “congregation of congregations,” also faces serious challenges. Its revenues have dropped 12% since last year. And the number of congregations affiliated with the group has fallen to 676 from 710 just two years ago.
Wernick, who began his work as the USCJ’s executive vice president this past July, was officially installed in his position on the convention’s first evening. Wearing a tallit given to him in honor of the occasion, the 42-year-old flashed a broad, boyish smile, and for a moment it felt as if the cheering audience that packed the ballroom would pelt him with candy.
The USCJ is the third major Conservative organization to bring on new leadership in the past two years. At JTS, Eisen replaced longtime chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch in 2007, and at the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic association, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld was hired this year as executive vice president.
The delegates’ excitement over Wernick translated into strong support for reform of the group’s bylaws — which he has strongly pushed — that will remake the organization into a much more centralized operation. The new bylaws, passed by acclamation at the conference, also shift the USCJ to being a provider of services to congregations, where it formerly functioned more as an umbrella group. Wernick sold the reforms as essential for the movement’s future. They are “a giant step forward to give us the flexibility of policy decision making to support the kind of work we need to do,” he told the Forward.
For Wernick, a centralized USCJ is the obvious focal point of a reinvigorated Conservative Judaism. In his address to the convention, Wernick described USCJ as the beating heart of the Conservative movement.
“We are the organization that unites Conservative synagogues,” Wernick said. “The synagogue is the only place where everyone meets: congregant and professional, Women’s League and Men’s Club, USY [United Synagogue Youth] and Camp Ramah, Israel experience and Masorti, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Jewish University; everyone. You name the ‘arm’; it connects to the ‘body’ in shul. United Synagogue is the muscle that connects all of our ‘bodies’ together.”
Leaders of the other branches of the Conservative movement contest such a notion. At the panel discussion on the movement’s future, Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, rejected the idea that the Conservative movement should have a center.
“We are a raucous, mature family, and those that would flatten us into something excessively simple so that we could be a sound bite or a brochure do a disservice to a tradition,” he said.
Asked directly about the leadership aspirations he held for himself and for his organization, Wernick disputed the idea that his inauguration speech described the USCJ as being at the center of the movement.
“We all need to work together, and we all need to lead,” Wernick said. “I think that there are different roles of leadership that the movement needs right now. The seminary [JTS] has a very important role to play as the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism, as does, frankly, Rabbi Artson. I see partnership of leadership coming to the front.”
Still, delegates to the convention seemed to agree that the USCJ should be the central organ of the movement.
“JTS is wonderful and provides our spiritual leadership,” said Yona Schulman, president of Congregation B’nai Israel in Colts Neck, N.J. But, she said, “We need a very strong central organization that’s going to help us get our message out.”
“There’s nothing called the Conservative movement. It’s just a phrase,” said Adam Stein, 31, an assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Mo. “But if there’s one organization that’s going to be the unifying umbrella, it should be the United Synagogue.”
The new bylaws will decrease the number of board members and create a new General Assembly as the primary representative body. But the G.A. will provide guidance to the board of directors only. In effect, the board will no longer be responsible to the member synagogues, but rather to the USCJ itself.
These changes come on the heels of a reorganization initiated by Wernick in his first months at the helm. The USCJ reduced the number of employees and began to consolidate the organization’s 15 regions into six districts with local staff that serve primarily as synagogue consultants.
While most delegates supported the new bylaws, Kalman Miller, a past president of the New Jersey region of the USCJ and a past president of Temple Beth El in Somerset, N.J., was upset that the bylaws took away power from individual congregations. “This change is now saying that the United Synagogue is not a representative body anymore,” he said. “It will set policies and make decisions according to the way they feel it would be best for the affiliates, but the synagogues have no direct vote.”
The question of which organization, and which individual leader, will emerge as the head of the movement is not without import. At the panel discussion, the movement heads presented complementary but distinct visions of the role of the Conservative movement. While the head of the Cantors Assembly echoed previous statements by Wernick that embraced the notion of Conservative Judaism as a centrist movement, Schonfeld disagreed. Although she acknowledged that theirs was the broadest denomination, Schonfeld said, “I personally do not resonate with that kind of self-description of our stream of Judaism, because I think it’s very hard to get excited about being the center.”
In an interview with the Forward, Wernick said that he didn’t have any interest in which organization head emerged as the leader of the movement. “People are going to follow those who lead,” he said. “At the end of the day, all of us are going be judged on our performance.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.