The presidents of three local Conservative congregations were cautiously optimistic following last weekend’s visit by Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for Conservative synagogues across North America.
Wernick was in town to meet with area professional and lay leaders in an effort to “get out and hear what their challenges and successes are,” he told The Chronicle. Since he assumed his position last summer, Wernick has met with as many as 200 USCJ-affiliated congregations. He said his goal is to meet with each one of them in order to engender a vision and plan to help the Conservative movement prosper.
The Conservative movement has found itself at a crossroads in recent years. Only 33 percent of all affiliated Jewish households belong to a Conservative congregation, representing a 10-percent drop from 1990, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
By contrast, for the first time in decades, the Reform movement has surpassed the Conservative movement in terms of affiliated members, growing from 35 percent to 39 percent, according to the survey, and the Orthodox movement has jumped from 16 percent to 21 percent.
The USCJ has its own challenges as its numbers continue to plunge. In 2000, 800 North American congregations were affiliated with the USCJ. That number fell to 700 in 2009, and now stands at 676. Nineteen of the congregations that decided not to affiliate this year said they were not satisfied with what they were getting for their money, according to a Sept. 15, 2009, article in Jewish Week.
As part of a campaign to reverse the trends, Wernick is on a mission to collect information personally from all the stakeholders.
Presidents and incoming presidents of Conservative congregations joined Wernick for dinner Sunday night at Congregation Beth Shalom, and were present at a meeting with him following the meal. Area rabbis, executive directors, and educators met with him as well.
Alan Gordon, president of Tree of Life Congregation, said he left the meeting impressed with what he heard.
“He (Wernick) is in the process of developing a vision of what United Synagogue needs to do to revitalize itself as well as its synagogue members,” Gordon said. “For congregations that are in transition, they are very helpful.”
Lamenting how few visits to Pittsburgh USCJ leaders made in the past, Debbie Scheimer, president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, was pleased to get a chance to interact with Wernick.
“You need to see these guys,” Scheimer said. “Just the fact that he came to Pittsburgh says a lot. He had some great ideas, but we have yet to see how they will translate into our synagogue’s practical experience.”
“I think United Synagogue is really trying to make an effort to better collaborate with the synagogues,” said Connie Pollack, president of Congregation Beth Shalom. “It was exciting to hear Rabbi Wernick’s thoughts as to the direction United Synagogue is heading. But anytime there is change, it’s met with some skepticism.”
Wernick, who succeeded Rabbi Jerome Epstein, knows he has his work cut out for him.
“I’m coming in as CEO at a time of change and transition,” he said. But, after speaking with leaders of so many Conservative congregations, he believes most communities are dealing with similar issues.
“The most amazing thing is how common the themes are,” he said.
Four “priorities” have emerged from his discussions, and those are the ones on which he plans to focus. They are:
• Synagogue strengthening;
• Budget and finance;
• Engaging teenagers, college students and young adults; and
• “The need for a consistent and compelling message of who we are as Conservative Jews, and why that matters,” he said.
Wernick has been working on a clear vision statement for Conservative Jews, seeing the movement as the place where “tradition and modernity meet,” he said.
The Conservative movement should be the home for those “looking for holiness in their lives within the context of the complex relationship of tradition and modernity,” he said. “We are truly the most pluralistic of the streams of Judaism; even internally, we have both egalitarian and nonegalitarian minyans. We cover the entire spectrum of Judaism. We recognize the importance of Jewish people from the left and the right.”
While many people have recently opined that the Conservative movement is in the throes of identity crisis, Wernick believes the problem is essentially semantic.
“The identity crisis is that we haven’t been able to articulate in a consistent way why that [pluralism] is important,” Wernick said. “It is the meeting of tradition and modernity that we find compelling.”
“What differentiates Conservative Judaism from Reform and Orthodox is our approach to our Jewish learning,” he continued, adding that Conservative Jews’ embrace of both classical and modern scholarship leads to the movement’s pluralistic nature.
“There is a relevancy of the traditional structure informing the lives in which we live,” he said. “Halacha has both a vote and a veto. In Reform Judaism, halacha has a voice, but not a veto. In Orthodox Judaism, modernity has a vote, but not a veto.”
Not shying away from the realities facing the USCJ, Wernick believes that its “biggest problem” has been its organizational structure.
“We haven’t organized our activities to embrace the change in the landscape,” he said. “We need a big picture, and United Synagogue can provide different portals.”
Wernick’s vision includes the facilitation of sharing information between member congregations, and providing resources and expertise for help with specific areas of concern.
“I’ve been having virtually the same conversation in every community,” he said. “It’s clear where the priorities are, and I am very, very hopeful that we will have the buy-in and support to make some fundamental decisions and some seismic shifts.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)