Conservative leadership emphasizes youth at biennial convention

Conservative leadership emphasizes youth at biennial convention

With a focus on their movement’s youth and young families, leaders at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism expressed hope for the future.

Under the banner of Shape the Center, USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick used his platform to push the 1,200 attendees of the Nov. 13-17 convention in the Chicago area to focus on the young people of the Conservative movement.

“If we want to have ability to maximally impact Jewish people for their futures, [then] teen engagement should be one of our top three priorities,” he said.

It was fitting, then, that Eric Leiderman, co-founder and director of institutional advancement of Masorti on Campus, was named the winner of the 2015 Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Award. Cardin, an influential Jewish leader and educator based in Baltimore, founded the award in 2013 in honor of USCJ’s centennial. The prize carries a $5,000 stipend and an opportunity for the award recipient to engage with USCJ and its kehillot leaders.

Leiderman, a student at Binghamton University and an alumnus of USCJ’s Israel gap-year program Nativ, called the experience “humbling” and reveled in the exposure it has given to Masorti on Campus.

Attendees of the convention have been “very supportive, and they’re impressed that this grassroots movement has really taken shape,” said Leiderman. “A lot of people who were upset by the closing of Koach are very excited when they learn of students taking ownership of this area of our lives.”

Koach was the college campus arm of the Conservative movement until it was discontinued in 2013 due to budget constraints.

“He really stood out with his extraordinary vision, and his work to engage this vital demographic of young adults on college campuses is having impact on North America and globally,” said Judy Guzman, an active member of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., and a member of the award selection committee.

She added, “He’s enabled young Jewish leaders to take ownership of their needs. He noticed a tremendous gap, and he’s working very hard to fill it.”

Leiderman said he is heartened by how USCJ is embracing traditional egalitarian communities that operate outside of traditional brick-and-mortar congregational buildings.

“They are in support of how young adults are expressing themselves, whereas in years past they were trying to get people back into shuls, they are moving to where the people are,” he said.

Approximately 145 United Synagogue Youth members and 40 college students were present for the Shabbaton and convention. Though there was a millennial track, the USYers did mingle with the rest of the attendees and led services.

Cliff Spungen, executive vice president of Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh, participated in a youth-led morning worship service that he described as full of enthusiasm and going beyond rote recitation to be truly accessible.

“It was a beautiful thing, and it really seemed to get the kids motivated,” said Spungen. “It’s important that we go back to our home kehillot and really do something with this. If we don’t, then it’s going to be our fault.”

According to Wernick, 30 percent of teenagers with affiliated families are part of USY, but he would like to see that number increased to at least 50 percent.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington shared her own twist on worship through a  tish Friday night (Nov. 13) and Shabbat services Saturday morning that incorporated the Return Again musical Shabbat program she uses in her home synagogue.

“I felt there was hope,” said Holtzblatt. “There were five different davening options for Saturday morning, and all of them were using the liturgy to its fullest.”

Here, she said, is where the Conservative movement can thrive by offering “deeper access points” to traditional liturgy and not being afraid to “open up to new ideas.”

Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac received a Solomon Schechter Award at the convention for its Community Builders program. In exchange for 10 hours per month of synagogue engagement, young families receive 50 percent off of their early childhood tuition.

As Diane Steren, vice president of strategic planning for the congregation, said, “It’s beginning a cultural change from ‘drop and go’ to ‘drop and stay.’”

Steren, who attended sessions on engaging young families, said, “Young families today aren’t looking to be entertained. They’re looking to be engaged and acknowledged.”

LGBT families and congregants were likewise proactive in pushing for acknowledgement and increased inclusivity in Conservative spaces.

Keshet, an advocacy group for LGBT Jews, led a full-day intensive workshop with 17 congregations including Washington’s Congregation Har Shalom, which had one of the larger synagogue contingencies with seven lay leaders and clergy present.

Har Shalom Rabbi Adam Raskin said Keshet professionals led the participants through a guided analysis of their communities and helped craft strategic plans for inclusivity and LGBT educational programming in their home congregations.

While members may have “anecdotal experiences” with the LGBT community, Raskin said that he plans on introducing formal conversations and educational experiences for the community. Keshet has assigned coaches to participating congregations and will follow up and offer assistance throughout the coming year.

Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are struggling with demographics, according to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, but USCJ leadership and laity seem confident in the space Conservative Judaism occupies.

Both Wernick and Raskin pointed to a recent piece published by Steven M. Cohen, a researcher at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who wrote that although the quantity of Conservative identifying Jews has dropped, the quality has remained strong and even grown between surveys administered in 1990 and 2013.

Still, USCJ has branding challenges. To better stake their claim as the center ground between the Reform movement and a burgeoning Open Orthodox scene — sometimes derisively called “Neo-Conservatism” by other branches of Orthodoxy — at the biennial, one of three IdeaLabs was convened to brainstorm a new tagline for Conservative Judaism.

Instead of focusing on highly publicized population challenges, Raskin believes that the Conservative movement should instead focus on “growing from within,” building upon the movement’s engaged core.

“I think we occupy a niche still important to the Jewish world,” said Raskin. “It’s not the space of modern Orthodoxy, it’s not the space of Reform Judaism. That traditional egalitarian space is still our unique landscape. There are still people seeking that unique landscape.”

Melissa Apter covers politics for Mid-Atlantic Media. She can be reached at