A baker’s dozen of Steel City representatives recently returned from Atlanta with renewed commitment to the Conservative movement. For the 13 Pittsburgh residents who traveled south to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism 2017 Convention, the international gathering was uplifting and beneficial.
“It was an absolutely fabulous conference,” said Ed Frim of Squirrel Hill.
“There were so many dynamic sessions that I wasn’t expecting. It was a great weekend, and I was really impressed,” added Marissa Tait, director of youth programming at Congregation Beth Shalom.
While convening major figures for mass address as a means of inspiration is nothing new within the movement, what resonated was the tenor of each speaker’s remarks.
“It’s like somebody lit a fire under them,” said Liron Lipinsky, director of JJEP. “They are done sitting around and are ready to make some big changes and adjustments to continue on and be relevant, stay relevant and become even more relevant. It was awesome to see.”
According to Lipinsky, who has routinely attended USCJ programs for years, the movement has too often trudged along and told tired tales of past successes; USCJ 2017 demonstrated something different, she said. “Today, I’m not feeling like I wasted three days. I learned so much, and I haven’t stopped talking about what I learned.”
“USCJ has a lot of challenges that it needs to address, and I appreciate the recognition that it needs to do that,” said Andy Schaer, a member of both the USCJ International and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle boards. “It doesn’t have its head in the sand but is actually implementing those changes, which isn’t easy.”
Included among the difficulties that the movement faces are issues of engagement, explained Schaer. “I think that this is true of all synagogues but probably more true with Conservative synagogues in that maintaining a congregant base is challenging, and people have other options and are seeking new ways to find spirituality and meaning. We have to find ways to meet their needs and offer the authenticity that we seek to deliver, and it’s not easy.”
This is definitely something different than what I saw coming out of the Conservative movement in the past. It is not replacing what the Conservative movement was, but it’s placing it in a new, innovative, disruptive way.
What the conference achieved so skillfully was offering tools for congregants and congregations, said Frim, who, as USCJ’s director of learning and enrichment, organized aspects of the convention.
“United Synagogue is doing a very good job right now at offering help to congregations that need it and in particular helping them to change what they do so that they are more sustainable,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.
Specifically, there was an increased focus on social and personal matters at the Dec. 1-5 assembly, noted participants.
“They had Al-Anon meetings for family and friends of people who have addictions” as well as “really interesting sessions for people on how to be an ally to the LGBT community and making space for interfaith families,” said Tait.
“I definitely noticed a lot more open conversation about social justice and the place of Judaism and Jewish identity, Jewish life and Jewish values on social justice issues, and this is definitely something different than what I saw coming out of the Conservative movement in the past,” said Lipinsky. “It is not replacing what the Conservative movement was, but it’s placing it in a new, innovative, disruptive way.”
In general, it was a “more progressive-themed dynamic,” added Tait.
“There is a real commitment to continuing being dynamic and being authentic at the same time,” noted Schaer.
“Among the ideas I heard echoing over and over throughout the three days were: ‘We need to translate more’ — not just Hebrew terms, of course, but in a greater sense the ideas and wisdom that our tradition offers us, so that more people will benefit from and appreciate those things,” said Adelson. “We need to continually reinforce the idea that Judaism brings meaning to our lives and offers us the tools with which to improve our relationships, our families, our workplaces and our society.
“We need to make sure that we know why we as a synagogue do what we do and that we consider carefully our goals and expectations so that we are not doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We need to offer new points of entry so that all of the above will reach more people.”
Implementing these ideas and others will begin soon, noted the Jewish professionals.
Specifically, JJEP will re-examine the b’nai mitzvah process and identify areas to increase relevance, said Lipinsky.
Youth programming at Congregation Beth Shalom will be reimagined, and better strategies will be employed in delivering opportunities “back to the team,” said Tait.
“I will continue to offer a message of change in my sermons and writings and continue to offer programming aimed at changing Beth Shalom’s model, like the Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, a USCJ program that trains young leadership that I am offering now for the second year in a row,” said Adelson, who added that, apart from building on the success of Derekh, a program directed by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the congregation may consider “the possibility of beginning work on a new strategic plan.”
“The convention gave us a lot of tools for thinking about what we do at our congregations and for new programs and ideas to bring into our families’ lives,” said Frim.
Adelson agreed: “Overall, I think the sense that I left with is that the movement acknowledges that the landscape of North American Judaism has changed and that synagogues need new tools to face that challenge.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz