USCJ conference evoked soul searching as members mulled movement’s future

USCJ conference evoked soul searching as members mulled movement’s future

Last week’s centennial meeting of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was billed as “The Conversation of the Century.”

And for the 1,200 Conservative Jews gathered in Baltimore for the conference — including a host of Pittsburghers — there was a lot to talk about.

For years, there has been talk of the decline of the Conservative movement. Its umbrella organization — what became the USCJ —  was established in 1913 by Rabbi Solomon Schechter, who played a vital role in founding the movement that was committed to the binding nature of Jewish law, yet was flexible in adapting halachah to meet the evolving needs of modern Jews.

By 1971, 41 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative.

But things have changed.

As the recent Pew survey reported, now only 18 percent of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement, and, even more startling, only 11 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 call themselves Conservative. Because of the declining numbers, many Conservative congregations across the country are struggling financially.

Moreover, just this past June, the USCJ closed down Koach, its college outreach organization. And the number of Solomon Schechter day schools has dropped significantly from the late 1990s to 2009, according to a study conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation.

If the movement is to survive, things must change, as was acknowledged by Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, chief executive officer of the USCJ, who opened the convention by acknowledging: “Let’s be real. There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting. And tweaking. As I see it, we reverse the narrative of decline by affirming three pillars of Conservative Jewish life: tradition, kehilla, and renewal.”

Some Pittsburgh leaders in the Conservative movement came back from the convention which ran from Oct. 11-15, energized, and fueled to take on the task of maintaining the vitality of their congregations, while others were disappointed in a conclave that they said provided little practical advice on exactly how to do that.

“It’s exciting and energizing to be part of any conference with 1,000 other Jews, and to be part of a larger community,” said Stefi Kirschner, immediate past president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill.  She said she appreciated the opportunity to hear “many intellectual thinkers,”  and engage in diverse prayer services.

“But the challenge was whether the convention was successful in strengthening the core message,” she said. “There seems to be a disconnect. I didn’t necessarily take something home.”

No policies were developed to deal with the tough challenges facing Conservative congregations, she said, and no plans were put in place to reverse the decline.

“It was refreshing that people can be engaged in the same room, but where was the practical element?” Kirschner asked. “That’s what was missing: the take home. There were all these great ideas, but how do we implement it? That was not built into the program.”

The leadership at the top levels of the movement is not fully tuned in to the problems faced by the USCJ’s member congregations, Kirschner said, and has not provided the help those members require to thrive.

“There are layers of people in this movement that are not aware of what’s going on on the ground,” she said. “We need some direction. Everyone is still on their own. We need guidance.”

About 100 teen leaders from USY attended much of the conference, which coincided with the youth group’s international fall convention. While they added energy and enthusiasm to the event, Kirschner found that they, too, were given little guidance on how to lead the movement into the future.

“The youth concerns were not integrated into the conference,” she said, noting an apparent “disconnect” between the immersive, spiritually energizing experiences of USY conventions and Camp Ramah, and the typical Conservative synagogue experiences to which the youths return.

But for other attendees, the lack of practical advice was not a problem.

“It’s not a fair expectation to expect them to say ‘here’s the problem, and here’s how to deal with it,’ ” said Andy Schaer, executive vice president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, who is slated to become the next president of that congregation.

Instead of a defined course of action, Schaer said, the USCJ offered “some tools and some experts that you can tap into.”

“People left there energized and positive about the potential for the Conservative movement,” he said, noting that some of the sessions he attended did present concrete suggestions that he found relevant.

“Some sessions had some specifics,” he said, “like how to manage and instill change in your congregation; how to get people to get on board.

“For people to take away that it didn’t deliver on specifics isn’t fair,” he added. “It was my first time there. I went into it with low expectations, but came out feeling the quality of the content and speakers was tremendous. It was pretty powerful that way. The majority of sessions exceeded my expectations.”

While Beth El’s membership numbers have held at approximately 400 families for several years, Schaer said, his congregation wants to be “proactive” in dealing with the recent trends of overall affiliation.

“We have to recognize that people’s needs are changing and we need to be there to deliver what they need in a synagogue,” he said. “We want to be out front and proactive and not wait to better align ourselves with the needs of the community, and particularly young families. You can’t take your stability for granted. You have to work to be relevant.”

Debbie Scheimer, the immediate past president of Beth El, also found that the conference offered specifics for her to take back to her congregation.

“In the breakout sessions, there were plenty of concrete examples of what you can do,” she said. “There were lots of programming ideas, ways to reach out to those in their 20s and 30s. These conferences are typically a sharing opportunity. You utilize your time best there by talking with people from different communities.”

For Scheimer, one of the biggest challenges facing Conservative Judaism is engaging the younger generation.

“The challenge is how can we re-organize our model institutions so that membership isn’t the most important component, but [rather] reaching people with our values is our primary mission,” she said. “This conference was about shifting the congregation’s approach from membership to ideas.”

Suggestions on how to reach young Jews included “opening the walls of the building, and moving events to where the people are,” she said, citing examples of having a learning session at Starbucks, or holding High Holy Day services at a downtown hotel, so people can pop over from work on their lunch break.

Gerry Kobell, a member of Beth Shalom who serves as the national chairman of the Magen Tzedek program, which provides ethical certification for kosher foods, also attended the conference. He, too, believes the movement’s future will rely on its effectiveness in reaching out to younger Jews.

“We have to find out what will interest the Millenials,” he said. “It involves a lot of outreach. We have to do better.”

Part of effective outreach may include better articulating the message of Conservative Judaism, he said.

“There is a concern with the continued existence and improvement of the Conservative movement,” Kobell said. “We are having some difficulty in articulating our philosophy. We are a halachic movement, but also a pluralistic movement. There is room for different views, all under the tent of the Conservative movement.”

For Scheimer, defining the parameters of the movement is less important.

“The question is not so much who we are, but how we can touch people and make their lives more meaningful and be part of a vital community when they won’t engage initially,” she said. “Once you get them engaged, then they’ll like it.”

Conservative congregations may be well-served to follow the lead of their engaged youth, according to Andy Weissfeld of Pittsburgh, who is currently studying in Israel with the Conservative movement’s Nativ program, and who is USY’s international religion/education vice president.

“If creating a spiritual and energetic Jewish community were easy, all Conservative synagogues would do it,” he said. “Because of this difficulty, these communities do not exist in many places outside of USY and Ramah. In my opinion, many clergy, lay leaders, and shul-goers lack the passion and spirit to successfully inspire their kehillot.

“The irony of this is that a good portion of these shul leaders experienced USY or Ramah at one point,” he continued. “I think that synagogues must implement the strategies of USY and Ramah in order to create strong communities and conjure up feelings of spirituality in the synagogue communities.”

Weissfeld, who came to Baltimore from Israel to attend the centennial, believes that the concerns of USY, which also is declining in membership nationwide, were addressed at the convention.

“While the sessions at the centennial did not directly talk about strategies to increase USY membership, many of the outreach techniques discussed can apply to USY, such as Dr. Ron Wolfson’s presentation about relational Judaism,” he said. “In addition, the 100 USY board members in attendance talked about strategies to increase membership on the regional level. I felt satisfied with the dialogue that took place about USY membership at the centennial.”

Another local USYer, Shoshana Seigel, vice president of social action/tikkun olam of the CRUSY region, said the presence of USY at the convention enhanced the event itself.

“I was walking around and people were stopping me and saying ‘It’s great having you guys here, you are the future,’ ” said Seigel.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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