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Conservative Movement Marks Centennial, Standing on Precipice of Change

By  Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Brooklyn Eagle. Originally published October 16, 2013.

Facing declining affiliation, Conservative Jews seek relevancy in the 21st century.

At the Centennial Conference of Conservative Judaism, Kane Street Member and Past President Vicky Vossen interviewed.

The centennial conference of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, attended by some 1,200 people this week in Baltimore, was a study in dynamics that cycled between hope and cynicism.

There was inspiring worship and there were rousing musical performances. United Synagogue and other Conservative movement leaders articulated promises of change and expressions of confidence, even as they described it as a pivotal moment for what was once the largest denomination in American Jewish life. There was, for the first time, open acknowledgment that the Conservative movement is rapidly declining in size, attendees said. Yet a concrete way forward for a denomination that has produced some of the most important leaders and innovative projects in American Jewish life but nevertheless now struggles to remain viable in the long term remained unclear.

There is “this very odd schizophrenia of ‘oh this again,’ and ‘is it really going to happen,’ but at the same time it’s heartwarming and touching to see how people want this to succeed,” said Vicky Vossen, an attorney and former president of Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue.

“The mood is very upbeat,” said Rabbi Rona Shapiro, rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodridge, Connecticut. “There’s excitement and energy and lots of interesting sessions.”

Yet “there seems to be a sense of urgency I haven’t heard before,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion”. “People are ready to acknowledge that something needs to happen. I’m hearing a conversation I’ve heard for a long time, but at a different pitch.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, who has been CEO of the United Synagogue since 2009, refused to say in an interview how many congregations are members of his organization. “The number of affiliated synagogues is no longer relevant to me. Three or four months ago I decided that I’m just not going to be engaged in that conversation any more,” he told Haaretz. United Synagogue representatives used to say that it had some 800 member congregations.

“What’s relevant now is that there are 204,000 households that United Synagogue is affiliating with,” he said. “That number has been relatively stable. I’m looking to increase that number. My measurement of success is: How many Jews can we engage in a meaningful Jewish experience through our network of communities, of Conservative kehillot, traditional synagogues or groups of young adults meeting together? And how do those people express their engagement in deep ways?”

In his opening speech at the convention on Sunday, Wernick said, “Let’s be real. There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting. And tweaking. We are here as agents of the transformation of Conservative Jewish life. It is our hope that this centennial serves as a turning point – a pivot between an uncertain present and a promising future.”

Though there was lots of entertainment, from Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson, the Moshav Band and others, results of the Pew study of American Jewish identification, which was published last week and showed that just 11 percent of American Jews age 18 to 29 identify as Conservative (compared with 24 percent among respondents aged 65 and older), cast a pall over the gathering, said people there.

“This is like trying to have a big simcha when your doctor has just told you last week that you have a year to live,” said Vossen. “Every speaker, the keynotes are always dealing with the conclusion of the Pew study, to refute it or minimize it. Everybody sees it is as ‘we were trying to have a really good time and then the same old same old comes along.’”

In response to that falling affiliation rate and a concomitant dive in dues income, the United Synagogue is in the midst of shifting its funding model, from one reliant on member dues to an organization funded by philanthropists.

“We took fundraising from less than 3 percent four years ago to 16 percent of our budget now, and we need to grow it to 22-24 percent of our budget,” Wernick told Haaretz. He is looking for the money to come from what he called venture capitalists.

The shift comes at a time of serious disenchantment with United Synagogue among some the congregations it aims to serve, as well as concern that an answer to the question of why someone should affiliate as a Conservative Jew has not been cogently articulated, though it has been several years since a new generation of leaders was ushered in. Arnie Eisen, for example, was appointed chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2006.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” among other books, and retired from the pulpit in 1990, got a standing ovation at his keynote address at the conference for his view that the movement should emphasize the observance of mitzvot as a way to Jewishly express our higher human selves. The Conservative movement should “define religion as a discipline that humanizes us rather than one focused on mitzvot to obey the word of God,” he said later in an interview with Haaretz. People “are looking for a reason” to be more observant, he said. “The old reasons are just not working anymore.”

“There has to be a message about what Conservative Judaism is that’s not just ‘we’re in the middle’ – something that’s vibrant and strong and lay people can relate to. We need a message that’s much more vibrant,” said Shapiro. “There are a lot of good Conservative synagogues. Ramah Camps are a jewel. But all together it adds up to less, not more. That needs to change. The United Synagogue has not served the needs of its congregations for a long time.”

Attendees gave United Synagogue leaders points for trying to make the convention “more than just a pep rally,” as Vossen put it. Individual session leaders were asked to provide attendees with handouts and takeaways, specific things they could bring back to their congregations.

“Steve Wernick, he has a great vision, but it will take a lot to get his vision out there in the field,” said Shapiro. “He’s working with an old established intransigent organization. But he’s trying to move it in the right direction. It’s impossible to find anything on their website. They need to make their resources more known and available.” Shapiro said she would like the organization to provide consultants to help synagogues like hers figure out what to do with very small Hebrew schools, for example.

Vossen said United Synagogue seems to be trying to respond to that criticism. “The cost of health insurance for shuls is a tremendous issue. People have gone to USCJ and asked them to study it and finally at this conference they have sessions to talk about what they can offer. Boards are constantly at their wits’ end with employment contract questions and shuls can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Last week all synagogue presidents got an email telling us that they engaged with a firm that can answer that kind of question.”

Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, who leads a small but growing congregation, Beacon Hebrew Alliance in the gentrifying upstate New York town of Beacon, said he didn’t go to the United Synagogue conference because he just didn’t see the point. His synagogue has been a member of United Synagogue since the congregation was founded in 1921, and has grown by more than 60 percent, to 140 households, since he started there two years ago, Spodek told Haaretz. And while it is assessed United Synagogue dues of more than $7,000 a year, it has a total budget of about $100,000 and has only paid about $1,000. Now the congregation is considering reducing that to something nominal, like $200, because it just doesn’t feel that it gets any kind of service from United Synagogue. Spodek turned to the organization recently looking for help raising $10,000 so his congregation could hire more part-time administrative help. After multiple conversations he was sent a form so the synagogue could apply for a dues reduction, said Spodek. Likewise, when the congregation turned to the organization for help with a real estate-related legal question, and when he wanted professional help with building a website and database, “they didn’t have anything to offer.”

“When I went back and reported to my board, it wasn’t clear why we are a member of the Conservative movement,” Spodek said. New young members of his synagogue don’t much care. And the United Synagogue “can’t make a case for why it would be a tragedy if they stopped existing. They’re answering yesterday’s questions, and are ill equipped to answer questions of meaning that a whole lot of other places answer in different ways.

“Organizationally they are falling off a cliff. United Synagogue could be a thought leader. And they’re just not. They could be the AAA of the synagogue world and say ‘we’re going to know better than anyone how to build an endowment, how to build a fundraising campaign, a website, answer real estate questions for a religious corporation.’ If they were those folks I would gladly pay for that. But they’re not those folks either.” Spodek added that today “the places with energy and excitement are not Conservative movement places.”

Wernick appears to be readying himself for a day when there may no longer be a United Synagogue as denominational apparatus, but rather Conservative Judaism may remain a philosophy and theology, an animating force for those American Jews interested in engaging equally with Jewish tradition and modernity.

“United Synagogue 100 years from now will not be the United Synagogue of today,” Wernick told Haaretz. “There will be an apparatus supporting communities but probably not like we have today. Will the Conservative movement function organizationally as a denomination? Probably not,” Wernick told Haaretz. “United Synagogue has to break away from that idea and promote shared values. What we call it, what it looks like as we go into the future, I don’t know. But it has to be different than what we have today or had yesterday. It just has to be.”

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