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At United Synagogue centennial, tough talk about need for change

Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson performing at the United Synagogue centennial in Baltimore. (Mike Diamond Photography)
Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson performing at the United Synagogue centennial in Baltimore. (Mike Diamond Photography)

BALTIMORE (JTA) — It will be years before it’s clear whether or not this week’s conference of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was a success.

To be sure, the centennial gathering in Baltimore by nearly all accounts was a far more dynamic and well-attended biennial than those of recent years, drawing some 1,200 people.

But the Conservative movement is in serious decline — evidenced by the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews recent findings, the shrinking number of synagogues that affiliate with the movement and the empty pews in Conservative synagogues across the country.

Under that shadow, the central preoccupation of the centennial wasn’t celebrating the past century of Conservative Judaism — the milestone was hardly marked at all during the three-day confab — but how to ensure that Conservative Judaism has a future.

“Our house is on fire. If you don’t read anything else in the Pew report, we have maybe 10 years left,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., at a session Monday morning that caused a major buzz at the conference.

“In the next 10 years I see the rapid collapse of synagogues and the national organization that supports them,” he said. “If we continue what we are doing, our house will burn down.”

There is broad recognition from the movement’s leaders on down that significant rejuvenation is needed if Conservative Judaism is to reverse its negative trajectory. The conference, whose theme was “The conversation of the century,” was billed as an opportunity to talk about how.

“Since last week, all anyone wants to do is talk about the Pew study; I don’t,” Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said in a speech at the gathering. “It’s time to stop talking and start doing.”

The movement’s leaders offered few specifics, instead sticking to broad outlines.

Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, proposed a threefold strategy of being as welcoming as possible, taking Conservative Judaism beyond the bounds of the synagogue, and getting members to commit more money and time to the movement.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue, called for turning synagogues into communities, for which he used the Hebrew term “kehillot.”

Author and movement giant Rabbi Harold Kushner argued for emphasizing the discipline inherent in Jewish commitment, suggesting the movement adopt the bumper sticker mantra of “kadsheinu b’mitzvotecha” — sanctify us with your commandments.

The nitty-gritty of strategies for counteracting the movement’s erosion came in breakout sessions and in the hallways, where everything from whether the movement should perform intermarriages to how synagogues can reinvigorate services came up for discussion. No decisions were made — except, perhaps, in closed-door sessions of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — but there was plenty of debate. For that, even longtime critics of United Synagogue gave the organization credit for facilitating the discussions.

“I think they understand there has to be the grassroots development in order for Conservative Judaism to continue,” said Marsha Davis, president of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pa. “Leadership has to happen bottom-up. You’re involved and encouraged to be part of the decision.”

Plenty of ideas were bandied about. Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Rockville, Md., said synagogues should designate 5 percent of their budgets for mini-grants for young Jews to create innovative synagogue programs. Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue in New York said it isn’t programs that matter but the relationships that synagogues forge with their congregants and among congregants.

Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif., argued that the movement needs to be more welcoming to non-Jews and proposed giving non-Jewish spouses and friends a place in synagogue ritual by allowing them to open the ark during services. Attorney Vicky Vossen, past president of the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the movement’s rabbinical association needs to loosen its control of the hiring process so congregations can hire the rabbis they want.

Michael Schatz of Philadelphia, the incoming president of the movement’s Jewish Educators Assembly, said synagogues need to stop being territorial about educational programs and support Hebrew schools outside the synagogue if they have stronger programs. Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, Calif., said synagogues must put ego aside and welcome independent minyans that want to create alternative services.

“Unless you’re making people uncomfortable, you’re not making real change,” said Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann in a session titled “Alternative Minyanim — Congregation Builder or Destroyer?” “If we keep doing something basically along the same trajectory, things will stay the same and eventually peter out and die.”

The conference wasn’t all doom and gloom. At the Sunday evening gala, musicians Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson led a rousing rendition of “Am Yisrael Chai” that had attendees dancing in the aisles and prompted Nelson, an alumnus of the United Synagogue’s youth movement, to deliver a positive pronouncement.

“For the first time in as long as I can remember, there is a sense of electricity among this group of people,” he said.

Rabbi Raphael Ostrovsky, a retired pulpit rabbi who lives in Munster, Ind., said he found the afternoon prayer service inspiring.

“When you davened mincha, it was very moving. I felt like it was an active Orthodox synagogue,” Ostrovsky told JTA. “It was loud and full of life. The average Conservative synagogue doesn’t have that.”

In one-on-one discussions, many attendees credited the United Synagogue with changing its modus operandi following an uprising several years ago by a handful of renegade synagogues that withheld their dues in protest.

“A few years ago, it was send us your money and that’s it. That’s how our synagogue viewed the USCJ — they were simply collecting dues without providing a service,” Ralph Downard, president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del., told JTA.

“Now they’re actually giving considerable services for the dues. We actually have benefits — there’s leadership development, strategic planning, a blog for synagogue presidents to exchange ideas. United Synagogue is actually engaging us.”

The conference hardly marked the beginning of the conversation about how to reinvent Conservative Judaism for the 21st century. For years, lay leaders and rabbis have bemoaned the movement’s decline.

Now, however, the conversation about how to address the decline is being embraced by organizational leaders. Whether and to what extent the conversation will lead to changes on the ground — and how open the movement’s national organizations will be to undergoing major reforms themselves, as many have suggested is necessary — remains to be seen.

“You’ve got to be willing to undergo self-examination and figure out how you need to change,” said one synagogue president from New Jersey who asked not to be identified by name. “And self-examination is the single hardest thing for human beings to do.”