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Lifting Our Heads High As Conservative Jews
Mon, 06/25/2012 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Steven Wernick
Rabbi Steven Wernick
It seems that every significant study of the Jewish people is released while we read from the Book of Numbers, the book that derives its English name from the first official census of the Jewish people. It’s as if counting the Jewish people is imbedded in our DNA. That census, conducted 3,000-plus years ago, however, was much more limited in scope: Only men age 20 and older who are able to go to war (Numbers 1:3) were to be counted. From the Torah’s census of 603,550 Israelites of age for war, scholars estimate that the total population was in the 2.5 million range.  More than the number of Israelites, I have always been fascinated by the methodology of the census. The Torah describes the means of counting as S’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael, literally “Lift up the head of all the community of Israel.” (Num. 1:2) It’s a peculiar way to count, leading Ramban (Nahmanides 1194-1270) to propose that the word s’u (to lift up) is only used to indicate greatness; that is to hold one’s head up with pride. More than counting the people, the method suggests that the people had to count themselves in; they had to raise their head to be counted.  As a leader of Conservative Judaism, one might be tempted to lower one’s head in evaluating the results of the recent Jewish Community Study of New York. Years of intermarriage and low birthrates are taking their toll on both Conservative and Reform Judaism. In addition, the rising number of post-denominational and “Just Jewish”-identified Jews is a telling sign that the synagogue as it is currently configured is not meeting the spiritual needs of the next generation. Those of us who believe that a vital religious center is necessary component of a vital modern Judaism need to take note of this reality and own it.  There is an infrastructure crisis in our synagogue communities that is manifest in the manner in which they try to recruit, train and move people up the ladder of leadership. Time is precious, and those who are targeted to become future leaders are often reluctant to commit to this vital resource involved in committee work and inefficient board meetings because of the perception that board dynamics are unproductive. This perception is sadly well founded; synagogue boards are often the places where creativity comes to die. No wonder so many of our young people go elsewhere. That’s the bad news. In reviewing the study, though, I find lots of good news and even more opportunity. There are, for example, lots of congregants who are part of Conservative communities, and their education and levels of participation in Jewish life, including their generous support of UJA-Federation, is on the rise. They also have higher commitment levels than Reform congregants and those who identify as just culturally Jewish. This can be attributed to our commitment to and the positive influence of our rabbis, cantors, educators and other committed professionals and lay leaders, USY youth movement, Schechter Day Schools, Ramah Camps, Israel travel for both children and adults (approximately 100 congregational trips to Israel each year) and more.  The data also seems to indicate that our stance on intermarriage, reflective of the very real challenges it poses to inclusivity and concern for Jewish continuity, is also correct: to welcome those who have intermarried while advocating for endogamy as the preferred marital choice. The real world is multifaceted. As the epicenter of the Jewish world, Conservative Jews celebrate the nuance of multiple perspectives, especially when they clash social mores. Nevertheless, the implication of the study, and United Synagogue’s own work while developing our strategic plan — V’asu Li Mikdash, Make for Me (God) a Sanctuary, adopted March 2011 — is that Conservative leaders need to work on the quality of our kehillot, sacred communities, on the commitment level of those who identify with them and on the quality of the learning experiences that they provide for children and their families. Our first priority, then, is to partner with congregations, kehillot, in their striving for excellence, encouraging them to challenge themselves in a continuous process of self-improvement. The goal of this effort is to build community — to cultivate effective change-oriented leadership, to provide engaging prayer, inspiring learning for children and adults, and spiritual development, as well as meaningful programs.  This is the work of the New United Synagogue and its focus on four core functions: strengthening and transforming kehillot; creating an integrated and collaborative learning paradigm; reaching out to young adults; and nurturing new and emerging communities. The growing Russian community and non-denominational or “Just Jewish” populations, for example, are opportunities for engagement, not cause for concern. That this study validates our own research and strategic planning is another reason for Conservative Jews to raise their heads with pride. We will continue to meet the challenges of living a meaningful modern Jewish life. We are committed to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian or traditional. Our kehillot create the conditions for a powerful and vibrant Jewish life, empowering Jews in North America to seek the presence of God, to seek meaning and purpose in Torah, to fully engage with Israel, and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world and the Jewish people. And they are just getting better. We are confident that the next study will demonstrate the fruit of our labor. Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Camp Ramah, Conservative Judaism, Solomon Schechter day school association, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, USY

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Torah,Torah and More Torah! Get It! That's the answer.

with all due respect to the rabbi: it doesn't add up!
The numbers show apathy, assimilation, shrinkage- the "answers" given are more of the same policies that have brought us here in the first place. Wise up!

With all due respect, the problem that Rabbi Wernick does not see is that the core values on which the Conservative Movement (CM) was founded have melted away, and CM is now seen by almost everyone as symmetrical with Reform Judaism. CM has abandoned their non-egalitarian congregations, and members who want to retain the CM values of 50 years ago (including our youth) have no place to go. What is needed now is a vibrant national organization to capture the constituents who have been abandoned by CM. The Teaneck group at The UTJ should be moving faster and more vigorously to fill this role.

> What if anything could the USCJ do for Jews who want a fuller Conservative Judaism only to see those aspirations stymied by
> their own local Conservative synagogues?

As a Conservative Jew, I absolutely agree with this question. There is certainly an "elite" minority of Conservative Jews who are extremely knowledgeable, engaged, and observant who are the living, beating heart powering the movement who are nevertheless being smothered by the rest of their congregants (the majority) who are Conservative in affiliation but who otherwise essentially lead reform lifestyles, without any serious attempt at Shabbat or Chagim observance, study, or Kashrut. I believe the future of the movement boils down to whether the movement's leaders are willing to hurt some feelings and egos and thus risk philanthropy dollars by demanding and *inspiring* more observance, more seriousness of Jewish living, and the creation of true Shabbat communities. If not, those "elite" of Conservative Judaism will continue to leave for independent or alternative minyanim or Modern Orthodoxy while the majority of the movement becomes the long stereotyped "reform with more hebrew prayers" and intermarries away.

As a board member of my synagogue, let me say Rabbi Wernick couldn't be more correct about boards, except that is where almost *every* idea goes to die, not just the creative ones...

Conservative Judaism is not pluralistic, they have got rid of their non Egalitarian Congregations. The right wing of Conservative Judaism has left for Union of traditional Judaism or Orthodox Judaism.It is only a generation where you will be similar to Reform Judaism

Hartfield Zody

How small do the Conservative and Reform movement need to get before their leaders realize that this formula doesn't work. How many more of their children must intermarry, become appathetic or worse, convert to other religions before they wake up. I don't think they ever will. They are too committed to their idealogies.

In this article the USCJ president tries to show differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism. But like many problems the USCJ has had understanding and relating to its dues paying members the facts on the ground at least in my city - Pittsburgh PA show that in order to try to keep the local big Conservative synagogue open they are combining hebrew schools with the largest Reform synagogue and doing many other kinds of programming together. Many in our community see this as window dressing for an inevitable full merger between the institutions. So there will be no avenue for Jews to really be Conservative Jews here anymore unless a breakaway minyan starts from scratch. What if anything could the USCJ do for Jews who want a fuller Conservative Judaism only to see those aspirations stymied by their own local Conservative synagogues?

Just reading this one sees why Conservative Judaism is doomed. The article is boring, mentions silly phrases like "sacred communities" and focuses on giving to UJA. Time to wake up CM! People are searching for meaning in their lives, for a connection to God, to know what it means to be an "oved hashem" and how to get there. The answer has always been there and, unfortunately, the CM never got it: Torah, Torah, and more Torah. Not Giant vacuous synagogues and lofty speeches. Teach Torah to as many as will listen.

Ever wonder why the most expensive Jewish books -- commentaries, siddurim, etc. -- are the ones put out by the CM? Why does Etz Hayyim cost twice as much as Artscroll? It should cost half as much and be given away to every one to increase learning.

Sadly it is a house of cards. So many Jews could have been turned on over the past 40 years while the CM built buildings instead of souls.

What Rabbi Wernick points out is clear. Conservative Jews are engaged in being Jewish, providing leadership throughout Jewish Organizations and are individual leaders in innovation. That news should not be held back. Yes, demographics are shifting and individual congregations need to recognize that the world has been changing. In fact, that is what is most laudable about Conservative Judaism, the willingness to be both Authentic and contemporary. Conservative Jews need not spend their time simply reading torah; they are proof that motivated Jews pursue lives of meaning while working to strengthen the Jewish Community. Those who try to delude us that traditional Judaism discourages work and is so insular as to have nothing to do with one's fellow Jews are not, in fact, authentic. They are marching in the wrong direction, even as they are motivated by torah. One asks which is more important, study or action? I think that Conservative Jews have voted to act and not merely to study. For if study never leads to action, what's the point?