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Is United Synagogue’s House ‘On Fire?’
Middle movement grapples with a way forward at centennial convention.
Staff Writer
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Baltimore — United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was marking its 100th birthday, but while recent survey findings about the movement were sobering, the spirit of the convention itself, dubbed “The Conversation of the Century,” was upbeat in focusing more on the future than the past.

United Synagogue has seen its membership plummet in recent years, necessitating a change in leadership and a total overhaul of the organization. The discussions at the conference were wide ranging, and sacred cows came up for debate.

“Our house is on fire,” Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., told a session on conversion, citing the recently released Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewry.

“If you don’t read anything else in the Pew report, [it is that] we have maybe 10 years left. In the next 10 years you will see a rapid collapse of synagogues and the national organizations that support them. The Pew report is an atomic weapon. There are so many details of that report that they make your hair curl. If we continue what we are doing, our house will burn down.

“What I’m missing at ‘The Conversation’ is a little bit of screaming,” he added, “so I wanted to scream a little bit. At least someone here should.”

The Pew survey showed that only 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative, down from 39 percent in 1990, was not included in the program. Organizers said the study, announced on Oct. 7, was released too late. But participants mentioned it in many sessions. (See accompanying story on page TK.)

“Who are the 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who are intermarrying?” asked Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Chicago on the centennial convention’s sidelines, quoting a figure from the survey.

Performing an intermarriage is grounds for automatic dismissal from the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly.

“Those are our people, and we lose many of them when we say, ‘We can’t marry you,’” she said. “We can be as friendly and welcoming as can be, but when rabbis say we can’t marry you, they feel as though a door has been slammed in their face — even if it is not how it’s intended. Is that who we want to be?”

That particular question was not addressed at a later panel dealing with conversion. But many here said the mere discussion of that issue and others — including changing demographics and how synagogues can attract 20- and 30-year-olds — at a USCJ convention was groundbreaking.

“We did not bring back people to celebrate the past, and we acknowledged we are 100. But people came here to learn how to strengthen and better their congregations moving forward — and how the lessons of the past can help us move forward,” Rabbi Barry Mael, director of Kehilla Operations and Finance, said.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, said he believes the movement is at a crossroads.

“If United Synagogue remains a narrow denomination,” Rabbi Wernick continued, “there will be no need to affiliate [with us].”

What will make member synagogues want to join, he said, would be a movement that becomes a “a network of kehillot (communities), of learning and best practices.”

Affiliation also offers practical benefits, Rabbi Wernick said, like a new bulk buying plan that could save synagogues up to $60,000 annually on everything from office supplies to electricity. And he said the movement is studying the viability of a health insurance trust for synagogue employees.

Programs at the convention dealing with software and music were nice, said Rabbi Feinstein, adding that the talk only skirted the issue about the movement’s drop in numbers. “But we have to address core values, and to do that we have to be honest with ourselves and not [just] behind closed doors.”

Rabbi Feinstein compared the Conservative movement to a person who has a lump and does not want to consult a doctor for fear of learning something bad.

“It’s not that we didn’t know what was in it [the Pew report], but to see it written up by a place as prestigious as the Pew Research Center makes it hurt,” he said.

What is happening to the Conservative movement is happening to mainline Christian groups too — “the middle is falling away,” Rabbi Feinstein said.

“Religious life is moving to the extremes — extreme secularism on one side and fundamentalism on the other,” he said.
But he added that he is “eternally hopeful” and believes there are “resources within these people you can’t quite measure — and 1,200 people here shows there is still life in this movement. … This is the first conference that celebrates Jewish learning and Jewish life. Previous ones were about the institution.”

Rabbi Hayim Herring, who said his doctoral dissertation on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was the only scientific analysis of it, said there were “few surprises in Pew.” He said many local Jewish federations were responsive to the 1990 survey that put the intermarriage rate at 52 percent, “but the movements, to the best of my recollection, did next to nothing.”

The Pew report put it today at more than 70 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

“If I ran a business, I would look at the decline that happened and ask, what is my reinvigoration strategy and my exit strategy. And the exit strategy is likely if nothing fundamentally changes — and that would be heartbreaking. I don’t know if it can be turned around, but there are pockets of creativity. The question is, Can a bridge be built between them and the creative synagogues out there,” Rabbi Herring said.

The convention itself was a successful event, and a sign of hope about the movement’s future, some said.

When the leadership first started planning for the convention, they said they were conscious of the fact that a recent convention attracted only 180 people. They said they thought this one might attract as many as 1,000, and all sorts of early bird discounts were offered to get people to book early. But by the High Holy Days only 800 had signed up. In the following weeks, however, 400 signed up to push the number to 1,200 attendees, “the largest number in recent memory,” according to Richard Skolnik, the organization’s international president.

“There were stories that the Conservative movement barely had a pulse,” Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of Kehilla Enrichment. “But we learned from this conference that if you offer an experience that resonates with people — rabbis, cantors, synagogue leaders and Jews — they will come. What we were hearing in the hallways is that there were so many great offerings that they didn’t know which ones to attend. … The conversations at the convention focused on the challenges we face and about what we can do when we go home to take that next step.”

And in conversations in the hall, participants discussed how their synagogues and others were grappling with the decline in Conservative Jewish membership.

Marty Stein of Orange County, Calif., said his Conservative synagogue of 90 families, Congregation Eilath, merged with a 650-family Reform congregation, Temple Beth El of Orange County.

“The merger was three years ago and it’s working fine,” he said. “The merger gave us a way to concentrate on prayer and community rather than worrying whether we were going to be paying the rabbi too much money.”

Stein, a former president of the Conservative congregation, said it still runs its traditional Saturday morning service with its own rabbi and that there are joint Friday night services.

He noted that the 40 members of his congregation — which had more than 500 member families in the late-’90s — who did not join Temple Beth El joined another Conservative synagogue 15 miles away.

Some attributed the large turnout to the top lineup of speakers — including Rabbi Harold Kushner; Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seiminary and educator Ron Wolfson — and to a convention that featured many provocative sessions run simultaneously instead of sessions attended by all followed by occasional breakout sessions, as happened in the past.

And the concerted effort to attract clergy paid off — a record 160 rabbis and cantors attended with their congregants.
In fact, there were more participants than the Marriott Hotel could handle. Many of the sessions had so many people crammed into the conference rooms that people were sitting on the floor, standing in the sides and in the hall. Many walked away disappointed they could not get in or hear the sessions.

The opening night sit-down dinner in the grand ballroom could not accommodate everyone, so tables were set up in the hall and the doors to the ballroom were left open so that people could see inside.

And the hotel ran out off of food at Monday’s lunch buffet.

But as one convention organizer put it, “It was better to have full rooms than empty ones.”

The 160 United Synagogue Youth and 50 college students invited to attend also livened up the proceedings. And when Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson performed during the Centennial Gala, there was literally dancing in the aisles.

One participant, Arthur Glauberman of Scarsdale, observed that the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism held a meeting here prior to the convention and that the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs had similarly been invited to hold a meeting here in order to “bring as many arms of the movement together.”

“If we are going to try to save what is left of the Conservative movement, we needed to bring all the players together,” he said. “The median age of the attendees is 60 and above. I’m going to be 62 and I see myself as young here. That is why bringing in 160 USYers was very important.”

Last Update:

12/16/2013 - 18:55
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Rabbi Barry Mael, Rabbi Charles Savenor, Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
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David Mollen is right. The intermarriage rate occurs because of lack of commitment, rather than the other way around.
The question remains: why would our children WANT to commit to living a Jewish life?
The movement "believes in" keeping kosher, but how many lay people actually keep kosher? The movement "believes in" Shabbat, but how many lay people do anything Shabbostik on that day?
When I visited the frum community in Houston, I learned that the entire day, including the afternoon, is devoted to Shabbos activity. After a delicious Kiddush at shul, the members invite each other over for Shabbos noon dinner and sit around the table in delightful conversation, which includes the children, until about 4 pm. (The children are free to come and go, not confined to the table this whole time.) I am told that some Conservative congregations, after the shul Kiddush, are holding classes and other interesting activities, which seems a worthy alternative for those unaccustomed to the frum lifestyle.
One more thing. We cannot all send our children to Day school, but we can all manage (with scholarships) to send our children to a Conservative sleepaway camp for ONE WEEK, during ONE SUMMER, to give them a taste of living a Jewish life. Our normal Jewish experience is of constantly swimming upstream within the larger society. When a child experiences Jewish life, even for one week, as NORMAL, it can make him WANT to experience it again, if only in his/her own home. My own week at sleepaway (at Camp Young Judaea) was an eye-opener to me, and my child's experience was to him. THIS ALONE could do it. Please consider it seriously.

David Mollen "hit the nail on the head". Fortunately, I belong to a Conservative shul whose young people have a dedication to Torah and the Jewish People. Our caring, dynamic rabbi and active congregants help to instill "Yiddishkite" in the children. I wish there were more Conservative synagogues that have the same blessings.

Put the word, "Conservative" to the side for a moment, and think about coming to the Biennial that is taking place in San Diego in December. is the Reform Movement's Conference, but there is much to be learned in terms of community and working together as "just Jews." I prefer to think of it as a union of progressive Jews. It is open to all Jews this year.

The good news is even if the Conservative Movement doesn't get that health insurance deal worked out, they'll still be able to offer bulk discounts on sanctuaries to Chabadniks.

I'm pleased to hear that there were USY'ers in attendance. My child is a regional board member seeing staff and other supports being peeled away with the loss of financial supports. When an offer of assessment was made to the United Synagogue staff, it was shunned as if he didn't want to hear from some kid. Those kids hold the future of Jewish community in their hands and we better find a way to engage them now.

I think it took a lot of courage for Stewart Ain to write an honest appraisal of the USCJ convention. Having attended the event on Sunday I could see that while the place was packed with attendees, if you broke down who was there, it was not a cross section of Jewish lay leaders from USCJ congregations from around the country, but rather a very small percentage of member congregations represented. There were hundreds of participants but many were from the Baltimore area who had been given a great rate to attend, as well over a hundred rabbis who also were given a special $180 day rate. And it was very wise that the USCJ invited over 100 USY'ers which brought the mean age down and created a much more festive, instead of funereal mood. Rabbi Steven Wernick announced that the USCJ Convention must be a success because of all the people who were in attendance,but I have to question his conclusion. Stewart Ain mentioned there were aspects of the convention that showed promise but the USCJ has a long way to go to deserve the credit they are seeking.

The Conservative Movement is not on fire because there is not enough passion there to light a fire. The problem with USCJ has always been that it is a halakhic Judaism for non-halakhic Jews. That has been and continues to be a self-defeating concept.

I disagree with others who say Conservative should die and merge into Orthodoxy. No. Especially today, Orthodoxy across the board (with the sweet exception of the miniscule Open Orthodox of YCT et al) is a narrow-minded, sectarian, hollow Judaism. No, the Conservatives should blaze the path of a vibrant and committed post-halakhic Judaism. It won't, unfortunately, and so this path will be forged by those who leave USCJ, Recon and Reform folks who take their Judaism seriously, and the indy minyan and renewal Jews who do likewise. It will take a couple of generations, but it will happen. But USCJ is moribund and beyond saving. Barukh Dayan HaEmet

Wow. Let's take a walk down the path of the Ultra Orthodox triumphalists who have authored comments here. First we are told that "Non-Orthodox Jews reduce their intermarriage rate by becoming Orthodox. Guaranteed!" That's like saying that chained agunot become free when they leave Orthodoxy. Huh? Then another who declares he is not a triumphalist states "Conservative leaders simply won't be able to accept because it will require a virtually complete negation of the lies they have been taught and have come to accept." The lies? Excuse me? As opposed to the so-called truths taught by the Ultra Orthodox that you shall not report spousal abuse, you must sweep all of our problems under the rug and more? Lies? That Torah can be modern and that Halacha has always been adapted. Hey Maimonides was once deemed a heretic too. Or the wise sage who noted that the end "began when you permitted driving to Shul on Shabbos". I guess he is in favor of speaking Yiddish as his Torah is Ashkenaz only. Oy. This is the answer to a vibrant Conservative Judaism? I guess we really do owe the Jewish People another way to be authentically Jewish and to live in modern times. That's why we met and are determined to provide the alternative to a dessicated, insular Judaism that keeps drawing the noose tighter. That is not how free Jews have lived. If preserving that form of Judaism requires a choice between being in a ghetto or engaging in making the world better, you know where Jews have chosen to be. They have not turned to Orthodoxy. They are waiting for Conservative Judaism to learn from its own insularity and to engage in an ongoing conversation with the Jewish People.

QUESTION: How can non-Orthodox Jews reduce
their percentage of intermarriage with non-Jews?

ANSWER: Non-Orthodox Jews reduce their
intermarriage rate by becoming Orthodox.


The writing has been on the wall since the founding of the Conservative movement, for those who cared to look. The Rabbis of that generation recognized that, although the early Conservative movement looked very close to Orthodoxy, it had broken from tradition and pulled away from its roots in very fundamental ways. By focusing on "der Weltunshaung de Judentums" -- ie academic, "scientific" Judaism -- at the expense of fealty to Jewish law and tradition and a genuine embracing of ruchnius (spirituality), the Conservative movement doomed itself to oblivion. The process may have taken 100 years, but now the piper must be paid.

Conservative synagogues are closing left and right. Solomon Schechter schools are closing or seeing enrollment fall. The number of Conservative adherents who show even the most minimal adherence to halacha -- even by the movement's own standards -- is miniscule. It is done. It is over.

What is the answer? It most certainly is not increasing "outreach" to people who are not halachically Jewish or who have abandoned any reasonable hope of Jewish continuity by marrying someone not Jewish. The answer is a return. A return to tradition, to ritual observance, to spirituality. This is not triumphalism, it is the plain fact that most Conservative leaders simply won't be able to accept because it will require a virtually complete negation of the lies they have been taught and have come to accept. Undoubtedly, only a small number of Jews who identify as Conservative will be willing to take that leap. But for those who do, they will find rewards beyond measure in the Torah and traditions that have sustained the Jewish people for millennia. It is a challenge to the Orthodox world to accept such people into their schools and synagogues without judgment, without demanding 100% or even 75% Jewish observance by those returning, and with a great measure of love.

The hand writing for the Conservative Movement (moving out of it) began when you permitted driving to Shul on Shabbos. You knew that no one would limit it to driving to shul. You let the cat out of the bag. And as one of you said, you may have only 10 years left. And you know it. Shame for compromising on Halacha. You's get for whats you pay and yous pays for what yous gets.1 Simple as it is.

Reading this article I would have thought Stewart was writing about the large funeral held recently in Jerusalem. Truth be told, it was anything but. Were hard questions asked? Sure. Were challenges delivered? Sure. What would you have written about if we did not have a lively, engaging series of conversations? I found the vast majority of the attendees - from lay to professional, from young to old - exhilarated by the experience. Did you really expect Jews to get together and not discuss, debate and disagree? Yet, I think there was a feeling that this is a pivotal moment and that United Synagogue is prepared to meet today's issues head-on. Perhaps, even more important, were significant signs that rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and USY members, were eager to be engaged in a discussion about values, Jewish values, and why it matters. That we didn't come and march in lockstep makes sense, as we are not a flock of sheep; that we recognize that Judaism has to be re-envisioned by each generation is also acknowledged. We are a People who have been continually worried about our future and we remain so. As a Traditional, Authentic, Halachic movement that embraces modernity, we face the same challenges that all others do in a period of change. Rather than bury our head in our hands, we came right out and discussed what we need to do. That easy prescriptions were not available should not be a surprise. After all, this is a process that needs all of us involved. It won't be handed down by one wise man (or woman) sitting on a mountaintop.

I am a Reform Jew. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the future of Conservative Judaism; I want very much for your movement to continue to be an alternative to the Orthodoxy that is obviously unacceptable to so many Jews in America today.

So let me offer the one idea I have that I think could help: you must stop thinking about intermarriage. The idea that intermarriage is your problem is pathetic in how misdirected it is. Here's why: can you imagine a committed Jew (of any denomination) giving up his or her commitment because he or she has selected a non-Jew to marry? It is absurd. It is a contradiction of what the word "committed"means. And in fact in Reform we see many cases of intermarried Jews who remain committed to Judaism and often even are able to bring the non-Jewish partner along with them to Judaism.

The problem is not intermarriage; it is lack of commitment in the first place. That is, one does not intermarry and then become uncommitted; one is uncommitted and then has no reason not to intermarry and leave Judaism.

So the focus needs to be not on avoiding intermarriage; it needs to be on finding ways to make our young want to commit to Judaism. The key word is "want". We often miss this point: in a free society like ours, people have to "want" to commit; they cannot be forced, huumiliated or...

And it is clear that none of our movements has found the keys that will reliably make people "want" to remain Jewish. Let's focus on that. Given that we live in a free society (as our forbears wanted us to), the only salvation for Conservative Judaism, or for any other denomination or in fact for any religion, lies in finding what we can offer our young that will excite them.

We already know that it's not what excited previous generations, i.e. the "holy triniity" of Judaism: anti-semitism, Holocaust and Israel. Let's find out what it is, or we are doomed.

I wish I could share your comments with all the leaders and constituents of our (Conservative/Masorti) movement.

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