Conservative leader sees movement at ‘crossroads’
The Conservative movement should stop apologizing for being pluralistic and instead embrace its ability to combine the modern with the traditional.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO and executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said instead of making excuses, Conservative Jews should be “passionate” and “more outspoken” about their pluralism.
“What it means is that we have multiple portals of entry that enhance and enrich Jewish life,” he said. “Rather than diminish us, it is why it is possible to have both egalitarian and non-egalitarian in the same movement.”
Wernick spoke in a cell phone interview with NJJN in advance of his Saturday, April 17, appearance at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen during morning Shabbat services. The program is being sponsored through the adult education committee and the Gilbert and Claudie Hayat speaker series.
The concept of pluralism, said Wernick, has allowed some to dissent from the 2006 ruling permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy — but it can also be used to explore ways of being more welcoming to intermarried couples, gays and lesbians, and those with disabilities.
“Conservative Judaism is the nexus between tradition and modernity,” said Wernick. “It is the meeting point for people looking for a Jewish journey.”
Among the movement’s greatest strengths is its “distinctive approach” to Jewish education, with its “overlay of knowledge of modern discourse” and emphasis on Hebrew.
“We study classical texts in their entirety,” said the rabbi. “We study Humash with Rashi.”
Wernick, who took over the reins of the movement last year, has been charged with reviving what had once been the dominant American-Jewish denomination. That distinction now belongs to the Reform movement, while about a third of affiliated Jews consider themselves Conservative.
“I think the entire Jewish world is going through a transformation right now,” Wernick said. “There’s been a revolution in the regular culture, and we in the Jewish world, especially the progressive Jewish world, have perhaps been too slow in recognizing and addressing it.”
While “the Reform movement is getting a bigger piece of the pie, it is a shrinking pie because everyone’s numbers are down,” in part due to declining birth rates.
However, with new leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue in place, Conservative Judaism is “at a crossroads.”
“There’s a lot of activity right now,” said Wernick. “I do believe we are poised to lay the groundwork for a renaissance of Conservative Judaism. Clearly I believe there is a future, even with all the challenges facing us. Let’s not forget we are still the second-largest denomination of Jews in North America. But I’m not in a competition; I just want North American Jews to be engaged in Jewish life. I want to narrow our organizational focus and harness our resources to present a compelling vision statement to Conservative Jews.
“I want Conservative Judaism to be strong, vibrant, and meaningful. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Hazzan Sheldon Levin, Neve Shalom’s adult education director, said Wernick’s appearance will come a week after that of Shuly Rubin Schwartz, dean of the JTS’ Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, who presented a history of the movement.
“We booked Rabbi Wernick last year, the day he was appointed, but the timing just worked out wonderfully,” Levin said. “Those who attend both lectures will learn about the history and the future of the movement.”
For more information, contact Levin at 732-548-2238, ext. 14, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.