For Conservative leader, a road show for change
Rabbi Steven Wernick explains plan to revive movement’s fortunes
Rabbi Steven Wernick believes the Conservative movement has “been in crisis” for the last two years, a victim of shrinking memberships and falling revenue.
“At any board meeting at any synagogue, what two issues do you have to deal with?” asked Wernick, before answering his own question: “Money and membership.”
Yet Wernick is no typical synagogue rabbi: As executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, he is leading an effort to overhaul his organization and introduce the most dramatic changes in its 97-year history.
On Feb. 28 he came to Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick to meet with Conservative leaders and discuss USCJ’s strategic plan to make it and the movement more attractive to younger members and “a true partner” to affiliated congregations.
The organization’s board will vote March 13 on the plan, which seeks to improve its governance, reduce the financial burden on member synagogues, and increase the movement’s appeal to independent congregations that eschew the Conservative label.
Having seen the number of USCJ synagogues decline sharply in recent years from 800 to 650, Wernick has been traveling throughout the United States and Canada to share the strategic plan with Conservative leaders ahead of the historic vote.
In an almost three-hour session, some 50 leaders representing USCJ’s Mid-Atlantic Region listened, asked questions, and offered suggestions about the plan.
“Conservative Judaism plays an important role in the Jewish spectrum, and that role is still vital and necessary,” said Wernick. However, he said, its message is being lost as it continues to cling to stilted practices that are no longer viable, especially when it comes to generating interest among those in their 20s and 30s.
“There has been an important shift in North American Jewish identity that has had a tremendous impact,” said Wernick. Jews feel more allegiance to a group of people who share their sense of values, religion, and meaning rather than an affiliation to a movement.
“People will only join your organization if it adds meaning and purpose to their lives,” he said. “Young people looking to affiliate will not just join a Conservative synagogue because their parents belonged to a Conservative synagogue.”
The plan calls for focusing on three “core functions”: strengthening and transforming current congregations, or “kehillot”; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership.
To that end, USCJ is looking to encourage “kehilla-centered” congregations, or “sacred communities,” that do not necessarily belong to an official Conservative congregation or whose members do not want to label themselves as such.
The plan also calls for a General Assembly of representatives of each congregation, as well as regional district councils that elect their own representative to the board of directors.
Wernick said the plan calls for strengthening and transforming existing kehillot, seeding new kehillot, and engaging a new generation of leaders.
“USCJ will partner with such groups to expand membership, cut costs, increase participation, and increase revenue,” he said.
Many synagogues in urban areas have been quite successful in attracting a younger cohort, he said, by using non-traditional methods, including lay-led prayer services, an increased emphasis on music in services, and spiritual practices that might feel alien to older congregants.
While some of this methodology is new to Conservative Judaism, Wernick said, “if you’re bringing in 1,000 young people to a Friday night Shabbat service, you’re still bringing in 1,000 young people for a Friday night Shabbat service.”
And while most shuls “can’t exactly replicate Los Angeles or the Upper West Side,” they can learn from the experience of such successful urban communities.
Wernick said USCJ aims to streamline the 65 different programs it offers member synagogues and move from a dues-paying structure — currently 80 percent of its budget — to a model that relies on donations and investment.
“We have to pull out those that are good ideas and are successful and transformative,” he said, while others that are not as successful will be downplayed or dropped. Among the programs facing the chopping block is the Koach program for college students. Wernick said it receives only about $400,000 annually, but needs $2-$3 million to be effective. Unless philanthropists or an organization steps forward with the additional funding, its current allocation is “a waste of money.”
Attending the meeting were Yoni and Ilana Yares of East Windsor, two “20-somethings” who said they found meaning in the Conservative movement. They belong to both B’nai Tikvah, where they were married, and Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, where Ilana teaches religious school.
“We are engaged and we felt it is important to show up and not be lumped into an assumption,” said Yoni.