Ned Gladstein is a man on a mission. The new president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is keenly aware of the challenges — and what’s needed to meet them — facing the movement he has been part of his entire life.
Which is why he believes he is the man for the job.
A longtime resident of North Caldwell, Gladstein is a third-generation local grocer — president of Sunrise ShopRite, he owns ShopRite supermarkets in West Caldwell and Parsippany. He is a third-generation member of Congregation Agudath Israel (CAI) in Caldwell — two of his three daughters and their husbands and most of his eight grandchildren are members of the next generations of congregants — where he is a major supporter and has served in numerous leadership positions, including president. His deep ties to the synagogue became the springboard to his ever-increasing involvement and leadership in the Conservative movement.
USCJ is the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues throughout North America, a network that includes nearly 600 congregations, which Gladstein prefers to call “kehillot” (communities). USCJ, along with the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), represent the three major arms of the denomination. Gladstein served as USCJ vice president from 2015 to 2018 and assumed the presidency at the start of this year. His responsibilities now include serving as chair of the board of directors and guiding the organization’s overall policy.
Gladstein’s involvement in Conservative Judaism dates back to his youth; he grew up attending CAI and its religious school, and as a teen became a leader of CAI’s United Synagogue Youth chapter. “When my wife Jane and I married and moved back to Caldwell, I was tapped to get involved in CAI by the women who had carpooled me and the other kids to Hebrew school,” he recalled, laughing.
Shortly after finishing his 1989-91 term as CAI president, he became a member and later chair of the JTS Rabbinical School Board of Overseers as well as chair of its Institutional Partnership and Community Engagement committees.
His commitment to the movement was made even more concrete when he and his wife, created the Gladstein Fellowship in Entrepreneurial Rabbinic Leadership in 2003, an endeavor in which the two remain closely involved. (Gladstein fellows are JTS students who receive “intensive mentoring and experience in practical rabbinics, inspired religious leadership, and community development” and commit to begin their careers in an emerging community.) He later become vice president of Masorti Olami, the movement’s international body, which gave him a world view of Conservative Judaism and the need to deepen the connections among its kehillot.
Deep involvement in USCJ had come in 2009, when he was asked to be a synagogue representative on a joint commission of USCJ and Hayom: The Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism. The commission was tasked with drafting a new strategic plan.
According to Gladstein, it is the duty of USCJ to ensure the continued vitality of Conservative Judaism and to increase the value and relevance of its services to affiliated congregations.
But, Gladstein told NJJN, “the movement’s institutional structure was created decades ago, and now the landscape is shifting under our feet, and USCJ, along with our partners in the movement, has not been as responsive to change as we need to be.
“We have acted as independent silos for far too long,” said Gladstein. “There have been no coordinated efforts to address such crucial issues as interfaith families, teen and young adult engagement, and conversion.” The lack of such efforts, he said, “has led to significant critical demographic and financial challenges as well as critical questioning of our relevance.”
When you look at where the creative philanthropic money is going, he continued, “it’s going to gaps between our silos….” Among them are efforts like the Jewish Emergent Network, a coalition of several innovative congregations across the country, including Romemu in Manhattan and The Kitchen in San Francisco, “all alternative formats for deep Jewish engagement that are outside the Conservative movement but are basically Conservative in practice.”
The strategic plan calls for USCJ to actively support and be supported by the other arms of the Conservative movement in creating and sustaining meaningful engagement with members of Conservative congregations and kehillot across North America.
Its four priorities address Jewish engagement for both synagogue members and nonaffiliated Jews, operational effectiveness for its affiliated congregations and for USCJ itself, building a network of subject matter experts and lay volunteers, and deepening its partnerships with the other constituent arms of the Conservative movement.
“We can’t afford the luxury of duplicated efforts and redundancies,” said Gladstein. “We must address unaddressed issues. This path is the only way to ensure the vital center of Judaism in North America.”
Following the adoption of the strategic plan, Gladstein served as a USCJ vice president and chair of the Community and Covenant Commission. This commission, which included representatives of the RA, JTS, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in California, was instrumental in changing the USCJ’s membership standard to allow for non-Jewish individuals to join USCJ-affiliated congregations. (Every congregation, however, is free to make its own decision in determining membership standards.)
Gladstein declared it “a watershed moment when we changed that standard from what it was.”
He considers the personal relationships and institutional trust that were born out of this decision the catalyst for the institutional collaboration that has followed.
Over the last few weeks, USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly have been partnering to determine specific actionable endeavors on which they will collaborate. These include close conversations with JTS and Ziegler and efforts to development a partnership between Ramah, the movement’s summer camp program, and United Synagogue Youth.
Gladstein understands that change is not easy. “If by the end of my term USCJ actively supports and is supported by the other major arms of the Conservative movement, so that the vital center of Judaism in North America is ensured — I will consider my term a success.”
And if, he emphasized, “I can do all that and maintain my sense of humor.”