BALTIMORE — Despite a survey’s ominous findings of sharp declines in the Conservative movement, its leading umbrella group opened its 100th anniversary conference with an upbeat pledge to question “who we are, what we stand for, and what we contribute to the Jewish landscape — in our communities, across the continent, and around the world.”
Those words from Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, kicked off the organization’s “Conversation of the Century” at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
Just days before, the Pew Research Center released a survey on U.S. Jews reporting that, as Wernick described the findings, “the proportion of American Jews who identify as Conservative has shrunk to 18 percent, a drop from 43 percent in 1990 and 33 percent in 2000.”
“Let’s be real,” Wernick, a Caldwell resident, urged the audience of 2,250. “There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting. And tweaking…. It is our hope that this centennial serves as a turning point — a pivot between an uncertain present and a promising future. It happens by building a big tent, a free market of ideas, inspiration, and action.”
Wernick called on Conservative Jews to “build bridges wherever we can. Let’s unite on issues that matter to all of us, whether it is the scourge of gun violence in the U.S., or social justice matters, or the environment, or access and acceptance for people with disabilities and special needs, or supporting Israel.”
Seconding Wernick’s theme of inclusion was Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s Manhattan-based seminary.
Eisen proposed a three-fold strategy to confront what he called this “time of unprecedented challenge and change” for Conservative Judaism: being as welcoming as possible to bring in more Jews, taking Conservative Judaism beyond the bounds of the synagogue, and providing more money and time to the movement.
Jewish families, “whether they are baby boomers of my generation or millennials or younger than millennials, whether they are gay or straight, whether they are women or men, whether they are Jews by choice or Jews by birth or non-Jews sharing their lives with Jews — I think they want to live seriously and they want to live well.
“They want guidance on setting their kids on the right path. They need help in facing up to difficult moments.”
The theme of change and the readiness of the movement to embrace it sounded throughout the convention, which brought together rabbis, lay leaders, and synagogue professionals for workshops, governance meetings, and pep talks.
“The challenges are clear,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, as he arrived at the convention. “We need to be much more mindful and effective and proactive in engaging people in their 20s and 30s and keeping empty-nesters engaged. We can’t just be pediatric institutions,” said Silverstein, who has held leadership positions in the Conservative movement on the local, national, and international level.
“There are a lot of things we could be doing better and a lot that has to do with basics,” agreed Patricia Wershulz of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford and the past chair of Service to Congregations at USCJ.
“People aren’t coming through their youth with a feeling of what it means to be Jewish like it was a generation ago. Being Jewish means something different to them now, and we need to understand what that is and meet them there.”
Standing beside his congregant, Beth-El Mekor Chayim’s Rabbi Ben Goldstein said, “Every community sometimes thinks it is the only one facing a problem. It is nice to come together with so many people who have the same shared values and vision.”
Ned Gladstein, a North Caldwell resident and Agudath Israel leader as well as a board member of both USCJ and JTS, said the goal was to strengthen Judaism as a whole, not “win” a competition among denominations.
“To me it is a matter of what’s good for the Jews,” said Gladstein. “A strong Orthodox community is good for the Jews. A strong Reform community is good for the Jews. A strong Conservative movement is good for the Jews. How do we all move forward? That is what this conference is about.”
Barry Mael of Highland Park, director of kehilla (community) operations and finance at USCJ, was among those who said he was eager for change.
“People have to rethink what were certain beliefs and expectations 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he said. “People joined congregations because that’s what you did. Now people want a reason. They are looking for something, and you need to meet that need.” Mael is the former executive director of the NJ region of USCJ.
“Leadership has to rethink what we do. What makes our community one that people want to be part of?” he said. “We have to get back to relationship-building. There have been times when we took relationships for granted. We can’t take relationships for granted anymore. We must look at new models and not assume the old ways are going to work.”
Among the opening day speakers was Erica Brown, the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
She assigned her audience some “homework,” calling on them “to become positive disruptive innovators.” Rather than trying to fix the world, she suggested they “go out and do a little damage. Disrupt the world. Change it and question it…to force meaning into the world of creative Jewish life that matters and attracts others.”