Audit to shed light on Conservative Judaism

It’s no secret that Conservative Judaism faces significant challenges, but officials within the movement hope an audit of close to 1,000 people by the branding firm Good Omen — expected to be released in the coming weeks — will help pump new life into it. 

“We’re in the final stages of the audit and the information-gathering and we’re looking forward to seeing in the next couple of weeks their formal reports,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), told the Journal during a recent interview at American Jewish University (AJU).

Good Omen staff have been asking Conservative Jews about their thoughts and feelings about the movement, and they have been helping USCJ, the movement’s synagogue umbrella organization, develop a fresh slogan — something to replace “Tradition and change.” 

Wernick said USCJ has changed to respond to the needs of the 21st-century Jew, including changing its language to refer to the synagogue as a “kehilla” (community). Unfortunately, nobody else seems to recognize it has changed, he said. 

“We hired a branding consultant because we felt, and the process has demonstrated for us, thus far, that the work we have done toward creating a new United Synagogue experience is not being fully recognized and trickling down into the congregations or into the Jews in the pews,” he said. “So we wanted to get some outside help in asking if our objectives are aligned with objectives communities are expecting from us and if not, where is the gap and if they are aligned, where might we need additional resources and how might we create strategies in order to that?”

In 2013, the Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that identification with Conservative Judaism is decreasing: 36 percent of those raised Conservative currently identify as such, compared with a 48 percent retention rate for Orthodox Jews and 55 percent for those raised Reform. This is happening even though the movement has liberalized over the years, permitting people to drive on Shabbat, use live instrumentation during worship services and more. 

However, Wernick said the Pew report does not provide a complete picture of what is happening within the denomination.  

“If you measure your success by impact as opposed to just feeling good about your Jewish identity [a core measurement of the Pew study], the impact of Conservative Jewry is extraordinarily high,” he said during a wide-ranging conversation with the Journal that lasted more than an hour.

Wernick did acknowledge that the findings of the Pew study underscore a serious problem facing the movement. 

“The number of Jews that self-identify as Conservative has shrunk — that’s for sure — and critical mass is important, and there’s a lot more we can do to address that. Some of that has to do with synagogues making the transition from being a membership-focused organization to a meaning-focused organization. 

“We have to double-down on our engagement of teens and we have to increase the overall Jewish learning and experience. It’s both affective and cognitive elements,” he said. “And so United Synagogue sees its role as helping communities, established communities, do that, helping affiliated synagogues grow their capacity, engage their teens and increase Jewish knowledge.”

That’s accomplished, Wernick said, through USCJ’s three pillars: synagogues, United Synagogue Youth and Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a co-educational environment for studying Jewish texts founded in 1995.

Giving Wernick hope is anecdotal evidence that a disproportionate number of Conservative Jews are going to Israel-related policy conferences. He said AIPAC leaders reported that 50 percent of attendees at the pro-Israel lobby’s events identify with the Conservative movement. And on the other side of the spectrum, Wernick said, 90 percent of participants at a J Street U event held last year at AJU grew up in the Conservative movement. 

He said the Los Angeles Jewish community, in particular, gives him confidence, and he highlighted local rabbis Sharon Brous and Naomi Levy, who lead two of the country’s most prominent post-denominational communities, IKAR and Nashuva, respectively. Both were ordained in the Conservative movement, and while their current faith communities don’t identify with the denomination, having Conservative-ordained rabbis serving a large number of Jewish needs counts for something, Wernick said.

“It’s about impact,” he explained. “Look at how many Jews Sharon Brous has positively impacted. The congregation might not want to limit itself to a definition of a denomination, but Sharon Brous was trained as a Conservative rabbi. They use a siddur and Chumash from the Conservative movement … and she is committed to robust halachic practice. The methodology by which she teaches Talmud is by definition what she experienced and learned. So call it whatever you want, but Sharon Brous is a success story of Conservative Jewry.”

Wernick, father of three and son of Conservative Rabbi Eugene Wernick of Or Olam in New York City, said the deaths of his mother when he was 2 and his stepmother when he was 15 had a profound impact on him and his relationship with the Jewish world.

“[The] USY community supporting me at the time of loss, not only my friends but their parents … helped me through difficult times,” he said. “I believe, in many regards, I am a product of the mitzvah of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, that all of Israel are responsible for one another, that Jews, when they take Jewish values seriously and implement them when they have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, they can change a life. I believe my life was changed by people who did that.”

During rabbinical school at AJU, then known as University of Judaism, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Wernick studied under Conservative leaders including Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and the late Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman, who designed the mikveh at AJU. He also was youth director at Congregation Beth Kodesh, which later merged with Temple Beth Ami to form Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. Before being hired at USCJ in 2009, he served as the spiritual leader in Adath Israel synagogue, near Philadelphia. 

Wernick, 48, said he has found his current work overseeing nearly 600 synagogues and 1 million Jews challenging and stimulating. He helps with budgets and programming to help them increase their capacity and become stronger communities. His job responsibility, also, is telling the story of Conservative Judaism. And what is that story? 

“The issues of Conservative Judaism are the issues of the world, and our tradition has a wisdom and a value structure of how we might approach them,” he said.

That means addressing the growing income gap between the wealthy and the poor, environmental destruction and more, he said.

Merrill Alpert, youth director of the Far West region of USY, which includes Los Angeles, expressed confidence in Wernick during a phone interview. She said he is “very, very committed to the youth and has gone out on a limb. … He publicly declared he wants to direct his concern, his emphasis, to the youth and is trying to engage more youth and get the synagogues to rally behind and be more supportive of their youth departments in the synagogue.” 

Wernick, for his part, said he wants every denomination, not just Conservative Judaism, to thrive.

“When we all succeed, the entire Jewish world succeeds, so we should be wildly successful,” he said. “That’s my dream.”

Study: Conservative shuls spend on operations at expense of engagement

Conservative Jewish synagogues are focused more on operations than youth engagement, and are more than twice as likely to have a cantor than an associate rabbi, a new survey of synagogue staffing found.

About 50 percent of Conservative synagogues employ a youth director, but in only about 12 percent is that a full-time position, according to a survey of Conservative shuls conducted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. While about 54 percent of Conservative synagogues have a cantor (37 percent of them full time), fewer than 25 percent have assistant or associate rabbis, and only 18 percent have a full-time associate rabbi.

The most common position in Conservative synagogues is rabbi, at about 93 percent of synagogues, followed by custodian (70 percent), administrative assistant (66 percent), bookkeeper (about 65 percent), executive director (61 percent), education director (59 percent) and cantor (54 percent), according to the survey.

When only full-time employees are counted, 85 percent of Conservative synagogues have a rabbi, 56 percent have an executive director, 46 percent have an administrative assistant, 43 percent have a custodian, 38 percent have an education director, 37 percent have a cantor, 35 percent have an early childhood director and about 34 percent have a bookkeeper.

The survey relied on data provided by 331 of USCJ’s 580 member synagogues in the United States and Canada. The findings were presented at the umbrella organization’s recent conference in Schaumburg, Illinois.

“Staffing tends to lead toward operations, not engagement,” said Ray Goldstein, USCJ’s kehilla relationship team leader (kehilla, Hebrew for “community,” is the organization’s preferred term for synagogue).

“When a synagogue comes into money, they hire an executive director before they hire an assistant rabbi,” Goldstein said. “The data does not support that our kehillot are putting money into hiring youth directors.”

The survey, which was led by Goldstein and Barry Mael, USCJ’s director of kehilla administration and finance, also found that despite much talk in the movement about creating new kinds of positions to address the movement’s changing needs, none of those innovative positions “have taken hold in any meaningful way.”

Not surprisingly, the synagogues least likely to have a rabbi are those that are smallest: Only 23 percent of those with fewer than 100 members have a full-time rabbi, compared to 80 percent of those with 100-199 members. Associate rabbis mostly appear in synagogues with more than 450 members, while executive directors show up among synagogues in the 100-199-member category or above.

Amid identity crisis, Conservative Jews pay for rebranding

Conservative Judaism is at a crossroads.

The movement is committed to Jewish tradition, but it’s seeing a growing number of its young people walk out the door — most often to Reform Judaism.

American Jews who self-identify as Conservative increasingly are leading lives at odds with the core values and rules of Conservative Judaism, especially when it comes to intermarriage. And the number of Conservative Jews has shrunk by one-third over the last 25 years.

In this movement meant to occupy the center ground between Orthodox and Reform, Conservative leaders are struggling to figure out how to appeal to a new generation of Jews without abandoning their core values or becoming a near-facsimile of Reform Judaism.

“Tradition and change has long been considered a tagline of Conservative Judaism, a concise statement of what we are about,” said Margo Gold, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. “But in the 21st century, the vision of Conservative Judaism requires that we rethink this as a community and see what we really want our core message to be.”

Gold’s remarks came at the United Synagogue’s biennial conference, held this week in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. As part of the effort to reposition Conservative Judaism, United Synagogue has launched a $350,000 rebranding effort and hired a branding firm, Good Omen.

“We’ve bought into the narrative of decline of our own movement,” United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, said in his address. “We need to stop shraying our kups [ Yiddish for ‘screaming our heads off’] about everything that is bad and get to work.”

The focal point for the dilemma over how much to stick to tradition versus how much to change has been intermarriage. Though the movement forbids it and does not count as Jews those whose fathers are the sole Jewish parent, four out of every 10 Conservative Jews is marrying out of the faith, and community leaders want to reach out to intermarried Jews.

“We’re in an awkward situation where the sociology is pushing us in one direction, but our organizational structure is hindering us moving in the direction we need to be moving,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and an outspoken Conservative proponent of embracing interfaith families.

There was perhaps no better illustration at the conference of the movement’s identity crisis than at its penultimate session. Led by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, some 200-300 participants tried to brainstorm a new tagline for the movement – something that could convey its essence, appeal to young Jews and fit on a bumper sticker.

“Tradition and change is actually not a slogan; it is a paradox,” Wolpe said. “It says: We stand for two exactly opposite things. We are the oxymoronic movement.”

Wolpe said he also dislikes the movement’s name, not least because of its unwanted association with a political ideology.

“I don’t know of anyone who thinks Conservative Judaism is a great name,” said Wolpe, who 15 years ago led an unsuccessful proposal to rebrand it Covenantal Judaism. “As long as Conservative Judaism is in the tagline, we start off with a deficit.”

Among the audience’s suggestions for a new tagline:

“Our grandparents would be proud. Our grandchildren will be Jewish.”

“The Judaism of dynamic relationships.”

“Honoring our past, embracing the future.”

“Traditional Judaism, comfortable in modernity.”

“Where heritage meets what’s happening.”

Between 1990 and 2013, the number of American Jewish adults who self-identify as Conservative dropped from about 1,460,000 to 962,000, according to an analysis by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.

The Pew survey also showed that the number of Conservative Jews aged 55-64 who say they are synagogue members is almost triple the number among those aged 35-44, and that only 13 percent of Conservative Jews attend religious services at least once a week.

That’s bad news for United Synagogue, which has seen the number of its member synagogues fall to 580 today from 630 in 2013 and 675 in 2009.

United Synagogue has acknowledged the problem. The opening session of the conference, held Sunday to Tuesday, was called “Moving Beyond the Crisis.”

The movement’s own restrictions compound the debate about how to chart the way forward for Conservative Judaism. Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate at — and aren’t even supposed to attend — interfaith weddings, putting them at a disadvantage when congregants or their children in interfaith relationships seek a rabbi to wed them. (By contrast, the Reform movement encourages its rabbis to perform interfaith unions.)

Likewise, the Conservative movement does not recognize so-called patrilineal Jews, while the Reform movement does. Some Conservative institutions nevertheless allow patrilineal children into their schools and educational programs, but they may draw a line when it comes to allowing the child to be bar-mitzvahed.

“We need to address patrilineality. It’s the elephant in the room,” Rabbi Jeffrey Lipschultz of the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Ill., said during a conference session. “The reality of what’s happening in the movement is not reflective of the reality of what is happening on the ground. As a movement and as leaders of congregations, we have to figure out how to do better.”

On the plus side, many participants at the conference, which drew several hundred people, said United Synagogue has gotten better at servicing its constituent congregations, about 170 of which sent representatives to the conference.

“I have been a USCJ skeptic. The USCJ, to me, felt like an organization that did a lot of talking, and very little listening,” Rabbi Eric Woodward wrote in a report on the conference on his Times of Israel blog.

“But this week, at the USCJ ‘Shape the Center’ conference, I heard a different USCJ,” he wrote. “I saw the USCJ listening, without responding in any insecure top-down Jewsplaining sense, to a world that is quickly sprouting up around it.”

In recent years, United Synagogue has struggled with yawning deficits, a rebellion against fees by a group of member congregations, and criticism of cutbacks that included staff layoffs and the elimination of the organization’s college program, Koach.

But the deficit has been narrowing. In 2011 and 2012, the cumulative budget deficit was $6 million. In 2013-2014, it was $2.8 million, and this year’s projected deficit is $600,000. United Synagogue’s total budget is about $25 million.

Earlier this year, United Synagogue sold its two-floor condo in midtown Manhattan for $15.9 million. Half of that money is being used to create an $8 million sustaining foundation that will support programming but will be controlled by a separate board of directors. The balance will go to operations. The organization just moved into rental space in lower Manhattan.

“United Synagogue did not have a good track record of prudent financial management, and my job has been bringing that into line,” Wernick told JTA in an interview. “We are closing the budget gap. That’s our No. 1 priority.”

United Synagogue is one of the Conservative movement’s three main arms; the others are the Rabbinical Assembly and its flagship New York rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., said that for the Conservative movement to survive and thrive, it must make adaptive changes for the 21st-century, not just technical changes.

“We will not find our way if we say: ‘Let’s have better board meetings and more strategic plans and better fundraising and different dues structures.’ Those are all very important technical changes; none of them are going to save us,” Feinstein said. “We’re only going to get saved if we start by saying: What is the truth of this movement and how can we best convey it to a new generation?”

College students unite to save conservative youth program

A Conservative movement college outreach program has survived potential demise — for now. Responding to an organized outcry by students and alumni, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) voted on June 10 to fund KOACH, its campus program, with $100,000 for the coming year on the condition that KOACH raises an additional $130,000.

Leaders of KOACH say the group provides a unique campus outlet for progressive Jewish students. In addition to internships, programming grants and Web resources, the group’s flagship program is an annual national conference known as the Kallah.

UC Riverside graduate Rebecca Marcus calls Kallah “a truly magical weekend” of “learning and nurturing, growth, development.” This year’s Kallah was sponsored by the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

For many students, KOACH is the natural continuation of a lifelong involvement in Conservative youth programming. “I grew up in the Conservative Movement — I did USY, I went on Nativ — and KOACH is the next step in continuing my Conservative way of life,” said Angeleno Robyn Klitsky, a student at Boston University.

But over the past seven years, KOACH has experienced a series of progressive budget cuts as a result of the financial crisis racking USCJ. This spring, the movement said it would impose a hiatus on funding the program.

At its height just seven years ago, KOACH had a budget of $750,000, reached 88 campuses and impacted a number of Southern California universities, including USC, UCLA, CSUN, Pierce and Valley community colleges, San Diego State University and University of Redlands. Cuts forced KOACH to shrink Kallah and completely eliminate programs like KOACH Shabbat, which sent rabbinical interns with educational material to campuses throughout North America.

When USCJ threatened to stop funding KOACH, concerned students took action. On March 31, Douglas Kandl, an entering junior at NYC’s Pace University and president of Pace Hillel, created

Richard Skolnik, international president of USCJ, acknowledges that it was the students’ energetic response that spared
KOACH: “I felt that there was so much passion — how could we let them down?”

Kandl remains optimistic.

“Now we have a specific goal to work toward,” Kandl said. “With all the support that we’ve gotten … I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to reach that goal.”

“We are going to try to help them,” Skolnik said. “One of the plans is to put together a consortium of other arms in the movement and see what we can do to help save our Jewish college students.”