As a congregational rabbi at Adat Israel in Lower Marion, Penn., Rabbi Steven Wernick about five years ago began to recognize a shift in how his congregants began to view their relationship to their religious affiliation.
“There’s been a radical shift in the nature of Jewish identity of North America, and that shift mirrors really all of religious identity, which is much more fluid today than it ever has been in the past,” said Wernick, now the executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the organization that sets the direction and guidelines for the Conservative movement.
Wernick visited Seattle on Jan. 31 to meet with local rabbis and members of Congregation Beth Shalom, two days before the movement released a draft strategic plan that drastically changes the way Conservative synagogues will relate to their communities. This new plan, which was created over the course of the year since Wernick took his post, is broken up into four main initiatives, with each broken down into several subsets:
• Work with congregations and other Jewish organizations to, as Wernick put it, “bring about a transformation in the nature of congregational life in the next decade, a transformation that responds to this shift in identity, moving from membership to meaning and programming to purpose.”
• Transform education programs, from early childhood to high school, by integrating all of its resources, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, Camp Ramah, and its youth groups into synagogue learning.
• Build post-high school outreach throughout the college years and increase investment in Jews in their 20s and 30s, in particular in major metropolitan communities.
• Adjust to demographic shifts and build infrastructure for those growing Jewish populations.
The USCJ’s board of directors is expected to vote to adopt the plan on March 13. Should the plan be adopted, every program that comes out of USCJ will fit into each of its new functions.
Noting the necessity to implement and fund the initiative, Wernick said recruiting what he called philanthropic investors and thought leaders to engage the movement’s professional and lay leaders will be a high priority.
The shift in Jewish identity that Wernick saw, and what he said congregational leaders across the country were seeing as well, was the idea that religious identity — and not just among Jews, but among many mainline Protestant Christians as well — has changed from identities of affiliation, which could be based on ethnicity or a specific group, to an identity of purpose.
“People today are less interested in joining a group or club than they are in participating in organizations and experiences that they deem to be interesting,” Wernick said.
Taking that argument a step further, he said, the idea of synagogue dues as a financial model becomes non-viable. A part of this plan will help them to work through such a funding conundrum.
“The challenge of the congregations is they spend so much time on membership and money is they forget to focus on meaning and movement,” Wernick said. “Synagogues that… are willing to take responsible risk to bring new models of engagement to bear will succeed.”
In Seattle, Rabbi Jill Borodin of Congregation Beth Shalom said her congregation has already been working to diversify its income through new programming and by creating an endowment.
Not every synagogue or institution will survive this sea change, Wernick acknowledges, but as he has traveled the country, he said he has seen a universal hunger for new thinking that responds to North American Jews’ needs, within the context of the traditional aspects of Conservative Judaism.
“They have kind of instinctively known it all along, but haven’t really heard it articulated aloud,” Wernick said. “Once they hear it articulated aloud it’s as if it gives them permission to think about their organizations in new ways, and so we respond to the challenges.”
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island said he agrees with Wernick’s assessment of Judaism today.
“I think he really understands what the challenges are, how things have changed over the last 30 years or so, and I think he’s committed to out-of-the-box thinking and some really creative action,” Rosenbaum said.
Herzl-Ner Tamid, he said, is constantly working on new ways of making attendance compelling and interesting.
“The burden of proof is on the Jewish institution to prove that we are worth a look, we are worth the commitment,” Rosenbaum said. “There’s no automatic, it’s not going to happen by inertia, it’s not going to happen by nostalgia.”
Congregation B’nai Torah, a small, mostly lay-led Conservative synagogue in Olympia, has questioned in the past whether its dues are worth the services they receive. According to Stan Finkelstein, B’nai Torah’s president, “what they’re doing is probably the right thing, maybe a little bit late in coming,” he said. “Will it work? I’m optimistic that if they step back enough and say, ‘What’s wrong and what do we do to fix it?’ they can make some progress, but it takes regional people who are committed to it.”
Being an hour or more from the closest Conservative shuls in Seattle, Finkelstein said the emphasis on greater regional services would be welcomed.
Beth Shalom’s Borodin agreed, saying she receives calls from small communities wanting services that she doesn’t have the resources to provide. Beth Shalom, however, would likely not be terribly affected by this new strategic plan because they’re doing many of the things it calls for already.
“All of the problems they’re responding to are not problems we’re seeing as a congregation,” Borodin said. “We’ve actually had a large increase in members and we are a very vibrant place.”
One comment she heard from Wernick during his visit was that Beth Shalom was the only community he had visited — of 100 in his first year — in which young adults came to his presentation and asked questions.
“‘How do you integrate young adults into the congregation?’” Borodin said he asked her.
That question, and how to engage college students, are where Borodin said she would like to see more emphasis.
Wernick began oversight on the strategic planning process when he took his leadership post a year ago, but it came about as a result of duress. At around the time Wernick came in, a number of prominent synagogues and rabbis formed a coalition called Hayom (Today) that demanded changes in governance and a better return on their congregations’ investment. USCJ worked closely with Hayom on building its plan, Wernick said.
Rabbi Michael Siegel, one of Hayom’s leaders from Chicago, told the JTA news service that he appreciates the effort, but called it a good first step that would require a “leap of faith” on the behalf of its member congregations.
Borodin had similar, though less harsh, sentiments.
“I don’t think it’s particularly trailblazing or radical or visionary,” she said. “I think it’s a realistic plan that will take the movement 100 steps forward. Because the movement structure is so antiquated, there’s a lot of work to be done. I think this is the right way to approach how to get there.”
Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid said he hopes this plan will allow the movement to overcome what he said was its inability to connect its member synagogues together.
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in all the congregations in America. Everybody’s doing at least one thing that’s really working,” he said. But “there’s not connective tissue. We’re not a movement, as we really ought to be.”
Still, Rosenbaum said he likes what he sees so far.
“I’m impressed with what Rabbi Wernick has already done, and with his vision,” he said. “I’m optimistic that something is going to happen.”
Ultimately, what Wernick believes should happen is that the Conservative movement will create sacred communities “that [add] to a person’s sense of relationship with the Divine. Social justice that really gives people an opportunity to change the world, but most importantly, to get out of the mud of thinking that the goal is membership,” he said. “The goal is to engage Jews in Jewish life, and the more Jews that we engage, the more Jews will support the institutions that engage them.”