Baltimore — United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was marking its 100th birthday, but while recent survey findings about the movement were sobering, the spirit of the convention itself, dubbed “The Conversation of the Century,” was upbeat in focusing more on the future than the past.

United Synagogue has seen its membership plummet in recent years, necessitating a change in leadership and a total overhaul of the organization. The discussions at the conference were wide ranging, and sacred cows came up for debate.

“Our house is on fire,” Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., told a session on conversion, citing the recently released Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewry.

“If you don’t read anything else in the Pew report, [it is that] we have maybe 10 years left. In the next 10 years you will see a rapid collapse of synagogues and the national organizations that support them. The Pew report is an atomic weapon. There are so many details of that report that they make your hair curl. If we continue what we are doing, our house will burn down.

“What I’m missing at ‘The Conversation’ is a little bit of screaming,” he added, “so I wanted to scream a little bit. At least someone here should.”

The Pew survey showed that only 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative, down from 39 percent in 1990, was not included in the program. Organizers said the study, announced on Oct. 7, was released too late. But participants mentioned it in many sessions. (See accompanying story on page TK.)

“Who are the 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who are intermarrying?” asked Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Chicago on the centennial convention’s sidelines, quoting a figure from the survey.

Performing an intermarriage is grounds for automatic dismissal from the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly.

“Those are our people, and we lose many of them when we say, ‘We can’t marry you,’” she said. “We can be as friendly and welcoming as can be, but when rabbis say we can’t marry you, they feel as though a door has been slammed in their face — even if it is not how it’s intended. Is that who we want to be?”

That particular question was not addressed at a later panel dealing with conversion. But many here said the mere discussion of that issue and others — including changing demographics and how synagogues can attract 20- and 30-year-olds — at a USCJ convention was groundbreaking.

“We did not bring back people to celebrate the past, and we acknowledged we are 100. But people came here to learn how to strengthen and better their congregations moving forward — and how the lessons of the past can help us move forward,” Rabbi Barry Mael, director of Kehilla Operations and Finance, said.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, said he believes the movement is at a crossroads.

“If United Synagogue remains a narrow denomination,” Rabbi Wernick continued, “there will be no need to affiliate [with us].”

What will make member synagogues want to join, he said, would be a movement that becomes a “a network of kehillot (communities), of learning and best practices.”

Affiliation also offers practical benefits, Rabbi Wernick said, like a new bulk buying plan that could save synagogues up to $60,000 annually on everything from office supplies to electricity. And he said the movement is studying the viability of a health insurance trust for synagogue employees.

Programs at the convention dealing with software and music were nice, said Rabbi Feinstein, adding that the talk only skirted the issue about the movement’s drop in numbers. “But we have to address core values, and to do that we have to be honest with ourselves and not [just] behind closed doors.”

Rabbi Feinstein compared the Conservative movement to a person who has a lump and does not want to consult a doctor for fear of learning something bad.

“It’s not that we didn’t know what was in it [the Pew report], but to see it written up by a place as prestigious as the Pew Research Center makes it hurt,” he said.

What is happening to the Conservative movement is happening to mainline Christian groups too — “the middle is falling away,” Rabbi Feinstein said.

“Religious life is moving to the extremes — extreme secularism on one side and fundamentalism on the other,” he said.
But he added that he is “eternally hopeful” and believes there are “resources within these people you can’t quite measure — and 1,200 people here shows there is still life in this movement. … This is the first conference that celebrates Jewish learning and Jewish life. Previous ones were about the institution.”

Rabbi Hayim Herring, who said his doctoral dissertation on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was the only scientific analysis of it, said there were “few surprises in Pew.” He said many local Jewish federations were responsive to the 1990 survey that put the intermarriage rate at 52 percent, “but the movements, to the best of my recollection, did next to nothing.”

The Pew report put it today at more than 70 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.

“If I ran a business, I would look at the decline that happened and ask, what is my reinvigoration strategy and my exit strategy. And the exit strategy is likely if nothing fundamentally changes — and that would be heartbreaking. I don’t know if it can be turned around, but there are pockets of creativity. The question is, Can a bridge be built between them and the creative synagogues out there,” Rabbi Herring said.

The convention itself was a successful event, and a sign of hope about the movement’s future, some said.

When the leadership first started planning for the convention, they said they were conscious of the fact that a recent convention attracted only 180 people. They said they thought this one might attract as many as 1,000, and all sorts of early bird discounts were offered to get people to book early. But by the High Holy Days only 800 had signed up. In the following weeks, however, 400 signed up to push the number to 1,200 attendees, “the largest number in recent memory,” according to Richard Skolnik, the organization’s international president.

“There were stories that the Conservative movement barely had a pulse,” Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of Kehilla Enrichment. “But we learned from this conference that if you offer an experience that resonates with people — rabbis, cantors, synagogue leaders and Jews — they will come. What we were hearing in the hallways is that there were so many great offerings that they didn’t know which ones to attend. … The conversations at the convention focused on the challenges we face and about what we can do when we go home to take that next step.”

And in conversations in the hall, participants discussed how their synagogues and others were grappling with the decline in Conservative Jewish membership.

Marty Stein of Orange County, Calif., said his Conservative synagogue of 90 families, Congregation Eilath, merged with a 650-family Reform congregation, Temple Beth El of Orange County.

“The merger was three years ago and it’s working fine,” he said. “The merger gave us a way to concentrate on prayer and community rather than worrying whether we were going to be paying the rabbi too much money.”

Stein, a former president of the Conservative congregation, said it still runs its traditional Saturday morning service with its own rabbi and that there are joint Friday night services.

He noted that the 40 members of his congregation — which had more than 500 member families in the late-’90s — who did not join Temple Beth El joined another Conservative synagogue 15 miles away.

Some attributed the large turnout to the top lineup of speakers — including Rabbi Harold Kushner; Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seiminary and educator Ron Wolfson — and to a convention that featured many provocative sessions run simultaneously instead of sessions attended by all followed by occasional breakout sessions, as happened in the past.

And the concerted effort to attract clergy paid off — a record 160 rabbis and cantors attended with their congregants.
In fact, there were more participants than the Marriott Hotel could handle. Many of the sessions had so many people crammed into the conference rooms that people were sitting on the floor, standing in the sides and in the hall. Many walked away disappointed they could not get in or hear the sessions.

The opening night sit-down dinner in the grand ballroom could not accommodate everyone, so tables were set up in the hall and the doors to the ballroom were left open so that people could see inside.

And the hotel ran out off of food at Monday’s lunch buffet.

But as one convention organizer put it, “It was better to have full rooms than empty ones.”

The 160 United Synagogue Youth and 50 college students invited to attend also livened up the proceedings. And when Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson performed during the Centennial Gala, there was literally dancing in the aisles.

One participant, Arthur Glauberman of Scarsdale, observed that the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism held a meeting here prior to the convention and that the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs had similarly been invited to hold a meeting here in order to “bring as many arms of the movement together.”

“If we are going to try to save what is left of the Conservative movement, we needed to bring all the players together,” he said. “The median age of the attendees is 60 and above. I’m going to be 62 and I see myself as young here. That is why bringing in 160 USYers was very important.”

stewart@jewishweek.org