With the Conservative movement’s congregational arm under attack on two fronts, the group’s incoming executive stepped into the fray this week with bold promises for sweeping change.
“One of the greatest frustrations is that the United Synagogue is not transparent or sufficiently responsive to the needs of the synagogue,” the executive, Rabbi Steven Wernick, told The Jewish Week. “I want to re-energize and re-engage the synagogues by creating priorities and an agenda of the United Synagogue and therefore also the movement.
“I’m going to do it using the phone, by traveling and through electronic meeting spaces. I’m going to listen. People are doing great things, and we need to talk to each other … I plan to have serious conversations with the leadership of
synagogues on a local level.”
The United Synagogue has come under withering criticism in recent weeks from two groups — clergy as well as synagogue presidents — who charge that congregational arm lacks vision, transparency and needs a dramatic overhaul. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue’s current executive vice-president, said he had invited representatives of both to a meeting here this week.
“I want to believe that all of these individuals want the best for the Conservative movement,” he said, adding that he was prepared to meet some of their demands “because they are part of our plan.”
Among the issues the critics raised was the lack of transparency in the budget. Rabbi Epstein said there are now plans to post it on the group’s Web site along with explanations. Asked about demands that his contract also be posted, Rabbi Epstein said that would be up to the lay leadership.
“I hope they will be reasonable and not say it is all or nothing,” he added of the groups’ demands. “They have to realize that everything takes time. I plan to listen at the meeting.”
Asked about charges that United Synagogue’s governing bodies are too large, Rabbi Epstein said the convention of United Synagogue “overwhelmingly turned down” a resolution that would have given the board of directors and not the entire convention some responsibilities.
The author of one of the critical letters, Rabbi Michael Siegel, said he was “looking forward to working” with Rabbi Wernick to address some of his colleagues’ concerns.
“My hope is to work with the United Synagogue to develop a long-range plan and then to implement it in a coordinated effort,” he said. “We wish him well. He has a significant role to play in the Conservative movement. We hope that together we will be able to create a new day.”
Rabbi Wernick, 41, comes to the United Synagogue at a time when the movement is seen by many as floundering and unable to define itself. Its membership, which the 1990 National Jewish Population
Survey found to be the largest Jewish denomination with 43 percent of affiliated Jewish households, plunged to only 33 percent in the 2000 survey.
The movement is also undergoing a generational change in leadership. In 2007, Arnold Eisen succeeded retiring Rabbi Ismar Schorsch as chancellor of the seminary, and in July Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is slated to succeed retiring Rabbi Joel Meyers as executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly. Both Rabbi Schorsch and Rabbi Meyers held their posts for 20 years.
In a sense, Rabbi Wernick is setting a course to try to re-orient the movement, whose intellectual energy has for years emanated more from JTS than its synagogue arm.
Rabbi Meyers described Rabbi Wernick as “a critical thinker who has always offered very good advice.
He is an optimistic person, and I think he will be a very good leader for the United Synagogue. He will bring energy and a perspective of how to reach the next generation of Conservative laity and leadership.”
Rabbi Wernick was the unanimous choice of the 19-member United Synagogue selection committee, which screened more than 15 applicants. He must still negotiate a contract, and his appointment is subject to board approval. He will succeed Rabbi Epstein, who is retiring after 23 years.
For the last seven years Rabbi Wernick has been spiritual leader of the 650-family Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa., where synagogue leaders credit him with increasing membership.
“He has revitalized our synagogue,” said Mitchell Shore, the congregation’s treasurer. “He has brought life back to our synagogue. He has inspired our younger members and revitalized the educational component of our school. And he has worked to develop new programs for our seniors … He has worked to engage all members of the congregation.”
Shore added that the rabbi “plays a role in every aspect of the synagogue and provides guidance to all of the organizations. He is a visionary in terms of how we can improve and do things differently. There was never a time when he said, ‘This is what we did last year, and this is what we are going to do again.’”
An avid cyclist, Rabbi Wernick and six members of his congregation took a 300-mile bike ride from Jerusalem to Eilat last May to raise money for two Israeli organizations, one that promotes Israeli Jewish-Palestinian-Arab relations and another that spotlights environmental awareness.
“We raised about $50,000,” said Miles Herman, the congregation’s president, who participated in the event. “We spent a lot of hours riding next to each other, and it’s a real way to spend time communicating with each other.
“I think he’ll do very well [in his new job]. He is a person who has vision and is savvy financially. He is also a listener and passionate about the environment.”
Among the changes Rabbi Wernick would like to make at the United Synagogue is to “narrow its focus” to strengthen synagogues.
“What is it they require that they find difficult to do themselves but that a national organization could provide expert guidance and support for?” he asked. “It could be done from a team approach — a local and regional approach.”
One example is to do more work on college campuses. Rabbi Wernick said he read that 90 percent of all Jewish college students attend only 20 schools and that therefore “we should have a presence on those campuses.”
“There are now only two full-time people in Koach,” he said, referring to the movement’s campus group. “If we restructure the regions, maybe we can populate them with experts who can do outreach to college campuses.”
Rabbi Wernick and his wife, Jody, have three young daughters. They live in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., having moved there seven years ago after Rabbi Wernick spent six years at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Eric Jacobs, a past president at Temple Beth Sholom, said Rabbi Wernick was “very successful, well liked and very creative.”
Rabbi Wernick said he believes that something must be done to bring back young people who drop out of synagogue life after their bar and bat mitzvah and don’t rejoin until they have children of their own.
“There is a 25-year gap between when they leave and when they think of [synagogues] again,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they have stopped engaging Jewishly during that time; they just have not done it through the synagogue. There are many independent minyanim comprised of alumni of the Conservative movement. We need to look at where they are living, what the fastest-growing Jewish communities are and what kind of support we can put there to help them.”
In addition, Rabbi Wernick said he would like to “enhance and enrich” the membership’s connection to the State of Israel.
“People should not only learn about it but should experience it as a living, breathing state,” he said.
“Aliyah needs to be on the table again as a legitimate and desired option for Conservative Jews. Our relationships have to be strengthened because our futures are connected to one another. If we want to have an identity as Conservative Jews there, we have to build the Conservative community there.”
Rabbi Wernick said he also would like to give the United Synagogue a higher profile in the movement.
“Without the United Synagogue, there is no Jewish Theological Seminary, there is no Masorti movement,” he said.
“I wanted this job because I think we are at a critical moment in the life of the movement and because the synagogue is the locus of Jewish life in the United States,” the rabbi continued. “The United Synagogue as the umbrella organization [of the movement] has a unique opportunity to really affect the future of the movement for the next 25 years.”