Top Conservative shares new vision at Neveh Shalom
By DEBORAH MOON
article created on: 2011-02-15T00:00:00
Changes under way in Jewish life today are “as significant a shift as that from biblical and Temple Judaism to rabbinic Judaism and the Mishnah,” the national leader of the Conservative movement told Portlanders Feb. 1.
But unlike the trauma of the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion that caused that shift, this change will be “the result of the natural development of Judaism in an open and free society,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Visiting Portland two days before the release of a strategic plan for the future direction of the Conservative Movement, Wernick outlined some key provisions of the plan in an interview with the Jewish Review and at a public meeting at Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland’s Conservative synagogue. (A recording of Wernick’s public talk is available online at jewishreview.org—click on the audio tab at the top of the home page.)
The USCJ spent 11 months “analyzing the state of North American Jewry, the successes and challenges of Conservative Judaism and the relevance and effectiveness of United Synagogue,” said Wernick.
He said the resulting strategic plan, which he helped write, is designed to provide a set of directions for what United Synagogue can do to assist congregations in fulfilling their missions to be places of learning, worship and social justice. The USCJ released a draft of the plan Feb. 3 seeking public comment.
The Conservative Movement and synagogues need to change to accommodate what Wernick said sociologists have identified as a shift in Jewish identity in North America from an identity of affiliation or ethnicity to an identity of meaning and purpose.
“That means synagogues, built on an organization model of membership, are in need of transformation,” said Wernick.
The USCJ strategic plan focuses on three core components to move the Conservative movement forward: strengthen and transform kehillah (community); focus on education from preschool through high school including integrating formal and informal learning; and expand outreach, particularly to college-age and young adult populations.
He said the term kehillah rather than synagogue was a very deliberate choice.
“It’s the difference between a house and a home,” he said. “A synagogue is the structure, kehillah is the sacred community that comes inside.”
Kehillah also refers to the movement’s plans to support the growth of sacred communities whether in synagogues or as minyanim, havurot or other groups that share the Conservative movement’s vision.
He said USCJ plans to partner with communities with leadership development to help congregations look ahead. A three-tiered approach will offer training for new and existing board members, more intensive training for emerging leaders and top-tier training for incoming presidents.
At the public meeting, Wernick said that when Neveh Shalom developed a strategic plan 12 years ago, the challenges were straightforward—capital and operational. He said the Portland congregation successfully launched a capital campaign to meet its building needs and hired new staff to provide needed programming.
“Twelve years later you’ve accomplished everything you set out to do,” he said. “But what is apparent is the challenges today are vastly different. Today the challenges are cultural…so we can engage people where they are.”
He said while USCJ plans to help strengthen local congregations, local changes will be from the grassroots rather than top down. He said USCJ will partner with congregations, but each of them will determine how to meet the needs of their community.
“We can’t say if you do A, B and C it will look like this; it’s got to be more organic. That’s why leadership development is so important,” he said.
Wernick said typically when someone visits a synagogue, they are given a tour, told about programs and handed a membership packet. And while congregations need a core group for financial support, they need to find ways to engage people where they are; after they are engaged, people will choose if and when they want to “come inside.”
He praised Neveh Shalom for already reaching beyond the strict membership model.
“Neveh Shalom is thinking beyond membership with its Hebrew immersion for preschoolers to age 8 that is open to everyone,” he said referring to the Kochavim and Notz’tzim Hebrew immersion programs. “I think that is an indication of what the future is going to be like.”
“The ideology and theology of Conservative Judaism is still very relevant,” said Wernick commenting on his decision to leave the pulpit and accept the leadership of the movement 19 months ago. “We are in a unique time to reclaim and reinvigorate that relevance and the thought that I could play some small role in making that happen was very exciting.”
Noting that prayer has a barrier to overcome to be meaningful in people’s lives, Wernick began his evening meeting with a teaching about the final prayer of the Saturday morning service, Adon Olam.
“The last thing we say before leaving synagogue and going to Kiddush or returning to our lives is ‘God is with me, I am not afraid,’” Wernick said. In addition to the meaning of the words, he also pointed to the significance that Adon Olam can be sung to any four-bar melody—which is also the rhythm of a heartbeat, the rhythm of a horse galloping, the rhythm of waves hitting the shore—“the rhythm of the universe.”
“I can walk out the door and know everything is going to be OK…that we’ve been here before… that I am not alone. To feel God’s presence gives me a sense…that my life has meaning and purpose,” he said.
He asked those in attendance to email him after Shabbat and tell him if they recited Adon Olam with new feeling after learning about it.
“We’ve taken the prayer and elevated it to another level of meaning and understanding in the context of Jewish history and within the context of our life—that is Conservative Judaism,” he said.