Difficult days for Conservative Judaism

Much has been said and written in recent years about the challenges facing the “centrist” Jewish world of Conservative Judaism.

Membership is falling. There’s no sense of identity. It’s hard to be moderate or centrist in a culture dominated by “conservative” and “liberal” voices.

Conservative Judaism was once simply Judaism for a lot of second-generation types — very traditional, yet at ease with being American.

But the Jewish community has been spreading out (fracturing?). The Orthodox world is growing, bringing in people who once might have been happy belonging to a Conservative shul. The Reform world has pull for not only liberal Jews, but those who may have dropped observance and the large numbers of interfaith families. Then you have all those Jews who have slipped away or are “post-denominational,” meaning that they’re not interested in belonging to anything.

To make matters worse, many Conservative rabbis have been pretty critical of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the “umbrella” group for Conservative congregations.

Now the USCJ is looking to reinvent itself, both for self-preservation and to help lead a renewal of Conservative Judaism.

A draft letter from a planning commission puts it like this: “…we, the Commission, feel that Conservative Judaism in North America is at a crossroads and serious effort needs to be focused on strengthening and transforming the synagogue, the primary institution of our communal Jewish life.”

At a crossroads…

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive VP of the USCJ, told the Jewish Week: “The motivation of North American Jews for synagogue affiliation has changed and we need to create an organization that operates as an engagement model.”

I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound promising.

Wernick is holding meetings around the country to discuss the state of things and the Big Plans. He’ll be at Temple Israel Center of White Plains on Feb. 22.

Leadership of Conservative Judaism continues to change

Much has been written in recent years (including by me) about the challenges facing Conservative Judaism — the “moderate” Jewish movement that seeks to reconcile tradition with the modern world.

It’s no easy task in an increasingly partisan culture, where most religious groups are identified as being with the right or left.

The incoming leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an organization that represents Conservative synagogues, has a lot of work to do.

“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,” Rabbi Steven Wernick told the Jewish Week.

He’ll soon by taking over for Rabbi Jerome Epstein of New Rochelle, who has led the USCJ for 23 years.

This is a real period of change for the leadership of Conservative Judaism.

In 2007, Arnold Eisen took over as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the intellectual center of the Conservative movement. He replaced the long-serving Rabbi Ismar Schorsch.

And in a few months, Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains is retiring after two decades as executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis. He’ll be replaced by another White Plains-based rabbi, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld.

I hope to write something about Schonfeld before she takes over this summer.