Whether the Conservative movement will continue to be a halachic movement in the decade to come depends on how one defines halachic, according to Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Wernick, who will be in Pittsburgh this weekend as Congregation Beth Shalom’s visiting scholar, explained in an interview prior to his visit that the term halacha means “the way forward.”
“I think [the movement] will [be halachic], but when we say that, what do we mean by halachic?” Wernick said. “We have to understand that we’re in a covenantal relationship with the Divine and with each other. Halacha is not a static entity. It’s a living entity. The Conservative movement will remain a halachic movement in that regard. But it will respond to changes. Now, if you mean halacha as law, I don’t think Conservative Judaism is that, nor would I argue it was ever meant to be that.”
Through halacha — as defined as a changing entity providing the way forward — the Conservative movement will have the means to create Jewish community, he said.
The importance of creating a vibrant Jewish community has not been lost on Beth Shalom, which has seen a resurgence in membership since Rabbi Seth Adelson assumed his duties last summer, the congregation’s president David Horvitz told The Chronicle several months ago.
A weekend of events has been planned in Adelson’s honor, beginning with a Shabbat dinner on Friday, April 15, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat services and then a talk by Wernick titled “Toward Thriving Kehillot.” Wernick will install Adelson during Shabbat morning services on April 16 and will also deliver the d’var Torah.
Wernick, who joined the Conservative movement’s umbrella organization in 2009, is looking ahead to a Conservative movement that meets the needs of contemporary Jews but holds fast to its core values. To that end, the USCJ has embarked on a $350,000 rebranding effort and hired a branding firm, Good Omen.
That rebranding effort is in response to the challenge of dwindling membership in many Conservative congregations. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of American Jewish adults who self-identify as Conservative dropped from about 1,460,000 to 962,000, the JTA reported last November. The vast majority of those who do identify as Conservative tends to be older; the number of Conservative Jews aged 55-64 who say they are synagogue members is almost triple the number among those aged 35-44, according to the 2013 Pew survey on Jewish Americans.
The USCJ has garnered data from “a very extensive audit” of stakeholders to discern how they understand Conservative Judaism, according to Wernick, prior to formulating recommendations on exactly how to rebrand.
“Now we are moving from analysis to recommendation,” he said. “We are working on a new brand statement and identifying and articulating the core values of that statement.
“Assuming there is alignment [of board members] to those core values, there is the possibility of creating a new product or new services [provided by the USCJ],” he said.
The process of evaluating the USCJ’s role in the movement cannot be separated out from the movement itself, Wernick said.
“Part of the process has to, by definition, look at the way in which people process Conservative Judaism in this world,” Wernick said.
There currently is some “brand confusion” when it comes to the purpose of the USCJ, as well as confusion about the “Conservative movement’s brand,” he added.
“The Conservative movement is typically branded by what it’s not,” Wernick explained, “It’s not Orthodox or it’s not Reform. It’s not meat, it’s not milk, it’s pareve. You can eat it, but who wants to? As long as you allow yourself to talk about yourself in terms of what you’re not, it’s difficult to define yourself.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Conservative movement did not have to worry about its branding, Wernick said, because it was clear that Jewish immigrants longed for their religious traditions as well as Americanization. The Conservative movement provided a path to that end.
But the needs of Jewish Americans have shifted along with changes in American culture.
“Now we have to define what we value, and how those values are expressed in what we’re doing,” he said.
The USCJ, the largest organization of Conservative Jews, Wernick said, offers its member congregations “the ritual and framework for providing habits and holiness in a thoroughly modern way” and is searching for a way to articulate that message.
The organization is looking at how it can “increase the impact of this shared vision of Judaism in the world,” Wernick said.
Overall, Wernick said he is “very optimistic” about the future of Conservative Judaism and noted that changes in the movement are likely.
“We have to work on how to make Judaism more open and accessible for more people to our core beliefs,” he said. “Overall, we are living at a time of great change, and there are significant paradigm shifts in the world that are impacting every aspect of our lives, including our spiritual lives.
“We have to focus on our core values and how do we assure there are multiple pathways for people to experience those values and find fulfillment,” he continued. “The strength of the Jewish people throughout history has come from a focus on these values and being willing to adopt them to modern circumstances.”
Adelson’s installation weekend will continue Saturday night with a dessert reception at 7:30 p.m. at Beth Shalom, followed by Ma’ariv and Havdalah. A cantorial recital will begin at 8:45 p.m. featuring Adelson, Cantor Laura Berman, Molly May, Cantor Rob Menes, Sarah Stock-Mayo and Cantor Moshe Taube.
For more information, call Beth Shalom at 412-421-2288.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.