Insights gained at Conservative movement biennial
USCJPlanning for the future

Insights gained at Conservative movement biennial

Boston convention affords Pittsburgh group chance to learn and share.

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz addresses the crowd. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Seth Adelson
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz addresses the crowd. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Seth Adelson

Lay leaders and staff from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community returned from Boston optimistic about the future of the Conservative movement and their place within the fold. Apart from providing participants the chance to enjoy a meaningful Shabbat, last week’s convention, “20/20 Judaism,” hosted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, granted a forum to network, strategize and reassess. As a leadup to the Dec. 6-10 event, participants were told: “On the eve of the next decade, it is more critical than ever for USCJ, the RA (Rabbinical Assembly) and our community to come together to address the ways that our movement approaches Israel, the Jewish family, spirituality, inclusion and other topics that will shape the future of Conservative Judaism.”

Andy Schaer, USCJ’s treasurer and a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, described the convention’s tone as “awesome.”

“It was positive and energizing, and the content was great,” he said.

Marissa Tait, director of youth programming at Congregation Beth Shalom agreed.

“I thought it was incredible,” said Tait. “Every session I went to was useful.” Speakers particularly stressed the importance of educating youth, “which for me was really exciting.”

Tracks concerning the future of the synagogue; the future of the Jewish community; and the future of the Jewish people enabled attendees to select from sessions featuring a variety of subject matters. Titles included: “Bringing in Families by Branching Out: Online Education to Enhance Community,” “The Growing Connection of Liberal Jewish Passion and Jewish Pro-Palestinian Activism,” “Beyond #MeToo: Promoting Healthier Approaches to Sex and Sexuality in Jewish Spaces” and “United States Tax Laws Require a Change in Your Fundraising Shpiel.”

Debby Firestone, Beth Shalom’s president, found the different topics germane to her Squirrel Hill congregation’s current needs.

“Our four critical areas are financial stability, youth, membership and leadership/volunteerism,” said Firestone.

Beth Shalom recently completed a strategic plan, whose research, drafting and adoption took nearly two years. The process helped identify issues concerning the congregation’s future, she explained, and it was reassuring to hear what tactics other communities or congregations are using when addressing issues like financial stability. Listening to others reinforced “that our strategic plan fit in with what was going on,” said Firestone. “It’s pleasing to know that we’re on the right track.”

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Beth Shalom’s director of Derekh and youth tefillah, and Rabbi Seth Adelson, Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, were invited to discuss Beth Shalom’s approach to certain contemporary difficulties. They were joined by Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, Texas, for a presentation titled “Recruitment and Retention: How to Grow and Empower a Synagogue.”

Fractured communities, high costs for entry and competition in the spiritual marketplace are among the many barriers facing Conservative congregations; however, by developing relationships and relevant programs, there is a successful path forward, explained the rabbis.

Strategically targeting audiences of greater age diversity, empowering lay leaders to take ownership, cutting red tape and keeping a record of successes and failures can help congregations achieve recruitment and retention, they said.

“Beth Shalom is a great example for many synagogues in the country,” said Markiz. Since July 1, 2019, “we’ve had more than 100 programs and more than 1,300 encounters,” noted Markiz. Between the “striving successful youth program,” led by Marissa Tait, the lay-led davening experience overseen by Rabbi Adelson, the “leadership of the board and the constant and consistent lay leadership” throughout the congregation, there are many “factors that make Beth Shalom an exciting place to be and we were excited and jazzed to share that with everyone else.”

Nearly 1,400 people, including a sizable number of rabbis, attended this year’s convention.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s collaboration with USCJ “set the tone for the conference,” said Schaer. “Having that many rabbis there was great.”

Now back in Pittsburgh, the travelers are eager to build on the momentum of the conference.

“We gained confidence in where we go from here,” said Firestone. “We also learned that there’s help out there if we need it.”

Pittsburgh, too, can lend a hand, said Markiz.

“Synagogues all across the country are facing a vast diversity of challenges, and when people write about the Jewish world, they focus in on cities like Los Angeles, New York or Jerusalem. Those experiences or challenges are different than ours. Pittsburgh is more relatable to more cities around the country,” said Markiz. “We are focused on building an institution for the future that will be resilient in the face of American Judaism’s changes over time. … We are excited to be moving forward and being a part of the national conversation.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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