Visitors to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism offices might find a few black and gold menorahs or dreidels adorning the space this year.
On Dec. 11, Pittsburgh native Andy Schaer begins his tenure as international president of the USCJ, the umbrella organization of Conservative Judaism in North America and the largest Conservative Jewish communal body in the world. He assumes the role after serving as the organization’s vice president and, before that, its treasurer.
Schaer grew up in Churchill and attended Tree of Life Congregation with what he called his “moderately observant family,” who were not steeped in the Conservative movement.
It was after college, when he returned to Pittsburgh, that Schaer became more involved with congregational life. He served as both the vice president of education and fundraising at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills before being named its executive vice president and, eventually, its president.
“I think during my presidency and since, the congregation has thrived, unlike many,” he said. “I think in large part that’s due to the approach of our rabbis — not so much to my presidency — but really to Rabbis Alex and Amy Greenbaum and their warm, forward-thinking approach.”
Schaer also served on the board of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. He is the father of three and splits his time between his homes in Shadyside and Florida.
Schaer decided to become more involved with the Conservative movement’s leadership after attending several USCJ conventions and seeing the type of work being done by the organization. He realized, he said, there was an opportunity for congregations to work together to address some of the challenges they were facing.
“We can do things together that none of us can do individually, and by doing so we can strengthen the movement,” he said. “I became very aware that these opportunities existed, and I wanted to get involved. I want there to be a viable Conservative movement for my kids, and I felt the needs aligned well with my strengths and where I could add value.”
Schaer said that his appointment demonstrates that the USCJ isn’t a New York-centric organization, and there are strong Jewish leaders across the United States who can add value through time or donations to help advance its mission.
The soon-to-be-installed president said he understands that the world is changing and that people are looking for different things from spiritual movements.
“We need to continue to thoughtfully evolve so we stay relevant,” he said. “It starts with understanding the needs of our constituents and results in programming and services that more effectively support and strengthen our synagogues.”
Schaer is particularly passionate about reaching teens in the Conservative movement. To do that, he said, the USCJ must first gain deeper insight into how teens want to engage and what interests them and then provide on-ramps that work for them.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re committed to doing it,” he said. “We’re going to embark on a very aggressive strategic plan, which will include in-depth research to gain the insights needed.”
USCJ leadership, he said, will speak to as many teens as possible and then build programs relevant to them. The programs, he said, won’t necessarily reflect a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, they will be tailored to the needs of congregations. That may mean a program developed for a single shul might be applicable to the entire community, city, all of North America or even globally.
By working this way, Schaer believes teens can find opportunities that are socially, spiritually and intellectually meaningful and, in turn, the USCJ will develop leaders to fill the pipeline of talent within the Conservative movement.
USCJ and Rabbinical Assembly CEO Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal is looking forward to Schaer’s leadership.
“Andy’s commitment to synagogue life, his visionary and patient leadership and menschlikhkeit make him an outstanding choice as the next president of USCJ,” Blumenthal said.
Officials at Beth El said in a prepared statement that the congregation was proud of its former president.
“We are proud to see Andy extend his talent with USCJ,” the statement read. “We are happy to support Andy and look forward to seeing the impact he will have on USCJ as the incoming president. Wishing Andy all the best.”
Contemplating his upcoming presidency and what he hopes to accomplish, one word keeps popping up time and again in Schaer’s thoughts — “more.”
“We have a lot of talent in the Conservative movement, and we need more. We need to build a bigger, better talent pipeline for careers in the movement. We need more educators, more clergy. We need executive directors. We need to make these careers more interesting and more relevant to young people,” he said.
In the end, he said, Conservative Judaism’s goals are simple.
“Our effort to keep pace with modernity without sacrificing our authenticity makes us unique and this role interesting and challenging,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.