TORONTO — The board of governors of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue voted last week to end the shul’s affiliation with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, effective immediately, saying the movement’s umbrella body wasn’t serving its local needs.
It’s the second Toronto congregation in a month to leave the movement. Adath Israel Congregation’s board of governors has terminated the shul’s membership in the USCJ retroactive to July 1, 2007, saying it isn’t providing enough services for the dues paid to it, and that theological differences between the shul and the Conservative movement are growing as its U.S. arm drifts theologically left-ward.
Beit Rayim Synagogue, Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, Beth Tikvah Synagogue and Shaar Shalom Synagogue have also had recent board or membership votes but are not leaving the movement, said Paul Kochberg, TOP LEFT, president of the USCJ’s Canadian region.
Beth Tzedec Congregation, the largest Conservative congregation in North America, with 2,650 member families, is scheduled to vote on its USCJ affiliation on April 24.
Earlier this month, Beth Tikvah’s membership voted to stay in the USCJ after its board of governors recommended leaving.
The recent votes follow 15 months of negotiations between Toronto congregational representatives and the New York-based USCJ. The result was an agreement reached in early March and ratified March 16 by the USCJ. Each shul subsequently scheduled their own ratification votes.
Kochberg said he was “surprised, saddened, perplexed and a little angry” over the decisions by Beth Emeth and Adath Israel.
On hearing last week’s news, he noted that Beth Emeth leaders, lay and professional, have always been “very active participants in United Synagogue” and that the shul has been “a strong player with USY. It has produced some really strong USY graduates who have gone to rabbinical school.”
A longstanding key issue for Toronto congregations has been the cost of membership per shul – which can run to more than $40,000 depending on membership numbers – relative to the value of services received from the USCJ.
Also, the Conservative movement’s shift to the left – including the 2006 decision by the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary to accept openly gay rabbinical students – stands in contrast to the attitudes of Toronto’s typically more traditional congregations. Of the synagogues mentioned above, for example, only Beit Rayim is fully egalitarian.
Under terms of the deal, United Synagogue would have provided $116,000 in discretionary funding to the region for the 2008-09 fiscal year. An additional $96,000 would be provided the following year, and $76,000 the year after.
In addition, the central body would create a Canadian Public Policy and Social Action Committee in response to complaints that the organization doesn’t reflect Canadian priorities.
Rabbi Howard Morrison, Beth Emeth’s spiritual leader, told The CJN in an e-mail that he did not “register a position” on the final decision, but he shared his views on the implications of various decisions. He said he was planning to address the subject in a sermon this coming Shabbat.
Beth Emeth, a 1,300-family congregation that opened in 1959, describes itself as “traditional conservative,” but president Sheldon Serota told The CJN that its decision to leave had nothing to do with ideology. “This was about serving the needs of a local community.”
However, he added that the synagogue “wants to use this opportunity to establish traditional Conservative Judaism in the Toronto community and get our message out that we offer a traditional halachic and joyous approach to the exercise and practise of Judaism.”
Serota said the vote was “not an indictment of United Synagogue,” nor was it his board’s intent to preach to other congregations. “We think this is right for us.”
He declined to discuss specifics of the shul’s finances, but he said that, for synagogues in general, “resources are strained. We have to safeguard our funds and use them in the most effective way.
“We want to use [membership dues] to benefit our local community, which is not to say that we don’t have a global view [regarding] ahavat Yisrael and concern for our fellow Jews.”
Serota stressed that Beth Emeth still sees itself as part of the Conservative movement. “Our rabbi is still a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. We have not installed a mechitzah in out congregation. We’re still the same congregation we were [before the vote]. We espouse the same values.”
An information session for shul members will be held in a few weeks, he said. No date had been set when The CJN went to press.
Also, he added, Beth Emeth plans to work with Adath Israel, Beth Sholom Synagogue, and “hopefully” Beth Tzedec “to provide quality, innovative youth programming.”
Beth Sholom, like Beth Emeth, describes itself as “traditional Conservative,” but it isn’t affiliated with the USCJ.
Serota said he “would expect” that Beth Emeth’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) members would still be allowed to go to the organization’s spring conclave on Mother’s Day weekend if they have already sent deposits.
“If not, we’ll seek alternative arrangements,” he said.
Kochberg, however, said that he will assume responsibility for having the USYers take part in the convention. In addition to his role as president of USCJ’s Canadian region, he also chair’s its international youth commission.
Once Beth Tzedec votes on April 24, Kochberg said, the synagogues that remain in the USCJ will meet to analyze the situation and restructure its organizational leadership.
With files from JTA