TORONTO — The new Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues (CCCS) consists of four Toronto congregations – Adath Israel Congregation, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, Beth Tzedec Congregation and Beth Sholom Synagogue – but as its name implies, organizers hope to expand its purview.
Harvey Schiller, co-chair of Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues
The member congregations, with the exception of Beth Sholom, were affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Canadian region until earlier this year. They left the New York-based group, which is the umbrella body for about 700 Conservative congregations in North America, following votes by their respective boards.
All three shuls cited issues regarding the service of local needs by the USCJ. As well, Adath Israel noted growing theological differences between itself and the Conservative movement in the United States, where synagogues tend to be less traditional in practice and where the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has begun to admit openly gay students to its rabbinical program.
“We’re not in competition with USCJ,” said Harvey Schiller, the immediate past president of Beth Emeth and now co-chair of CCCS along with Eric Gossin. “We had an alternative vision for moving forward the cause of Conservative Judaism.”
He sees the new council as a more “grassroots” organization that will focus on needs in each local community.
But Paul Kochberg, president of the USCJ’s Canadian region, said he remains “deeply saddened” by the withdrawal of USCJ’s three largest Toronto congregations, and by the initiative to create the new organization.
He said that the synagogues’ decision, which leaves only four USCJ-affiliated synagogues in the Toronto area, “has deeply affected our regional operating budget.” He noted that the central USCJ organization is providing “very considerable” financial support to the region. The funding has facilitated the hiring of a new interim regional executive director, Howard Goldberg.
USCJ membership fees, which are based on congregational size, can run to more than $40,000 annually per synagogue.
Kochberg added that Canadian regionsynagogues outside the GTA have committed to remaining in the USCJ. The organization provides services such as clergy placement and participation in United Synagogue Youth, which offers regional and international conventions as well as Israel programs.
Young people from non-USCJ synagogues are not able to belong to USY, unless they join a chapter in a synagogue that is USCJ-affiliated. “Anyone who is familiar with the USY program will know what a great loss this is,” both for the congregations and the young people, Kochberg said.
An inaugural CCCS event for high school students ended up being cancelled, but organizers are planning future youth programs. An adult education event is planned for January, and a speaker at a December meeting will discuss ways of developing volunteerism within the shuls, and will work with member shuls individually, said Loretta Tanenbaum, executive director of the new entity.
Schiller said the council has begun reaching out to synagogues across the country. “We would like to create an organization that speaks for the Canadian Conservative community across Canada.
“Our goal is to provide the services that synagogues can’t do themselves, leveraging multiple synagogues and the strength of multiple voices.”
As well, he said, the council wants to invest in programming that will bring together the community, and evolve as a politically active voice for Conservative Judaism in Ottawa.
The council is still working on a definition of criteria that synagogues must meet to become members, Schiller said.
He added that the new council is not in competition with the USCJ. “We’re hoping we can work in harmony to build the Conservative movement in Canada together.”
Kochberg believes that recent events have deeply divided the Conservative community, a perception Schiller doesn’t share.
Instead, he sees both organizations as legitimate voices of the Conservative movement.
“USCJ is not the Conservative movement,” Schiller said. He noted that in Spain, Conservative congregations left Masorti, the Conservative umbrella organization outside North America, to start their own organization.
Schiller also said that representatives of non-CCCS synagogues have been attending its meetings as well, and participating in strategic planning. “They’re part of the council, but not members.”
Tanenbaum – a former executive director of the USCJ’s Canadian region – said the new council is not asking USCJ-affiliated synagogues to leave the United Synagogue. However, they are invited to attend CCCS meetings and have input.
The council has a bylaw stating that its board “may take into account financial obligations” of members continuing USCJ membership and “shall make its best efforts to accommodate such members so as to enable them to maintain memberships in the corporation and the USCJ.”
All CCCS fees will remain in Canada for programming, said Tanenbaum. “That’s a very important piece,” she added, “because 50 per cent of the regional [USCJ] dues went to support the entire United Synagogue. It went to New York.”
The fees will be based on synagogue’s income and/or expenses, said Tanenbaum.