On Feb. 1, 2019, the leader of the global Conservative Jewish movement will step down to join Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation as its senior rabbi.
For the past decade, Rabbi Steven Wernick has been the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). But he told The CJN that he never intended to end his career there.
“I loved the work I did there,” he said. “I think it’s been extremely important, I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot. But, ultimately, I always knew I was going to go back to the pulpit. The question was going to be when.”
During his decade with the USCJ, which began in 2009, Rabbi Wernick steered the centrist movement through some tumultuous years that saw its membership shrink across North America.
In the United States, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey on Jewish affiliation found that only 18 per cent of respondents identified as Conservative, which was down from 38 per cent in 1990.
Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, several Canadian Conservative synagogues, including Beth Tzedec, severed formal ties with the USCJ, because of what they perceived as high costs for little value.
It was Rabbi Wernick’s goal to help the movement recover and reorient its strategic goals.
“I made it one of my first priorities to engage the Canadian synagogues,” he said. He understood how Canadian shuls differ from their American counterparts and therefore expect different things from the umbrella organization.
Rabbi Wernick knew all this because he considers himself quasi-Canadian.
His father, Rabbi Eugene Wernick, was the senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, the oldest synagogue in Winnipeg, from 1979 to 1986. The younger Wernick was a teenager then and fondly remembers attending the Folklorama festival, visiting cottages on Lake Winnipeg and spending lunch breaks at the Grant Park Shopping Centre. One Shaarey Zedek member owned an arcade in the mall and boasted to the kids that he knew Burton Cummings, who would practice with The Guess Who in the arcade’s basement, where the band could play as loud as they wanted.
“It was a really transformative time in my life,” Rabbi Wernick said. “People ask me where I’m from – I’m from Winnipeg, that’s where I grew up.”
Rabbi Wernick did end up strengthening the USCJ’s foothold in Canada. In 2014, Beth Tzedec’s board voted unanimously to rejoin the movement – a major victory for Rabbi Wernick, who had made it his goal to win back the largest Conservative synagogue in North America, with more than 2,000 families.
“USCJ has undergone major, major changes to make it more efficient,” Carolyn Kolers, the immediate past president of Beth Tzedec, told The CJN at the time, specifically crediting the movement’s new leadership and mission statement as reasons for rejoining.
Rabbi Wernick visited the congregation multiple times during his tenure with the USCJ and appreciated the congregation’s diversity and vibrancy. So when he was planning the next stage of his career, “the only pulpit I wanted to explore was Beth Tzedec,” he said.
But he wasn’t sure the timing would work out, given that Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl had presided over Beth Tzedec for 25 years and had postponed his retirement once before.
One member of Beth Tzedec’s rabbinic search committee, Norman Kahn, also sat on the international board of governors for the USCJ. Kahn turned to Rabbi Wernick – who, he said, has “probably the best Rolodex in North America” for Conservative rabbis – for help finding a new rabbi.
Rabbi Wernick remembers Kahn asking him for guidance and suggestions during the process. “I think we found ourselves, at some moment, looking at each other, saying, ‘Maybe it’s me,’ ” Rabbi Wernick said. “It really was bashert.”
Kahn remembers the moment a little less like a romantic comedy. “I was somewhat surprised,” he recalled of the moment Rabbi Wernick put his own name forward. “I thought he might have some interest, but I certainly didn’t push it too hard.”
For his part, Randy Spiegel, Beth Tzedec’s executive director, said that he was not surprised by the rabbi’s interest. “If he’s going to move the pulpit, then this is it,” he said. “We are a leading voice in Conservative Judaism. We’re the largest Conservative congregation and one of the most dynamic kehillot in the Diaspora.”
Spiegel believes Rabbi Wernick will naturally fill the role of leader, because of how well their values align.
“Our big message is that Judaism is a gift,” he said. “We’re a congregation of social action, social justice. We’re a major community centre and he will help to chart and articulate our path forward.”
Rabbi Wernick said his plans include doing more community and charity work, hosting lunch-and-learns and emphasizing interfaith dialogue. He also hopes to dedicate one full-time clergy member to campus engagement, to show young people the value of having a congregation.
“The conversation is not simply about membership,” he said. “The goal of a synagogue is not to have members. The goal of a synagogue is to bring Jewish meaning into the world.”