TORONTO — A number of Conservative congregations in Toronto and Montreal have recently voted or plan to vote to leave the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the movement’s umbrella body, over issues such as egalitarianism and gay clergy.
Rabbi Steven Saltzman, spiritual leader of Adath Israel Congregation, said last week that his shul’s board of directors has voted “overwhelmingly to leave USCJ, effective immediately, because they feel it has not met even the bare minimum needs of our community here.”
Ideologically, he said, “we find the chasm between Conservative Judaism in the United States and Conservative Judaism here to be growing larger and wider.”
Canadians, he said, are much more traditional than communities across the border, and the egalitarian movement in the United States includes women being part of the services, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, and patrilineal descent. “Frankly, [USCJ] no longer represents what and who we are.”
He said Adath Israel’s youth group will not be affected because only a handful of its members participate in international activities. “Kids participate actively, and our Hebrew school is treated as a functioning youth group.”
At Beth Tikvah Congregation, the shul’s board of governors sent a report to members that said it’s recommending that the shul’s membership in USCJ be ended by June 30, the end of its membership term.
“The board is of the opinion that the USCJ has no longer any relevance to our members… is philosophically different from the way in which we practice Conservative Judaism and does not provide value to our congregation,” the report states.
In the USCJ’s attempt to be all-inclusive, the report said, “it has made more traditional synagogues such as Beth Tikvah feel marginalized. We have been dissatisfied with its unwillingness to recognize the differences between Canadian and U.S. Jewry, its lack of responsiveness to our needs and its bureaucracy and centralized governance. Its leaders have quite simply not listened to our concerns and while much is made of a new deal, it provides little change from the status quo.”
Efforts to reach shul president Jeffrey Jackson were unsuccessful, but in Beth Tikvah’s March bulletin, he said the shul pays the USCJ $41,000 in membership dues, but the shul’s board has been “concerned for several years about the value of belonging.” As well, he said, Beth Tikvah’s “more traditional observance of ‘conservative’ Judaism is in a minority compared to most of the other USCJ member congregations.”
Founded in 1913, the USCJ has about 760 affiliated synagogues in North America. It offers services in areas such as education, youth activities, leadership development, social action and public policy, and Israel affairs.
Norman Kahn, a member of Beth Tzedec Congregation’s board, said the issue of secession will be considered by the shul’s executive committee and then by its board of governors. “The issue is a serious one, and we want to ensure that we give it sufficient thought.”
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec, Canada’s largest Conservative shul, said, however, that he is a strong advocate of remaining in the USCJ. “I believe that the Conservative movement helps us define our congregational identity and connects us to other synagogues that share the same culture. We may have differing opinions as to exact religious practices, but the Conservative community is distinct from the Reform and Orthodox movements,” he said.
“Although what we pay to the central organization far exceeds what we receive, not every relationship is simply transactional. We also have an important role to assist smaller congregations who share [common values].”
He said he is concerned that if Beth Tzedec leaves the USCJ, “we weaken the whole fabric of the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement is going through a process of regeneration. This separation would weaken that effort and our local Conservative community.”
Rabbi Howard Morrison of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue said his shul has not yet voted on the issue, and Alex Roth, president of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, said his shul “has been in discussion with USCJ and other synagogues in the Toronto area. We will be bringing recent developments to the attention of our executive and board [this month].”
Paul Kochberg, president of the USCJ’s Canadian region, declined to comment for this article. A USCJ representative in New York could not be reached for comment before The CJN’s deadline.
In Montreal, Rabbi Alan Bright, spiritual leader of Shaare Zedek, said his congregation doesn’t see any benefit to remaining with the USCJ, “either ideologically, theologically or service-wise.”
He said the board of the 600-family synagogue has voted on the issue, but that he is not at liberty to disclose the results.
Shaare Zedek is one of four Conservative synagogues in Montreal, and Rabbi Bright said there is a similar sense of dissatisfaction among the others. “For some years, the congregations in Montreal felt that they were getting little for the annual fees they pay to USCJ, and the issue of ordaining homosexuals brought to a head this long simmering discontent.”
Even “more distressing” he said, is the push for same-sex marriage. While he has performed commitment ceremonies and brit milahs for children of same-sex parents, he is adamantly opposed to full sanctification of same-sex marriage.
With files from Janice Arnold in Montreal