NEW YORK — The leadership of the Conservative movement’s synagogue arm has acceded to a request for an “urgent” meeting from a new coalition of clergy and lay people to discuss new strategic directions for the organization.
The meeting was scheduled to take place this week in New York.
“I look forward to working with this group,” Ray Goldstein, the president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, told JTA. “I’m really excited about having their passion and willingness to work to strengthen the United Synagogue, and through the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement.”
The proposed meeting was triggered by a letter sent to Goldstein by a group that includes officials of some of the movement’s largest and most vibrant congregations. Among them are Rabbi Philip Scheim of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedec Congregation is also a signatory, although his synagogue – formerly the largest affiliated Conservative congregation in North America, with 2,650 member families – broke ties with United Synagogue last year.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl stressed that he is participating in the new group as an individual.
“I care about the future of the Conservative movement, and the dissatisfaction of my congregation with United Synagogue is part of that larger issue,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said.
“We feel that the larger institutions of the Conservative movement are in need of ‘re-engineering,’” he added. “This has been in development for a long time. It’s not a reflection of the economy. The economic situation may make it more urgent.”
Among the issues he sees as most pressing are delivery of services at the congregational level, and the way that the United Synagogue “projects a vision of Conservative Judaism that is vigorous and that engages people.”
Rabbi Scheim also said that congregations want practical support, but at the same time, the goal is for the group to work with United Synagogue leadership to articulate and promote “a compelling vision that will captivate the Jewish world.”
Rabbi Scheim said the new group is the first of its kind in bringing together 25 of “the most powerful congregations in the movement.”
He said he was optimistic about the prospect of working together with United Synagogue leaders.
The letter asserted that only fundamental change in the United Synagogue would enable its future success.
“We don’t believe that it can happen if ‘business as usual’ reigns, with merely a change in the identity of the leadership,” the letter stated.
The Conservative movement, once the United States’ largest synagogue denomination but since overtaken by the Reform movement, has been anguishing over its future for years. But a major leadership overhaul – at present, the three major arms either have recently installed new leaders or are preparing to – has sparked hope that the movement’s fortunes are primed for a turnaround.
About 50 rabbis, cantors and synagogue lay leaders, brought together under the banner of Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, signed the letter to the United Synagogue.
The group, which also includes well-known pulpit rabbis such as David Wolpe of Los Angeles and Gordon Tucker of New York, was formed last summer in reaction to Goldstein’s decision to keep the selection of a new United Synagogue executive strictly an internal process.
Rabbi Steven Wernick was tapped last week to lead the Conservative movement’s synagogue association. Wernick, spiritual leader at Adath Israel in suburban Philadelphia, will succeed Rabbi Jerome Epstein as executive vice-president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.
In 2007, Arnold Eisen assumed the chancellorship of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld will become the chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly this summer.
As opposed to JTS, which invited representatives of the movement’s other organizations to sit on the search committee that picked Eisen, the United Synagogue kept the process closed. The committee charged with finding the United Synagogue’s new chief executive did not even include a pulpit rabbi.
“Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with us,” said Rabbi Michael Siegel, spiritual leader of a large Chicago congregation and the Hayom chair. “We decided to begin a process to find a more direct way to speak with the leadership of the United Synagogue and to begin a process of developing a long-range plan.”
Siegel said there is a “general dissatisfaction” in the movement regarding the services that communities receive from the United Synagogue. The organization, he said, suffers from a gap of creative strategic thinking. Hayom’s objective, he added, is to create “an outside agitating force” to press for change.
“The United Synagogue is far less inclusive than the other” arms of the movement, said one Conservative rabbi who signed the Hayom letter. “The United Synagogue deserves the attacks, honestly. They have failed in a major way to meet the major needs of Conservative Jews.”
In fact, the United Synagogue did initiate a strategic planning process that yielded a 2004 report by the management consultant Jacob Ukeles. Among Ukeles’ recommendations was that the United Synagogue bring representatives from the major congregations to its board.
“It’s very much an organization that marches to its own drummer,” Ukeles said of the United Synagogue. “It tends to be very insular, very self-contained.”
Goldstein, who has been accused of shelving the Ukeles proposals or acting on them too slowly, rejected the criticism, noting that the organization’s bylaws require that the board include representatives from the other arms of the movement, as well as regional delegates that represent current or recent synagogue presidents.
“Some of them actually attend our meetings and participate,” Goldstein said. “Some do not.”
As to the search for a new executive, Goldstein conceded that keeping the process closed may have been an error, but said he had sought informal input from the movement’s other arms, including from Eisen.
“I never received a call,” he said.
With files from Frances Kraft