Something profoundly inspiring took place November 13 – 17th at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention, held in Schaumburg, Illinois.
The previously endemic handwringing concerning the future of Conservative Judaism gave way to joyous celebration as 1,200 synagogue leaders from North America and around the world joined heads, hearts and hands.
Among them were Canadian synagogue leaders from British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
From the opening remarks of USCJ CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick, to the keynote addresses of luminaries in the movement, to the spirited singing and dancing of United Synagogue youth, optimism for the future of Conservative Judaism was clearly in evidence.
That is not to say that the movement is free from challenges. It remains difficult to define Conservative Judaism because of a big tent approach that aims to be inclusive of Jews across an enormous spectrum of beliefs and practices.
Financial challenges have led to some contraction of programs and services. Yet, it is clear that current USCJ leaders are taking serious steps toward a new level of financial stewardship that bodes well for the future of the mothership.
As the convention name so aptly expressed, Conservative Jews continue to “Shape the Centre” which occupies an increasingly important space in Jewish life and a troubled world beyond.
Just as the Shabbaton got underway, participants were shaken by the news of further devastating terror attacks, this time in Paris. It was a sobering reminder that extremes often destroy rather than create.
In an increasingly fragmented Jewish world where the “We are One” slogan many of us grew up with is belied by increasingly uncivil discourse and actions – most often about Israel and the Middle East – the centre is more important than ever before, and on many levels.
However challenging the tasks of defining and rebranding (possibly even renaming) Conservative Judaism, the centre occupies an increasingly important spot in the Jewish world for numerous reasons, many of them intangible.
In what was arguably one of the most moving sessions of the convention, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, urged participants to focus on the unseen as well as the seen. In a world increasingly obsessed with metrics and spreadsheets and all things quantifiable, he urged that we concentrate on the inspiring real life stories that can and do unfold when Conservative Jews actively engage, encourage, mentor and inspire others.
On the business side of things, lay leaders and professionals attending the conference did come away with tools and examples of best practices on a wide list of topics including financial sustainability, leadership development and strategic planning.
At the same time, other great minds in the Conservative and Masorti world shared their wisdom and empowered participants in sessions devoted to social justice, spirituality, prayer and Israel engagement and civility.
The greatest moments were those whose impact couldn’t be measured at all . . . at least with conventional (excuse the pun) tools.
They were observed in the flushed faces of USY kids singing their hearts out; millennials deep in conversation and celebration; baby boomers dancing just a little above the ground; Jewish rock stars belting out the playlists of a new generation; rabbis, cantors, scholars, Jewish communal professionals and a diverse collection of kehillot and individuals – maddeningly difficult to describe in a slogan or tag line – embracing one another in the glow of Shabbat and Havdalah candles. And EVERYWHERE the din of animated, multigenerational conversation and connection – during text study, at meals and late into the night.
For participants from Calgary, which sometimes feels so far away from the centre of the Jewish universe, there was incredible joy in being part of the ingathering of Conservative Jews that dedicate themselves to building the creative and oh-so-necessary centre of Jewish life . . . wherever we live.
Maxine Fischbein is the President of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary