United Synagogue looks to the future
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United Synagogue looks to the future

Teaneck rabbi upbeat about the Conservative movement's chances

Baltimore ““ Rabbi Jim Rogozen of Teaneck took a seat for a few minutes and took in what was going on around him.

There were about 1,000 people. They all seemed to be in a hurry. And the rabbi knew exactly what their urgency was all about.

They had gathered at this city’s Marriott Waterfront Hotel to celebrate the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 100th year, calling the biennial convention “The Conversation of the Century.”

In recent weeks, this nation’s Jewish community learned from the Pew Forum’s study that of all the major Jewish streams, Conservative Judaism’s affiliation numbers were clearly decreasing most sharply.

It also has had financial problems, as reported by the news service JTA. In its most recent fiscal year, which ended in June, United Synagogue raised $600,000. That was far better than it had done in 2011, when it raised $100,000, but still it was well below the budgeted target of $1.7 million. United Synagogue also lost $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million in 2011.

Rogozen, though, is confident that the movement’s best days are ahead, and that this particular biennial conference would be a positive turning point.

“I think we are having a grand awakening,” said Rogozen, who is United Synagogue’s chief learning officer. “We must ask ourselves at this conversation how we approach change. And then we must recognize that change is good, that it’s not antithetical to Jewish values.”

Indeed, Rogozen wasn’t alone as a change agent.

“Over the next two days, we’ll be questioning who we are, what we stand for, and what we contribute to the Jewish landscape,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue, said in his opening address. “We aspire to rewrite our narrative from decline to renewal, energy, optimism, transcendence and transformation.”

Wernick told the audience that the way to reverse the movement’s decline in numbers was by “affirming three pillars of Conservative Jewish life: tradition, kehillah, and renewal.”

He urged his audience to reach out to other Jews, be they affiliated or not.

“Let’s unite on issues that matter to all of us, whether it is the scourge of gun violence in the U.S. or social justice matters or the environment or access and acceptance for people with disabilities and special needs or supporting Israel,” Wernick said.

He invoked the memories of the movement’s founder, Solomon Schechter, and the civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel when describing the power of renewal.

“Solomon Schechter put renewal at the center of his vision when he created the United Synagogue, making Conservative Judaism alive to the 20th century. That was a century ago, and now the baton has been passed to us,” he said. “What was new 100 years ago needs to be renewed once again.”

Harold Kushner, the rabbi laureate of Temple Israel of Natick, Mass., and the author of best-selling works of popular theology including “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” delivered the keynote address at the evening gala on Sunday.

He lamented the loss of many of the movement’s most promising students, who have defected to other movements or started their own nondenominational communities.

“I don’t begrudge my Orthodox colleagues the growth of Orthodox Judaism,” Kushner said. “I don’t begrudge my Reform colleagues the growth of Reform Judaism, fueled in large measure by intermarriage and conversion.

“What does bother me is when the best and brightest of our movement leave our synagogues. We can’t hold onto them – that more than anything else is what concerns me.”

United Synagogue historically has nurtured its teenagers through its popular United Synagogue Youth program – the teenagers in evidence at the conference were there for USY’s fall board meeting, held concurrently with the biennial, in the same hotel.

For 23 years, Conservative high school graduates had the chance to stay in touch with United Synagogue through Koach, a program that had a presence on many college campuses. Over the last few years, though, funding to the program was reduced, and last year it was shuttered.

In its strategic plan, adopted in early 2011, United Synagogue declared post-college young adults to be vital to its mission, but since then funding to that demographic also has dried up.

After hearing Kushner speak, Rogozen felt emboldened and excited about the future, he said.

“The people who are here noticed a difference, a positive difference,” he said. “Rabbi Kushner told the audience to stop with the negativity, and instead be part of a solution, a creative solution to help USCJ make the changes we know we need to make.”

Rogozen said that the conference served as a “pivot point” for what has to happen not just within Conservative Judaism but within all of American Judaism for the next 100 years.

“We talked here about creating a Jewish community we want,” he said. “A lot of the focus is not just about Conservative Judaism, but how do we contribute to the whole Jewish community of America. What are we going to do during the next 100 years? How do we take our community conversation to a much higher level. A lot of those chains that have kept us bound up and kept us from thinking out of the box I think have been removed. We’ve granted ourselves permission to think in different ways.”

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