Conservatives’ conference eyes a more inspiring way to pray
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Conservatives’ conference eyes a more inspiring way to pray

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Participants in the “President’s Panel: Into the Future” on Monday at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s international biennial convention in Cherry Hill include Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly; Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue; and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Do Conservative Jews need a new, perhaps jazzier way to pray?

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, apparently thinks so.

During his much-anticipated installation speech at the United Synagogue’s biennial gathering, which concluded earlier this week in Cherry Hill, he called for the immediate creation of a movement-wide task force to tackle the issue of prayer.

“Many of our congregations report that tefillot in many of our synagogues do not speak to them, do not inspire them, and do not reach their heart or their souls,” said Wernick, who took the helm in July of an organization that represents North American Conservative congregations.

Wernick said that many participants of Ramah camps and United Synagogue youth programs, for example, “come home to find the excitement and spiritual engagement they experience elsewhere missing in their own communities.”

The four-day conference was held as United Synagogue undergoes a structural upheaval brought about in large part by the dissatisfaction of congregations claiming that they weren’t receiving enough programmatic and other kinds of guidance in exchange for their dues.

Many of the more than 500 lay leaders and professionals who came to the biennial from across the United States and Canada did express hope, though tinged with skepticism, that United Synagogue can transform itself into an entity that helps congregations become more dynamic, welcoming, and fiscally stable.

At the conference, United Synagogue adopted a new set of bylaws with the aim of becoming more efficient. They included reducing the size of its board by about half and the number of offices from 15 to six.

Talks were held about changing the formula for determining the dues that congregations pay, but no formal proposals were made.

The biennial also served to jump-start a nine-month process in which United Synagogue will adopt a new long-range strategic plan.

“While we have considerable problems, I think we continue to have the best product,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.

Artson sat on a panel about the future of the movement with Wernick; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to head the Rabbinical Assembly; and Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly.

During the hour-long discussion, the audience raised pressing questions confronting the movement. Among them: What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew in an age when far fewer Jews identify with denominational labels? How can the movement attract more members in their 20s and 30s? Is the name itself outmoded? How can the arms of the movement work together better?

On the issue of prayer, Stein took a slightly different tack from Wernick.

“You can start by coming to shul. It’s like any other skill set – if you don’t practice it, you aren’t going to be able to do it,” he said, adding that cantors are far more open to experimentation than many realize. “Come to shul and I’ll do anything; I’ll stand on my head and sing ‘Yankee Doodle’ to ‘Adon Olam.'”

Wernick said that too often, worshippers feel they are “prisoners” to the traditional prayerbook, and diversity needs to be encouraged. He also said that clergy need to better explain the poetry and symbolism inherent in the liturgy.

“Adon Olam,” for example, is all about offering worshippers a measure of comfort as they leave sanctified space and head back into a world that can be tense and even frightening.

“We need to really open up the prayers in that kind of way,” he said.

“Whether we sing them to ‘Yankee Doodle’ or the melodies of the great chazzanim,” Wernick said, “they become more than just sing songs and more than just rushing through the words.”

Stein said that while synagogues must try to bring in as many new people as possible – while still appealing to its core – the movement as a whole should count as Conservative Jews only those who follow Jewish law, as opposed to any individual who belongs to a United Synagogue affiliate.

The Cantors Assembly leader pushed some buttons when he suggested that spouses of clergy members – even those with highly demanding careers – need to contribute more time and energy to their congregations.

Schonfeld said that in an age when many are asking if movements and denominations have outlived their usefulness, Conservative Judaism can offer a new working definition of what a denomination can look like.

“That new denomination,” she said, “as opposed to being boxes in which we put people, is going to be more like an ecosystem – more like an interdependent and complex world in which there is room for all different kinds of Jews.”

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