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Conservative Movement Plans Liberal Tinkering

United Synagogue head also discusses ‘Lost’ ad

Marc Tracy
September 10, 2009

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—the umbrella association comprising over 700 Conservative congregations in North America—today announced a reorganization designed to prioritize consistency across congregations and to strengthen the organization’s youth and young-adult initiatives by grouping them into a single department. The group also announced a 10 percent central staff cut. Both the reorganization, which will be finalized at a board meeting Sunday night, as well as the cuts were prompted by a “perilous” financial situation, according to a press release.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s new head, candidly told us that his group’s finances were adversely affected by both the economy and “by the credibility issue.” He continued: “I think [United Synagogue]’s been ineffective in the last several years at meeting the needs of our congregations, who are our stakeholders.” (As the rabbi at Philadelphia’s Adath Israel until about two months ago, Wernick said, he had helpful perspective here.) The goal of the reorganization is not to redefine Conservative Judaism, according to Wernick, but rather to more effectively and consistently uphold traditional Conservative values. “It’s about a commitment to Jewish ritual practice and Jewish study, via classical means, overlaid with modern scholarship,” Wernick explained. “Ultimately, the expression of that is in vibrant centers of Jewish living and learning.”

Since the Conservative movement lies directly on the fault-line between tradition and assimilation, we also asked Wernick how he felt about that controversial Israeli ad which implied that Jews who did not feel a connection to Israel and who intermarry are “lost” (the ad was pulled yesterday). “Every time I hear about those suggestions, I think they’re just silly, and they represent a point of view that is out of touch with reality,” he told us. “I’m glad the ad was pulled. My thought process is that probably my colleagues in the Conservative movement and other movements spoke quite passionately against it, and hopefully they played a role in getting it pulled.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.