Conservative Jews eye a more inspiring way to pray

Morey Schapira is feeling pretty good about the direction of Conservative Judaism.

The Palo Alto–based executive director of the Northern Region of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism just returned from last week’s biennial, and he says the convention left him upbeat.

Rabbi Steven Wernick discusses the future of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism during the “President’s Panel: Into the Future.” photo/scott weiner

“If you want one word to describe the convention, it’s ‘change,’” Schapira said. “The second is ‘rededication.’ That theme came up repeatedly.”

The convention confronted many issues, large and larger, facing the movement. Among them: Do Conservative Jews need a new way to pray?

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

During his installation speech at the biennial, which concluded last week, Wernick called for innovative ways to tackle a variety of issues, including prayer.

“Many of our congregations report that [prayers] 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 in July took the helm of United Synagogue, which represents North American Conservative congregations.

Wernick noted that many participants of the movement’s 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.”

More than 500 lay leaders and professionals from across the United States and Canada attended the conference, held in Cherry Hill, N.J. They also heard from speakers such as Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren and Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

The four-day conference took place as United Synagogue undergoes structural changes brought about in part by the dissatisfaction of congregations claiming they haven’t received enough value for their dues.

Earlier this year, 30 Conservative congregations withheld their dues and left United Synagogue. Over the course of a decade, the movement has dropped from 800 synagogues to approximately 650.

The parley came at a time of declining synagogue membership and a $1.3 million budget deficit at the United Synagogue.

Wernick announced a new strategic plan for the United Synagogue, as well as key structural changes, including reducing the number of board members from 300 to 75.

“The movement has to have better coordination within the movement arms,” Schapira added. “The good news is the change at the top leadership. Within the last two years at Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly and at United Synagogue, we’re seeing a next generation of leadership.”

At the seminary, that leader is former Stanford professor Arnie Eisen. At United Synagogue, it’s Wernick.

“I think he’s doing a good job,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. “I was inspired by him and what he’s trying and doing. He knows he has to make changes, but he’s listening to people.”

Bloom’s congregation may pay closer attention to Wernick than most. Eugene Wernick, the father of Steven Wernick, served as Temple Beth Abraham’s rabbi in the late 1970s.

But today’s congregants may focus more on Wernick’s themes for strengthening the Conservative movement. Those themes include reaching out to young adult Jews, defining Conservative Judaism more clearly, and codifying best practices for stable synagogue management.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga attended the convention. He says he takes a somewhat contrary view in that he feels his congregation has gotten its money’s worth from United Synagogue. That’s because he and others asked directly for help.

“The Conservative movement has become the whipping boy of American Jewish life today in a lot of ways,” Pressman said, “and a lot of the problems are really exaggerated in some of the Jewish media. There are a large number of robust, creative vital congregations. We’re very strong in the grassroots.”

Pressman’s synagogue won three Solomon Schecter Awards at this year’s convention, including first-place honors for its young adult program, Jews Next Dor, and for its outreach program.

Those programs are part of Beth David’s determination to make synagogue life more meaningful, relevant and fun. That includes prayer.

“We’ve worked hard to be welcoming,” Pressman said. You walk in and people greet you. We’re very participatory and lay-led, with a lot of congregational singing. We reconfigured the space so it’s three-quarters in the round, so we’re not separated. Do I think adding a rock band would make a critical difference? I do not.”

Making prayer and worship meaningful has long been a challenge. Pressman points out that even in the Talmud, the sages debated how to keep people praying with kavanah, or deep intention.

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

A positive step in that direction is the publication of a new High Holy Day prayerbook created by the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic arm.

One local synagogue taking on the new prayerbook is Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. Congregational president Martha Amram said it’s been a long time coming.

“People are struggling to define what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” she said. “How do we reach [young people]? They’re twittering, and we’re sending out printed newsletters.”

As a kind of Web 2.0 upgrade, Amram noted that last fall a few creative Kol Emeth congregants made a video, posted on YouTube, which pitched the synagogue as a great place for High Holy Day services. Not only did it get many views, it worked. Several young adults new to the congregation showed up.

At Temple Beth Abraham, Bloom has tried to walk a careful line when it comes to making prayer more relevant.

“Yes, we want to do more to inspire people in prayer,” he said. “How is that done? On one hand you want more transliteration, make things shorter and more creative. On the other hand, if you cut it too much you risk losing your more seriously observant people. They don’t want shorter services.”

However the Conservative movement addresses these issues, it will likely continue grappling for survival as Judaism’s middle way between more liberal and more Orthodox denominations.

“We’re doing fine,” said Bloom. “It’s the curse of the middle, which is also the benefit of the middle. You get the advantages and disadvantages. It’s Maimonides’ golden mean: All in moderation. It’s a wonderful way to live life.”

The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent staff contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.