Visiting leader assesses challenges facing Conservative Judaism


Conservative Judaism is facing numerous challenges because of the present economic downturn and changing trends among its synagogues and members, but there are also opportunities for positive change and growth, according to Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Wernick was in St. Louis last week for the International Board Meeting of the USCJ, and to meet with rabbis and lay leaders of St. Louis’ three Conservative synagogues — Congregation B’nai Amoona, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek Synagogue.

Wernick, 42, who accepted his current position in July 2009, was born into the Conservative movement and “chose to make it my life’s work.”


He is the son of a Conservative rabbi and a former United Synagogue Youth member and a former camper at Camp Ramah. He spent six years as associate rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J. Since 2001 he has been the rabbi of Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa. In that capacity, Wernick is credited for reviving a congregation that had been dwindling and helping it successfully merge with a smaller congregation.

Rabbi Wernick spoke with the Light during his visit.

What brings you to St. Louis?

I came to St. Louis for the International Board Meeting of the United Synagogue. We came to St. Louis specifically with the intention of getting out of New York. Richard Skolnik, our international president and I wanted to demonstrate a more global focus. St. Louis is in the middle of the country, it’s easy to get to, it’s a hub airport, it’s a beautiful community and it’s really a great place to have our meeting. We want to send a message that United Synagogue is the organization of the entire continent. We want to address the criticism of being too New York-centered.

How would you assess the health and strength of the Conservative movement both nationally and here in St. Louis?

I think our movement is in a period of transition. I think there is great health within particular communities. The challenge facing Conser-vative Judaism is demographic and organizational. The sociology of North American Jewry is that it’s shrinking and it’s getting grayer. Organizations, institutions and synagogues have been struggling to redefine their purpose and their mission in a rapidly changing society.

United Synagogue has been slow to truly understand the trends and the policy implications of that demography and the social revolutions that are going on, and so we are now in a moment of transition. This has been brought upon by a little late realization of the need for transformative change. Yet that realization exists now, and there is actually quite a bit of momentum and optimism that we’re well on our way to doing what’s necessary to create structures, organizations and institutions that will be vibrant and vital to the center of North American Jewry.

How many synagogues are represented?

In United Synagogue, we have 670 congregations. A decade ago, we had 730 or 750 congregations. So, in a decade, we’ve lost about 10 percent of congregational affiliations. The biggest chunk of that happened in the last two years. That’s fueled more by the economy and dissatisfaction with services received than with disaffiliation of congregations. The economy exacerbated the feeling by the congregations that they were not receiving adequate services from the United Synagogue.

What’s important is that with all the talk that gets out there, and how these issues get reported, the irony is that the shrinkage has been in line with the demographics.

Is the loss of synagogues mostly among the smaller ones?

No, I don’t think it’s related to size. It’s related to perceived value.

What services does United Synagogue provide to the individual congregations?

We provide an international youth organization, United Synagogue Youth, we provide networking in training for particular program areas and we provide a college-age program. We provide leadership on the big issues on the national stage, and with regard to Israel, and we provide opportunities for learning and chesed projects for teens, young adults and congregational groups when they go to Israel. We provide a myriad of services.

The nature of the complaints is that the culture of United Synagogue has been a reactive culture. Those congregations who called on us were getting great service. So part of the change we’ve instituted since I came on board is to change that model.

Our staff is now being encouraged to think of themselves as sales people, calling on clients. We want to build a relationship to help them avail themselves of our resources and from other synagogues.

Two of St. Louis’ Conservative shuls, BSKI and Shaare Zedek, are considering a merger. A number of years ago, they merged their religious schools. What are your thoughts on mergers here and elsewhere in the movement?

I don’t think I have enough specific information, and without being involved in the process here in St. Louis, I feel it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. As a general rule, though, I think we are going to see a need for mergers in communities. But I also envision cooperation in something other than a merger. A merger implies two separate communities becoming one community. In today’s age, if you look at the way in which people are connecting to each other, it doesn’t necessarily have to take two to become one. There are other models of cooperation, shared resources, joint purchasing, etc. that we can consider. We could use the Hillel model, where you have separate communities that share a building, and have the benefit of the economies of scale within that building. There are all kinds of potential models to consider.