Steven C. Wernick
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Pew through the lens of Jerusalem

While denominations may be in decline, Jewish life is undergoing a Golden Age and it's time to focus on a shared path forward

Since the Pew Study came out, I’ve been struggling to find a way to respond. To this end, I have been reading the responses of professional observers of religious life, asking trusted advisors and querying my colleagues in an attempt to figure out how to best speak about what I believe.

In the process, I have become a student of the study, practically earning my “PhD” in Pew’s view of the contemporary North American Jewish landscape.

You see, while pundits issued ponderous proclamations and leaders shook their heads in sorrow, I read the report differently. The numbers were problematic, certainly, but another portrait was emerging at the same time – that of a deeply identified, newly global, Jewish community.

My conclusion at the end of this exhausting yet enlightening journey is that those who are posting obituaries for the sane, centrist path of Jewish life are reading the report incorrectly.

The death of Jewish life, especially at its epicenter, is not what the report demonstrates at all.

Nor does that reflect the facts on the ground.

Instead, I posit that an important takeaway from Pew’s portrayal of the state of North American Jewish life is that the time for taking a parochial interest in only one particular Jewish denomination is past and we must focus our attention on the Jewish collective and our shared path forward.


Put another way, the punchline of the Pew study is that the next phase of Jewish life globally has nothing to do with our institutions and that which divides us.

Instead, it has to do with our shared agenda and this involves intangibles: Engagement. Relationship. Passion. Commitment. Sustainability. The next generation. Transcendence. Unity.

Reading between the lines and above the numbers, the great gift of this report is that it is actually telling us what the Jewish community of today needs in order to remain viable tomorrow.

And one of the core elements of a vital Jewish future is the nurturing of its center.

We call that central address Conservative Judaism but I believe we are doing the Jewish community a disfavor by claiming to have a monopoly on this hashkafa, perspective on life; for it is shared by many across the wide span of Jewish denominational life, from the so-called right wing of the left and the left wing of the right.

My chief learning one month after Pew is that – beyond labels– the key to our Jewish future is strengthening that which encourages the engaged, egalitarian expressions of what it means to be Jewish today in the modern world.

And one more, important lesson that has unfortunately gotten hidden in the headlines of what the Pew report purportedly reveals: we are living in the Golden Age of Jewish life. Not just in North America. Not just in Israel. But around the world. Never before has Jewish life been more rich or complex or widespread. Never before has there been such a great global outpouring of Jewish ideas and creativity.

To read the Pew numbers without taking note of this beautiful backdrop is to decontextualize their meaning.

The time is upon us to build, not bemoan.

The time is upon us to think beyond the institutional and towards the interpersonal.

And those who are best positioned to do the building, as the Pew study itself demonstrates, are located at the epicenter of Jewish life.

This understanding informs the future course that the United Synagogue is taking in this, its Centennial year. With the phenomenal success of its Baltimore celebration behind us, we turn our attention to the tachlis of transformation.

Here is what we know: our congregations must do a better job of developing a new cadre of connected and committed young leaders. And we know this involves first, identifying people who are ripe for deeper involvement, then connecting them to synagogue lay leaders, clergy, and each other. In 2012 we piloted a new program with 12 kehillot designed to do just these things, and the results were stellar, with a majority of participants reporting greater involvement in synagogue life.

A total of 50 of our kehillot have offered Sulam for Emerging Leaders and almost 1,000 emerging leaders are newly engaged. Our independent evaluation – by Dr. Steven Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowicz – showed that, hands down, SEL cemented relationships (more than 80% of participants report deeper relationship with the rabbi or the other group members). And more than 50% of participants moved on to leadership positions and more involvement.

We know we must engage young families and the next generation. Just before our Centennial, we announced the thrilling news that through a major grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The Susser Family Trust and others philanthropists, United Synagogue is able to help synagogues in areas where PJ Library has not been available bring the gift of Jewish books to thousands more families. A successful pilot in New York reached 33 kehillot and thousands of households and plans are to reach 60 more. PJ Library is a powerful tool for connecting young families to Jewish life, and research shows that it is highly successful in deepening the Jewish engagement not only of kehilla members, but of unaffiliated and, crucially, interfaith families.

We know that intermarried households pose both a challenge and a great opportunity to our kehillot. For too long, we have not done enough to engage them but now, the time has arrived.

We are doubling down on outreach to the next generation, by expanding and revamping one of Conservative Judaism’s most successful programs – USY. With a $500,000 grant from a soon to be announced funder, we will be able to increase our ability to engage an ever wider group of teens, and foster a stronger connection and commitment to the Jewish People and to Israel.

And, in keeping with the theme of using great books to create community, we have initiated our first-ever Big Read, asking our network of kehillot to read and respond to Dr. Ron Wolfson’s game-changing work, Relational Judaism. Too often, kehilla leaders read the latest book on revitalizing congregations, but can’t figure out how to adapt its ideas to their communities. That’s why we will provide study materials and work with leaders to see how the book’s key lessons can work in their particular circumstances.

These are but a few initiatives of the new United Synagogue as we undertake our transformation and lead the transformation of others, which is a dynamic, on-going process.

As we refine our priorities, we are confident that the good, hard work we are doing is not only on behalf of our network of kehillot and 1.2 million self-identified Conservative Jews.

It is for Klal Yisrael. The entire Jewish people.

Our work strengthening and transforming Conservative synagogues into kehillot – sacred communities of meaning and engagement – is critical for our global Peoplehood of today…and for tomorrow.

But let me not fall into the trap of denominationalism.

The work we have ahead of us is not about a Jewish label but about a vision of Jewish life. As Judaism has always existed within the context of the people who are living it, informed by contemporary circumstance, our centrist stream has responded in the way that leads to the ongoing flowering and flourishing of Jewish life in the modern world.

Conservative Judaism has perfected the intellectual formula; we have achieved the right balance of devotion to our tradition and to one another, yearning for transcendence and engagement with the challenges of contemporary life.

We celebrate and we struggle. We struggle with the most effective ways to transmit the formula of a Judaism that is meaningful, transcendent and centered in kehilla. But struggle should not be confused with failure. It merely represents the challenge of modernity.

So we celebrate the struggle, which leads to an authentic, enduring Judaism.

If we believe that the takeaway from Pew is all about the Jewish future, let us focus our efforts on the heart and soul of our Jewish communities; on those portals that lead directly to the Jewish community of tomorrow – our kehillot, which are extensions of that most important entity: the Jewish home.

Let us embrace the Golden Age of Jewish life in which we live and contribute to its flowering by engaging with the challenges of the day…and with each other. Let us strengthen the magnificent middle path of Jewish life – the shvil hazahav, Golden Path – because one thing the 21st Century has taught us is the importance of strengthening one’s core.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Tzedec in Toronto. Rabbi Wernick currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Jewish Agency Aliyah Committee and as member of its Government Relations Committee and as Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of Mercaz Olami, the Zionist party of Masorti Judaism. He has been named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and was on the Forward's List of Influential Jewish Leaders.
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