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At Conservative Confab, Prayer's on Radar Again

December 10, 2009 By:
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Discussing a movement's present and future at its biennial are (left to right) Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Cantor Stephen J. Stein, Rabbi Steven Wernick and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

Do Conservative Jews need a new, perhaps even 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 USCJ's biennial gathering, which concluded earlier this week in Cherry Hill, N.J., 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 over the helms of national organization in July.

He reported 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."

USCJ is undergoing a structural upheaval brought about, in large part, by the dissatisfaction of congregations, which relayed that they weren't getting necessary programmatic and other kinds of guidance in exchange for the dues they paid to the organization.

Many of the more than 500 lay leaders and professionals who came from across the country to the area did express hope, tinged with a bit of skepticism, that USCJ can transform itself into an entity that helps congregations become more dynamic, welcoming and, of course, fiscally stable.

At the conference, USCJ decided to adopt a new set of bylaws with the aim of becoming more efficient; these included reducing the size of its board by about half. It's also decreasing the number of offices it has nationwide from 15 to six.

Talks were also held about changing the formula for determining the dues that congregations pay, though no formal proposals were put forward.

'The Best Product'
The biennial also served as to jump-start a nine-month process in which USCJ 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 Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to head the Rabbinical Assembly; Cantor Stephen J. Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly; and Wernick.

During the hourlong discussion, the audience raised many of the most pressing questions confronting the movement at this juncture in its history.

These included: 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 more closely together?

When the issue of prayer came up at the discussion, Stein took a slightly different tact.

"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," said Stein, 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 that they are "prisoners" to the traditional prayerbook, and more diversity needs to be encouraged. He also said that clergy need to do a better job of explaining 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," declared the rabbi, "they become more than just sing songs, and more than just rushing through the words."

A New Definition
Sounding at times like the most traditional member of this impromptu quartet, Stein also noted that while synagogues must try to bring in as many new people as possible -- while, of course, still appealing to its core -- the movement as a whole should only count as Conservative Jews those who follow Jewish law, as opposed to any individual that belongs to a USCJ-affiliated synagogue.

Stein also pushed some buttons when he suggested that spouses of clergy members -- even those with highly demanding careers of their own -- need to contribute more time and energy to their individual congregations.

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

"That new denomination," he 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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