When more than 60 local rabbis from different streams got together last week to talk about the future of denominations, the result was less a discussion about the alphabet soup of organizations than about how to meet the spiritual needs of Jews.
Titled "How Relevant are Denominations to 21st Century American Jews?" the Center City program illustrated the extent to which even national leaders of the movements view the future of the streams as inextricably linked with some of the pressing questions of the day: How can synagogues and other Jewish organizations survive financially? And how can synagogues, rabbis and other prayer communities adapt to changing technological and sociological currents and create meaningful Jewish experiences?
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who four months ago took over as president of the Union for Reform Judaism — which represents about a million people and 900 congregations — stressed that the role of denominations and synagogues is to promote Judaism and help Jews develop a relationship with God.
"Denomination, if it is all about itself, can become an idolatry," Jacobs said during the May 2 program at the Jewish Community Services Building, which was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. "God help us if the structures of organizational Jewish life become the main thing."
His counterpart, Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — the branch that perhaps has experienced the steepest numerical decline in recent years — said that at a time when movements and synagogues are re-evaluating nearly everything they do, it's important to get back to basics.
"Any conversation about denominations ultimately must begin with a conversation about Judaism," said the former religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station who in 2009 was tapped to lead USCJ.
"The big questions of existence are at the end of the day what it is still all about," added Wernick. "Is this all there is? What is my purpose? How do I create, find and participate in meaning, and express that purpose, to add that transcendency to my life?"
Jacobs and Wernick were joined on the panel by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and also soon-to-be leader of the movement's congregational arm, and Rabbi Michael Balinsky, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
In the four years since the 2008 financial meltdown, the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have all undergone major organizational overhauls, which have included layoffs and lowering dues that synagogues must pay to belong.
An increasing number of Jews choose not to identify with a denomination and even many engaged Jews are now eschewing labels and referring to themselves as "post-denominational."
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, a Reconstructionist who serves as the Board of Rabbis president, came away from the program with a sense there's going to be huge changes for Jewish institutions in "both how they operate and how many there are."
But where will the national denominations — which first arose to confront the challenges of an earlier era — fit into this new landscape?
Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, said that the panelists largely avoided the question of whether "these denominational structures make sense any more.
"I think they have a vested interest in the structures of their institutions," said Berman, who moderated the panel.
But Rabbi Eric Rosin, religious leader of Kesher Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in West Chester, said the panelists didn't duck the issue but rather focused on how they are increasingly working together on similar issues, even while upholding specific differences.
"We may be coming from different places," said Rosin. "We recognize the same challenges. Each movement has a slightly different answer and has a deep respect for the others. There really was a shared recognition that we are not in competition with each other."
Rosin acknowledged that, because of the high cost of belonging to the USCJ, his synagogue considered disassociating. But after an internal board review and meetings with USCJ staff, leaders at Kesher Israel decided to remain members and work together more closely.
Rosin said his synagogue's particular challenges stem from being far from larger pockets of the Jewish population and serving a geographically dispersed membership.
Berman said the program also illustrated how distinct the Orthodox world is becoming from the rest of American Jewry. Balinsky, the Chicago rabbi, explained that the Orthodox world is fragmented but that those congregations aren't facing the same sorts of challenges.
Most Orthodox Jews don't think in terms of denominations, he said. They see Judaism as a halachic system one either follows or doesn't.
The discussion kept coming back to the successful outreach efforts of Chabad Lubavitch — which many see as its own distinct denomination. Locally, nationally and internationally, Chabad has achieved unprecedented growth. Jacobs said that while Chabad has "a theology that is very problematic," it's strength is its ability to take Judaism to the street and embrace anyone who walks through the door.
Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park came to the program wanting to know if Jewish institutions have the courage and vision to change. While he didn't get a direct answer, he took solace that the question is being addressed.
"Synagogues on the front line and denominational offices up the food chain are really beginning to focus on what they are going to do next. I would give them credit for saying we know things are changing, we don't quite know what to do next," said Sussman, whose congregation has shrunk from 1,500 families to fewer than 1,000.
Sussman said his synagogue is doing all it can to adapt and remain relevant, including leading services with a PowerPoint presentation instead of a prayer book.
"Our challenge is to figure out what is going to work in the next generation," he added. "I believe the synagogue has the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. I don't think we need to abandon the model. We need to adapt, and the question is how far are we willing to go?"