Leading an organization down a new path is both challenging and exhilarating. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's new direction leads us to meet the needs of today's Conservative Jew. If we are to achieve our objectives, serve our member synagogues and help Conservative Jews flourish as Jews in this world, we must also redefine Conservative Judaism.
Since July, when I began this new job, I have crisscrossed the continent listening to what congregation members, rabbis, presidents, executive directors, cantors, educators, board members, federation leaders, Hillel students and professionals want from United Synagogue and the Conservative movement.
Because we seek to uphold our sacred Jewish traditions — while embracing the liberty and wisdom to be found in modern American life — we must focus on honest and open discussion on almost any issue.
Although each place I have visited is unique, it is striking that wherever I go, I learn that members of our affiliated synagogues want the same four things.
Congregations want us to help strengthen our congregations, to share best practices so we can learn from each other, and to strengthen our youth groups so they once again are reaching their full potential. Congregations want us to work together with the other groups that make up the Conservative movement so we can all share a vision and have the words to best describe it.
We're responding to what we hear as we move from reactive to proactive. We have also begun using technology to share our best practices easily; new monthly teleconferences posted on our Web site now allow congregations to share their successes with others.
We are asking professionals in the field to call synagogues on a regular basis, rather than waiting for emergencies, and we are producing materials and programs for synagogues based on their size, demographics and nature of their communities, rather than stamping out cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all offerings.
In response to requests for help with developing new leaders, we have begun work on a multiyear training program that takes existing or aspiring synagogue leaders at whatever level they are, and teaches them how to incorporate both Jewish values and practical skills as they move up the leadership ladder.
Our short-term goal is to reorganize in a way that will allow us to live within our means. We hope to get the bulk of the short-term reorganization done by the beginning of January, and the rest of that phase complete by the end of the fiscal year at the end of June.
Our youth programs have long been the jewel in our crown; we plan to blow off the dust so they sparkle again. We have begun the process of examining USY to see how best to attract even more young people who will be our congregants in the coming decades, and we have decided to put resources in K'sharim, expanding our youth movement success to include adults in their 20s and 30s.
We hope that they will take Conservative Judaism and reshape it to make it their own, whether it's connecting synagogues with nearby Hillels or independent minyanim, or creating new programming for young professionals that doesn't cry out "Loser Singles Service!"
We're also hiring an alumni director to help us bring back so many who grew up in our movement — at camp, youth groups and religious and day schools.
Meanwhile, the Hayom Coalition, the ad hoc group of rabbis and synagogue leaders formed to help improve United Synagogue, continues to meet with us in a growing atmosphere of trust.
The disparate groups that make up the movement are starting to work together; we can harness their talent and energy to move forward together and lay the foundation for our renaissance. In fact, we will begin that work at our convention, when three movement heavyweights will join me in a no-holds-barred panel discussion on the movement's future.
There still is much work to be done, and we will do it. We will build a stronger United Synagogue and a more dynamic Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is holding its 2009 International Biennial Convention Dec. 6-10 in Cherry Hill, N.J. Register at: www.uscj.org.