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Local Pick for Top Conservative Post Heads Into a Maelstrom

March 12, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Steven Wernick, speaking at a pro-Israel rally in Philadelphia in January, is slated to head the Conservative movement's congregational arm. Photo by Scott Weiner

In selecting Rabbi Steven Wernick, religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station, as its next professional leader, the Conservative movement's congregational arm is betting that the 41-year-old is the right man to steer the ship at a time of anxiety -- even upheaval -- in the movement.

In the past two weeks, two separate groups of Conservative leaders have written to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, charging that the organization has lacked transparency in recent years, and has not been of much assistance as congregations have confronted a myriad of economic and demographic issues. One of these groups has even threatened that congregations might secede if changes aren't made.

"I'm coming into this job with no illusions about all the challenges that exist," said Wernick, a Philadelphia native who has led the Main Line synagogue for seven years.

Before that, he spent six years at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.

But "there are more than a million people in North America that affiliate with the Conservative movement," he said over the phone. "There is a tremendous pool of talent -- of clergy, educators, synagogue leaders and youth that are waiting to be asked and waiting to be engaged.

"All the talk of doom and gloom overlooks the incredible base that exists," said Wernick, adding that he's looking to create better partnerships with other arms of the movement, including United Synagogue Youth and Ramah camps, both considered bright spots on the Conservative map.

The news leaked out last week about the choice of Wernick as the rabbi was in the early stages of negotiating his contract, and before he was able to inform his congregation. He is slated to replace the United Synagogue's longtime executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

His selection marks the latest in a series of key leadership changes in the movement.

In 2007, scholar Arnold Eisen, who also grew up in Philadelphia, replaced Rabbi Ismar Schorsch to head up the movement's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a change that paved the way for the admission of openly gay rabbinical students.

Last year, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld became the first woman picked to lead the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement's clerical arm. She is geared to take up the post this summer.

These appointments come as the Conservative movement faces many challenges.

It has grappled with such issues as the right approach to intermarriage and the place of Jewish law in contemporary life. The decision to ordain gay rabbis was among the most contentious issues with which it has recently struggled.

Conservative Judaism has been steadily losing ground among American Jews to Reform on the left and Orthodoxy on the right.

Tapping Some New Talent
"The biggest challenge facing the movement isn't about ideology or theology," said Wernick. "It's about re-engagement, setting priorities and carrying them out."

Some of these controversies have caused bitter debates, and even a backlash among lay and professional leaders throughout the country.

Last week, a group of about 50 influential Conservative leaders sent a letter to Ray Goldstein, the president of United Synagogue, asserting that a fundamental change of direction was needed for the movement's congregational arm.

"As we all know, part of what has eluded us in recent years has been connecting these many religious communities together in a vision and mission that would give us a sense of common cause," read the letter.

Rabbi Michael Siegel, of Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue, drafted the letter from what's become known as the HaYom group, meaning "today." He said that a number of signers were planning to meet with United Synagogue's lay leadership on March 19 in New York to discuss the issue.

"Our belief is that there is a need to have an outside agitating force that will bring the United Synagogue leadership to the table and help them appreciate the sense of urgency that we feel," he said, adding that synagogues are dealing with aging populations, difficult financial situations and often feel adrift from the national organization.

He also lamented that the search for a new leader was done largely in secret, and that no one outside the 19-member search committee had any say.

"No one knew how this decision was made," said Siegel. "This is nothing against Rabbi Wernick. I frankly don't know him very well, but the process lacked transparency."

Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park was the letter's only local signer. He said that Wernick represents a recognition that the organization has to become more accessible to congregations and rabbis.

"I see him as someone who cares a lot about process and engaging people," he said.

For his part, Goldstein brushed aside criticisms of the selection process: "I think that we cast a large net, and we are satisfied with the candidate that we are negotiating with."

Goldstein credited Wernick with helping create the Conservative Movement's Leadership Council, a regional body that brought together the different arms of the movement.

Meanwhile, a second group of Conservative lay leaders from around the country had written their own, more severe letter to Goldstein, threatening secession as a last-ditch measure.

'What We Need'
Richard L. Rubin, who drafted the letter and serves as the treasurer of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., noted that his group didn't have any objections to Wernick per se, but was angered that congregations were not consulted at all.

"United Synagogue has chosen somebody without the backing and support of its constituents," said Rubin. "From a practical standpoint, we think that what we need is a super administrator -- someone who is a great manager, not someone who is the great thinker of the movement."

Goldstein said that he agrees that the movement in general and United Synagogue in particular need to broaden their focus and rethink their mission: "We want to find the best way to reach out to those individuals who represent the progeny of our movement. We want to find all those modern technologies and techniques, and things we haven't even thought of to reach out to them."

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia's western suburbs, Adath Israel is dealing with the news that its current rabbi will most likely become its former one.

"We have a lot of mixed emotions. Obviously, we are very saddened to lose the kind of inspirational leader we've had for a number of years," said Adath Israel's president, Myles Herman.

The father of three, Wernick is the son of Rabbi Eugene Wernick, who served two congregations in the area, including Beth Am Israel.

As a child, he lived in Philadelphia but moved several times, including to California, as his father switched synagogues.

Wernick said that he expects to relocate to New York for his new position.

"Now is a great moment," said the rabbi. "We need to work together and create an agenda." 

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