Mar 6, 2009

JTA: Dear United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism…

By Ami Eden · March 6, 2009

The Forward's J.J. Goldberg had an interesting interview a few weeks ago with the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism -- it was about as an interesting and fresh as a state-of-Conservative Judaism piece can be. (And, I promise, I mean that as a compliment.)

Goldberg focused in on the sputtering search for a new chief executive at the United Synagogue -- and the panic over the process being felt among the arms of the movement.

Well... the plot thickens.

A coalition of rabbis has sent a letter to the United Synagogue demanding a meeting with the organization's leadership and, well... here it is...

What we are proposing, in the most urgent terms, is that a meeting be convened as soon as possible to discuss strategic plans for the future.  As rabbis, cantors and congregational leaders, we commit to come prepared to work cooperatively at such a meeting.  We do not have in mind a simple sharing of ideas with the USCJ leadership, but rather the formation of a genuine working group that spans the Movement, with a mandate to formulate a vision of how the congregational arm of the Movement needs to be structured in this still young new century, and what its mission will be.

The letter -- sent by a new group of rabbis, cantors and lay leaders, dubbed HaYom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism -- reads more like a respectful plea for cooperation than an exercise in finger-pointing.

But the handling of the letter is another matter. It turns out that the rabbis are considering going public -- they have drafted a press release, which was leaked before a final decision was made to release it. Judging from past experience reporting on this stuff, the very fact that this new group is consering the public option is likely to fuel anxiety among folks in the United Synagogue orbit that they are being pushed around. To boot, the new group has hired Shira Dicker as its P.R. person -- the same woman who reps the Rabbinical Assembly [UPDATE: The press release has been issued -- as for the R.A., it says it is not associated with the new group].

Here's the letter:

March 2, 2009
6 Adar 5769

Dr. Raymond B. Goldstein                                                          
2124 Schmidt Court SE
Rochester, MN, USA 55904

Dear Ray,

We are writing to you to continue what we believe is an urgent conversation on which hangs nothing less than the future of the Conservative Movement and the fulfillment of its enormous potential in which you and we deeply believe.  This is a moment suffused with great opportunity for all of us, as JTS is in the process of renewing its mission under Chancellor Eisen, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld ascends to the role of Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, and the USCJ nears the end of its process to choose its new professional head. Although, as you know, we had hoped that your search process would have been more inclusive of other arms of the Movement, we all wish you well in the process, and trust that it will produce a leader who is prepared to think creatively about the challenges that we together face.

As you will readily see, the rabbis, cantors and congregational leaders who are signatories on this letter represent congregations that are among the largest and most active in our Movement.  They are thus not only among the greatest supporters of USCJ, but also leaders of the most crucial institutions for projecting beyond their walls the vitality that Conservative Judaism can offer to Jews everywhere who are looking for religious meaning and a spiritual home, especially in North America.  When laments are heard about the lessened state of the Conservative Movement, it is these congregations that give the lie to the gloomy predictions, because so much good happens in them, as it does in many smaller communities as well.  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.  The USCJ has always been the organization to which we have looked for making that happen, and although candor forces us to say that we have often been disappointed in the past, we continue to believe that with the right kind of re-engineering to suit the needs of the times, with the right professional leadership, and with a commitment to work together with the rabbis, cantors and lay leadership of individual congregations, it can still happen.

We don't believe that it can happen if "business as usual" reigns, with merely a change in the identity of the leadership.  People in our Movement who care deeply about its future have been thinking about ways in which the USCJ could reimagine its mission and its very structure so as to meet today's challenges, and we trust that you have been doing so as well.  We read, for example, your recent letter to the congregational presidents as a very welcome reflection of a desire to explore new avenues for achieving the various missions that we share.  We look immediately to the crucial next step in seeking to build together on this desire.  Specifically, we are looking for serious conversations to take place without delay at this moment of opportunity, conversations in which no visionary idea will be excluded simply because it has not been done in the past, conversations that will involve leaders from all arms of the Movement, conversations that will have as their goal the emergence, within a reasonably limited period of time, of a strategic plan for renewing the Conservative Movement so that our enormous resources and potential do not go unfulfilled.

Although a number of us have specific ideas about new roads that could be taken, this letter is not the place to spell those out.  What we are proposing, in the most urgent terms, is that a meeting be convened as soon as possible to discuss strategic plans for the future.  As rabbis, cantors and congregational leaders, we commit to come prepared to work cooperatively at such a meeting.  We do not have in mind a simple sharing of ideas with the USCJ leadership, but rather the formation of a genuine working group that spans the Movement, with a mandate to formulate a vision of how the congregational arm of the Movement needs to be structured in this still young new century, and what its mission will be.
Time is not on our side as a Movement. Thus we insist that the open and transparent Strategic Planning Process be accompanied by a fixed timetable to both complete and implement the Strategic Plan.  We are requesting a meeting at the United Synagogue headquarters in New York within four weeks of the date of this letter, April 2, 2009.  Please let us know a few dates that will work for you and key members of your leadership.   Ray, be assured that this is a serious working group committed to working hard in order for us to succeed, both within the USCJ and as a Movement.

We hope that this letter will be taken not as strident – which it is most certainly not intended to be – but rather as insistent. And its insistence stems from the fact that the rabbis and cantors have all staked our lives, as it were, on the belief that we can make an enormous difference to the lives of Jews and to the strength of the Jewish community here and in Israel. The lay people who have signed this letter bring their own considerable commitment to their synagogues and the wider movement, as well as a wealth of talent, skills, and creativity. We are therefore prepared to make our own contribution to such conversations and to the projects and work that will have to emerge from them. But we are determined to ensure that the USCJ becomes all that it can be, and we will do whatever we need to do in order to help bring that about.  It is our fervent wish that we do this together.

We look forward to hearing from you and to working in concert for what is surely a common goal that we will best and most effectively reach in partnership.

Sincerely,

Michael S. Siegel
Chair

Rabbi Richard Camras   Barry Wolfe   
Rabbi Mark Cooper    Barry Bearg    Peter Drucker
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove    Steven M. Friedman   
Rabbi Menachem Creditor    Jeff Rosenbloom   
Rabbi Alexander Davis    Marshall Lehman   
Rabbi Ed Feinstein    Andrew Hyman   
Rabbi Wayne Franklin    Nathan Beraha   
Rabbi Baruch Frydman Kohl       
Rabbi Bill Gershon    Hylton Jonas   
Rabbi Felipe Goodman    David Steinberg   
Rabbi Bill Hamilton    Noah Roffman   
Rabbi David Kalendar    Edward Weiss   
Rabbi Joseph Krakoff    Brian Hermelin   
Rabbi Harold Kravitz    Judy Cook   
Rabbi Alan Lucas    Susan Zelman   
Rabbi Jack Moline     Evelina Moulder   
Rabbi Joel Rembaum       
Rabbi David Rosen    Stuart Wilson   
Rabbi Phil Scheim    Carrie Orfus Gelkopf   
Rabbi Michael Siegel    Jay Goodgold   
Rabbi Alan Silverstein    Bill Lipsey   
Rabbi Barry Starr    Arthur Spar   
Rabbi David Steinhardt    Roger Leavy    Fred Weiss
Rabbi Gordon Tucker    Mark Zeichner   
Rabbi Steve Weiss    Dick Myers   
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