A few weeks ago several Temple Beth El members attended the Biennial Convention of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Schaumberg, Illinois. Your temple dues funds our membership in United Synagogue and I thought it would be worthwhile to give you a sense of what these meetings are like and perhaps a better idea of what United Synagogue does for us.
The meeting began with a wonderful Shabbat experience. Friday night started with a rousing, musical Kabbalat Shabbat Service that combined traditional melodies from around the world and newer American spirituals. The ruach was enhanced by the energy of the hundreds of USY’ers in attendance. Dinner gave us the opportunity to interact with synagogue leaders from around the country and while each synagogue is unique, many of the problems we face are similar and so there was ample opportunity to learn from each other. The evening concluded with an interactive learning session with Professor Arnie Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Chancellor Eisen unveiled his new book, (Conservative) Judaism Today and Tomorrow in which he makes a dynamic argument for the future of Conservative Judaism.
The Shabbat morning services menu offered five very different styles of prayer ranging from traditional Hazzanut to the artist driven, experiential service of Lab Shul, an experimental group from New York City. My personal favorite was a Los Angeles based service called Hamaalot which combined a soulful take on our traditional service with innovative engagement with the weekly Torah portion. It was exciting to be part of the creative energy focused on re-invigorating and experimenting with the traditional Conservative Service.
The next few days were filled with dozens of course offerings covering the entire gamut of synagogue life and administration. It provided an opportunity to engage with the leading thinkers in the Conservative Movement and to learn some of the “best practices” currently available. A quick look at the Convention Schedule at shapethecenter.org will give you a sense of the scope of the offerings and the complexity of the tasks we face.
Several years ago USCJ took a long hard look at themselves and realized that they needed to provide better and more meaningful services to their member synagogues. The result was a Strategic Plan that has already begun to bear fruit. Both Todd Stein and I had the opportunity to participate in the newly re-envisioned “Sulam for Presidents” program which is an intensive multi-day course offered by USCJ on synagogue administration. The Sulam program has been expanded to include the following additional courses: Sulam for Emerging Leaders and Sulam for Strategic Planners; we have participated in the former and hope to participate in the later soon. Temple Beth El is one of 15 synagogues from across the nation chosen to participate in the Ruderman Inclusion Action Community, another beneficial program provided by USCJ. The professional staff at USCJ is extremely knowledgeable and just as important, they are easily accessible.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue, succinctly expressed the fundamental challenge synagogues face. Rather than asking “How can we get more members in,” the core question synagogues have to ask is “How can we get more meaning out?” We are excited by the new found energy at USCJ and look forward to utilizing the services and leadership they provide.