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December 4, 2009

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....... ml~d~tJ_ HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 4, 2009 Looking to reinvigorate, Conservative synagogue leaders set for parley By Bryan Schwartzman Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIA As the congregational arm of the Conservative movement con- tinues its structural over- haul brought on in part by a decline in membership and a $1.3 million budget deficit--some 500 people are expected in Cherry Hill, N.J.. nextweek for the group's biennial convention. In the past year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has been seeking to reassert its relevance after 30 congregations nationwide opted to withhold dues and disassociate. Over the course of a decade, the movement has dropped from 800 synagogues to approximately 650. Leaders within the move- ment have charged in recent years that the United Syna- gogue has lacked transpar- ency and not provided needed assistance as synagogues confront a host of economic and demographic challenges. In March, a group of about 50 rabbis and lay leaders, known as the HaYom group, sent a letter to the organiza- tion demanding reform. "Most of the time, most syn- agogues are not even aware that the United Synagogue office exists." said Rela Geffen, a Philadelphia sociologist and co-author of the 2000 book "The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities." The recent upheaval comes as synagogues across denomi- national lines have struggled to adapt to shifting spiritual and demographic landscapes. Yet the Conservative move- ment faces its own particular challenges. It has lost adher- ents to both Reform on the left and Modern Orthodoxy on the right. Its various arms have not always worked well together. And as a branch committed to both Jewish law and adapting to modern times, it has faced intense in- ternal debates, most recently over its decision to approve the ordination of gay rabbis. At the same time. Con- servatives have a new crop of professional leaders who have sought to reinvigorate the movement, including Arnold Eisen. in his second year as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the firstwoman to head the move- ment's Rabbinical Assembly. And there's Rabbi Steven Wernick, the United Syna- gogue's new executive vice president and CEO. When the group's confer- ence opens Sunday, Dec. 6 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, observers say all eyes were to be on the man charged with infusing new life into the congregational body. Tapped in March to head the organization, the former reli- gious leader of Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station. Pa.. has spent the past months meeting with congregations across the United States and Canada. "l hope that we create a new vision that provides hope and confidence that United Synagogue is prepared to play a significant role in the life of Conservative Judaism," said Wernick, acknowledging that he's working to restore the effectiveness and credibility of United Synagogue. He said the agency is in the midst of creating a long-range strategic plan. "Thisis one of those seminal moments in history, and we are going to rise to the occasion and create the foundations for a resurgence of Conservative Judaism," he said. Geffen said that Wernick is "going to have to present and defend a lot of his decisions" at the conference. "It will be very interesting to watch his public role and see him as an advocate of the movement." Geffen said. Those decisions include an announcement in September that United Synagogue plans to cut 10 percent of its staff and downsize from 15 regional offices to six district offices. That move followed a similar downsizing undertaken by the Reform movement. The four-day biennial also will feature a public meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Laws and Stan- dards, which provides guid- ance for religious practice. The body is expected to debate a responsa--a body of written legal and policy decisions--that would en- courage Jewish cemeteries to create a separate section where non-Jewish spouses could be buried next to their Jewish mates. The committee also will debate appropriate forms of contraception according to Jewish law and whether families should keep violent video games out of the house. Rabbi Robert Layman, who led the local United Synagogue office for more than a decade, said he always believed that more Reform Jews identified with the Re- form movement as a whole, while the vast majority of Conservative Jews identi- fied more closely with their particular synagogue rather than the theology and ritual practice of the Conservative movement. Many of the issues and de- bates sure to arise at the bien- nial-outreach to interfaith families, the changing nature of the synagogue and commu- nity, the challenge of engag- ing "post-denominational" Jews--were on the agenda at a recent program sponsored by the Jewish Theological Semi- nary's alumni association. More than 90 people at- tended the Nov. 22 panel discussion at Temple Sinai in Dresher. Pa.. featuring Eisen, the chancellor at JTS, and three recent graduates, all clergy currently working in the region. Since the trends in Juda- ism are favoring smaller communities, minyans and study groups, the panelists wrestled with just how the Conservative synagogue can serve contemporary needs. "It's definitely time, when the world has totally trans- formed itself within the last 20 years, for a new look at the institutions in the Jewish community," said Eisen. Rabbi Michael Uram, in- coming director of Hillel at the University of Pennsylva- nia, said that too much time is spent worrying about the future of the movement rather than the wider Jewish world. "We always seem to be asking questions about how do we advance an institution. how do we build a movement," said Uram, who added that thinking needs to shift to- ward serving communities and individuals rather than serving a movement. "Is the goal an institution or is the goal Judaism?" Rabbi Micah Peltz of Tem- ple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.. said he faces this co- nundrum as a congregational rabbi: How many different study sessions and minyanim can we have going on until we don't feel like a congregation anymore? "How much community do we cede in doing that?" Peltz wonders. Ask the Expert: Chanukah bush Question: My kids (ages 5 and 8) really love Christmas trees. They know that I won't have one in our house because we're Jewish, but recently someone told them about a Chanukah bush, and they've been asking if we can get one of those. How can I explain to them my discomfort with the tradition without seeming like a Grinch? Henry, Nashville Answer: Oy. I try to be impartial about these things, Henry, but I'mwith you when it comes to Chanukah bushes I just don't like them. First of all. you might want to get your hands on the children's book by Susan Sussman called "There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush Sandy Goldstein." The situation it deals with is not precisely the same as yours. but reading the book might be a good way to start the conversation with your kids. The concern I think most people have with Chanukah bushes is that they are too close for comfort to Christ- mas trees. There's not much difference between the two, as far as I can tell. Slapping a Jewish star on something and then calling it a Jewish ritual item is like putting a lion mask on your dog, having him run around in your backyard and calling it a safari. When you're talking with your kids about this, you can discuss how Jewish holidays aim to keep the traditions and history of the Jewish people alive. You can look at other ritual items you might have in your home a seder plate, a siddur, a noisemaker. etc. and talk about how all of them are connected to things in Jewish history. Then talk about a Chanukah bush and how it really doesn't have a Jewish history at all. One thing that I think is helpful in this kind of situa- tion is focusing on the ways that your kids can celebrate with others without necessar- ily taking on their ideology. Your kids can visit friends who have Christmas trees, and can enjoy the trees that are out in public spaces. But they should do this to be happy for others, not to take on non-Jewish rituals as their own. The best way to combat Christmas envy is to amp up your own Chanukah cel- ebrations in ways that aren't purely derivative of Christian traditions. Consider making your own window decorations to help publicize the mitz- vah of lighting Chanukah candles. Make Chanukah foods from scratch (latkes and sufganiyot are Ashkenazi options, or try Sephardi/Miz- rahi bimuelos and atayef), and set up a dreidel tournament. You can even have a contest in your family to see who can make the most interest- ing chanukiyah from things around the house. The eight nights of Chanukah are also a great opportunity to invite friends to celebrate with you. I think the key to really getting your children to enjoy all of these holiday activities is to steer the conversation away from direct comparisons to Christmas. Celebrating Chanukah shouldn't be about providing an alternative to Christmas. If you bill it that way, you'll always lose out to Santa and Christmas trees. Chanukah is about focus- ing on maintaining a Jewish identity even in the face of a strong cultural current that defies that sentiment. Another way to focus the discussion is to remind your kids about all of the holidays on the Jewish calendar. After Chanukah we have Tu b'Shvat, then Purim and Passover. You can talk about the traditions that go with these holidays, and all the exciting and fun traditions that lead up to them, whether it's making small gifts for friends at Purim or searching the house for chametz at Passover. If you own a children's book or game about the Jewish cal- endar, now is a great time to bring it out. If you have family pictures from Jewish holidays in years past. this is a great time to look at them. Kids love looking at how much they've changed and grown up. and enjoy reminiscing about how they celebrated holidays-- buying new clothes for Rosh Hashanah, eating togetherin a sukkah, etc. As the secular year comes to a close, you can take the time to look forward to the whole cycle of wonderful Jew- ish holidays that will begin again next year. Good luck and chag urim sameachZ For more information about Judaism and Jewish life, visit MyJewishLearn- PAGE 15A B B B [ Glickstein Laval Carris P,A. CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTANTS Wish Our Clients and Friends a Happy Chanukah 555 WINDERLEY PLACE, STE 400 MAITLAND, FL 32751 PHONE: (407) 645-4775 FAX: (407) 629-1606 Greetings and Best Wishes for a Happy Chanukah Ma t and T Company Robert A. 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