Conservative Judaism to thrive on meaning, not just membership

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick

We are living at a moment of great disruption. We all sense it. We all experience it. It impacts every aspect of our lives, and Judaism is not immune.
Changes in demography; declines in synagogue membership, educational fluency and connection; the rise of the “nones” (Jews who identify with no religion); a weakening of the bonds to Israel; intermarriage and more are all signs of this moment of disruption.
The institutions we built to sustain and nurture Jewish life are crumbling while a new Jewish future, one that is not yet fully defined, is emerging.
Much has been said about the state of 21st century Jewry. Ultimately, we are all essentially asking the same question: How do we navigate a rapidly changing world in an authentic way?
In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer argues that our response “requires us to shift the inner place from which we operate. It requires us to suspend our judgments, redirect our attention, let go of the past, lean into the future that wants to emerge through us, and let it come.”
During the beginning of my tenure at the USCJ, I would often be invited to speak to congregational boards about membership recruitment and retention. Leaders always wanted to know how to attract and retain new members. I observed a 90-minute board meeting that had just four agenda items: a financial matter in the religious school, a casino night, a parent’s night out and the annual dinner-dance fundraiser.
At 9 p.m., following 90 minutes of frontal committee reports, it was my turn to teach this board about membership. I decided to throw aside my fancy PowerPoint. Instead, I asked for three people to share an experience that inspired them to sit at the board table. One person shared how his daughter stood under the huppah the week before and what it meant to be surrounded by a community that had shared in his family’s life journey.
Another spoke about how her son died 20 years earlier in a car accident. She teared up as she described how the community literally helped her to get out of bed in the morning and continue living.
The third mentioned how his first trip to Israel was with the congregation and how he had become a lifelong learner as a result.
I challenged them. “If you want to attract and retain members,” I explained, “then you need to talk more about these stories and figure out how the congregation enhances and expands the key moments of people’s lives and functions as a catalyst for their passions through Judaism.”
In other words, it’s about purpose, not program. It’s about meaning, not membership.
At USCJ, we know that what all thriving kehillot (sacred communities inside and outside the walls of a synagogue) share is intentionality around Jewish relevancy and relationship. When planning their year, they don’t ask what programs they need to drive people into the synagogue. They ask what questions and challenges their people are struggling with and how they can be a source of connection and meaning.
In this time of great disruption, our focus must shift from structures to values. An authentic and dynamic Judaism is rooted in the wisdom gained at the intersection of heritage and progress. It is a Judaism that thrives in the tension of old and new, that finds unity in diversity, that is committed to lifelong Jewish growth, that is dedicated to excellence, and that understands that we are part of a great people, with a great tradition, that continues to this very day to inspire us to life fulfillment and a better world.
USCJ’s new branding and messaging is designed to more clearly communicate this vision, mission and values to our network of almost 600 kehillot and to those in the Jewish world who are seeking meaning, connection and shleimut (wholeness) in this way.
Our new brand is focused on this collective striving for meaning, which is why we decided on the tagline, “Seek meaning together.” We understand that no one person or institution has all the answers or all the resources necessary to succeed alone.
Our mission is to partner with congregations and other organizations to understand the profound nature of the disruption of our time and to develop strategies to meet the needs of the current and emerging Jewish future.
This Rosh Hashanah, we begin not only a new year, but also a new age.

(Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.)

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