Point Counter-Point: Rabbi Steven Wernick Responds

From JNS: A response article from Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and my letter replying to the response.

Rebranding helps USCJ envision its future in a rapidly changing Jewish world

By Rabbi Steven Wernick/JNS.org

Rabbis Menken and Lerner, thank you. You’re right. Conservative Jews do deserve more than PR. And more is exactly the point of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s (USCJ) current branding initiative. Unfortunately, as your op-ed published Sunday (“Conservative Jews deserve more than PR”) demonstrates, you seem to understand little about branding or Conservative Judaism.

Branding is the way a person experiences the service or product of an organization or company. Public relations is the practice of spreading information between an individual and an organization. Our partner in the branding initiative is Good Omen—not a PR firm, but a brand consultancy firm. Rather than helping us orchestrate a “marketing blitz,” Good Omen is assisting USCJ in understanding its position in a world that changes with every generation. The essence of Conservative Judaism is not at issue; the issue is envisioning USCJ’s future in a rapidly changing generation of Jews.

I hope we can agree that Judaism is our people’s tried and tested means to refine the human condition, to provide our diverse Jewish people with a framework for living a life of meaning and purpose, and to connect us to the Divine, to our world, and to each other.

Or as my friend and colleague Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson recently wrote in the Times of Israel, “We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life, if people can thrive better because of the wisdom Judaism brings to our lives and our communities.”

Like all streams of Judaism, we seek to foster that wisdom as well as the Jewish connections and communities that support it. In this rapidly changing world, we have been challenged to maintain our numbers, but quantitative measures are only one (and I would argue a weak) way to measure success.

The very same Pew Research Center study you quote also shows that those impacted by Conservative Jewish communities are more likely to be Jewishly educated; more likely to be committed to creating Jewish homes and raising their children Jewish by religion, to send them to Jewish camps and youth groups; more likely to give to Jewish causes; more likely to support Israel and to have visited it; and more likely to participate in Jewish rituals. With Pew’s 1.26 million estimated Conservative Jews in the U.S. and another 750,000 around the world, that’s 2 million highly engaged Jews!

Where we differ is that Conservative Judaism celebrates and finds its strength precisely in the diversity of Jewish wisdom and practice you denigrate. We believe that the Jewish people have thrived throughout history precisely because of their ability to welcome a wide range of ideas and the people who hold them — all of them — no matter their denomination or lack thereof.

This is, of course, not a new idea. The Talmud provides a parable lauding God’s creative prowess: “To express the grandeur of the Holy One (Blessed be God): for a person strikes many coins from a single dye and all the coins are alike. But the Sovereign of Sovereigns…strikes every person from the dye of the First Person (HaAdam Genesis 1:26) and yet no one person is quite like another.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

And this is just one example of the fundamental Jewish idea that pluralism is a positive value. Each human being, each Jewish person, each kehilla (community) is a piece of a larger picture that when held together makes us complete. Holding diverse opinions together is exactly what God demands of us.

The goal of our branding initiative is to help USCJ assure the alignment of its shared Jewish vision, strategy, people, and program. We provide guidance, information, and tools to enhance Jewish community and support meaningful Jewish connections, not just for Conservative Jews, but for all whose Jewish journey can be nurtured by our vision. The important work we are doing, and will shortly bring to the greater Jewish world, is a thoughtful, intelligent, and appropriate adaptation to the world in which we live.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is the CEO of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Letter to the editor: keep the focus on Jewish substance

To the editor,

Rabbi Steven Wernick’s response (“Rebranding helps USCJ envision its future in a rapidly changing Jewish world”) to my op-ed, “Conservative Jews deserve more than PR,” is very interesting — yet saddening. Rabbi Pesach Lerner and I wrote about Jewish substance, and he differentiated between PR and branding. Regardless of that narrow distinction, neither can save a company selling a product of little interest to consumers.

His quote from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is apt indeed: “We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life” (my emphasis added). It’s not about PR or branding, it’s about Judaism.

In that vein, Rabbi Wernick points out that “those impacted by Conservative Jewish communities” are “more likely” to be Jewishly educated and involved. More likely than whom — those who connect with no Jewish community at all? He makes a tremendous leap, making the bold assertion that these Jews are “highly engaged.” All the evidence at hand refutes that claim entirely.

He similarly states that we “denigrate” what he describes as a “diversity of Jewish wisdom and practice.” Yet we spoke of the beliefs, standards, and educational opportunities that the Conservative movement itself once considered mandatory. Diversity in Jewish practice is found in flourishing Jewish communities of North African, Iranian, Yemenite, German, Lithuanian, and Hungarian origin — often within blocks of each other, or side by side at the holy Western Wall.

Laxity vs. involvement is a poor-man’s diversity, and neither PR nor branding offers a rich solution.

—Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis – Torah.org and co-editor of Cross-Currents.com

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. rob schwartzman says:

    There is nothing new under the sun. The problem is not the Conservative “brand” or marketing of Judaism. It’s the product (Jewish life that is meaningfully distinct from non-Jewish living) and “service” (avodas Hashem,) which have been the raison d’etre of Torah Judaism that non-Orthodox Jews have long rejected because it conflicts with the greater desire to live like non-Jews than like Torah, the sine qua non of Judaism, says. Non-Orthodox Jews cannot embrace that which would save Conservative Judaism without ameliorating significant cognitive dissonance from the conflict of Torah vs. what they imagined and were taught what Judaism is.

  2. Shoshana Ziskind says:

    I remember someone I met at college who had gone through th  Conservative system. She went to a Solomon Schechter school. She and her parents were very involved in their synagogue and school. When I met her she was dating a non new and didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Unless she was a minority, which doesn’t seem to be the case from what I’ve read, I’m wondering how a person like that could be considered to be highly engaged.

  3. DavidF says:

    I have no doubt as to Rabbi Wernick’s sincerity and desire to help the Jewish people. I also have no doubt about the ineffectiveness of the plan he is about to embark on.

    Having spent close to 20 years of my adult life interacting with Jewish students on campuses across the USA and with hundreds of Jewish adults who identify as Reform and Conservative, my opinions are based on hard facts, not wishful thinking. The problem with Conservative Judaism has always been one central point: It has never been about what G-d wants, but about what Jews want. That is why things that Conservative Jews would have considered unthinkable just 30 years back, are now totally acceptable. That is the reason that Jewish commitment, not engagement, is weaker than it’s ever been.

    By polling the movement and seeking to identify what the laity desires, the leaders of Conservative Judaism are simply repeating the mistakes of the past. Nothing will change and the downward spiral will only accelerate unfortunately.

    When Rabbi Wernick writes: ” With Pew’s 1.26 million estimated Conservative Jews in the U.S. and another 750,000 around the world, that’s 2 million highly engaged Jews!” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    Is he unaware of the pitiful and almost negligible engagement that the vast majority of the 2 million demonstrate or [even worse] does he consider their barely tepid involvement a sign of “high engagement”? Either way, it’s a catastrophe. At a minimum, Rabbi Wernick ought to agree that while there may be 2 million who identify as Conservative Jews, only a tiny minority are engaged, let alone highly. I would venture to say that far less than 25,000 of them actually observe Shabbat even according to the Conservative Halachic position. Perhaps that many adhere to the laws of Kosher [according to Conservative definition.] Of the remaining 1,975,000 who do not, it’s not as if most of them observe some form of kosher. At least half of them do not observe any form of kosher at all. Definitely not a sign of a highly engaged population.

    I write this with a great deal of sadness. These are our brothers and sisters and soon there won’t be too many left. It’s time to stop with the vague platitudes and put G-d and His will at the head of the list. There may not be as many Conservative Jews when that experiment is over, but I promise that those who will be there, will be highly engaged!

    • R.B. says:

      Couldn’t have said it better myself! Bravo!

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      David, I concur entirely, and offer a statistic which supports your message. According to the Pew Survey there are over 110,000 ba’alei teshuvah in the United States. When one compares the fertility and intermarriage rates for Orthodox vs. Reform Jews, one is forced to conclude that these 110,000 alone are likely to produce more Jewish grandchildren than the 1.8 million Reform Jews. Now consider that fully 60% of the children of Conservative Jews describe themselves as Reform, other/no denomination, Jews of no religion, or not Jewish. That means at most one more generation. I agree with you that Wernick is sincere; I agree with you that what he offers is entirely ineffective for reversing the decline.

      • DavidF says:

        Without a doubt this is true and anecdotally the situation is even more bleak unfortunately.

        The primary reason I’ve devoted much greater efforts to the middle-age secular Jewish adult population and curtailed my efforts with college students, is because 1 out of 3 “Jewish” students that I encountered was not halachically Jewish. Often it took me less than a minute to discover that, not months of research. Adults, at least, are more likely still to be authentically Jewish than the next generation.

        Additionally, very few of the younger generation identify as Conservative. More likely, they identify as Reform or “whatever”. The same is not true of middle-agers, many of whom still identify as Conservative. Dating and marrying a non-Jew does not carry the stigma it once did, and whereas in years past, they always insisted on converting the non-Jewish spouse, today that is not as popular an option. They don’t really care about “that stuff”. Not only are they lacking any real commitment, they are not even engaged on a level that has a smidgen of significance. If only Rabbi Wernick would recognize this fact and attempt to deal with it instead of focusing his efforts on re-branding.

  4. Reb Yid says:

    I agree that this branding won’t make one whit of difference.

    But what can matter (in whatever form, be it “Conservative Judaism”, “independent minyanim” “Reform Judaism” or “Open Orthodox”) is taking certain mitzvot and making them more relevant to contemporary times.

    This is precisely the niche that so-called mainstream Orthodoxy has ceded….it’s all attention (excessive attention) to detailed rituals, some of which are enumerated from codes long ago that were written during times that do not reflect the current reality.

    If Conservative Judaism would begin to hang its hat on a few key items here, at least it gives people why they should be Conservative (or whatever the label is) and not Orthodox.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      This is a tangent, but I want to briefly address this. “Mainstream Orthodoxy” has never believed that Mitzvos need to be “made relevant.”

      For decades, historians clung to the belief that prayer services only began under a type of “rabbinic Judaism” that popped up in response to the destruction of the Second Temple. The countless references in Mishnah and Talmud to teachers and teachings that clearly preceded that destruction were dismissed as “projection.” Synagogues across Israel were characterized as primitive JCCs.

      Then they discovered one with engravings clearly reminiscent of the Temple services, indicating that it was used as a place of prayer. In a word, “oops.”

      Mitzvos respond to what is eternal in the human condition. The “codes long ago” reflect observances that date back hundreds and even thousands of years prior to when they were written, through many different times with many different realities. Rabbinic enactments are just that — responses to the times which protect, rather than change, those Mitzvos.

      • Reb Yid says:

        You are missing the point as a restrictive, hyper-focus on the rabbinic elite misses out on larger societal trends.

        Chasidism was a direct challenge to the narrative–there are different pathways and not all of them start from “above”.

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        Yet the Ba’al Shem himself would have disagreed with this version of the genesis of Chasidism. He did not try to make Mitzvos “more relevant;” he emphasized those Mitzvos which even simpler people could feel they had performed to the fullest. He would have described Chasidism as a “response to the times which protects, rather than changes, those Mitzvos.”

      • Reb Yid says:

        The Besht’s well known story about the boy who whistled in synagogue goes against your contention.

        This behavior was something that was heavily frowned upon and disdained by the leading elites and larger community.  The Besht turned it into a new, powerful and qualitatively better way of worshipping God.  This is not “protecting” anything.

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        I don’t think you understood his story the way he did. There is no Mitzvah in the Torah not to whistle…

      • Doc P says:

        I don’t see how you can mention chassidism and conservative Judaism in the same sentence. Even if it’s just to illustrate the point of making the Torah more “accessible”, look at the differences. Chassidism is far more restrictive ,more ritualized and more removed from current society than any other branch . Which means you need to ask why? Why is it that the movement that was started to make Judaism more acceptable to the masses and which (when judged by population statistics) ultimately is the most successful branch, why is it the most removed from society ? Their path to success seems to be the exact opposite of what you are suggesting.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Certainly the way Chassidut had to institutionalize, as eventually do all revolutionary, charismatic movements, and indeed in many ways today Chassidut is ironically even more “mitnagdish” than the very folks they were rebelling against back in Eastern Europe!  I was merely referring to Chassidut in its raison d’etre at its inception.

        But in terms of “success”, you have to also look at the broader context of the American environment.  The 1950s were a time of the “golden mean” and where conformity was “in”.  It’s no accident that this was a time where Conservative Judaism was doing quite well and where Hasidism in America was, quite frankly, ill.

        Times have changed, of course.  We live in a much more diverse society–something that alas many Orthodox Jews fail to appreciate as one of the factors contributing to its current success.  Wonder Bread for many (at least for this generation) just doesn’t cut it anymore….who knows what the next 50-100 years will bring.

    • rob schwartzman says:

      G0d makes the mitzvos relevant, not man.   Man making them more “relevant” is a way of saying inverting Jewish theology so that mans desires  for himself are placed above God’s desires for us.

  5. Michoel Reach says:

    “More likely than whom — those who connect with no Jewish community at all?”

    Indeed, that part does ring true for me. I grew up in a Reform community, and went to Sunday school. Not much lasted, for me or my classmates. In many ways, I would have been considered completely unconnected by the time I graduated college, but I still had feelings for Judaism. Unreasonable as it may have seemed, I was a proud Jew – a proud non-practicing Jew. When my mother suggested that I go to a Jewish summer camp (Dennis Prager’s), I agreed. There I met some Torah-observant Jews for the first time in my life, and my fascination only grew from then on.

    I surely wouldn’t try to say that Reform Judaism is a positive for the Jewish people; it taught me many things that are not true. But I can definitely say that it helped me feel close, and that may have made all the difference. I have heard that this is well known for others as well – that most ba’alei teshuvah have some degree of connection from their background. The rest of the calculation I must leave up to Hakodosh Baruch Hu, who knows how he will “fix the world under the kingdom of the Almighty”.

  6. Larry says:

    The conservative rabbis I met as a child kept kashrut and Shabbat and wore a black hat to Shul.  They knew they way around shulchan aroch. Not surprsingly, their children joined Orthodox communities.  Hopefully the decisions of these children can serve as a blueprint for how conservative Judaism should reject its secular values and embrace Orthodoxy.

    A hundred years of rebranding cannot accomplish as much as a minute of Teshuva.


  7. Bob Miller says:

    Good packaging can add shelf life and attractiveness to a product, but that’s all wasted on a lousy product.

  8. southern belle says:

    Unless…… I was raised as a conservative jew in the 1980s.  What was missing then, and even more missing now, is a feeling of authenticity.  A movement that pretzels itself to meet its constituents’ expectations lacks the gravitas and authenticity that would make it compelling to today’s youth.  They speak of The Tradition when they mean mesorah.  Well, tradition is not binding and not compelling.

    What if the conservative movement’s branding efforts leads it to realize that the closer the movement is to authentic Torah judaism, even if in a few discrete areas, the more compelling it would be for the next generation.  There is no product more complex, interesting, rich and universal than the Torah.  There is nothing more challenging yet transformative than commitment to avodas Hashem.  Would that epiphany change the policies of the movement?

    In many out of town communities you see chabad pulling people away from conservative because of this authenticity that is just palpable.

    I am not sure any branding expert actually would reach this conclusion, but what if….

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This