When a product is more than a century old and its customer base is declining, freshening its image becomes a priority.
Such is the case with Conservative Judaism and the organization that links together some 600 congregations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — or, as its leadership now prefers to call it, just USCJ.
A recent rebranding, as much for internal as external consumption, will be on display at the USCJ biennial, being held Dec. 1 to 5 in Atlanta. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend sessions under the theme “Dare Together” at the Marriott Marquis downtown.
Ahavath Achim Synagogue member Margo Gold, the international president of USCJ, will address the gathering Sunday afternoon, Dec. 3. The roster of speakers during the biennial includes representatives from several organizations in the Atlanta Jewish community.
In a September interview with the Atlanta Jewish Times, USCJ CEO Rabbi Stephen Wernick characterized the Conservative movement as a “dynamic and authentic Judaism,” a tagline repeated often.
The use of the USCJ initials rather than the organization’s full name is intentional, allowing greater emphasis on kehilla, Rabbi Wernick said. A “synagogue is a building. A kehilla is a community, and we wanted to refocus people’s attention on relationships and not on structures.”
Then there’s the C-word.
“The word ‘conservative’ has become problematic,” politically and religiously, Rabbi Wernick acknowledged. “It no longer means what was meant when it was coined for our movement, which was to conserve tradition and change.”
USCJ’s history dates to 1913, when it was founded as the United Synagogue of America. The name changed in 1991 to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Until the movement’s September rebranding to emphasize the initials, it was commonly referred to simply as United Synagogue.
(Full disclosure: The author’s family has historical and current ties to the Conservative movement.)
Conservative Judaism has sought to provide a middle ground between the inflexibility of Orthodoxy and the post-halachic flexibility of Reform.
The theme of the USCJ biennial two years ago near Chicago was “Shape the Center.” That center has been shrinking and graying.
Conservative Judaism represented 38 percent of Jewish households in 1990 but only 18 percent in the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews.
The Conservative movement has an aging constituency. The average age of its adult members is 55, compared with 54 for the Reform movement and 40 for the considerably younger Orthodoxy.
Among adults ages 40 to 59, Conservative Jews reported having an average of 1.8 children, comparable to the 1.7 for Reform Jews but far below the 4.1 for the Orthodox.
A focus of this biennial will be efforts to encourage young adults raised in the movement to remain (the unspoken hope being that they marry in the faith and raise children in Conservative Judaism). Rabbi Wernick also said USCJ will double down on its engagement with teenagers to deepen their commitment to Judaism.
An elephant in the room for Conservative Judaism is hinted at by a session titled: “Our Clergy Can’t Officiate at Your Wedding, But …”
The Rabbinical Assembly recently reaffirmed its ban on Conservative rabbis performing interfaith marriages. There is concern in some quarters of the rabbinate that this policy pushes away Conservative Jews who marry non-Jews and reduces the chance that the children of those unions will be raised in Conservative Judaism.
The variety of subjects to be addressed over the five days of the biennial ranges from reflections on the music of the late Leonard Cohen to increasing inclusion of people with disabilities to the simply titled “Kvetching 101.”
A scheduled highlight away from the meetings will be a concert at 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church featuring Neshama Carlebach, daughter of famed Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and her gospel choir.
Atlantans who otherwise aren’t interested in the minutiae of the Conservative discussions, whose details can be found at www.uscjconvention.org, can get tickets for the Carlebach concert (which includes an address by Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt) and two other musical performances at the Marriott Marquis: a Havdalah show featuring Joey Weisenberg at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 and a program on dynamic Judaism in Israel featuring liberal Israeli prayer community Nava Tehila (as well as a speech by Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen) at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 4.
Tickets for the musical performances are $36 each or $99 for all three at www.uscjconvention.org/concerts.
Registration for the conference (iplanit.swoogo.com/USCJ2017) is $200 for one day, $499 for the three days of workshops and plenary sessions (Dec. 3 to 5), $450 for the Shabbaton (Dec. 1 to 3) or $899 for the full five-day program.