The Conversations We Should Be Having

Here are some subjects I want to talk about at the United Synagogue Centennial.

by Richard Skolnik


As international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, it’s my great privilege to travel across North America, visiting congregations, attending services and speaking with synagogue leaders and members. Because of my position, everyone wants to share with me what’s happening at their kehilla – whether it’s a terrific new Friday night service or, just as often, a serious financial challenge or other concern.

What’s striking is that wherever I go, the same issues come up. That’s why I’m particularly excited about the United Synagogue Centennial this October. While social media is a great way to stay connected, sometimes it’s essential to get everyone together, in one place, where we can be inspired by great thinkers, develop new ideas and bring home not only great strategies for building our kehillot, but connections – real, live people – who we can call on for help.

When I look at the program, it’s clear the Centennial planners did their homework – just about all of the subjects my colleagues care about are on the program. Still, I want to share with you the five subjects I hear about again and again – and that I think we must address. So whether in the workshops, in the hallways, or late at night over drinks, here’s what I want to talk to you about this this October in Baltimore.

Interfaith Families

We’ve been having this conversation for a long time, but I think it’s time we moved past all the debate about membership categories and whether or not someone can stand on the bimah. Intermarriage is here and it’s not going away. How will we reach out to these families and encourage them to become part of our communities? Yes, there are thorny issues about children and conversion and more. But there are several congregations and Conservative thinkers who have made tremendous strides on this issue. Many of them will be at the Centennial. Let’s learn from them and do a better job in our own communities.


It’s on all of our minds – how to make our tefillah engaging and inspiring. We know our members and prospective members seek this kind of experience, yet often we can’t manage to make it happen. Why? What are the impediments and how do we overcome them? Once again, some shuls are getting it right. If you can come to the Centennial Shabbaton, or send someone from your kehilla, you’ll see some of the most powerful prayer leaders in North America. And throughout the conference, we’ll talk about prayer and how to engage people by reaching their hearts and souls.

The LGBT Community

How many of you are making a genuine effort to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into your community? Are you making a deliberate effort to do so, or is it ad hoc? Do you have a policy about gay weddings at your synagogue? Have you had any conversations with gay or lesbian members to see you how you could do a better job of welcoming? I know that some of us are doing a great job in this area, but we all need to learn how.

Membership Dues

When United Synagogue ran a webinar about new dues models last spring, about 200 people signed up. Everywhere I go people are worried about revenues, about a younger generation that doesn’t view supporting synagogues the same way their parents did. More and more kehillot are experimenting with new ways of generating the revenue they need to fulfill their sacred mission. Fair share dues. The sustaining model. The tiered model. We need to talk about financial sustainability in a changing world.

Health Insurance

The cost of health insurance has skyrocketed and continues to put pressure on congregational budgets. For more than a year, United Synagogue has been undertaking a complex analysis of the feasibility of creating a national plan for our kehillot that would make health insurance more affordable. We are in the final stages of working with our consultant on this issue and should know sometime this fall whether we can move forward.



Of course, there are many more topics to discuss, and the Centennial will be a great time to do it. This extraordinary ingathering of Conservative Jews comes at a moment of great change in the Jewish world and the world at large. All I can say is, it’s about time.

Richard Skolnik is the International President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.