Words of the Century

Couldn’t make it to the United Synagogue Centennial? Here are excerpts from keynote speeches.

Rabbi Steven Wernick
CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism


How do we remake Conservative synagogues into the setting of choice for transformative experiences? Even more to the point, why does Conservative Judaism matter? How does it matter? This long-awaited Centennial, with its rich selection of sessions, workshops and programs, is a collective quest to respond to those questions. Over the next two days, we’ll be questioning who we are, what we stand for, and what we contribute to the Jewish landscape – in our communities, across the continent and around the world.

We’ll be talking about what we share with Jews from other walks of life… and what we have that is ours alone. We’ll be exploring what works in Conservative Jewish life…. and what needs to be fixed. Let’s be real. There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting. And tweaking. We are here as agents of the transformation of Conservative Jewish life. It is our hope that this Centennial serves as a turning point – a pivot between an uncertain present and a promising future.

Dr. Erica Brown
Writer, educator, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington


I am asking you today to become positive disruptive innovators. We are ambassadors of a unique moral and spiritual mission in the world. When we go out into the world as positive disruptive innovators, we play both a universal and a particular role and cannot be complete if we ignore one or the other. For the past long while, the tagline of Jewish life has been tikkun olam – go fix the world. I hope I don’t offend anyone if I tell you the opposite. Go out and do a little damage. Disrupt the world. Change it and question it. Go out into this vast universe and break a few things, not for the sake of breaking them, but for the sake of putting them together differently to maximize impact and efficiency, to force meaning, to live a creative Jewish life that attracts others.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Vice President, American Jewish University; Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Enough with handwringing; enough with despair. Let us lift our eyes to a path that eagerly seeks a spiritual quest, mining the writings of our sages and of the world for ways to break our hearts open so that we feel each others’ joys, so that nobody mourns alone. Let us walk again on a path that is the halachah – our people’s way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a magnificent flourishing etz hayim, a living tree.

Let us join together in a path that reaches out to those previously marginalized, for the many who have not felt the embrace of our community in the past because of our own shortsightedness, perhaps because of our own fears. Let us leave that fear behind and know that the only risk is passing by the possibility of love. And let us reach out in love to everyone who would have our love, because in the end they are us; because we need everyone’s wisdom, everyone’s passion, everyone’s strength and everyone’s distinctiveness.

Dr. Ron Wolfson
Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University; Co-founder and Co-president, Synagogue 3000

It’s no surprise that synagogue affiliation rate as reported in the Pew Study is 31 percent. But that’s only a snapshot in time. I don’t have a good figure for you about how many people actually have belonged to a synagogue at one time or another – it’s probably 70 percent. The bottom line is this: we get them but then we lose them…. Why? Because the value offer is transactional: “You give me dues and I will give you a rabbi on call, high holiday seats and a bar or bat mitzvah for your kid.” You mean to tell me we have people in our congregations for five years, 10 years, 15 years, and in all those years we fail to engage them so deeply – in a relationship with Judaism, with our clergy, our staff, and most importantly, with each other – that they’d never think of dropping their membership? Something’s not working.

Rabbi Harold Kushner
Theologian, best-selling author, Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel, Natick, Massachusetts


Three year ago David Wolpe and I were invited to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Wolpe challenged the membership and said Conservative Judaism will never regain the hold it had on the American public until we can summarize what it stands for in a bumper sticker. …I didn’t have a response to David at that convention but I thought about it for several months and I think I have the bumper sticker. My bumper sticker for Conservative Judaism would read kadshenu b’mitzvotecha – send holiness into our lives through the mitzvot. What is holiness? Holiness is articulating our humanity by doing things that human beings can do that other creatures can’t. And the best source of holiness is imposing choice on instinct.

Dr. Arnold Eisen
Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary

We need to stretch our boundaries wider. Solomon Schechter spoke repeatedly about “Conservative or Orthodox,” aiming to build up what he proudly called “traditional Judaism.” He wanted United Synagogue to define itself positively, by what it was rather than what it was not, and he urged it to take “Klal Yisrael for its ultimate aim, but America as its immediate field of work.” We must unite despite our differences, he told his audience. You must not “sacrifice your children and the whole future of Judaism for the imaginary welfare of your own little soul.”

Yes! We need to work to strengthen movement institutions, shore up membership rolls of synagogues and schools, pave the path in Torah that we believe is the right and true path…. But we must also recognize that if we serve and save only ourselves, we will not serve or save ourselves. The way to grow Conservative Judaism is to reach out beyond it to bring in more Jews, affiliated or not, denominational or post-denominational, from what we call the “vital religious center.”