By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Call it a makeover. A reboot. A retooling of the concept. But in an attempt to retain and regain members, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) has commissioned a branding firm to reposition the image of the Conservative Jewish movement.
It is the first such effort in 2,000 years — and an expensive proposition. United Synagogue has launched a $350,000 rebranding effort and hired a branding firm, Good Omen.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of USCJ, has gone as far as to describe the current synagogue model up until this time as a 2,000-year-old experiment.
“It just no longer has the capacity to meet the challenges, and so it has to be reinvented,” he told the JTA.
Rabbi Andrew Bloom of Fort Worth’s Congregation Ahavath Sholom emphasized it is important to remember that the Conservative movement, like Judaism in general, is ever-evolving.
“Rebranding is, in essence, a reinterpretation of our ever-evolving traditions,” Rabbi Bloom said. “The movement is a bridge between tradition and modernity that blends traditions from the past with modern interpretations that are knowable to the present. …To me, Conservative Judaism is a living, breathing way of life. Personally and professionally it is much more important how we relate to our congregants, visitors, guests, religious seekers, friends and family than it is to how United Synagogue officially rebrands.”
The rebranding effort, leadership members say, is a direct response to the number of younger congregants who are shifting from Conservative Judaism to Reform Judaism because they find their values increasingly at odds with the core values and rules of the Conservative movement over flashpoint issues such as intermarriage.
Members of the Conservative leadership are trying to figure out how to appeal to a new generation of Jews in light of the fact that the number of Conservative Jews has shrunk one-third over the last quarter-century.
The question: How to appeal to them without abandoning core values or becoming a carbon copy of Reform Judaism?
Some members of the Conservative Jewish leadership in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have taken their own initiative to be more inclusive. Congregation Shearith Israel, for instance, created its own “Inclusion Commission.”
Gail Mizrahi, president of Congregation Shearith Israel, said this “Inclusion Commission” is guided by the principle that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
This committee was recently formed by Shearith Israel’s senior rabbi, William Gershon, who also serves as the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Sharon Levin, past president of the board of directors.
“Initially, the Inclusion Commission met to discuss how we as a shul could be a more inclusive community,” Mizrahi said. “It is currently conducting a study of best practices among large Conservative synagogues regarding egalitarianism, LGBT Jews, interfaith families, and those with special needs and how we can best implement these practices within Shearith Israel.”
Local leaders said congregants should remain positive and contemplative regarding the changes coming with rebranding.
“The United Synagogue is great for launching this effort,” said Rabbi Adam Roffman, associate rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel. “It has been a long time coming. But it’s important to realize that while there may be many conservative views in the world, the Conservative moment doesn’t define who we are.”
Mizrahi said the rebranding provides an opportunity to globally rethink and potentially reshape the role of the synagogue in the 21st century.
“The rebranding process in which the Conservative movement is currently engaged opens the door for Torah scholars and educators, community leaders, and synagogue members to deeply consider the potential for Conservative Judaism to effect tikkun olam,” Mizrahi said.
Rabbi Elana Zelony of Congregation Beth Torah noted that there is much more going on in the Conservative Jewish movement besides just rebranding.
For instance, she said, Rabbi William G. Gershon, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, visited France last week to meet with the Masorti rabbis in Europe to do a global campaign on what is needed in the movement.
Now a global community
“As a global community it’s important how we help each other,” Rabbi Zelony said. “It’s wonderful when a movement can hear the needs of its constituency and make changes to fit those needs.”
Between 1990 and 2013, the number of American Jewish adults who self-identify as Conservative dropped from about 1,460,000 to 962,000, according to an analysis by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.
Rabbi Michael Kushnick, assistant rabbi at Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano, said he is not personally focusing on the rebranding issue because his desire is to help congregants understand the beauty Judaism has to offer as well as the traditional aspects of Judaism and translate that to the modern day and age.
“I’m not really sure it matters what the rebrand is — whether you call it a different name or not, it is essentially still the way Judaism is meant to be lived in our life,” he said. “There is no changing that message with rebranding. Whether it is the Conservative moment or anything else, this is the most authentic way to practice Judaism for 2,000 years. Judaism is defined as living a life dedicated to practicing Jewish law and understanding the need to live among the times. That’s the way it has always been practiced.”
Howard Rubin, president of Anshai Torah’s board of directors, said he also has paid very little attention to what the USCJ is doing in “rebranding” Conservative Judaism. But he did have some thoughts on the years ahead.
“Here is what I do believe,” Rubin said in a written statement. “The future of Judaism will look more like our Conservative movement whether or not we call it that, or whether there is a United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, our governing body. Biblical Judaism is not Talmudic Judaism. Talmudic Judaism is not the 11th-century Judaism of Rashi. And modern-day Judaism will not be 16th-century Judaism of the Shulchan Aruch or its compiler, Joseph Karo. We have a dynamic movement that holds onto traditional notions of Jewish law, but is not afraid to apply the test of modernity to its practice and thought.”
Gail Mizrahi, meanwhile, said regardless of the Conservative movement’s rebranding campaign, a shul’s approach to Judaism should remain rooted in warmly, genuinely, and sensitively engaging with everyone.
Mizrahi said no matter the need of the individual, “it is my hope and the hope of our shul that Shearith Israel, whose doors have been open for more than 130 years, will feel welcoming to those who yearn for Jewish fellowship, to those who thirst for knowledge and truth, and to those who wish for a richer, fuller and more meaningful Jewish life.”
Some information used in this story was provided by the JTA.