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Conservative Movement's Annual Convention, Washington, D.C.

The Conservative Movement convened recently at the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel. It was a joint convention of its branches: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Jewish Educators Assembly, North American Association of Synagogue Executives, Cantors Assembly. Rabbi Jerome Epstein was the keynote speaker.

There were many distinguished guests who attended this convention. The following are some reports based on the convention 2002 daily report (Ed: Rudarich):

1. Joint Session: Jewish Education. Rabbi Paul Schneider, President of the Jewish Educators Assembly, spoke of the growth of the organization, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. He then introduced guest speakers Dr. David Ackerman and Dr. Saul Wachs. Dr. Ackerman stated that the rise of day schools is an ideological statement that the 'outside' and 'inside' worlds can be integrated and that this is a positive thing. They spoke of the pressures to which our children are subjected and noted that our schools must provide safety and security, serving as sanctuaries in which outside pressures can be left behind. Noting that religion describes the transcendent, or the way the world ought to be, he said that schools must help children imagine the transcendent and learn how to live in relation to it.

Dr. Wachs listed different kinds of authentic Jewish spirituality (pietistic, intellectual, aesthetic, behavioristic) and noted that whichever one speaks to an individual, the common thread is depth. He went on to note that if young people "shut down" during tefilah, it is because of what was not done when they were little. The golden years for nurturing spirituality is when children are very young.

The most important task of Jewish education is to create a climate of safety, he said. Otherwise, people cannot learn. We must start by providing an atmosphere of comfort, which relates to competence. Otherwise, "spectators" will become frustrated, angry, and resentful. He affirmed the need for "transitional moments" to help ease the individual into a caring community. He suggested, for example, that students might enter and leave a service singing a niggun. Further, silence and meditation can be added to the service. Techniques of meditation include repeating words, walking meditation and emptiness, freeing our minds from bad thoughts. Dr. Wachs said a service is not a "Hebrew literacy drill." We should be careful about the corrections we make. He added that young people learn by attention to details. We should not stress relativism in teaching halakhah but rather strive for precision and care.

2 Breaking Out. Below are highlights from several breakout groups held following plenaries:

In "Building Sacred Communities," Dr. Ron Wolfson was introduced as a visionary in Jewish education, known for his enthusiasm in bringing Judaism alive in homes and synagogues. Dr. Wolfson is currently Director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He emphasized that everyone who works in the synagogue, lay leaders and staff, is an ambassador. There is a need to build a congregation that is member friendly. It is not about programs but about relationships. He commented that greeting members both old and new and prospective at the "front door" is really a mitzvah and there is an obligation to reach in and out of the congregational walls. Welcoming members includes asking the following questions: What are your talents? Where has your "Jewish journey" brought you? What are you passionate about?

Rabbi Avis Miller led a breakout session on Keruv as it relates to the programs that are available to the intermarried couples in her synagogue, Adas Israel, Washington, DC. The eight session Jewish Literacy program is taught by the Rabbi, attracting non-affiliated, non-educated Jews as well as the intermarried. She mentioned that we need to encourage Jews to marry Jews, but if a Jew decides to marry a non-Jew, we need to encourage the non-Jewish partner to convert. If the partner does not convert, we need Keruv, where we "in-reach." Congregants with little Jewish background who want to explore their Jewish identity are invited to participate as well, as are those who want to refresh their memories of what they learned in Hebrew school. Rabbi Miller stated that it is difficult to raise a Jewish child among intermarried parents - as it is difficult enough when both parents are Jewish. The highest rate of intermarriage occurs when the children have intermarried parents. In order to make the non-Jewish spouse Jewish, we need to integrate these couples with other Jews. She stated that support groups are not effective. If we separate these couples, they end up defining themselves as intermarried and possibly deciding to never convert. If a congregation cannot meet the intermarried couples' needs, we need to remember that the tone of voice we use is crucial. Saying "no" does not have to be a turn-off.

3. Getting on Track. Margie Pomerantz, Immediate Past President, Beth David, Saratoga, California, and SULAM graduate, presented their congregation's program "Yoetz Ne'eman, The Faithful Guide." She explained that at the 1999 Biennial Convention, she was motivated by Rabbi Epstein's presentation "From Synagogue Center to Synagogue Mentor." This presentation inspired Margie to develop their own mentoring program. Working with her congregation's clergy and various volunteers, they developed a grant proposal which resulted in funding for this project from the Koret Foundation. One third of the three-year program is funded by their synagogue.

In the Liturgy and Spirituality Track, Nina Beth Cardin pointed out the difference between formal and informal prayer. Even in the formal liturgy, she noted, there is some room for personal prayer. She stated that communal prayer forces you to get away from the self. We need community but we also need time for the self. The group then made up a collective list detailing several ingredients of personal prayer. It was noted that there are many more recorded examples of women's personal prayers than there are prayers for men. Regarding the issue 'When do we pray?', it was suggested that we pray when we need something and we have no control. Another reason to pray is to ask God, "Let me understand. Hannah's Prayer offers an argument to God. You create nothing in vain. Everything has a purpose, humans multiply. So grant me a child. (You set up the rules of creation.) This example shows you can get a little bit "tough" with God. The voice is not always self-denigrating.

In the Synagogue as Community Conscience Track, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, asked the question, "What goes on in a synagogue?" From the office to the pulpit, from the business to the ritual, from the individual to the family, it is the single and collective relationships that are important. He noted that the synagogue can create a quality of life for its members by making it a place to come for all the right reasons, for making everyone Kadosh, holy, and for being a model for the community. Synagogues must be viewed as a second home, and they must treat the elderly with compassion and respect. We can create a holy synagogue community by modeling behavior, dress, language, and generosity of money, time and word.

4. The President of the United Synagogue. Today was a special day for the United Synagogue, as we installed our 24th International President, Judy Yudof, Congratulations to Judy, to her officers and to the entire organization.

In her acceptance speech. Ms. Yudof stated "I believe that the synagogue is the institution that can and will ensure Jewish continuity. And I believe that The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism can and must play an integral role in ensuring that our affiliated synagogues have the tools to carry out this most important agenda." She also made reference to the Vision Statement approved by the Board this past June: "The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism promotes the role of the synagogue in Jewish life in order to motivate Conservative Jews to perform mitzvoth encompassing ethical behavior, spirituality, Judaic learning, and ritual observance."

Said the new USCJ President: "During the time that I was seeking the nomination to be your President, I was asked if I could articulate an independent and personal vision statement for United Synagogue. Here is how I responded: I envision an organization that represents the laity of the Conservative Movement and is respected and admired by its affiliates, by its professional staff, by its lay volunteers, and by the other arms of the Movement. I envision an organization that is service oriented and that teaches by example rather than by edict. I envision an organization that is responsive to the evolving needs and issues facing Conservative Jews. I envision an organization that we are proud to claim as our own and to leave as our legacy to the next generation."

The USCJ also adopted a number of important resolutions. For the text of these resolutions, contact crane@uscj.org.

These reports are only examples of the discussions of this distinguished convention. The Jewish Theological Seminary did not participate in this 2002 convention.


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