The sound of children’s voices: Top, second graders at the United Synagogue Day School, Toronto in 1962, and bottom, at the USCJ Biennial in 2009.
FROM OCTOBER 11–15, 2013, a broad representation of the leadership and laity of Conservative/Masorti Judaism will converge on the beautiful Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel for a gala celebration that marks the beginning of United Synagogue’s second century of life.
The program-packed event will feature addresses, plenary sessions, lectures, and workshops led by luminaries of religious life, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, well-known authors, pundits, heads of organizations, and public figures. Many presentations will be in the syle of Limmud, the international Jewish learning and culture initiative whose events have energized the Jewish world. The spirit of collaborative learning will pervade the convention hall.
Organizers hope to draw a multi-generational audience from across the broad spectrum of Jewish life, especially from the numerous kehillot that United Synagogue serves and the various institutions under the rubric of Conservative Judaism.
“The milestone mark of 100 years is a catalyst for committed Conservative Jews to own the privilege and responsibility of standing at the epicenter of contemporary Jewish life,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of USCJ. “Our Centennial Celebration is a step directly into the future of Conservative Judaism at this critical moment in time. Everyone and anyone who has a stake in building and sustaining a strong and vibrant Jewish identity – personal, institutional and otherwise – will want to be at this gathering to learn, connect, share ideas and skills, and be inspired.”
United Synagogue’s Centennial Celebration will honor the impact of Conservative Judaism in its first 100 years and launch the next phase of growth for United Synagogue as those gathered envision the future of Conservative Judaism.
For those come on Friday, October 11, the Centennial Celebration will begin with a Shabbaton filled with reunions and ruach. Keynote events on Sunday will honor the people and kehillot who are integral to the history of United Synagogue.
Plenary sessions on Monday and Tuesday will focus on building kehilla – sacred community – now and in the future. The sessions will pose questions about the implications of reaching the 100-year milestone – on an organizations level – and the manner in which individuals connect with one another in our modern age.
Mezuzah hanging through the years: In 1974, JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen and United Synagogue staff gathered to hang the mezuzah at the new offices at 155 Fifth Avenue in New York City. In 2007,USCJ’s congregational schools consultant Wendy Light, left, affixed a mezuzah with her husband, Ivan, and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Sharon Brous.
In addition, there will be opportunities for consultations with United Synagogue specialists and selected consultants, a launch of new projects and cohorts for the next phase of United Synagogue’s strategic plan, and programs to highlight the innovation and creativity of kehillot around the continent.
Workshops that follow the plenary sessions will deepen the conversations and questions that come from the plenaries.
There are three major topics for workshops: Identity Formation – People and Peoplehood; Identity Formation – Organizational; and Conservative Kehillot (Sacred Communities) 2020. Conference organizers anticipate that participants will discuss such pivotal questions as:
- What will it mean to be a Conservative Jew in the 21st century?
- Where will Conservative Jews be – in Israel and around the world?
- What will Conservative kehillot look like in the next hundred years?
- What will be the hallmarks of being “visionary” in the future?
- 100 years is too far to forecast. How do we envision the next seven years?
To attract a broad audience, the Centennial Celebration planners are doing targeted outreach to the various branches and organizations of Conservative Judaism as well as to alumni of the iconic institutions of the movement such as the Solomon Schechter Day School Network, USY, Camp Ramah, the various Israel programs, KOACH, and others.
Margo Dix Gold and Jack (Jacob) Finkelstein are serving as co-chairs of the Centennial Celebration committee. Members of the United Synagogue board, they both bring passion, vision and well-articulated goals to the table.
As a committee chair, Gold said that she cherishes “the license to be bold” and looks forward to groundbreaking programming and atmosphere at the Centennial Celebration. Having just concluded her presidency at Ahavath Achim in Atlanta, Gold was greatly inspired by the intrepid attitude of her kehilla as it implemented an ambitious strategic plan.
At Ahavath Achim, “No one put their hands on their hips and said, ‘we don’t it that way.’ We had a lot of fun. People knew things had to be different,” she said. “Also, when people asked me at the end of my presidency what I accomplished, I said that I had helped to change the tone of the congregation.”
Changing the tone of Conservative Judaism – which is all-too-often self-deprecating – is one of Gold’s core goals through the planning of the Centennial Celebration.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Hazzan Steven Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly; Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of USCJ; and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies participated in a panel discussion at United Synagogue’s 2009 biennial.
For Finkelstein, his previous work as United Synagogue’s vice president for strategic planning and co-chair of the USCJ-HaYom Strategic Planning Commission, in addition to other organizational leadership positions, inspired him to work on the Centennial Celebration. “Being on that commission was a transformational moment for me,” he said. “A group of brilliant people sat for 18 months and deliberated. We formed a group mind, like what we’re doing now with the Centennial. We had a common goal.”
One of the common goals was the creation of a watershed Centennial Celebration to bring together the leadership and laity of United Synagogue and the contemporary Conservative Jewish world. “We discussed the fact that in 2013, United Synagogue would be 100 years old. This was the perfect opportunity to turn the corner, to embrace a new plan and the future,” he said.
Finkelstein envisions the Centennial Celebration as a “memorable, meaningful ingathering of kehillot. In my wild vision of all of this, we will create a mega-network where someone from Savannah, Georgia, meets someone from San Jose, California. The Centennial can be where we create sister kehillot, where we truly connect by building bridges across the continent,” he said.
As a scientist, he sees unrelated tracks and makes them coherent, he explained. Though United Synagogue is implementing a farreaching strategic plan, there are people out in the rest of North America who are not living it, or even seeing it. The Centennial is a chance for them to live it and to see it.
“Steve [Wernick] and the board are really committed to excellence,” said Gold. This gives her confidence that the Centennial Celebration will be a stellar event. “You bring people to a gathering to be inspired not just by what they’re hearing but by the people around them. My goal is that when they leave, they will have learned something valuable, not just for their kehilla but also for themselves; they will have learned something, met someone, heard something that makes them feel uplifted, that will serve as personal inspiration to them long after the celebration,” she said.
“We’re on a boat sailing to the future and United Synagogue is the navigator or lighthouse, illuminating the way forward,” quipped Finkelstein.