United Synagogue Centennial: A Chance to Shape the Future of Conservative Judaism

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One of the more interesting critiques that I’ve heard from my congregants over the years surrounds what they perceive to be an overuse of the phrase yasher koach, “may you have strength.”

The argument is that it makes sense that if someone works hard to learn a Torah reading, we aught to extend "a hearty yasher koach,” but because we extend the same praise to a person for opening up the ark, we effectively trivialize the expression.

However, I explain that yasher koach is not really an expression of praise, but a statement of encouragement to keep striving. While the literal meaning of the expression is “may you continue straightway (on the right path) with strength,” it is not meant as a pat on the back, rather as if to say, "Great, that was a nice start. Now, what’s next? Where will you go from here?"

This week, I am joining 1,100 other Conservative Jewish lay leaders and clergy in Baltimore for the centennial celebration of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism www.uscj100.org and I hope that instead of wishing one another mazal tov, the sentiment that best captures this gathering will be understood through the meaning of the phrase yasher koach. Because, more than being a gathering to celebrate the past, it is vital that the Conservative Movement’s centennial be a celebration of the opportunity to change the future. The past 100 years were a nice start. But where do we go from here?

The results of the Pew Forum Study may have finally created the sense of urgency among my colleagues and our movement's lay leadership that we have been looking for. Perhaps United Synagogue CEO and Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Wernick conveyed this sense of urgency best when he said, "We have high aspirations for our Centennial," describing it as the big RESET button for United Synagogue, and, by extension, Conservative Judaism.  To me, this means that this week the Conservative Movement must work together to figure out what is yashar, the smoothest path to follow. We must recognize that we cannot be all things to all people. And then, we must commit to mustering all of the koach, the strength that we will need to commit to our vision, or otherwise risk becoming obsolete for the next generation of American Jews.

In a polarizing society of government shut downs, it would seem that Conservative Judaism's message of moderation should remain theoretically compelling for young Jews. Unfortunately, it is just not enough to claim to be the movement of moderation if we cannot be a movement that also inspires passion. How we should inspire passion going forward is clear: by making worship more compelling, communities more accessible, and by presenting a brand of Judaism that is authentic and vibrant in the eyes of American Jews.

The road ahead is hard. But if the centennial conversation is successful, by the conclusion of this week we will have put into motion a process and plan that will alter the way business is done going forward.

Along with looking forward, this week is a time to extend one another a yasher koach for the tremendous impact Conservative Judaism has had on American Jewish life over the past century. Our youth movement, USY, and our Ramah summer camps remain top-notch and innovative programs (full disclosure: the author's wife works for USY in New York). Our scholars of Torah and theologians of the past century - from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan to Rabbi Joel Roth and Rabbi Neil Gilman - continue to be first-rate. Our Masorti Movement in Israel is further gaining acceptance in Israeli society and has built communities around the world.

As we acknowledge these strengths and plan for the future, I look forward to learning this week about how we can continue to shape a movement that our community will extend a yasher koach to 100 years from now.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.

We must muster all our strength to commit to our vision, or otherwise risk becoming obsolete for the next generation of American Jews.Credit: Dreamstime

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