One chief executive will lead two arms of the Conservative movement as part of a new process of collaboration.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) since April 2019, will also serve as chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) effective July 1.
The partnership between the rabbinical group and congregational body follows a decade of reorganization within what was once the largest of the major American-Jewish denominations.
The RA and the USCJ, which have until now had separate professional leadership, agreed to deepen their partnership after 18 months of meetings between the two groups’ staff and lay leaders, according to Blumenthal.
(Since July 2019, Leslie Lichter has served as interim CEO of the USCJ, succeeding Rabbi Steve Wernick, who moved from Caldwell to assume spiritual leadership of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. Lichter will return to her previous position of chief operating officer. There have been no layoffs and no immediate staff changes are planned.)
The partnership is intended to “[break] down the walls between all the silos” of the centrist movement, including rabbis, cantors, congregations, and teachers, according to Ned Gladstein, international president of the USCJ, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues in North America. Gladstein lives in North Caldwell and is a member of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
Gladstein said that he has spent the past year “getting our own house in order” to be prepared to tackle new projects.
“We are stronger now than we have been in the last 10 years,” he said. “We proposed a balanced budget a year ago and it is likely that we will come in cash positive for the first time in over a decade. The United Synagogue has strengthened its staff and programming and we just announced a buying network that will save our congregations money. We are now in a position to be a solid partner to the RA and other organizations in the movement.”
Last December, the two groups held a joint convention. “At our next convention in Toronto, we want to partner with all [Conservative] organizations in North America that hold conventions — the Rabbinical Assembly, Women’s League, Men’s Club, the Cantors Assembly, the North American Association of Synagogue Executives, and the Jewish Educators Assembly,” said Gladstein. “We are all in the service of Judaism.”
Blumenthal noted that both of the organizations have moved their offices to different floors at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and that he will have work spaces at both.
“We share the same goal of bringing our version of Jewish life to more people in more places and in more ways,” he said. “In the 21st century, the model to get things done is to work as a team and in partnership. It is natural for synagogue leadership and rabbinic leadership to come together as partners to do that work.”
Blumenthal said there is still much work to be done.
“We need to create a staff and programs and structures to get that work done. We have established two joint teams — a joint steering committee with lay people from both organizations to help direct the partnership. And there will be a joint team at the staff level to work day-to-day to achieve our mission, which is to bring our version of Jewish life to more people in more places and in more ways.”
That includes reaching out to Jewish college students and 20-somethings who are now underserved, according to Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the RA.
She said she saw a tagline that summed it up perfectly: “More Torah for more people in more places.”
“We will be looking beyond the walls of the synagogue,” Kamin explained. “We are cognizant that a lot of Jewish people don’t come into the synagogue.” (The movement has about 600 congregations, down from a peak of 800 affiliated congregations in the late 1980s.)
One plan being discussed includes hiring rabbis trained to “reach out to young 20-somethings. … We are going to focus more on Torah, people, and places and what that would look like. We have a lot of entrepreneurial rabbis who are ready to do that work. And hopefully, when the 20-somethings grow up, they will become part of our movement.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.