WASHINGTON -- Judy Yudof takes over as the first female president of a group representing 800 Conservative Jewish synagogues as it seeks to better define its position between the strict Orthodox and more lenient Reform.
"I believe that the synagogue is the institution that can and will ensure Jewish continuity," she says. "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."
Yudof, 56, St. Paul, Minn., was installed Wednesday night by the organization at the end of a five-day conference that aimed to reinvigorate the movement.
Yudof's husband, Mark Yudof, is president of the University of Minnesota. He attended her installation ceremony, along with Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.
'I think it's very difficult for us to articulate, or for most people to articulate, what the Conservative movement is. We live within parameters of what is appropriate behavior for a Jew, but beyond that we are willing to be interpretive and not take everything as it's written as black letter law.' -- Judy Yudof President of Conservative Jewish group
Conservative Judaism has worked for years to provide opportunities for women that the Orthodox do not, counting women toward a "minyan" -- the minimum number of people needed for a full prayer service -- and ordaining female rabbis starting in the 1980s. The Reform have ordained women since the 1970s.
In Yudof's installation ceremony, United Synagogue stuck with its tradition for new presidents, presenting her with a "tallit," or prayer shawl, which is customarily worn by men.
She said she was pleased that her appointment would draw attention to gender equality in the Conservative branch, but she said her goals were broader for her four-year term.
"I envision an organization that is responsive to the evolving needs and issues facing Conservative Jews," she said.
As a former regional representative for United Synagogue, she has worked to create links among congregations in isolated areas with small Jewish communities. Several speakers at this week's conference, the first joint meeting of the top five Conservative organizations, felt the movement was not doing enough to support new synagogues in areas where Jews have been migrating, such as the South and West.
The Conservative branch is the most popular form of Judaism among American Jews who join synagogues, but the movement expects its rolls to shrink in the years ahead.
Yudof feels Conservative Judaism must find a better way to explain its beliefs. The movement obeys most traditions, while allowing innovation. But the gap between Conservative and Reform practice has narrowed, as Reform Jews embrace traditions they once rejected, such as worshipping in Hebrew.
"I think it's very difficult for us to articulate, or for most people to articulate, what the Conservative movement is," Yudof said. "We live within parameters of what is appropriate behavior for a Jew, but beyond that we are willing to be interpretive and not take everything as it's written as black letter law."
Yudof's appointment is the most recent in a series of historic leadership changes in U.S. religious organizations. Last year, the Unitarian Universalist Association named its first black president, the Rev. William Sinkford. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also elected its first black president, Bishop Wilton Gregory.
Yudof, who has worked for years in human service organizations for the mentally ill, succeeds Stephen Wolnek, who is ending his term.
On the Net:
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: http://www.uscj.org/
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.