It was on Sunday February 23, 1913 at 531 West 123rd Street in New York, that Dr. Solomon Schechter raised a call for unity and foresaw a United Synagogue that would encompass the entire continent.
Dr. Schechter considered The United Synagogue to be "the greatest bequest that I shall leave to American Israel." Today, it encompasses approximately 800 affiliated congregations, representing some 1.5 million members.
Called into being to implement certain key ideas, The United Synagogue has succeeded admirably in addressing several concepts: a) K'lal Yisrael (the whole of the Jewish community); b) a Jewry based on the North American experience; c) a Jewry related to modern living; d) a Jewry devoted to Torah, with education a major priority; and e) a Jewry normatively halachic.
Advice and guidance might be sought from rabbis and scholars in the Conservative Movement, but realization and achievement depended on the Jewish community -- the laypeople. As Dr. Schechter said,"the characteristic contribution of Judaism to the world is not its scholars or rabbis but its laity," so the history of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has reflected that view, expanding well beyond the imaginings of its founders, with synagogues rising up where none had been before and with the concomitant expansion of activities and services which new growth dictated. The United Synagogue has accomplished a great deal, encouraging participation and leadership from the grass roots up.
The oldest of all departments within The United Synagogue is the Department of Education, which was formed in the teen years of this century, and today boasts a substantial and creative program of supervision, standards, text books, curricula, and more. From a total of 4,481 children in 1914, the United Synagogue congregational religious school network numbered close to 110,000 students in 1996. Another of the department's major achievements has been the Solomon Schechter Day School system, a network of 68 schools throughout the continent with a combined enrollment of over 17,000 children. Additionally, the Education Commission has programs for Jewish adults, Jewish families and the needs of special children.
Another department with origins in the earliest years of the movement is the Department of Youth Activities, successor to the Young People's League organized in 1921. Reflecting The United Synagogue's total commitment to Jewish education, even beyond the classroom, the United Synagogue Youth, has equipped hundreds of thousands of young people to live as Jews. USY, the association of Conservative synagogue youth between ages 13 and 17, instills in young people a strong and lasting attachment to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and a deep sense of loyalty to the synagogue as the central institution of Jewish life.
Two extraordinarily successful USY summer projects are its USY on Wheels tours, which have provided thousands of youngsters with a "living Judaism" trip through North America, and USY Israel Pilgrimage, which has increased from 12 pilgrims in 1956 to nearly 600 in 1996. The pre-USY group, Kadima, supports a Youth Department credo that children are never too young to find Judaism a joyful experience.
Throughout its history, The United Synagogue has placed an importance on having all its synagogues observe Shabbat, the holidays, and kashrut; that, where applicable, they have schools for their children; that they abide by the regulations of the professional organizations which have developed; that they are halachically oriented (and, when changes are recommended by the Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, each congregation is free to accept them if and when they so decide); and that they conform to the standards established by The United Synagogue.
The concern for K'lal Yisrael could readily include all the goals of The United Synagogue. From an openness to diverse patterns of behavior within individual synagogues, to programming in response to the distressing social problems which beset us as human beings, the organization has expanded its horizons to meet the needs of the times.
The United Synagogue has been active for K'lal Yisrael in another sense, through protests and resolutions during the darkness of the Holocaust; through their efforts on behalf of Soviet and Syrian Jewry; and on all social issues that relate to world Jewry, cooperating with the major secular Jewish organizations which grapple specifically with such matters.
Always deeply committed to the Zionist dream of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, The United Synagogue created The Center for Conservative Judaism at 2 Agron Street in Jerusalem in 1972 in order to participate in that dream. For almost a quarter of a century, the Center has served as the address for many educational activities both for Jerusalemites and for visitors from abroad. In addition, the Center serves as the Israel headquarters for all USY Israel activities. As the USCJ embassy in Israel, the Center engages in outreach to Conservative Jewish students at Israeli universities and reaches out as well to visitors who come to tour, work, or celebrate a simcha. The United Synagogue Yeshiva, housed at the Center, provides a place for young people to engage in intensive Jewish study. The property at 6 Agron Street, adjacent to the Center, has now been acquired by The United Synagogue to be used for an Education Center and Youth Residence.
As an activist Jewish organization, it has established a tradition of reaching out to those in need, and new commissions are constantly being formed to address issues such as teen suicide, HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. Through its awareness of communal responsibility, adherence to religious observance and strong sense of commitment, The United Synagogue continues to move into the future as a dynamic force.