Anachnu: Rabbi Steven Wernick

 

Rabbi Steven Wernick, second from left, met at Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego with (from left) Alan Goldenberg, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, and Bill Sperling.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, second from left, met at Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego with (from left) Alan Goldenberg, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, and Bill Sperling.

 

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – The chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism once almost gave up on God and religion after his stepmother died and he became estranged from his rabbi father.  However, Rabbi Steven Wernick added in an interview that through its outreach, the caring Jewish community of Minneapolis helped him as a teenager to get over his grief and his anger and brought him back to Judaism.  He also reconciled with his dad, Rabbi Eugene Wernick, who today is spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Olam in New York City

Steven Wernick’s stepmother had helped raise him from the time he was a young child, and he took her death very hard, the rabbi told San Diego Jewish World during a visit to Southern California.  This was the second wife from whom his father was widowed, yet his father continued in his duties as a pulpit rabbi, officiating on the bima as if his world had not also caved in.
“I had a period of time in which I was estranged from Judaism,” the New York based rabbinical executive related.  “It was because of the pain and the doubt of death at an early age, and the adolescent world view that I was just angry.  My father was a rabbi who had his own pain which I didn’t fully appreciate at that time.  My father is a rabbi, I see him up on the bima doing incredible things, and I didn’t get it.  So if he’s doing that, and he’s a rabbi, what kind of God is there?  I understand it better as an adult than I did as an adolescent.  But it was hard.”

As a student attending the University of Minnesota, and being estranged from his family, Wernick needed a job, and that is where the Jewish community came in.

“One day I get this message on my answering machine, and it is somebody from a local business who I had never heard of before in my life, who heard that I was looking for a job, and that I was a hard worker. He said I should call him,” Wernick recalled.  “So I called him, got a job, which was a full-time job, and by the time I became 21 years old, I was the merchandising manager of this automotive after-market company.  From 18 to 21, that is what I was doing while going to school full time.”

The wife of the owner of the company was best friends with the mother of one of Wernick’s USY friends.  “Like from Maimonides, rather than writing me a check, he gave me tzedakah—he taught me how to fish—that is, to work in a business setting.  And so here I am many years later and many of the skills that I learned during that period in college, I still use today for United Synagogue.

But being drawn back to Judaism involved far more than that.

“Well before Birthright, the Minneapolis Federation at that time was involved with Sarel—Volunteers for Israel—in which you could do volunteer work for the army or with a hospital.  When I was 19 or 20, my boss called me into his office and slid something across the table and said ‘this is for you; this is your ticket to Israel.  We are sending you because we think it is important for a young Jewish adult to have an experience in Israel.’ That was my first trip to Israel.  So  I went for three weeks and it was transformative.  I had the background, although I might have been a little bit disconnected because of family circumstances.  I remember standing at the Kotel, and my knees were buckling.  I remember being overwhelmed with all sorts of different emotions. I felt like generations of Jews past were holding me up.  I felt like my boss and his partners were holding me up.”

When he returned to Minneapolis, Wernick told the director of Hillel that he wanted to do something more for Israel, and started on campus an AIPAC chapter, today called Gopher PAC, after the University of Minnesota’s teams’ nicknames.  “I have been involved with AIPAC since then.”

Additionally, a Minneapolis synagogue offered him a job as a youth director, paying him well more than people in such positions normally earn.  He even got a $500 subsidy every year for college. One day an 8th grade girl named asked him a question about Hashkivenu, a prayer that is said every Friday night in most Conservative congregations.  She said she was under the impression that Jews don’t believe in a devil, yet the name of Satan appears in the Hebrew version of the prayer.  To answer her question, Wernick consulted the congregational rabbi and some books, which led him to even more study.

Eventually, he responded to the young lady that whereas in Christianity, Satan is perceived as a counterforce to God,  in the Jewish tradition Satan is an angel who works for God.  His role is to be the accuser.  But Satan does not seek world domination.  “We downplay the notion of Satan because Christianity plays it up,” he told her.

Having enjoyed the research, he plunged more deeply into the study of Jewish theology.  Upon graduation with a major in political science, he applied to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and spent two years there, a year studying in Israel, and a final year at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He was ordained in 1996, and served as an assistant rabbi and later an associate rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  Next he became the senior rabbi at Congregation Adath Israel in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, which is a Philadelphia suburb.

Having worked for a long time cumulatively in the southern New Jersey-northern Pennsylvania area, he was asked to coordinate for the region a program about Pesach to coincide with a King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute.  About 1,000 people attended, bringing Wernick to the attention of the United Synagogue.

Appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the United Synagogue in 2009, Wernick’s organization represents the 1.3 million American Jews who self-identify as members of the Conservative movement.  The United Synagogue provides Conservative synagogues across the country with ideas “to align their people, purse and program to a vision of Judaism in the world.”  In addition, Wernick said, “we help synagogues save money through economies of scale, group purchasing, casualty and liability insurance.”

Wernick also represents the Conservative movement within such organizations as the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Working with the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the organization of Conservative rabbis, “we work with the Israeli government on such issues as Jewish pluralism and egalitarianism.”

With so many topics needing his attention, it’s no wonder that Wernick likes to consult with his father, the older rabbi, on a regular basis.  Had the Minneapolis Jewish community not reached out to Wernick as a teenager, and drawn him in, Wernick may have walked down some other path.

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

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2 Responses to “Anachnu: Rabbi Steven Wernick”

  1. David Cahn says:

    So cool and inspiring. Meeting Rabbi Gastetner who started birthright was such an honor that even to type is a dream … Real pleased age has been extended to thirty. Maybe one day all ages? Old Jews are people too. Old lives matter.
    –David Cahn, St. Paul, Minnesota

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