Spring 2007

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Spring 2007

New President Urges Commitment to Zionism

urgesDeclaring himself a Zionist, fifty years after his first visit to Israel, Dr. Stephen S. Wolnek, a former president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was elected MERCAZ President at the biennial General Council meeting held in December. Topping the slate of officers and board members elected for a two-year term, Wolnek, who has served as a Vice President of both MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, succeeds Rabbi Vernon Kurtz who has held the top position since 2002.

A civil engineer by training, Wolnek has had a long history of service to the Conservative Movement. Besides holding the top elected positions on the New York regional and North American levels of the United Synagogue, he was president of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County and has served as a board member of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, the National Ramah Commission and the World Council of Conservative Synagogues.

Although he had spent a year in Israel in 1955 as a participant in the Machon Program, had attended the last three World Zionist Congresses and was now serving as a Vice President of the Jewish National Fund and Chair of the Israel and International Affairs Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Wolnek described in his acceptance address that it was only now that he could fully declare himself to be a Zionist because of his personal identification with the Zionist cause:

  • "Too many Jews think about Israel as something separate and apart from their own lives. Many Jews love Israel and want to help Israel, but Israel is something 'over there', and supporting Israel, through financial contributions and even political activism, becomes a way to help a distant, though beloved, relative. Others look at Israel in utilitarian terms and see it primarily as a vehicle for combating our own problems here in the Diaspora, such as intermarriage and assimilation."

  • "But a Zionist supports Israel because of a personal identification with Israel as the center of the Jewish People and the symbol of the unity of all Jews, so that helping Israel is at one and the same time a way of helping oneself and all Jews everywhere. In accepting the presidency of MERCAZ USA, I have put my 'I' in 'Zionism' and urge all Conservative Jews to join with me."

  • The General Council's keynote speaker was Dr. Hanan Alexander, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa and Chair of the Executive Committee at the Masorti Movement's Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem. Dr. Alexander, who received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and his doctorate in education from Stanford University before making aliyah in 1999, spoke about the related missions of MERCAZ USA and the Schechter Institute. As he put it, it is the job of MERCAZ to "zionize" the Diaspora while Schechter's responsibility is to "judaize" Israel.

  • The biennial MERCAZ event also was an opportunity to thank and congratulate Rabbi Vernon Kurtz for his tenure as president for the past four years. In a letter from Dr. David Breakstone, Head of the World Zionist Organization's Department of Zionist Activities and MERCAZ Olami Representative on the Zionist Executive, Rabbi Kurtz was praised for successfully "position[ing] MERCAZ as a unifying force within Conservative Jewry leading up to the [Zionist] Congress."


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