Rabbi Steven Wernick (left), Rabbi Shalom Schachter
By GERRY POSNER

On February 8, 2019, a piece of history appeared before my eyes, although this little moment might never have been noticed by most people in the synagogue service at Beth Tzedec Synagogue that Shabbat morning. As I sat in the chapel looking at the bimah, in front of me were two rabbis - the newest member of the Beth Tzedec clergy: Rabbi Steven Wernick and another rabbi who has been with Beth Tzedec as an interim rabbi for several years now, Rabbi Shalom Schachter. On the face of it, that there are two rabbis in the same space for a service on a given Shabbat might not be that surprising.

 

 

Yet, these two rabbis had a significant detail related to their lives (and indeed related to each of them) that is uncommon in the Conservative movement: their respective fathers. Although there are no doubt many situations in the Orthodox world where sons have followed the trail of their fathers into the rabbinical fold, I would suggest that  in the Conservative world, it is most uncommon. Still, on this particular day, there were Rabbis Wernick and Schachter, both of whom had fathers who were earlier versions of Rabbis Wernick and Schachter. In fact, Rabbi Wernick’s father, Rabbi Eugene Wernick, is still in the pulpit as the rabbi at Or Olam, the East 55th Street synagogue in New York.


Who were these four men? For starters, Rabbi Eugene Wernick has had a long career as a rabbi with time spent in Canada and the U.S. as the senior rabbi at a few locations. He completed his university at  City College in New York, where he was a magna cum laude graduate. From there he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received his rabbinic s’michah, as well as his masters and  PhD (honoris causis) degrees. His greatest strengths were in his teaching , pastoral care and most notably, his community outreach. Rabbi Wernick the elder has been involved throughout his entire career in inter-faith programs and work in the prison systems. He is also author of the book, “Gateway to the Kaballah”, published in 2016.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter, later Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi, of blessed memory, was and still remains a figure well known around the rabbinical world, particularly in the Lubavitch Chabad community, and more latterly within Jewish Renewal movements. The learned rabbi was known by most people as Reb Zalman. Some have said he was the most influential Jewish change-maker of his time. It is a fact that it was his ideas and contribution that led to the creation of the Renewal movement, and indeed the Havurah movement. Aside from all that, he was instrumental in what might be termed as the interfaith and eldering wisdom movements. He was a controversial figure in the Lubavitch world as he admittedly strayed from their course to chart new directions for what he saw as a Judaism that must be willing to bend. He had a profound effect on likely thousands of people, particularly students who sat at his feet listening to his every word.
From these two established and significant figures in the Judaic world came two sons who followed their father’s careers, albeit in ways that are not as obvious as it seems. One might have expected that the boys, surrounded by Judaism every day of their respective lives, would well be prepared to join the rabbinic realm. In addition, they arguably were genetically programmed to cleave to the rabbinate. In fact, neither boy took to the clergy immediately... far from it.


Although raised in a traditional Jewish home, the younger Wernick did not pursue his Judaism seriously until he was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was there that he was inspired to delve into  Judaism much more deeply than before. Subsequently, in Israel he was moved to further his Jewish studies and ultimately seek a career in the rabbinate just as his father had done. Moreover, he became so immersed in the rabbinate that he left the pulpit to be the head of the global Conservative movement, where he was its leader for nine and a half years. In this past decade, beginning in 2009, Rabbi Steven Wernick headed the Conservative movement as the CEO through years of upheaval  during which memberships in synagogues dininished dramatically. During his time at USCJ, he created a new brand identity for the movement, developed change leaderships programs, increased governance and operational effectiveness and the network’s ability to share and support itself dramatically. He also represented the movement in Israel, advocating for Jewish religious pluralism in the Jewish state and negotiating the Kotel Deal - still waiting for implementation. It was from this position that Reb Steve, as he is known, joined Beth Tzedec, perhaps the largest Conservative congregation in North America as its senior rabbi.

For Shalom Schachter, the path to the pulpit was even more circuitous. Shalom was the oldest son of Reb Zalman. He is one of a small group of people who has a law degree as well as s’michah. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba law school and, it was following completion of his studies there that he moved to Ontario and became a full practising lawyer in Ontario. After his call to the Bar in 1981, he was counsel to the Nurses Union from 1981 to October 2008, and then counsel to another group for the next five years until leaving full time positions in law in 2013. Although Shalom had begun rabbinic studies in Montreal as a teenager, also later in Israel, it was not until 2005 that he received his ordination from ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. As he puts it, he did not hear “the call” to the rabbinate immediately. But once he became a rabbi, he served in communities across Ontario, in Montreal and with synagogues in Toronto, including Beth Tikvah, Beth Sholom and now Beth Tzedec, where he is an interim rabbi. Schachter’s rabbinical perspective, combined with his legal background, has been put into practice in his pursuit of social justice as the representative of the Toronto Board of Rabbis to various interfaith social policy advocacy groups.


The similarities between the younger Rabbis Schachter and Wernick are clear. Yet, they have one other aspect to their respective lives linking them together which is not so well known. That is, both have connections to the city of Winnipeg. If you asked either of them where they grew up, the answer would be Winnipeg. There are many years in age separating the men, yet both had their formative years spent on the Prairies.
Thus, as I sat in synagogue that Shabbat morning looking at both of these men, I reflected on the fact that I was repeating history in an unlikely way. That is because I had been in two synagogues in Winnipeg with their respective fathers during a period when they had served as rabbis. As a child, I went from time to time with my father to the Lubavitch Synagogue (which shul my grandfather helped to build) where Rabbi Zalman Schachter would lead services. Later, at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue where my family belonged all my life, I witnessed Rabbi Eugene Wernick for a period of over seven years between 1979 and 1986 when he was the senior rabbi. In fact, he officiated at my father’s funeral in 1981. It was, therefore, not so surprising that I was so taken by the sight and thought of the two sons of the fathers of my past coming together. Of course, as my brother reminds me, my moment of history and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee.