The USCJ Strategic Plan trilogy part 4: Comments on the final plan

One more from ImproveUSCJ:

The USCJ strategic planning committee received comments regarding the draft strategic plan and released the final version of the strategic plan yesterday. I figure this was worth another commentary summarizing the changes and my major concerns.

The USCJ board is scheduled to take a yes/no vote on the plan this Sunday. Despite serious flaws, I strongly suspect it will be approved simply because a “no” vote might cause a rapid collapse of the organization. If I had a vote, I’d seriously consider voting “no” both because I think the plan takes USCJ in some damaging directions or non-directions and I suspect the shake-up from the collapse might actually bring about some better institutions. I recognize that would be a radical step that would risk damaging some successful parts of USCJ. This is a risk that board members might not be willing to take. Still, I’m worried that a “yes” vote would lead to a more gradual collapse of USCJ that could bring successful programs, like USY, down with it and would cause more damage to the movement in the long run.

The first clear change in the plan is that it has a new supertitle, “VeAsu Li Mikdash” (And let them make me a sanctuary…). I suspect this addition is intended to emphasize that synagogues are still central to an organization that will now serve “kehilot.” Several other changes, including an additional priority to re-engage synagogues that left USCJ, support this interpretation. I think this phase is also, unintentionally, a beautiful summary of my critiques of the plan. They cut off the rest of the sentence “VeShachanti BeTocham” (…that I may dwell among them). The plan clearly focuses on the imperative to build and support synagogues and institutions, but the purpose of those institutions is an unwritten afterthought. While the plan charts out what’s necessary to keep USCJ alive, I still have no clue what USCJ sees as its role in the Conservative movement and the larger Jewish community. Why are we supposed to build this sanctuary?

This lack of vision is highlighted by some of the changes to the strategic plan. There’s a lot of text making clear that USCJ can no longer view itself as a content creator. It needs to connect groups and collaborate for content creation. That’s why it confuses me that, “USCJ will provide kehillot with programmatic and managerial resources,” was added to the final plan. USCJ can be both a collaborator and a creator, but it doesn’t have the staff or budget for both priorities, and it seems like they are unwilling to accept that they can’t do everything. They talk about core focuses and the need to prioritize, but it’s unclear what those core focuses practically mean, who gets to decide what is or is not core, and what is done in-house vs. collaboratively. This uncertainty of mission is also observable in little changes. For example most of the instances where draft plan said “USCJ needs to” do something have now been changed to “USCJ should” do something. Even taking the plan’s goals at face value, they are afraid to clearly state what needs to be done.

On a positive note, the draft plan didn’t give a clear vision of USCJ’s role in adult learning. The plan now says “While the emphasis here is on reforming the educational system for children, this strategic plan recognizes the importance of adult learning and the need to sustain a culture of lifelong Jewish learning. There are many sound programs available for adult learning, which should be encouraged. The greatest need, however, is in re-imagining the educational system for our children.” Agree or not, it’s one example of a clear priority for the organization while still recognizing needs it might not be able to meet itself. Regarding education, they also added a direct reference to “Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today (Avi Chai Foundation, 2005)” as a model for their education plans. That document talks about the need to focus on identifying and collaborating to meet common educational needs rather than fighting over which organizations get ownership of ideas. Good things can happen if they take that to heart. (As a starting suggestion the executive director of TaL AM would be glad to collaborate with USCJ on Hebrew language curricula.) On a negative note, their goal of having their “blue-ribbon” education panel develop a plan in 3-5 years has completely lost that time limit. There’s a real fear of committing to anything specific.

I was also glad to see them alter their plans for college students. The new version essentially says they don’t know how to pay for it or what they’re supposed to do, but they recognize a direct Conservative presence on college campuses is important. They plan to keep Koach running until the movement figures out something better. Oddly the to-do list at the end of the document still calls for a Koach reorganization in July 2011. I don’t know if they are still planning major changes or just forgot to remove this sentence from the plan.

One of the more surprising changes relates to how they view their relationship to non-denominational communities. I was so intrigued by their desire to become “a nexus for serious, post-denominiational Judaism,” that I focused an entire section of my commentaries envisioning what USCJ would look like if they seriously meant this. Assuming they read it, I guess they didn’t like my vision because they expunged this sentence from the final plan. Reading the plan as a whole, it is now very clear that they are only interested in engaging unaffiliated communities (i.e. indy minyanim) if there’s a potential for them to affiliate. They might ask a few indy minyan leaders to join a focus group or fill out a survey, but they won’t be partners in expanding the numbers of Conservative-friendly communities unless those communities are willing to call themselves Conservative. Sadly, the plan still doesn’t present a compelling rationale or mechanism for minyanim to affiliate with USCJ, even if they wanted to. This is a major lost opportunity.

I was also disappointed to see that they refused to reassess their fundraising plans. Several commentators, including me, were very critical of their plan to sell most of their lay leadership positions to people who can donate or raise at least $10,000 per year. As I wrote before, I feel this was included because they couldn’t create a rational for large donations without selling leadership positions. Assuming they find 30 people who are willing to buy those board seats, this will do immense damage to USCJ’s ability to attract new voices into its volunteer ranks and leadership.

It was recently occurring to me that I’ve written many emails, using both my real name and this pseudonym, to USCJ leaders over the past several years. When I’ve written as a representative of an organization, or when a USCJ board member forwards my email, I’ve gotten replies from USCJ professionals. Until yesterday, when I got a response after noticing a missing website link, I have never had a personal reply from any USCJ professional. I never got a personal reply after sending several emails to the 4tomorrow@uscj.org address. Months after I sent emails to that address and after the draft plan was released, I got a form response that they were starting to look at comments and will send them to the appropriate people. I doubt this only happened to me. Sadly, they look at this planning process as a communications success. The plan states, “The new USCJ’s potential lies in its ability to create settings where all kinds of leaders can come together and work together for the improvement of Conservative Judaism. The strategic planning commission that produced this document models the kind of cooperation we envision and know to be possible.” Considering entire constituencies (college students, Fuchsberg Center users, etc.) were shocked at never being consulted about basic elements of the plan that would affect them, I seriously wonder what the planners were thinking when they wrote that sentence.

In the end, I suspect that the selling of leadership positions combined with a complete inability to engage new voices and volunteers at even the most basic level will doom USCJ to irrelevancy as new generations of Jews create or find other organizations that want their volunteer time and leadership skills. Regardless of the vote on this plan, this inability to engage new voices and volunteers is the main issue that I think USCJ needs to reconsider if it doesn’t want to collapse in less than a decade.

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik