The third part of this three part post turned out to be rather long, so I will post it in three smaller chunks, so that people are able to comment on its various parts with better ease.
The USCJ Strategic Plan, Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be
Any useful long-term plan needs to be a bit idealistic. In my mind, USCJ’s strategic plan was a bit too heavy on the idealism with very little vision or practical conception of how to get there. Here, I’ve taken the ideals already in the USCJ strategic plan and tried to envision what an organization would need to look like to possibly reach some of these goals. I humbly acknowledge that my ideas have their own leaps of logic and limitations and could receive similar criticisms to those I’ve thrown around. Then again, I’m not consultant who spent a year and charged $30,000 to write up USCJ’s actual strategic plan. Even if USCJ collapses, perhaps this could be part of a discussion of how other large Jewish institutions interact with the broader communities they serve.
I’m going to try to divide the challenges/goals of USCJ into three main categories: (1) Becoming a “nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism” and Conservative movement regrowth, (2) Improve Conservative Jewish education (particularly pre-college education), and (3) Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities.
Nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism and Conservative movement regrowth
The strategic plan talked a lot of about working with various non-movement communities, like independent minyanim, and perhaps bringing some of them into the movement. I don’t think USCJ cares precisely about creating a healthy post-denominational network. I also doubt that the ideas listed in the strategic plan: giving consulting, technical, and financial support to independent communities, are especially useful to those communities. These are nice in theory and may be worth trying, but I just don’t see USCJ successfully creating value-added resources for these communities given its own limited resources. That said, USCJ could pay attention to independent community leaders as sources for the next generation of USCJ staff. Letting great leaders turn their passion into a profession can bring in people who have the skills to benefit affiliated and unaffiliated communities.
This also leaves us asking what it would mean to be a useful “nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism.” Any successful plan needs to focus on what the movement gains from collaborations. It is in the best interest of the movement to increase the number of locations where a Conservative Jews can practice and where unaffiliated Jews actively participate in communities that fit within Conservative philosophy. Whether those communities consider themselves Conservative is barely relevant. Compared to traditional synagogues, indy minyanim require relatively little money and time to create. They can and do appear in areas where success isn’t definite. In other cases, they appear in areas with existing synagogues, but will experiment with different styles of community to see what brings people in. Innovations in these communities can spread to other Conservative or unaffiliated communities. (As I write this, I’m realizing this sounds a bit like the Chabad model, except with even lower start-up costs for each site and no zealous central authority.) Most importantly for the movement, many successful independent minyanim become places where Conservative Jews can find sacred communities.
I do not think it is worthwhile to anguish over whether various indy minyanim do or do not formally affiliate with the movement. Make affiliation possible; try to create real benefits for indy minyans to affiliate. But the potential few thousand dollars of affiliation dues won’t be worth as much as the volunteer-time, energy, and additional places to pray and learn that could be gained by non-judgmentally collaborating with independent communities with common goals.
Before this is shot down as overly idealistic, according to the most recent public budget 48% of USCJ revenue comes from dues and another 42% comes from programs. USCJ is already committing to shrinking the percent of revenue from dues. Thus, the program-based revenue becomes more important. Many of the programs that bring in revenue are restricted to affiliated congregations, but could be of value to many others. This doesn’t make sense to me. By opening up programs, like USY and other youth programs, to anyone who wants to pay for them, you don’t just bring more children into a Conservative education; you bring in income that can make these programs better. Perhaps unaffiliated families or communities would need to pay a bit more, and perhaps participation in these programs might encourage independent communities to affiliate, but that’s secondary to giving more children access to these successful programs. The same goes for self-funding non-youth programs like the Sulam leadership workshops. If they’re so popular with leaders within the movement, why not let leaders of unaffiliated communities or even leaders affiliated with other movements pay to attend? I’d even go as far as to suggest allowing unaffiliated congregations that want to hire a Rabbinical Assembly rabbi to pay a fee for access, as is done by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. The affiliation-as-entrance-fee model is no longer working for the Conservative movement.
The benefits of opening USCJ hosted programs to more communities comes at the cost of limiting the benefits of affiliation. It becomes much easier for dissatisfied synagogues to leave USCJ. That said, if the cost between buying into a host of programs and affiliating is minimal, the cost of affiliation is minimal. If a program isn’t appealing enough for congregations to use it, perhaps it shouldn’t be a major part of the USCJ budget. Programs that are clearly vital but can’t be supported by affiliation or programmatic dues are probably great targets for focused fundraising. If USCJ takes this path, success could benefit currently affiliated synagogues as well as other communities who could access these programs.
This concept also helps rebut the repeating melodrama about the decreasing number of families in USCJ affiliated congregations with new numbers and new ways to define success and identify weaknesses. Being able to respond to such articles with examples of where the movement is growing or Conservative-friendly programs are gaining strength allows for a new narrative. To go one step farther, the two articles linked above turn declines in USCJ affiliation into attacks on all non-Orthodox Judaism. Finding ways to push back on these attacks with solid numbers benefit all of us who value diverse Jewish practice.
I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com