Why would a new congregation join USCJ?

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. The Conservative movement’s health, particularly its synagogue arm, USCJ, is not great. My previous post focused on the suburbanization of Conservative Judaism. The rapid decline of USCJ-affiliated synagogues is partially due to the continuing decrease in the numbers of suburban Jews in the old Jewish population centers. In 2010, 659 synagogues were affiliated with USCJ. Now, there are 620. The decline isn’t surprising. When populations move, such as the current shifts away from the older suburbs, we expect synagogues to close or merge. The issue is what happens in the new Jewish population centers, whether they are in walkable suburban areas or cities. Where are the new Conservative communities? This Summer, I contacted several people within USCJ to ask about synagogues that have joined USCJ in the past few years. I was unable to get a precise number, but the communications staff with whom I corresponded could only think of three synagogues that recently joined. As best as I could tell, all three are older synagogues that changed affiliations or reaffiliated after a lapse. I don’t know of a single community that is less than 10 years old that has joined USCJ in the past 5 years. A movement that is losing synagogues due to de-suburbanization is one thing. A movement that hasn’t figured out how to get new communities to join has a serious problem.

As Jewschool readers well know, new Jewish communities are being created all the time. In theory, these communities might want to affiliate with the Conservative movement, but this hasn’t been happening. Here are three examples that hopefully highlight the movement’s gaps.

1. The decline of new USCJ-affiliated synagogues has happened along with the rise of independent minyanim and havurot. Thanks again to the shifts away from suburbia, these communities often appear in neighborhoods with large, young Jewish communities, but no nearby synagogues (or no nearby egalitarian congregations). Other times they are near or even meet at existing synagogues, but there’s nothing new about this. Breakaway communities that tap an unmet demand for something different are how many Jewish institutions got their start. Not every new community would fit in the wide Conservative tent, due to differences in theology or practice, but many would. I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read that place the onus on the leaders of these communities to join a movement, but the opposite question is more useful. Why would one of these groups join USCJ? USCJ provides no services that one can’t easily find elsewhere that would help get a new community off the ground. There are already healthy online and in-person collaborations across minyanim that don’t require the expensive USCJ infrastructure. Perhaps in past decades, branding a community as Conservative was a way to attract new people, but the internet provides better ways to spread the word about a new community than USCJ ever did. USCJ has taken some steps to make it possible for these new communities to join, but they haven’t made any changes to give these communities a reason to work with USCJ.

2. I was a member of a self-labeled Conservative synagogue that wasn’t affiliated with USCJ in its early years. The synagogue grew into a vibrant community without any help from USCJ. When the congregation needed a new rabbi, Rabbinical Assembly union rules required it to affiliate with USCJ movement to be able to interview Conservative Rabbis for the position. I was part of the group evaluating whether affiliation was worthwhile. USCJ offered us useful things if we affiliated, but none of these (besides the pool of rabbis) seemed necessary. For example, affiliating with USCJ allowed the congregation to send children to USY, but the synagogue already had happy kids in BBYO. USCJ offered help in finding “replacements leaders when the rabbi went on vacation,” but the congregation already has a large pool of lay leaders. In the end, the synagogue decided to affiliate for the sake of the rabbi search and decided to get what services it could from USCJ while speaking up about the problems we saw in the organization. (This is the origin of my improveuscj at gmail address.)

3. IKAR in Los Angeles has all the trapping of a suburban Jewish Community Center style synagogue. There’s a large paid staff that leads services, pre-K child care, education programs for many age groups, and membership dues. (Yes, I know IKAR is also unique in many ways.) It has at least 15 paid staff, including 3 rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement. Nothing they do couldn’t fit within the bounds of a Conservative synagogue. They have gone from an idea to more than 500 households in less than a decade, in a town with multiple alternative synagogues of all kinds, and they did this, I assume, without any help from USCJ. IKAR seems to have a good relationship with the Conservative movement and (from their website) it looks like they participate in Conservative rabbinical school internship and other training programs. Perhaps, when Rabbi Sharon Brous decides to move on from her current role and they need to hire a replacement, USCJ might come calling, but that seems awfully late.

These cases bring home two main messages: 1. USCJ has not adapted to support communities with atypical structures or goals, particularly if they have knowledgable congregations. 2. USCJ is not useful to new communities getting off the ground.

In the past few years, USCJ has significantly reorganized. This difficult work has primarily focused on improving services and finances so that current synagogues don’t decide to leave. Not losing members is a good start, but it is not enough. USCJ and the Conservative movement as a whole needs to figure out why a new community would want to join. I’ll give some thoughts on this topic in my next post, but I have no clue if my ideas are right and no answer is easy.

What the Conservative Driving Teshuva Represented

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. It comes at a time when the future direction and health of the movement is unclear. This series of posts will examine one of the factors behind the movement’s current challenges.

There is a certain variety of critique that tries to trace all the movement’s problems to the 1950 “Driving Teshuva,” which said it was ok to drive to synagogue on Shabbat. The usual line is that the driving teshuva was when the movement turned away from something-or-another, which led to its intellectual decline and eventual doom. The teshuva was a turning point for the movement. The Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards was only formed in 1948 [correction: CJLS was formed in 1927, but significantly reorganized in 1948]. This teshuva, in 1950, was a clear statement that Conservative rabbis were willing to publicly disagree with Orthodoxy. Still, placing the movement’s decline on a theological disagreement has always seemed weak to me. Despite current challenges, the movement has survived for 60 years since this decision and Conservative rabbis and leaders have played central roles in halachic and theological discussions that have affected all of Judaism. The link between saying it is ok to drive and the movement’s decline seems to be based more on wishful thinking among those who disagree, than on historical analysis. I do think the driving teshuva has hurt the movement in ways that are less often discussed, but this requires examining the text.

The driving teshuva is actually titled, “A Responsum on the Sabbath” (1950) by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman. You can read the full text as part of this pdf file. I am borrowing some explanation liberally from this 2005 blog post by elf’s dh. In short, the teshuva’s goal was not to broadly permit driving on Shabbat. It was not even to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat. It’s goal was to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat when the alternative was that people wouldn’t have an active connection to Judaism without going to synagogue on Shabbat. In short, the teshuva says, if people are at risk of separating from the Jewish people, but regularly drive to synagogue on Shabbat, there are better ways to engage these Jews than harassing them to stop driving. Perhaps shunning drivers and delivering drashot against driving might not be the best way to encourage people to increase their connections to Judaism..

Put this way, this is little different from the many Modern Orthodox and Chabad synagogues which maintain an official position against driving on Shabbat, but still have seats and honors in the service for people who park down the block.

The problem with this teshuva is less its conclusion and more the assumptions that got it there. It assumes that the future of Judaism would be in communities where people could not or would not walk to synagogue. Conservative Judaism staked its future on the rise of suburbia. This was an intentional decision, not a recognition of the inevitable. It meant not just looking the other way when people drive on Shabbat, but, but accepting that driving on Shabbat would be a fundamental necessity. The driving teshuva was a key part of an active decision to embrace suburban life and actively abandon urban, walkable living. It meant abandoning cities in a way that Orthodoxy never did. It meant abandoning cities to an extent that non-Orthodox Jews never actually did.

As an example, here is a story told to me by the emeritus rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in an outlying area of a city with mostly single-family homes. He recounts asking Conservative movement officials for help around 1970, when the synagogue was losing members due to a shrinking local Jewish population, and most of the other local Conservative congregations moved to the suburbs. The Conservative movement officials told him that synagogues in cities were doomed to closure, and they only help they could give him would be to help help him find a new (suburban) pulpit. He declined their offer, and some decades later, the neighborhood (and the synagogue) have seen a great resurgence of Jews. His synagogue has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years.

The suburbanisation of Conservative Judaism served the movement very well during the rise of the suburbs. But nowadays, more and more Jews want to live in walkable neighborhoods, and the Conservative synagogues have left these city neighborhoods for suburbs that no longer attract enough Jews to support them all. Meanwhile, the movement’s key institutions still have a mindset that focuses on suburban-style synagogues/community centers. While the rise of Jewish suburbanization was marked by the driving teshuva, the movement has had decades to readjust how it interacts with Jewish in different types of communities. My next post will focus on what is currently happening and what could be done.

The impact of Hebrew School

Thanks to the beginning of the school year, there has been the usual crop of published opinions regarding Jewish schooling options. The general consensus of opinions regarding Hebrew schools seems to be that, ”the investment in money and time exceeds the perceived value of the education and the experience.” I’m highlighting one blog post, but I think its author stated the current dogma well. In 55 comments now posted, no one without a professional connection to synagogue schools stood up for Hebrew schools. Elsewhere online, I read a statement from a well-regarded researcher who has delved into this topic, “Let’s accept the finding that Jewish schooling 4-5 hours a week before Bar/Bat Mitzvah does little good — even as camps, Israel travel, youth groups, day schools, and post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah schools show positive effects.”

These negative views paint an awfully broad brush, depicting a whole class of programs–some very good–as uniformly horrid. As a parent, I see for myself how a good Hebrew school is a positive component of my child’s Jewish education. As someone active in my Jewish community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet master educators much older than me, and I’ve noted how many of these master educators were graduates of Hebrew schools and Talmud Torahs of an earlier era. As someone with some professional training in statistics, I’ve looked at the numbers, and I believe there are serious problems with some of the widely cited studies that purport to show that Hebrew schools have no good impacts.

What I see is that good Hebrew schools provide a path to a wider range of Jewish experiences. This makes it hard to identify statistically the unique impact of Hebrew school. The researcher I quoted above compared Hebrew schools to other forms of education as if the impact of each could be separately identified. Yet few research reports I’ve seen highlight the interactions. For example, some prominent studies of Summer camps either treat schooling during the year as a confounding variable or just divide formal education into Day School or Other. One study that did publish this data semi-directly is the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey Jewish Education Background Report. Using tables 1 and 3 in that report, it’s straight-forward to calculate the percentage of 18-34 year olds who participated in youth groups, attended Summer camps, or visited Israel, by the type of their formal Jewish education during the school year. Here is a table showing the percentages:

Day School Supplemental School Sunday
Other None
Youth Group 40% 40% 17% 0% 3%
Summer Camp 40% 31% 18% 8% 4%
Israel Trips 41% 41% 12% 0% 6%

The majority of kids doing these activities also go to Hebrew schools, while the 31% of this sample ( table 1 ) that was not involved in any formal Jewish education was barely represented in these other activities. Children who didn’t attend day school or Hebrew school weren’t involved in Youth Groups, Jewish Summer Camps, or Israel Trips. Thus, we CANNOT compare the impact of Jewish Summer camp to the impact of Hebrew school. There is no way to compare the impact of Summer camp or youth group compared with the impact of Hebrew school if the same kids do both. The statistical term for this is multicollinearity. Simply put, saying that Summer camps or youth groups work and Hebrew school does nothing is assuming that kids magically drop down from the sky into Jewish Summer camp–and they don’t!

A good Hebrew school needs to impart some knowledge of Judaism, give kids the awareness and interest to continue Jewish learning, and build skills for participation in Jewish life. A good Hebrew schools also builds relationships with Jewish peers. Kids who form friendships in Hebrew school and whose families come to synagogue on Shabbat hang out together after (or during) Shabbat services. They go with these Hebrew school friends to Jewish Summer camps. They see recent b’nai mitzvot coming back to lead services and participate in synagogue events. The Hebrew school class becomes a youth group, and friends in Hebrew high school.

Of course it’s difficult to disentangle correlation with causation: kids in families that bring them regularly to synagogue and to Hebrew school are more likely to care about the quality of the Hebrew school and to plan on sending these same kids to Summer camp, on Jewish teen trips, etc. However, as any parent will tell you, children’s interests don’t always match their parents plans. Good Hebrew schools can give kids experiences to make them want other Jewish experiences. If policy makers want Jewish kids to attend Jewish Summer camps, youth groups etc, the first step is connecting them to Jewish communities. Hebrew schools are still a huge part of this picture.

USCJ finally dropped out of college

Supporters of the Conservative movement’s college organization, KOACH, have been trying for the last several years to convince the movement’s congregational organization, USCJ, to keep supporting it. It seems like this saga is finally over. USCJ has decided to shut down Koach. As Rabbi Elyse Winick, former Koach director, says, “To our great dismay, while there has been sufficient response to continue on a very small scale… KOACH as we have known and loved it must now come to an end.” For the last several years, USCJ has consistently said they didn’t want to run Koach. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much effort put into improving the quality of Koach or finding another source of support. It’s impressive Koach managed to stay around this long.

When USCJ put together their strategic plan in Winter 2011, the leaders of USCJ wanted to cut Koach. They said that they didn’t have funds to continue Koach, Koach wasn’t doing well under USCJ, and Koach didn’t really fit with the types of things UCSJ wanted to do. Koach students and alumni protested, and so USCJ kept funding Koach without seriously trying to improve the program. In June 2012, USCJ again tried to defund Koach. The reasoning was unchanged. After more protest, USCJ’s leaders said the protesters would need to personally fundraise to keep Koach alive for another year. The fundraisers got the necessary $100K and Koach survived for another year. Here we are in June 2013, and USCJ is once again saying that it doesn’t want to run the Conservative movement’s college campus programming.

While there is a lot to criticize about USCJ, I really can’t blame them for trying to close a program that they don’t have the interest, infrastructure, or money to run. The question is why others keep asking USCJ to be the savior of Conservative Judaism on college campuses? More »

USCJ is described as declining because it is

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the top professional at USCJ, recently wrote an op-ed, Re-engineered United Synagogue has made great strides. This was a response to JTA article $5 million budget hole is latest woe for Conservative synagogue group. Rabbi Wernick complains that the JTA article is a misleading portrayal of USCJ–but his reply is unconvincing. He adds some details to the JTA report, but he doesn’t contradict a single fact in the original article and his omissions only highlight the woes of USCJ.

JTA reported that USCJ lost $2.7 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2012. Much of these losses stemmed from one-time expenses, including settling a lawsuit against the Fuchsberg center (mentioned in the FY11-12 budget), severance packages resulting from staffing changes, and other costs of reorganization. Aside from these, the organization had a $1.1 million operational deficit in 2012, which they hope to reduce to a $600K operational deficit in 2012-13 and a balanced budget in 2013-14. This for an organization whose gross revenues were estimated as $22 million in FY2011-12. These numbers are much worse than has previously been reported.

Rabbi Wernick criticizes the scoop nature of JTA’s “apparent discovery of a budget hole.” He says the USCJ budget is no secret, but if you go to the public information on their budgets he mentioned, you won’t find most of the information in the JTA article. The projected $808K deficit in the FY11-12 budget ballooned to $3 million without any public report. I’m no budget expert, but I don’t see the $2.7 million deficit from FY10-11 noted anywhere – not even in the June 2011 auditor’s report. Moreover, when the FY11-12 budget was passed in June 2011, USCJ was already in the middle of this costly reorganization. How is it possible that the unbudgeted severance pay and reorganization costs were completely unexpected? USCJ lost several million dollars unexpectedly, and said nothing publicly for 6-18 months until JTA obtained this information. That sounds like a discovery to me.

Rabbi Wernick loses me when he writes

So forgive me if I sound a little peeved at yet another article foretelling the demise of United Synagogue. It’s just that we have come a long way from the crisis of three years ago, but some in the media remain wedded to a narrative of decline.

USCJ cannot shake the narrative of decline for one simple reason. It is true. USCJ exists to support its member congregations. It’s still losing congregations and many of the remaining congregations aren’t happy with the support USCJ provides. This doesn’t mean that continued decline is inevitable. The current reorganization and short-term expenses may well be good decisions. But I don’t see how leaders can turn an organization around while refusing to admit the seriousness of the problems they face.

Finally, as someone who has been active in Conservative synagogues for most of my life, what Rabbi Wernick omits is my biggest concern. He writes, “Still, it’s fair to ask: What’s the plan for the future?” and then launches into all the things USCJ is doing to stabilize their budget and reorganize their staff. But redoing an organizational chart and balancing a budget isn’t what I call planning for the future. I’ve read an awful lot about USCJ and USCJ politics, as well as the USCJ strategic plan, but I still have no clue what USCJ’s vision is for itself. The JTA article included examples of a few small, but useful programs from USCJ, while Rabbi Wernick doesn’t mention a single one in his op-ed. While the USCJ Strategic Plan provided a general vision, USCJ has had nearly two years to fill in and publicize details. What programs or resources are its reorganized staff developing? What connections between Jewish communities and organizations is it facilitating? How would my synagogue notice if USCJ disappeared tomorrow? It seems to me that USY is the only USCJ program that would be hard to duplicate outside USCJ. But does USY need USCJ? Most of USY’s expenses are covered by distinct USY dues, program fees, and donations.

More broadly, why should American Jews care about USCJ? That’s the narrative I want Rabbi Wernick to give me. I’d be very happy to see an actual discussion of the USCJ’s vision of its future. There are many places to present this vision, but if Rabbi Wernick or any other USCJ staff member wants to present any part of vision about what a revived USCJ can do and are willing to open up their vision to critical discussion, I’m fairly sure I can arrange a guest post on this blog.

Filed under USCJ


A newish blog on Israel’s history

Israel’s Documented Story started posting last June and it’s been an interesting read. It’s an English language blog run by The Israel State Archives. They’ve been posting and commenting on documents, including recently declassified documents in the archvies. Here are some highlights:

They have British Mandate immigration records from 1920-1947, much of which were recently put online. While some records were destroyed or removed, the remaining documents have a lot of details, including pictures–and they are indexed by family: Immigrants to the British Mandate (Record Group 11)

The archivists’ efforts to figure out the origin of the term “E-1” It was already in use in 1981 with plans to develop that land around then.

There’s a great series on documents relating to Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent Israel/Egypt peace process. The primary documents are here and I think all posts are tagged at: israelsdocuments.blogspot.com/search/label/1977 Here are some nice segments from that series:

Principles sometimes change: They document Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s guiding princples to negotiating with Egypt, how much these seemingly nonnegotiable principles deviated from the final peace agreement, and why.

Sometimes Governments Deny Stuff :From a letter from Menachem Begin to Jimmy Carter,

“Over a period of 29 years all six of Israel’s prime ministers, including myself, have stated their readiness to go anywhere and at any time to meet the Arab rulers to talk about peace. These offers have remained without response apart from certain clandestine meetings subsequently publicly denied by both sides.” Huh? Run that by me again? Never ever any meetings except for the ones we’ve all denied?

The Spook’s Report: A Mossad agent’s perspective on the then top secret meeting in Morocco of Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Hassan Tuhami.

Unsaid between father and son

Rabbi Ed Feinstein and Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas wrote a dialogue between a father and a son on why the son doesn’t want to attend high holiday services at his father’s synagogue. It’s an interesting discussion and worth a read: www.jewishjournal.com/high_holy_days/article/high_holy_days_father_and_son

I, and I’m sure others here, don’t identify with either the father or the son of this dialogue, but I think these characters are reasonably realistic. However, what really struck me about this piece is what they didn’t talk about. They debate about priorities, politics, and God, but not the institution at the center of the piece. The father is asking his son to visit and feel more welcome in his synagogue. It is the institution of the parent where the ideal is that the son learns to love and connect with his father’s institution. A key paragraph from the father is:

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply.

We learn and become a better people by listening, but holy communities grow and build connections with dialogues and mutual respect. The father follows the paragraph above by talking about the ways his generation created and shaped new communities and new communal priorities. This dialogue takes for granted that, if the son is creating something, it’s going to be his own community and not their joint community. Listening is important, but how many people of any age want to devote their time to an organization where they must listen, but are never heard?

When I think about the healthy, long-lived Jewish institutions in my own life, I am struck by how they not only welcome intergenerational dialogue, but also look to multiple generations for real leadership and real influence. The father and son’s dialogue shouldn’t end when they break fast together. Perhaps the father can ask his son how his synagogue could change to make it their synagogue. Perhaps the son could give serious thought to realistic ways to improve their synagogue. Perhaps the synagogue leadership could join this dialogue and also learn to listen and adapt to also be the institution of another generation.

Shana Tova

Koach college student survey

Koach is the Conservative movement’s organization for the benefit of college students. Since I was critical of some of their recent challenges I wanted to also note something positive. In advance of their next planning meeting (in about 1.5 weeks), they are doing a survey of college students and recent (in the last year) graduates. If you fit this description and have opinions about how a national organization can contribute to egalitarian Jewish observance on college campuses, please take their survey as soon as possible: savekoach.org/survey

If you’re not part of the target population for the survey, but you’ve got opinions, why not share them in the comments below? Some of their leaders read comments posted here.

Here are my opinions:
The survey includes a draft vision/mission. Both are focused on “supporting educational & experimental programmings on campuses.” This treats Jewish practice like another course, as though college students are all still learning what it means to be Jewish. At the core, this ignores college students as practicing adult Jews. The Conservative movement has opinions on what it means to be an observant Jew, so I’d expect a college organization to support that goal.

Given Koach’s limited resources, what would this mean? It means connecting students to resources for observance on or near their campuses. Keep track of where students who are Ramah/USY alums or whose family went to a Conservative synagogue go to college. Make sure these students know what resources exist in their college communities, whether these are Hillels, local synagogues, and local independent minyanim. Even in small towns, you don’t need a Chabad house or even locally paid staff to have local families host students for Shabbat dinners. If Koach can identify campuses with small Jewish populations, but students who might still want a Jewish community, those are targets for more active engagement, whether directly from Koach or by bringing them to the attention of other organizations. Particularly for campuses with few Jewish students, the Koach conventions and Koach-led networking between campuses can be good resources for observant students.

I also think a web presence focused on news and opinion is not the best use of resources. Anyone can post an opinion, but it takes resources to make a site have high enough quality to regularly attract college students. The website could be a place that contains resources on Conservative Jewish practice (perhaps in collaboration with the Rabbinical Assembly to make a resource that benefits more than just college students). The resources currently there seem to be only slightly beyond an introduction to Judaism class. If there’s student-generated content on a website, it needs to live in this decade and let students regularly contribute. I’m not sure what this would look like, but forum that allow pseudonymity or anonymity where students can ask questions and get feedback regarding Jewish life on campuses or ask opinions from Conservative rabbis might be a good start. Simply including a way for a student enter their name so that someone can help connect them to families in the local Jewish community would be beneficial.

Overall, I’m glad to see someone in Koach is trying to get feedback from current students about the organization’s purpose. Even if you don’t have any positive connections to the Conservative movement, how could a hypothetical national organization with a $1 million dollar budget and a goal of supporting egalitarian and observant Jewish life on campus have benefited you?

Day schools want to drop out of USCJ

Back in June, the leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism tried to defund their college program, Koach. While the USCJ board delayed this step, it seems like USCJ is still trying to separate from non-synagogue programs. The Schechter Day School Network, the coordinating organization for Conservative day schools, is under the USCJ umbrella and is considering leaving. Barely a year ago, they spent $240,000 on a name change and tagline, but the network and the school system it supports are not doing well. As a response to losing schools and students, The Forward reported that they are deciding whether to keep their small staff as part of USCJ, become a fully independent non-profit, work under another Conservative organization like the Jewish Theological Seminary, or join RAVSAK, a nondenominational day school network. The Forward’s article focuses on what this means for these day schools being Conservative, and the response from the heads of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly also focuses on this question. However, the discussions of the Schechter Network leaving USCJ should bring up concerns about the institutions and priorities of the Conservative movement.

In the Forward article, Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of USCJ is quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, I believe that Schecter probably needs to become an independent 501(c)(3), and it needs to build a powerful board that will be focused on the priorities that are unique to Schecter.” Also “As a 501(c)(3), Schecter would be ‘more nimble’ when it comes to raising money from donors with an eye on Jewish education said Jim Rogozen, the outgoing chair of the Schechter board who was recently named the chief learning officer at USCJ.” As best as I can tell, these quotes seem to be saying that the top leaders of USCJ think that a core education program in the Conservative movement is handicapped in fundraising and adapting better priorities simply by being part of USCJ. These same arguments could be used to conclude that United Synagogue Youth would be a stronger organization by leaving USCJ. This does not speak well for USCJ as an institution, and its leaders need to make a much better case for its continued existence.

There is also the matter of the priorities set in last year’s USCJ strategic plan. One of the plan’s goals was to break the silos of Jewish education; to focus more on getting the best possible resources to educators and children wherever they are. Most children in the Conservative movement don’t go to day schools, but a huge portion of the Conservative movement’s education resources are in the Schechter schools. That’s why it should be a movement priority to keep day school educators as regular and active members of the larger community of Conservative Jewish educators.

It’s not clear that the current institutions foster the engagement of Schechter Network professionals with non-day school educators. Schecter’s director, Elaine Cohen, clearly didn’t want to work with Hebrew charter schools, writing in CJ magazine that “We concluded that it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of the existing institutions to offer such programs in communities where there already is a Schechter or community school.” Perhaps this is the difference of priorities hinted at in Rabbi Wernick’s quote. I hope the Schechter Network would only leave USCJ for another Conservative institution, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they’d be under the same umbrella as other education programs (including Ramah). If the Schechter Network decides to join RAVSAK, it might benefit from sharing resources with more day schools, but I want to see these educators find a way to remain part of the broader Conservative education community, whatever the institutional framework.

Congratulations Koach Supporters. Now what?

I recently wrote about USCJ’s proposal to defund their college student program, KOACH. As typical for USCJ, this plan was made without much public discussion. Even after the proposal became public, the only formal USCJ response was essentially: We wanted to make this decision behind closed doors, but someone leaked our discussion to the press. We appreciate the public discussion this has generated and, in the future, hope do a better job keeping more of our discussions regarding Koach behind closed doors.
Also as expected, people who support Koach protested. Also as typical for USCJ, their board decided it was easier to vote against the plan and continue funding Koach this year rather than make a difficult and unpopular decision. The press release says that the USCJ board decided to provide $100K of funding to keep Koach operational through December & have Koach supporters directly raise another $130K to complete the year’s funding. After Koach’s supporters take a deep breath, it’s time to decide what’s next.
More »

Filed under Conservative, USCJ

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USCJ wants to drop out of college

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is the Conservative movement’s main organization for supporting Conservative Jewish communities in North America. USCJ supports Conservative communities on college campuses through a suborganization called KOACH. It seems that this is no longer a priority. In an article about the proposed plan to defund KOACH, here is the summary of the rationale:

While [Rabbi Steven Wernick’s] organization remains committed to serving college youth, it has over the last three years been “very aggressive in aligning budget, staff and governance with our vision and mission in a strategic way.” Faced with an aging membership, a long-term decline in membership and attendant financial challenges, the United Synagogue has been focusing on shoring up existing congregations, seeking to integrate the educational system and engage the next generation of leadership. (ejewishphilanthropy.com/wernick-koach-closing-its-non-strategic/)

There’s a bit of a problem with this statement. After significant, movement-wide discussion and work, in March 2011, the USCJ board voted on a strategic plan to define USCJ’s priorities. Section 4 of the strategic plan covers one of the core goals of USCJ, engaging the next generation of leadership. Among other priorities, they decided to engage young Jewish leaders in conversation, design new efforts to focus on the post college generation, and:

It is recognized that a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation. It is not clear who should fund this effort and what the effort should look like. Since USCJ has been funding and administering the effort through Koach, in the short term USCJ should continue to do so in a highly focused and cost-efficient way. Simultaneously, USCJ should engage with college student leaders, and leaders of Conservative Judaism, to determine how best to work in partnership to ensure that the USCJ presence on the college campus not only remains but grows.

This paragraph was added after the first draft removed college outreach and public debate resulted in one of the few major changes to the plan between the draft and final versions. The strategic plan for USCJ states that college outreach, through KOACH until some other Conservative option is created, is a core function of USCJ.

While there are enthusiastic efforts focusing on preserving USCJ’s funding of KOACH (see www.savekoach.org), I don’t know enough to say whether the Conservative movement can do better than KOACH. Still, closing an existing program before starting a visioning and fundraising effort to create its replacement is a rather unorthodox way to engage college students and potential funders.

More broadly, USCJ has a core goal of engaging future leaders and nurturing new Conservative communities. Besides awarding a few microgrants though its new Young Adult Outreach, how has USCJ realigned its funds and human resources in the past year to address this core goal? If there were a string of engagement successes and healthy new efforts, I could see the USCJ board of directors considering whether KOACH is still a priority. Given the lack of other visible successes with engaging future leaders, abandoning a functional program without a clear replacement plan seems like a full abandonment of this core goal of USCJ.

When the USCJ board meets next week, instead of merely asking whether the approximately $23 million budget can spare around $200K for KOACH, they should be asking what happened to their strategic plan in the past year to prevent USCJ from funding something that was identified as a core effort. Given the pushback regarding KOACH just last year, this public discussion should have been initiated by USCJ months ago rather than in a news article based on leaked budget less than two weeks before the board’s budget vote. For the board to focus just on KOACH funding is to ignore the long-term planning, organizational, and communication issues that continue to plague USCJ even after its recent major reorganization.

Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.

So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
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Become a leader in the Jewish Afterschool Education Movement

In past posts, I’ve briefly mentioned the efforts of several families and organizations in my community to create a program for elementary school students that uses the regular afterschool hours for formal and informal Jewish education. We’ve been making good progress and I hope to post a bit more about our effort and the growing national movement of Jewish afterschool education programs. For now I want to share a bit about our effort and announce our director search.

We now have a name and a website:

MoEd: A Jewish Afterschool Community


We chose “MoEd” both because of our focus on regular formal and informal learning times and because we are creating a program that will give more Jewish education to many children in our community. For parents, MoEd will mean a combination of afterschool and vacation care with Hebrew language and Jewish education. For children in grades K-5, MoEd will mean a great place to play and learn all afternoon with a community of their peers. We have a primary location in Chevy Chase, MD and we’ve raised enough funds through a local Federation grant and many generous donations from members of our community to work towards a Fall 2012 opening and start our director search. (Fundraising continues and we’d be glad to hear from potential donors at contact@moedcommunity.org ) You can read a bit more about the program on the website and we hope to continue adding information there.

If you are interested in being our executive director or know someone who might be interested, here are the program and job details:

Children may enroll for 2, 3, 4, or 5 days per week, as well as on days when public schools are closed or close early. The program will run from the end of the school day until 6:30PM (except on winter Fridays). Transportation will be offered from several Montgomery County Public Schools.

We are seeking a candidate who has:

  • The vision and desire to create a welcoming and enjoyable Jewish learning environment that will engage children in the playful and intensive study of Hebrew language and Judaics
  • A minimum of 3 years as a lead administrator in an educational program, such as a school or camp
  • 3 years minimum experience directly managing faculty
  • 3 years minimum experience in developing or administering Jewish learning in formal or informal educational settings
  • Strong verbal and written communications skills
  • Primary responsibilities will include:
  • To oversee, creatively develop, and execute our curriculum and programs
  • To pro-actively manage logistics so that parents know their children are always in a safe environment
  • To recruit and supervise teaching staff
  • To work closely with teachers, students, parents, the MoEd board, the staffs of our collaborating synagogues, and the larger community in the Washington metro area
  • To help manage the financial aspects of MoEd.
  • To coordinate and encourage volunteer efforts
  • To support Board fundraising efforts

Qualifications: The ideal candidate is an experienced academic administrator and teacher, with Hebrew language proficiency and Judaic knowledge. (S)he is excited about the prospect of developing this new program and has the vision and skills to do so. Experience as an administrator (e.g., camp, youth groups, elementary or religious/Hebrew schools) is required. Demonstrable experience with child development, multimodal learning styles, unstructured learning environments, and early language acquisition preferred. Familiarity with the Washington DC Metro-area Jewish community is preferred.

Competitive salary commensurate with experience. Position will be part-time from March 2012 through May 2012, becoming full-time in June 2012. We encourage all qualified and interested educational leaders to apply.

Please send any questions or a cover letter and resume to jobs@moedcommunity.org. Applications received before January 8, 2012 will receive full consideration.

Standardizing gay friendly & egalitarian marriage rituals

The Forward just published Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite. In an effort to create a typical news article conflict, it misses the bigger picture. Three Conservative rabbis were tasked to create a standard ritual for gay weddings. They tried to hew as closely as possible to the typical non-egalitarian ceremony with the goal of minimizing the differences between homo and heterosexual marriage rituals. While a valiant goal, many of the top decision makers in the Conservative movement (the other members of the Committee on Jewish Laws & Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly), thought the text didn’t work and asked the drafting group to make more radical changes to the text with the goal of a more egalitarian ritual. The only critique in the article that wasn’t from a Conservative rabbi is a quote from Jay Michaelson. I read a comment of Michaelson on Facebook where he said he was more supportive of this effort than his quote that ended up in the Forward article portrayed.

The draft text and suggested revisions are not publicly available so I can’t directly critique them. Still, we can discuss why this effort matters.

There are some great examples of couples doing intense study to create their own ceremonies. BZ has a great series on this. More and more resources are out there. For example, there is Danya’s Alternatives to Kiddusin.

There are still unnecessary barriers for people who want to use these rituals. Here’s the example from my heterosexual wedding (predating both BZ’s and Danya’s writings). We used a non-standard & more egalitarian Ketubah text. While the text was available, we couldn’t walk into most Judaica stores & buy an beautiful ketubah with this text pre-printed. We wouldn’t have even known this text existed if we didn’t have friends who adapted it for their own wedding. To use the text, we needed to contact the author, a total stranger named Aryeh Cohen, to get an electronic version of the text that the ketubah scribe could lay out and then hand inscribe. Even this modest change to a more egalitarian ketubah text required added effort and additional costs. Our discussions regarding variations on the ceremony didn’t go much beyond rings, who walks around who, and whether the object of value should be a ring or a banana.

While finding a wider range of rituals is slightly easier now, egalitarian hetero or homosexual wedding rituals that are rooted in Jewish history and tradition are still an elite decision for those who decide the extra work is worth it.

Conservative Rabbis and other Conservative leaders have long officiated at weddings using a variety of rituals. Some were performing gay commitment ceremonies or weddings before the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) said it was ok and more have done so afterwards. Still, officiants are all piecing together new ritual based on the work of others and their own research and innovations.

Perhaps someone else will correct me, but I think this is the first attempt by a major Jewish organization to create a single, standardized ritual for homosexual weddings. Standardized ritual can remove barriers. A CJLS approved ketubah text for gay weddings will be pre-printed in beautiful ketobot by more suppliers with non-fancy verisions sitting in more synagogue rabbis’ cabinets. New wedding rituals will be in Rabbis’ manuals next to guidance for other lifecycle events. If the new rituals end up being firmly anchored in Jewish texts and traditions, egalitarian, and flexibly gendered, they will see usage in heterosexual weddings whether or not that was the CJLS intention.

While standardization can sometimes decrease innovation, I think it is the opposite in this case. People who want to innovate wedding rituals will still do that. A new standard text just shifts the starting point, with an easily found and hopefully well documented and researched text.

The myth of the modern Jewish prosumer

I posted about the Jewish Futures Competition a few weeks ago. It asks how Jewish life, living and learning will change as we move to a society in which individuals are not only consumers of information and culture, but also producers of their own and others’ experiences. I think the question has it wrong. There never was such a divide between Jewish consumers and producers.

If you tried to picture the upbringing of a Jewish producer, it wouldn’t be mine. My formal Jewish education consisted of synagogue supplemental school, one year of Jewish Summer camp, and one college class. I have been an active participant in Jewish programming wherever I’ve lived. Does this make me a Jewish consumer?

I was elected to a synagogue board of directors at the age of 26. How did someone in the famously non-joining age group get on a synagogue board? They asked me to serve, and I said yes. When I moved to a new city, I helped start parent-led Shabbat services for preschoolers in my new synagogue, using the approach, designed by my previous community. Now that I have a child entering kindergarten, I’ve been working with several other families and Jewish professionals to organize a 4-5 day per week Jewish afterschool program that will provide robust Jewish learning (mixed in with a lot of play time) during hours when many children are already in supervised afterschool programs. More than fifty families in our community have already expressed interest in this program.

So when did I switch from a consumer to a producer? The answer is the same as it has always been. A Jewish consumer is someone who hasn’t (yet) found the motivation and outlet to produce. If you chose to be involved in a Jewish community you are a producer. You don’t need any title or degree to lead prayer. The lifeblood of Jewish organizations from Federations to minimally structured minyanim are the volunteers who step forward to inspire and organize.

So, what inspired the original question? Most Jewish producers have been hyper-local. Our synagogue walls are filled with plaques honoring our predecessors, whose devotion, ideas, and energy created these communities. Sadly, few people outside their own communities would recognize these names. Technology is shrinking the barriers that kept local voices local and expanding the types of communities that are possible. A good idea, adapted by one community, can spread well beyond the word of mouth of the members of that community. What looks like more consumers becoming producers is really local producers starting to grasp the possibilities of a larger network.

So, take my collaborators’ efforts to create an aftercare program as an example. We’ve identified and compiled detailed information from similar established and emerging programs across the country in just a few months. We’ve gotten advice from Jewish educators working across the country and down the block. People I’ve never met are writing to me offering to help or asking about potential jobs.

Personally, I’ve gone from the biography above to a commentator and published author on Jewish institutions and education in half a year.

Even though individuals can do more, institutions still matter. To launch our aftercare program, we’re collaborating with three local synagogues who have offered classroom space and we’re trying to collaborate with others. People inside and outside the professional Jewish world have given us their time and money. Our local Partnership for Jewish Life & Learning is giving us advice and a small grant for our preparatory year. Programs like ours can’t succeed in a vaccuum.

What does this mean for the future? The increasing number of voices bringing innovation to national Jewish living and learning is a good thing. Good ideas don’t all need to come from our Federations, academic programs, and other Jewish institutions, but our institutions will need to adapt. They must figure out where centeralized support is needed and where networks of local producers can do things better and cheaper on their own. This will require the broader Jewish community to significantly re-evaluate the ways we distribute and share resources and to better understand the technology tools that are strengthening our producers. I can’t tell you the best way to do all this, but I look forward to being part of what happens next.

Jewish youth education comes in many forms

Since I wrote a rather critical post about one of Leonard Saxe’s studies, I wanted to positively highlight a recent piece of his: The Jews We Leave Behind

Read it.

As I have also written, while there are many great things about day schools, any education system that focuses primarily on them is leaving a huge number of children behind. His additional plea for more, better, and openly accessible data is wonderful. It could benefit many education modalities with relatively modest costs. Dr. Saxe is involved in the development of JData. It is an aggregator of basic Jewish school information like costs/student. I’m a bit underwhelmed with the types of questions that can currently be asked there, but that’s partially due to the limited number of schools that have submitted information. If we want to see what’s possible, encourage any schools with which you’re connected to submit their information.

In any survey, there’s a balance between asking so many questions that people don’t answer any, but I wish they had a few more. The existing questions focus on size/budget/denomination issues rather than teaching formats & hours of education. How those interact will tell us a lot more about what is or is not cost effective. Anyone have thoughts on other information that schools could easily submit that would be helpful?

By only major critique of the piece is that he assumes that more engaged families with the most highly motivated children chose day school and discussions about other education options are discussions about less engaged families. I don’t think this is accurate. In my own community, there is only a modest connection between Judaic engagement and whether they send their children to a Jewish day school or elsewhere. When I talk about my Jewish aftercare creation efforts with families who have children in synagogue supplemental schools, many are very engaged and want more Jewish education for their children. My program isn’t right for all of them and they didn’t chose day schools (or day schools didn’t chose them) for a wide variety of reasons. As a commenter on his post, Ruth, notes, “…Jewish teens attending supplementary Jewish high schools… are some of the most dedicated, enthusiastic, and academically talented young people I encounter on a regular basis.” Conversely, there are some Jewish day school families where most of their commitment to Jewish practice ends at the classroom door.

The relationship between education choices and engagement is complex. Education programs can also alter engagement in positive and negative ways. We need to seriously figure out what does or does not work and share the information beyond the world of academic journals. We need more data and I strongly support Dr. Saxe’s sentiments in this regard.

Filed under Education


Kosher Stats 201: Taglit-Birthright Israel might not change interest in in-marriage for program participants who were raised secular or “just Jewish”

I’m going to try something a bit new here and take a close look at the data analyses from a single study. I chose this particular study, The Impact and Lessons of Taglit‐Birthright Israel by Saxe et al, because someone asked my opinion about it and I thought it did some things very well. I think the data supports some interesting findings, although it includes some all-to-common misinterpretations of statistical results. I want to say at the outset that, although I have some critiques of this study, topics worth studying rarely give easily interpretable results. The authors make a positive contribution to the discussion. I’m also impressed that Taglit-Birthright Israel has worked to include data collection and analysis as part of their mission. Their data collection and fairly frequent publications are what make quantitative discussion of Birthright Israel possible.

The primary goal of this specific study was to examine whether participation in Taglit-Birthright Israel affected attitudes towards in-marriage vs intermarriage (and later marriage rates) and views on raising children as Jews regardless of the spouse’s religion. This examination of actual marriage rates is now possible because the 2001-2004 cohort of Birthright attendees now have a sufficient population of participants who’ve married to run statistical analyses on their marriage choices. Most of the examinations of attitudes come from surveys conducted 3 months before and 3 months after 2008 Birthright trips.

The article’s starts with a nuanced discussion that puts concerns that intermarriage will destroy Judaism in the context of existing research. I was surprised to learn that 15.4% of the 2001-2004 applicants to Birthright Israel had a non-Jewish parent while 24% of the 2008 applicants had a non-Jewish parent. That large of a jump in just a few years means that Birthright is increasingly attracting children who doomsayers consider lost to Judaism.
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Suddenly discovered you’ve become a Jewish leader? Want to win money by talking about it?


The Jewish Futures conference is holding its second annual competition. The basic idea is that you create a 4-minute YouTube video or written document that addresses their topic of the year. This year, that topic is: “The Jewish Prosumer: The Move from Consumer to Producer in Jewish Life and Learning.” They want people to address, “How will Jewish life, living and learning change as we move to a society in which individuals are not only consumers of information and culture, but also producers of their own and others’ experiences?”

I figure some of the readers here might have opinions about this topic, why the shift is happening, or even if it is happening.

Beyond the warm feeling you get from sharing ideas with others, the winners will get $1800, an expenses-paid trip to the Jewish Futures Conference at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in Denver on November 7-8, and the chance to pitch your ideas to a high profile room full of potential donors and supporters at the conference.

You can read the competition guidelines and rules here. The submission deadline is August 27th.

Apply here

Information on last years winners is here.

The contest is sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute, and hosted by Jewish Federations of North America. I’m curious to see what comes out of this and might submit something myself.