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.
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.
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
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.
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? Read more »
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.