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.

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 »

A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

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


What if Anat Hoffman wasn’t white?

Anat Hoffman, head of both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement’s action center in Israel, was arrested while saying the Sh’ma with 250 other American Jews from Hadassah. The Reform movement called immediately for an investigation, the Conservative movement called for global Sh’ma flashmobs, and other groups joined the condemnation.  (Jewschool contributor LJCM rightly asks why there aren’t even more, but here I’ll press a parallel observation.) Something is obviously wrong with this abandonment of American Jewry’s pretenses against criticizing the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel.

Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”

As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire. More »

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.
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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.

Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to davidamwilensky.com

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]

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A little tempest in a teapot has apparently hit the ranks of the Conservative movement about the cover of the latest issue of Kolot (The Conservative Movement’s now-integrated magazine, including more or less all the different arms of the movement that used to have separate magazines).

The Jewish week showcased an internal spat between Kolot and some selected women rabbis who objected to the most recent cover which features a picture of two female arms holding hands whilst wearing tefillin.
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Rabbis Looking to Speak about Occupy Wall Street

Urgent question:  Anyone out there have a concise statement about Occupy Wall Street that would be a show of solidarity with the protesters.  I need one suitable for a rabbi to read to his/her congregants on Kol Nidre this coming Friday night.  The Collective Statement of the Protesters is a powerful manifesto, but the strong tone of confrontation on a night that stresses self reflection does not feel in the spirit of vidui (confessing sins) and forgiveness.  If a well crafted statement that acknowledges the galvanized efforts of people around the country around the issues of economic justice and corporate responsibility exists, it should find its way to many pulpits this Yom Kippur.

Memo to United Synagogue: Learn a little English

Thumbs up to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for their Project Reconnect, which seeks “to reinvolve, reinvigorate, and reconnect the very many Jewish adults who were touched by the Conservative movement’s programs for teenagers, college students and young adults.”

And a double thumbs up for its Come Home for the Holidays initiative, which offers free High Holiday tickets to young adults who grew up in the Conservative movement. It’s great to see Conservative Judaism taking outreach seriously.

But a thumbs down for their gratuitous use of Hebrew jargon.

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Filed under USCJ


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.

How Welcoming is “Welcoming”?

Cross-posted from the IFF Network Blog.

On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.

What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”

Instead, it suggests:

Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.

Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.

It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.

This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.

What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:

USCJ Strategic Plan Part 3c

Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities

USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don’t think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.

I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I’ll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I’ll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don’t see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff’s job titles are supposed to do.
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USCJ Strategic Plan: Part 3b

Improve Conservative Jewish education

Whether it’s USCJ or some other Conservative organization, the problems with the Conservative movement’s education programs are central issues for the health of the movement. Simply put, the vast majority of children who are growing up in the Conservative movement are not being given the opportunities to gain the knowledge needed to become full participants (let alone leaders) in their own communities. For a movement whose purpose includes keeping Hebrew as the language of prayer, not placing children on a solid path to knowing the full liturgy and its meaning is a failure. The strategic plan rightly says that USCJ needs to get the movement’s various educational organizations working more closely together, but punts on what their goals should be except to say there should be a “blue-ribbon panel” to figure it out. Perhaps training children to have the basic skills needed to be the next generation of full participants in Jewish prayer might be a good starting goal.
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