This will be the first in a series of three posts on the USCJ strategic plan from guestposter “ImproveUSCJ.”.
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 1: USCJ as it is
I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has just released a strategic plan. This is in response to an ongoing effort to revive an organization that is rapidly losing members and relevance. Large factions of remaining members formed groups like Hayom and Bonim to demand significant changes or the creation of new organizations. This is all at a time when major Jewish publications are writing articles saying that the decline of families in synagogues affiliated with USCJ is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism. It’s not completely clear why synagogues’ refusal to write large annual checks to an organization that wasn’t giving them much back in return is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism or even a decline in the Conservative movement, but it makes for a catchy article title. Many of Judaism’s large, communal institutions are losing strength and significance. Due to errors in management and vision, USCJ’s recent decline has been particularly impressive.
It’s worth noting why large institutions, like USCJ, matter. Simply put, if small communities have common goals, putting some time and money into an organization that helps them meet those goals can be a good investment. The common goals and funding needs vary depending if you’re USCJ or the National Havurah Committee, but the concept is the same. Before talking about what USCJ plans to do, I wanted to discuss what it currently does, and sketch its current problems.
What USCJ Does
No community looks to USCJ for theological inspiration and I doubt they ever have. Their standards for congregational practice mention “God” once in Addendum 1.2.2i. It looks more like a union contract that religious doctrine because that is the purpose of the organization. Neither membership nor non-membership in USCJ says much about shifting trends in religious belief. Members look to USCJ as a resource to support their own efforts, provide ways to connect people between communities, and provide institutions that benefit the larger community.
Many groups run under the umbrella of USCJ including: USY, which is the Conservative movement’s youth programming, Nativ, the movement’s year-in-Israel program, and KOACH, their college outreach program, and the Solomon Schechter Day School Association. USCJ has also invested heavily and very actively pushed fundraising for The Conservative Yeshiva. How much of central USCJ funding goes to each of these organizations and how much control central USCJ leadership has over them varies widely. Still, all these programs have had clear successes, and I suspect many people reading this have been directly affected by at least one of them. (For what it’s worth, as a Jew who was linked to Conservative synagogues for all but 4 years of my life, I didn’t participate in any of these and spent a single unpleasant Summer at a Ramah Camp – the camps are run by JTS. Either I break all the assumptions of what makes an adult committed to Jewish practice or the universality of the assumptions are wrong. I suspect the second.)
USCJ provides leadership and programmatic training and support through its Sulam workshops and organizational and education consultants along with moderated listserves to connect synagogue presidents and other officers. They also helped develop some educational programming and curricula. I’ve never participated, but I’ve generally heard good things about Sulam. While others might have had good experiences, I’ve never seen a situation where USCJ consultants have the time or skills to enrich my synagogues’ programming. I’m sure I’ve come across curricula that had their origins in USCJ, but I’m not sure if anyone currently looks towards USCJ for innovative educational materials.
I think the USCJ budget also contributes to the creation of the Conservative movement’s siddurim, chumashim and machzorim. The books are often tested in USCJ affiliated congregations.
Finally, USCJ is a synagogue union and has many positive and negative trappings of unions. They have a closed shop contract where rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly can only be hired by USCJ affiliated synagogues and are not allowed to look for synagogue work at non-USCJ synagogues. They have similar, but less stringent, contracts with the Conservative cantors’ and educators’ unions. In the distant past, when the ratio of USCJ synagogues to RA rabbis was larger and online job searches didn’t exist, I could see how these policies were beneficial to all. USCJ encourages having people get respectable salaries to work in the Jewish world.
Why USCJ is in trouble
Demographic changes always happen. Some are theological, some involve Jewish practice, and some involve geography. All the movements have shifted their theology over the years and I doubt these play a large part in USCJ’s decline. On the other hand, USCJ was blind-sided by gradual changes in what Jews want to do and where they live. It has gone from a movement that was actively encouraging synagogues and their leaders to move to the suburbs in the 1960’s & 70’s to confused leaders trying to figure out why the following generations didn’t want to populate those same suburban shuls. At this point, a 9% of USCJ affiliated synagogue members are under 40, with a quarter of affiliated synagogues having serious financial difficulties. Forms of Jewish community that are not dues paying synagogues have no relationship with USCJ.
Most drastically for USCJ’s current problems, very little of the above list of programs affects affiliated synagogues on a regular basis. USY’s active leadership structure and programming is fairly independent from USCJ. I was originally going to write that USCJ subsidizes USY dues, but it actually looks like USCJ expects to earn a profit on its youth programming with synagogue dues paying for other parts of the budget. There’s very little in leadership training that is unique to the Conservative movement. If a synagogue has an active and knowledgeable membership, it needs very little, if anything, from the various consultants and centralized programming. Many synagogues that need help complain they can’t get it from USCJ. Thus, the people who are actually paying dues to USCJ see very little direct returns on their money. To make matters worse, USCJ has cultivated an opaque leadership style behind unmanageably huge boards of directors. I’m not sure anyone could tell me how programmatic ideas and change flow through a company with this organizational chart.
Two things keeping some dissatisfied synagogues affiliated with USCJ are the threats to prevent synagogues from hiring RA rabbis and prevent their children from participating in USY if a synagogue leaves USCJ. Being forced to pay dues by threat does not build a satisfied customer base. I’m not sure whether “immoral” is an appropriate word for threatening children’s education and connections in a Jewish community of their peers in USY if parents don’t want to pay USCJ dues, but immoral is the first word that comes to mind.
In the face of mass threats of unaffiliation and unwillingness to pay annual five figure dues, USCJ and Hayom launched a strategic planning process last March. They just issued the draft strategic plan to be voted on by their board of directors next month. The Executive director will hold 4 public meetings all around the country (NY, NY, NJ, and Chicago) to show that they really care about all their membership’s voices
I’ll comment on the details of the strategic plan and how it does or does not address the problems in part 2.