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.