Politics, Religion

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.

10 thoughts on “Day schools want to drop out of USCJ

  1. The Schechter Network is unequivocally committed to staying within the Conservative institutional framework. Becoming an independent 501-C-3 will allow us to attract more resources so we can continue to create strong collaborations and innovate programming within the Conservative Movement. Ongoing talks with JTS about possibly relocating some of our staff there again prove our intention to integrate the Schechter Network with other Conservative institutions, such as the Davidson School and Camp Ramah, for the good of the Movement. Finally, USCJ and individual synagogues have been and will continue to be crucial partners with the Schechter Network. We see our efforts as aligning vision and resources in ways that strengthen what we call the passionate center.
    Jim Rogozen

  2. Thank you for your response Rabbi Rogozen.
    I’m glad to hear that the Schechter Network is in serious talks with JTS. That said, I’m less concerned whether the Schechter Network will stop being Conservative and more concerned with what it will be. How will it use the money it wants to fundraise to better support the day schools in its network and attract more schools? Whether at JTS or USCJ, how will it play a role in the broader Conservative Jewish education world? Just being Conservative isn’t enough. What innovative programming collaborations aren’t impossible within USCJ?
    It’s also still very disconcerting that an organization is hurt simply by being part of USCJ. If organization connections to USCJ directly hurt fundraising, that seems like a major problem for USCJ that goes well beyond this current discussion. As is written in the post, why wouldn’t the same logic apply to USY? USY would be able to fundraise more and not turn away children from synagogues that aren’t affiliated with USCJ. If I’m missing something, USCJ needs to do a much better job explaining how being under the USCJ umbrella adds value.

  3. The Schechter Day School Network may be a product of the Conservative movement, but it is NOT a network of day schools based on Conservative Judaism:
    1 – The Charles E Smith Jewish Day School (CES JDS) of Rockville, MD is a member of the Schechter Network. CES JDS is not a Conservative day school – it is a pluralistic, community day school, and very proud of that fact. The school has boundaries for what is acceptable to teach, but those boundaries include the prevalent theologies and ideologies of all the major streams of american Judaism.
    2 – There is a download link on the Schechter Network’s homepage for their Viewbook, which is meant to explain the values and advantages of schools in the Network. The only hint that Schechter schools have anything to do with the Conservative movement in any way is the USCJ insignia on the back page. Everything about Jewish values is kept as generic as possible. Nothing makes Schechter distinct, even in its own literature, from the average pluralistic day school.
    3 – The avoidance of Conservative Judaism continues with the way the schools identify themselves. The “About” pages on the websites of many, possibly most, of the schools in the Network make no mention of Conservative Judaism, Conservative Jewish values, or even Conservative Judaism’s approach to text study (an area in which the Conservative movement has historically been an innovator). Compare this with the average Modern Orthodox or pluralistic day school; these types of institutions go out of their way on their websites to include either direct or indirect references to distinct approaches to how Judaism works within their school’s walls.
    4 – There are no standards for what makes a Schechter Network member a member. While I could not find out how to join the Network from the website, it takes until the 9th bullet point on the “Objectives” page for the Network to weakly state the following objective:
    “advocate for cooperative and collaborative efforts among institutions and programs that are connected through their affiliation with Conservative Judaism”
    Compare the Schechter Network in its current form with Koach, USY, and (though not part of USCJ) the Ramah Camps. All three of these mentioned organizations make it clear in their literature, their practices, and (I know from personal experience) their leadership and staff training that Conservative Judaism is an essential part of their identity; each of the above organizations exists for the express purpose of continuing to build the Conservative Jewish community in the future.
    While USY and Koach have their faults they both at least share a clarity of purpose and focus their efforts on Conservative Judaism. The Schechter Network has neither, and it is a waste of money for the USCJ to continue to keep funding the Schechter Network out of Consrvative synagogues’ dues.

  4. From their Mission:
    The Schechter Network promotes the continued growth and vitality of its member schools that serve a broad Jewish population and are characterized by Conservative Jewish principles, high academic achievement, social responsibility, and joyous spiritual engagement in a culture of caring and community.
    A bit better than the objectives, but nowhere on the entire website is it clarified just what “Conservative Jewish principles” are. Having done some work in the Schechter world I can confirm that the schools are not quite sure what that phrase means either.

  5. One more – the top page called “About the Network” does a good job focussing on Conservative Judaiss, saying about the schools that “they share an affiliation and identification with the religious philosophy, principles, beliefs and practices of the Conservative movement.” Still, nothing in the site about just what the philosophy and those principles, beliefs, and practices actually are.

  6. One comment above is misleading. It’s not that being under the USCJ “hurts” Schechter schools. It’s that having an independent non profit status opens up additional possibilities.
    The ongoing Strategic Planning process addresses some of the issues mentioned here, such as how we talk about the “Conservative” nature of our schools, how our newly envisioned organization will create programming that matches Conservative values/approaches.
    Please remember that there is, indeed, a certain amount of overlap in the basic educational principles that all good day schools incorporate into their program. Also, some of them may appear to be “secular” or generic educational practices, yet they truly separate a Conservative day school from an Orthodox one.
    Also, there ARE documents we have that do not appear on the website that delineate religious practices, amount of text study, prayer guidelines, etc. that further distinguish a Schechter school from most community day schools.
    There are some schools that either began as community schools and joined the Schechter Network, or had the opposite history, but they want to stay connected to our Network because they have found value in doing so. The reality is that many day schools are the ONLY day school in their region (or the only non-Orthodox one) so they must negotiate the challengene of being a Conservative school as well as the community’s school.
    Finally, the big issue isn’t about institutional alliances, or Conservative “Movement” configurations; it’s about defining Conservative “Judaism” which to me, at least, is normative, historic Judaism. Conservative Judaism is lived and expressed in a wide range of ways in various Movement locations. Part of the way people express/define CJ relate to religious practice, some to approaches to study and, in the case of Schechter schools, to the educatinal environments we create.

  7. @Gooch, I get a lot of what you’re saying about mission, but I think the bigger issue is less what is or isn’t their mission and more they it’s not communicated well. Putting standards that define member schools on a website isn’t something that requires a strategic planning process or really much planning at all.
    Also, Charles E Smith was founded as a Schechter school, but it’s now a member of the RAVSAK, the community network. The only place I see a current connection to Schechter is http://www.cesjds.org/page.cfm?p=349 which lists them as an “affiliate of Schecter.” I have no clue what that means, but, as far as I can tell, CES doesn’t self identify as a Schechter school in most of it’s literature (though it is in the Schechter directory)
    @Rabbi Rogozen, I keep hearing about this huge gain from being an independent non-profit, but it doesn’t completely make sense. I assume USCJ is already a non-profit and can collect donations. There are non-trivial expenses with being independent. The underlying issue is that some people or organizations may be willing to donate to Schecter if the money wasn’t in a USCJ controlled bank account. If such a donor trust issue exists, it affects everything under USCJ.

  8. This is a minor issue to the bigger story, but the more I think about it, the more disturbing it is to see Charles E Smith on Schechter’s list of Schechter schools: http://schechternetwork.org/find-a-school/?zip_code=20852&grade_id=1
    Given that CESJDS doesn’t call itself a Schechter school in most documents, is part of RAVSAK, and doesn’t have Conservative-specific enrollment or education requirement, there’s clearly a difference between being a Schechter Network member and an affiliate. That this difference is invisible on the Schechter Network webpage makes me wonder if they haven’t updated their directory in a decade+ or if there are other affiliated schools inflating the actual number of Schechter member schools. Given the purpose of the directory is to help families local Conservative day schools (and potentially decide where to move) not distinguishing affiliated from member schools seems inappropriate.
    Perhaps Rabbi Rogozen or someone else can help explain the difference between member & affiliated schools & why it’s not important to distinguish them on the Schechter network website?

  9. @Rabbi Rogozen:
    First, thanks for taking the time to discuss this with a couple of commenters. It is definitely appreciated. I am sorry that this comment is coming so long after your own.
    A – You mention guidelines for text study, prayer and other religious practices that exist for Schechter schools. I have two questions about these:
    (1) What is the value in keeping this information private by not publishing it on the website?
    (2) If a school is not living up to a certain number of guidelines, is their network membership revoked?
    B – Whether a school is the only Jewish Day School or the only non Orthodox day school in an area should be irrelevant to the mission of a school that identifies itself as Conservative by being part of the Schechter Network. It is entirely possible for a school to have a clear Jewish identity under the banner of Conservative Judaism and serve the community at the same time.
    Does the Network encourage its schools to create an environment likely to produce future members and, even better, leaders of Conservative Synagogues?
    C – At the end of your last comment you wrote:
    “Part of the way people express/define CJ relate to religious practice, some to approaches to study and, in the case of Schechter schools, to the educatinal environments we create.”
    I have either experienced or taught in Ramah, USY, and Schechter Network schools. I have also spend significant time in both Orthodox and pluralistic environments. I am fairly knowledgeable in JTS’s unique approach to text study and in the unique Halachic practices and processes of Conservative Judaism; At no point have I been trained in, nor have I experiences, an educational environment that is uniquely Conservative. I would be very interested in learning what you think is unique about a CJ educational environment.
    Thank you again for taking the time to read and respond to these comments.

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