Global, Politics, Religion

The USCJ Strategic Plan

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.

43 thoughts on “The USCJ Strategic Plan

  1. Chicago snuck in there because of the involvement of two prominent Chicago Hayom Rabbis. CJHS is central relative to the location of most Conservative shuls in the metro. And it is a Conservative institution.
    As for Chicago being part of the country, now that Rahm is in charge, we will promptly secede and mailing the rest of the country newspaper-wrapped fish. Take that, smug eastcoast @**holes!

  2. 1/ Any religion or sect with problems that thinks it can be helped by having a ‘strategic plan’, well that’s a problem in itself.
    2/ To be fair to the Conservatives, at least they’re admitting that they have a demographic problem which is more than the Reform or the Reconstructionists are doing.

  3. “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.”
    Here in Pittsburgh a Conservative rabbi whose contract was not renewed by his USCJ affiliated shul started his own non denominational congregation and to the best of my knowledge did not pay dues to USCJ yet the children that were part of his new congregation were allowed to participate in all local and national USY activities. Good news for the kids. Bad news for the shul he broke away from who still paid dues to USY while the new rival shul did not.

  4. @KRG, BZ, & Adam, I’ll give them some credit for also hosting web seminars. 25 whole people were listening to the one tonight and some of them don’t even work for USCJ. The Chicago pick was inspired, if Rahm does succeed then they could say they’ve listened to international voices.
    @Boxhorn, USCJ is not a religion or sect. It is an organization that is trying to collect communal money and provide services that benefit the interests of those who give them money. Call it what you want, but any long-term successful organization regularly looks at its portfolio of revenue sources, expenses, and programs and tries to better align them with organizational interests.
    I also question whether there is a demographic problem. USCJ are a growing number of communities with active observance that definitely aren’t Orthodox. That many don’t affiliate with another movement doesn’t mean there’s a demographic problem.
    @Victor. Part 2 should be out soon. Now I just need to finish writing part 3.

  5. To be fair, Rabbi Wernick’s been going around the country for a while now. And he spoke at my non-suburban Seattle shul right before the plan was released.
    Thanks for talking about this, guestposter. I’m looking forward to the other posts!

  6. USCJ is a victim of it’s own doing. It started the slip of the slippery slope when it said it was OK to drive on the Shabbat to the synagogue. the slip continued with the allowance of Gay rabbis. Allowing it’s affiliated synagogues such a wide discretionary choice on it’s belief and practice structure led to amorphous and sometimes heretical practice. Finally, running it’s organization as a business rather than a holy beneficial organization is what is driving the decline. My opinions may be hard for a lot of people to swallow and may be categorized as hateful by the more liberal, but to me Emet is Emet.

  7. You mention that RA rabbis can’t apply for non-USCJ pulpits. The obverse is also true: in most cases non-RA rabbis are not eligible for USCJ pulpits. The control of rabbinic placement is one of the only hammers the denominations have left.

  8. @Shoshie, I am being a bit harsh and I know they’re really trying to speak to more people, but the optics of formally holding just those four in-person meetings is just terrible. Rabbi Wernick can’t travel around the whole country, but couldn’t they list a few other meetings with top USCJ leaders just to cover more ground? To me it’s a sign that they still don’t quite get it.
    @ Martin, A absolutely agree that Emet is Emet. Anyone schooled in logic would also agree that historically ignorant over-generalizations are historically ignorant over-generalizations.
    @David, speaking of logic, I should have used an OR not XOR. Actually, I should have probably written “Either I’m an outlier or the assumptions are wrong”
    @rebmoti, Interestingly the different movements aren’t all as strict as the Conservative movement regarding placement. A congregation can buy into the Reconstructionist placement system without affiliating. Also any non-RA rabbi has the ability to apply for RA membership (regardless of smicha source) and get access to USCJ pulpits. Of course, the RA can reject applicants.
    @Jew Guevara, Give Glen Beck time. Sooner or later he’ll realize that the conspiracy of Jewish Islamists go to the very top leadership positions of the Conservative movement: http://scientopia.org/blogs/goodmath/2011/02/23/an-open-letter-to-glen-beck-from-a-non-orthodox-jew/

  9. There’s even a sense in which you could be an outlier AND the assumptions could be wrong: if most active, committed Jews had participated in programs like these, but most people who participate in these programs don’t go on to be active, committed Jews. Actually, I suspect that’s the case.

  10. improveUSCJ-
    Oh, I agree that they don’t get it. I’m certainly not an apologist for the USCJ. But my point was that Rabbi Wernick DID travel around the country. We’re not exactly a major Jewish hub, up in our little Northwest corner. Now, I think that it probably would have made more sense for Rabbi Wernick to travel to ALL the cities AFTER they came up with the plan. It felt kind of empty for him to talk about this nebulous plan that would come out in 3 days.

  11. Improve Uscj
    it seems I hit a nerve. Your vague allusion to my allegedly over generalization is characteristic verbiage of those who are critical of USCJ. Your backhanded method of calling me ignorant is truly characteristic of the semantics used to rationalize adding and taking away Torah law that got USCJ in thievery predicament it is in now. for example, the little advice below this comment box details how we should not attack a person for their ideas was circumvented by the semantics and grammar. But yet, by allusion And according to Improve USCJ, I can be considered ignorant.

  12. Martin, your claim, if I understand you correctly, is that the USCJ is in their current predicament because their approach to halachah is not closer to the Modern Orthodox approach. Is that what you’re saying?
    My sense–and I’m a total outsider to the USCJ–but my sense is that their situation has been caused by, as improveUSCJ has pointed out, bad financial/logistical/organizational choices, not by ideological ones. And to her assessment, I’d add a marketing problem.
    But I don’t think admitting gay rabbi is driving people away. Well, actually, I’m quite certain that it’s driving a small group away, but on the whole, I’d guess that choice in particular has actually had a positive or neutral impact on their membership.

  13. David,
    For discussion purposes understand that I was not an outsider. On the contrary, I was very involved and had some very wonderful experiences. For that, I am thankful. However, this organization became so liberal that I could no longer affiliate with it.
    I would like to believe that we look up to the leadership to help us connect with HaShem through encouragement to be observant of Torah. What I have seen is that this organization has diluted the meaning of Torah through its penchant to adapt Torah to the modern times. While this has its place, I believe it went too far. While the written Torah condemns various forms of sexual union, the USCJ approves of some of that behavior for its Rabbis. Yes, they have gone to great lengths through scholarly study of Talmud and other texts to nullify this explicit prohibition but the fact remains it is a big change. I for one cannot abide this behavior. If you can nullify this, then the ten commandments itself can be nullified in the same manner. Where does it stop? How can this organization represent Jewish values and Torah?
    Let’s examine Christianity. Jesus was a Jew. But, his views went against Torah values. As time went on his followers didn’t want to even keep what was left. Paul and his ilk threw away the laws that promoted holiness and the Jewish connection to G-d. The result was that you have a majority of people believing and practicing something that is not Jewish and cannot be Jewish.
    The USCJ is sliding down the same slope

  14. That’s an interesting point. Saul/Paul was a kind of liberal Jew of his age. He knew Torah intimately, and he made his own, personal choices on observance and belief based on a traditional understanding of the texts. He saw himself first and foremost as a Jew, and as a Jew he made a personal peace with his preferred service of G-d.
    However, later generations were not schooled in Torah the way Saul had been. They took his teachings but did not have his foundation in Torah scholarship to interpret those teachings the way he would have. Instead, they made interpretations based on their background, which was not Jewish or even Judeophilic, but increasingly antagonistic to Jews.

  15. @Martin, You do realize that you are arguing that you are uniquely aware of the absolute truth and any attempts to add shades of gray are violations of that truth? By any stretch, saying that reality might be more complex than your assertions falls safely on the side of attacking a point of view rather than a person.
    There are more than enough places where one can argue about homophobic discrimination’s place in halacha, but that’s tangential to the topics of these posts and I’ll ask everyone to save this conversation for other places.

  16. @Martin
    all halakhah is adapting and translating cultural norms to a new reality. that is what halakhah has been since its inception and what it continues to be to this day. btw, since you are so observant of torah law, how many slaves do you own? how many wives do you have? i’m also assuming you beat your children when they talk back to you… don’t give me this if they can undo one obscure and relatively strangely worded verse in torah they can allow murder and kidnapping and adultery. the fact is that rabbis throughout time have changed practice and norm to fit into a new understanding of society. take polygamy, it wasn’t even undone using a halakhic process. it was undone with a takkanah, a rabbinic fix, a decree saying it’s wrong to have more than one wife. so what’s the difference? oh, i see, you just dislike homosexuality. get over it and don’t presume to know God’s will or the best practice for the Jewish people. At least CJLS had the strength and courage to stand up for what is right and allowed for all aspects of USCJ to be represented in their halakhic rulings.

  17. Martin,
    I urge you to listen to the criticism your comments are generating. Did you really expect another response? When dogma meets dogma (ok, when strongly held beliefs meet other strongly held beliefs), there’s only one realistic outcome. What did you think, that you would straighten things out, that people would start crying, repent and become modern orthodox?
    We should all live the way we feel best represents our values and spiritual obligations, bring up our children the way we feel is best, and respect the rights of others to do the same.
    Justin, (are you “justin”, or “Justin” the Jewschool regular?), there’s a difference between cultural norms and halacha. Wearing a turban instead of a baseball cap is a cultural norm. Covering your head, particularly in prayer, is halacha. I agree with improveUSCJ that this isn’t a proper thread to discuss differences of theology having little or nothing to do with the USCJ discussion.

  18. @Victor, It’s the same guy. And this has EVERYTHING to do with the USCJ discussion. Understanding halakhah for contemporary times is the lynchpin of conservative judaism.

  19. Justin said: At least CJLS had the strength and courage to stand up for what is right and allowed for all aspects of USCJ to be represented in their halakhic rulings.
    The only way they got to Justin’s statement was that they allowed one of their members to vote both for and against rulings allowing gay rabbis. And of course the ruling allowing for gay rabbis passed by one vote. I never hear anyone that is so happy the CJLS allowed for gays to be rabbis acknowledge this hypocrisy. Why would anyone be content with such wishy-washyness?

  20. uSCJ
    I used the homosexual issue as an example, not a cause!
    Others,
    People living like they think they need to live is not Judaism, it is Humanism and that is OK as long as we understand the difference. I didn’t expect that everyone would agree with me but the discusion was about what we think went wrong with USCJ and how it might be fixed.
    The dialog we are having needs to continue but pro ably not here unless it meets this forums objectives.
    I could have used the driving to Synagogue on Shabbat as an example as well. It has the same or more significance than the homosexuality issue. The point I am making is the same point I made in my initial post of the main things I thought, in my opinion dragged USCJ down

  21. @not a dime-
    in addition to contemporary halakhah, wishy-washiness is the other lynchpin of the conservative movement 🙂 The fact is that there are numerous interpretations and the CJLS seeks to include all of those voices. remembers, CJLS is an advisory panel, and is also a separate body from USCJ and even from the RA. it’s not hypocrisy in that there are rabbis who sit on the CJLS who think homosexuals should be ordained and there are those who think they should remain in the closet (because the fact is that there always have been homosexual rabbis since rabbis have existed). This isn’t hypocrisy, it’s diversity in opinions and arguably, according to both CJLS and USCJ, there should be room for both ideas. The rabbi who voted for both the Rabbis Dorff-Nevins-Reisner responsum which allowed for homosexual relations, union and ordination saw the halakhic credence of the argument, likewise they saw the halakhic credence of Rabbi Roth’s argument to maintain the already held position that all should be forbidden. Ultimately, CJLS is an advisory board, not a body which takes Draconian measures.

  22. People living like they think they need to live is not Judaism, it is Humanism and that is OK as long as we understand the difference.
    Martin, I agree with you. There are people, perhaps you and I among them, for whom Yiddishkeit is a primary force in their lives, with humanist values playing an important complement, a condiment to faith. There are plenty of Jews for whom this balance is reversed, if it is a balance at all. What do you think the outcome will be if you put a gun to their head and ask them to choose, right now, between the lives they have invested 30, 40, 50 years of blood and tears in, and a system of faith and law they know and understand little about? Put away the gun!
    The change and understanding you want to force today takes years, even decades to develop, and even then only by the free will of those involved. You’ve made your most important contribution with your head, your heart and your feet, as have I. It’s a beautiful thing, to make such a transition, requiring patience, sensitivity and love. Let’s not deprive our fellow Jews of the opportunity to make a similar journey.

  23. Let’s not deprive our fellow Jews of the opportunity to make a similar journey.
    let’s also not fool ourselves that contemporary orthodoxy is any more authentic than any other mode of Jewish expression. Plenty of people live a life of avodah and don’t practice orthodox Judaism. Plenty of shomrei mitzvot yiddin don’t need black pants and a white shirt or loads of humros to experience a substantive Jewish life.

  24. Plenty of people live a life of avodah and don’t practice orthodox Judaism.
    I agree.
    Plenty of shomrei mitzvot yiddin don’t need black pants and a white shirt or loads of humros to experience a substantive Jewish life.
    I agree.

  25. “let’s also not fool ourselves that contemporary orthodoxy is any more authentic than any other mode of Jewish expression. Plenty of people live a life of avodah and don’t practice orthodox Judaism.”
    Truth! Judaism has always been influenced by and evolved with outside thought, and that continues today, in ALL facets of Judaism, whether they’ll admit to it or not.

  26. Judaism has always been influenced by and evolved with outside thought, and that continues today, in ALL facets of Judaism, whether they’ll admit to it or not.
    Who should admit to it? Who are these Jews who deny that Rambam applied Aristotilean concepts? Who are these Jews who refuse to use electricity? This is a strawman argument. The question is not whether Jews leverage foreign influences into a better understanding and practice of our faith, but whether you will you allow yourself and your life to be influenced by those very constants of our faith that foreign thought and innovations are imported to make ever more meaningful.

  27. It is not my intention to push anything on anybody. I just want to make it clear that there are some practices that are not Jewish. As long as people understand this and are following the journey to Jewish practice, there is nothing wrong. But, to take these foreign practices and present that they are Jewish, then that is where I personally have a problem.
    No one group can say they are the standard of Judaism. However, there is a limit to the diversity of practice that at some boundary point Judaism is not being practiced.
    The big issue is that there are many people who identify as Jews who question the validity of the Written Torah and even more so for the Oral tradition. If you hold that the Written Torah is man’s invention inspired by G-d, then it is open to error and does not necessarily represent the Will of G-d. This being so,that individual will, in all probability be practicing Humanism with an accidental practice of Judaism. The boundary will have been breached. In this world of relativity, humankind needs one Absolute to use as a standard.
    My personal absolute Standard is the Torah but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room within boundaries to interpret. I just believe USCJ has gone beyond those boundaries with regard to driving to the synagogue on Shabbat and homosexual rabbis.

    1. Martin Cury writes:
      In this world of relativity, humankind needs one Absolute to use as a standard.
      All hail Martin Cury, humankind’s Absolute standard!

  28. My personal absolute Standard is the Torah
    Well, I agree with Martin. We should all be absolutist zealots when it comes to our own divine service. The problem starts when we elect ourselves absolutist zealots over the avoda and lives of other Jews.
    I’m not directing these comments at Martin. These are just my own, private thoughts. To fight for G-d is good, but one can’t fight for G-d but against Jews. That’s nonsensical. To fight for G-d means to fight for Jews, even the ones who drive on Shabbos, even those with same-sex partners, even those who do nothing but have kids and study Gemara in Itamar.

  29. “Who are these Jews who deny that Rambam applied Aristotilean concepts?”
    They exist. And, evidently, their nationalism and their homophobia and their sexism are all mi’Sinai and TOTALLY not influenced by the Goyim, but my environmentalism and feminism and eeeeevil outside influences and not a part of Torah at all.
    I wish that it was a strawman argument but, alas, those people are real.

  30. The Gemorrah uses the written Law as a standard to test arguments and interpretation using logic rules handed down from Sinai.
    Sarcastic remarks, BZ, are not in keeping with this forums guidelines and only reflects back on the person offering them. The standard is Torah, not me.
    There are examples in Torah where the fight for G-d did indeed go against Jews. However, I didn’t realize that my words were attacking Jews.
    I believe my point was made in theinterst of responding to USCJ and I will post no further comments
    Shalom aleichem

    1. Torah is interpreted by humans (unless you have a direct line to God), and obviously we should all bow to the interpretations of someone who doesn’t know the difference between Gemara and Gomorrah.

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