Global, Politics, Religion

The USCJ Strategic Plan Part II: Critique

The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 2: Critique of the strategic plan
by ImproveUSCJ
The first thing that jumps out of the USCJ strategic plan is a revolutionary change in membership focus. They are no longer an association of synagogues. They are now an association of “kehilot.” There’s even a whole paragraph about why this is so significant and how they plan to create a team to figure out how to rebrand USCJ with a new name to match this word change. This is part of the growing trend where transliterated Hebrew is considered more profound than English [insert random quote from Steven M. Cohen here]. Beyond the excitement that the Conservative movement has finally discovered transliteration, it is a welcome part of an effort to create ways for groups of Jews that don’t call themselves synagogues to affiliate with USCJ. They even say they want USCJ to become “a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism.” (Hello Indy Minyanim! We love you! Really! Honest! Ignoring lots of evidence to the contrary, we still consider all of you expatriates of our movement and want to welcome you back.)

Despite some comments by a founder of Kol Zimrah, USCJ affiliation says surprisingly little about the halachic authority of the CJLS. Acceptable practices for affiliation simply require a community’s mara d’atra (literally “master of the place”: the authority learned enough in Torah and Jewish law to be the decisive voice on any Jewish legal questions) to give “due consideration” to the published opinions of the CJLS. Due consideration is a very low bar and not very different from saying, “The past has a vote, not a veto.” USCJ does not address whether they will change the affiliation requirement of every community needing a Rabbinical Assembly approved mara d’atra. I don’t see how most indy minyanim would be able to affiliate with that requirement and it would be fascinating to watch USCJ make mechanisms for defining acceptable practices without it.
They have plans to rethink their dues structure with the goal of moving away from a flat cost per synagogue member and more towards percent of each community’s budget. They want to reduce USCJ revenue from dues and increase revenue from donations creation of profitable programs. Such a change would benefit affiliated synagogues and make a real entry path for low-budget minyanim. USCJ plans to restructure and streamline governance and to work harder to distribute much more of their revenue to all their geographic regions. They also plan to invest more in situational expertise and having staff make useful inter-community connections rather than having USCJ attempt to create one-size-fits-all programs. It seems like they are finally realize they cannot “create, develop and disseminate educational, religious and tikun olam programming to meet the needs of our congregations and their members” in-house, which is the first point of their current mission.
Two proposals that are getting heavy pushback in the public comments are to focus on high school and post-college and leave college to Hillel and Chabad and to figure out how to make the Conservative Yeshiva more financially independent from USCJ. They really seem to be talking about shrinking their college programming, Koach, which costs $70K around the country and another $78K for salaries at SUNY Binghamton. It’s clear they don’t want to abandon the Conservative Yeshiva, but they do want to figure out some ways to pay back loans without taking $500K out of USCJ’s $18million annual budget. While, successes of the Yeshiva are clear, the earlier financial decisions to spend millions of dollars on new building and renovations in Jerusalem without securing sufficient donors has given USCJ an unsustainable amount of debt. It is a bit concerning that the person who held ultimate responsibility for this fiscal mismanagement as the former CEO of USCJ, is now director of the yeshiva’s Fuchsberg Center that he help underfund.
No one seems to be complaining that USCJ is planning to dump its public policy & advocacy roles. This is a welcome change after some past pathetic attempts at political relevance.
The other shockingly novel ideas in the plan are to “transform and strengthen” existing affiliated communities, encourage and build new communities (hello indy minyanim again), and focus heavily on childhood education. They also want to shrink and pare down non-core functions. It’s very fuzzy what those non-core functions are. Very impressively, “USCJ will help kehillot expand membership, increase participation, cut costs and increase revenue.” After they’re done with that, they will work on perfecting renewable energy technology.
Despite being mildly encouraged by some of these ideas, I still doubt they’ll be able to pull much of it off. To actually implement many of these changes, they’d need an almost complete turnover of professional and lay leaders to bring new skill sets into the organization. I just don’t see this happening. They’ve shied away from mentioning most actual staff cuts and while they rationalize the few specified cuts, they tend to be from programs that cost more than they bring in. For example the logic of why they shouldn’t care about Jews while they’re in college is fairly impressive.
More fundamentally, despite all these operational changes in how USCJ will be run, I still see little vision for the purpose of the organization. Their proposed vision statement is an embarrassment:
“The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is a community of kehillot – sacred communities — committed to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian or traditional. Our kehillot create the conditions for a powerful and vibrant Jewish life, empowering Jews in North America to seek the presence of God, to seek meaning and purpose in Torah, to fully engage with Israel, and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world and the Jewish People. Together with other centers of energy identified with Conservative Judaism, we articulate and disseminate our approach to Judaism.”
This statement describes the members and not the role of USCJ. It’s as if a company’s vision was, “We are a company whose products are purchased by beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate people.” They double-down on the ridiculousness of this by making it a membership requirement to agree with that vision. “Our customers are wonderful because we won’t sell products to anyone who isn’t wonderful.” The problems go beyond this statement. Despite all the logistical changes, I still have no clue what types of programs USCJ sees itself doing a few years from now. Will it do any content creation or will it primarily be a connector between other communities. If they want to be a connector and work with indy minyanim, are they planning to hire lots of people from the indy minyan world and/or with strong information technology backgrounds? They only have the budget to do that if they fire most of their existing staff.
For their focus on pre-college education, they clearly want work with other parts of the movement, and try to get the many education arms working together. I’d be very happy if they can get day schools to seriously share and adapt resources with supplementary schools. It’s a shame of the movement, and the larger Jewish community, how much innovation is directed towards day schools when so many more children are in our supplemental schools. They still seem to want to keep an unmanageably large portfolio. In various parts of the plan, they are coordinating other organizations to synergize and integrate all their educational programs, developing a coherent education philosophy (what happened to one-size-doesn’t fit all?), having their own educational consulting teams, and punting the goal of an educational vision to a “blue-ribbon panel” of the “best educational thinkers.” I’ll check back in a decade to see how that vision statement is coming along.
The part of this plan that is getting the most press is the explicit goal of bringing unaffiliated communities into the fold. Lowering dues is lovely, but what are they planning to do to actually give these communities a reason to affiliate? The proposal lists giving consulting, technical, and financial (e.g. interest-free start-up loans) support. Based on my experiences with indy minyan leaders, they have their own networks of mutual support and often have more technical expertise than anyone I’ve met at USCJ. Loans could be useful, but the organic growth models from zero budgets seem to be working and even an interest free loan is a gamble for a new organization with an idea but no membership.
They talk about engaging young Jewish leaders about what they want from USCJ. This is something they just now think is a good idea? How about before 91% of USCJ affiliated synagogue members were over 40? They suggest helping adjacent (suburban) Conservative congregations create formal or informal satellites in urban areas. Are there any examples where this has been a useful model for new minyanim? With indy minyanim running from denominational labels, why would they want to be a satellite? For that matter, how is a formerly 800 family suburban synagogue that now has 50 families with no one under 60 going to make a satellite when they can barely afford to fix a leaky roof or hire staff? USCJ wants to decrease its direct investments on college campuses to focus on post college, but this assumes these are separate worlds. I’ve lost count of the number indy minyanim across the country with key founders from a few cohorts of Harvard students and, despite Harvard alumni office indoctrination, their students aren’t that special. Speaking of Harvard, it’s one of many communities where the on-campus minyamim include a healthy post-college crowd. In my grad school, there were also fuzzy borders between the undergrad, grad student, and post-college communities.
Most of my critique so far relate to the USCJ planners not thinking about aspects enough to create an implementable vision of their future. There is one aspect of the plan that goes in the completely wrong direction and would work against many of their other goals. USCJ clearly wants to listen to more voices and young leaders. Unfortunately, to build their donor base, they write “The majority of the leaders of the new USCJ should be drawn from a pool of philanthropic investors, who are capable of, and motivated to, making significant investments in the new USCJ.”
I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me want to write large checks than the chance to sit on a 30-50 person board of directors. Don’t worry, if you want to be on their board or have another lay leadership position, but can’t write a $10,000 check, you just need to find someone else to bankroll you. It’s stately quite clearly in Section 10.4 and footnote 4. Any unsold lay leadership positions with go to people with “intellectual stature to influence the course of American Judaism” or organizational leaders with “a demonstrated track record of judgment and wisdom.” While recognizing they need more donors and accepting that money buys influence, how do young voices or even the voices of synagogue leaders get a place at the board table if the majority of seats are literally for sale?
Despite being fairly negative here, if they can follow through on most of these plans, they might actually prevent a mass exodus from USCJ. That might give them some breathing room to figure out what they really should do next. I’ll attempt to envision an organization that would be an asset to the larger Jewish community in part 3.
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

32 thoughts on “The USCJ Strategic Plan Part II: Critique

  1. ImpactUSCJ–
    If I had any remaining doubt who you were, that comment from your wife clinched it 🙂
    Thanks for writing this series; I look forward to the next installment.
    In the meantime, what I’d love to hear (and maybe it’ll be in part 3) is what you feel Conservative congregations offer Jews under 40 that independent minyan don’t or can’t. With that in mind, what do you think the USCJ should be doing to attract Jews under 40 whether or not they currently pray elsewhere and whether or not they have a previous affiliation with the Conservative movement.
    Also, do you think that the problems face by the Conservative movement can be addressed by the USCJ? Or should these issues be explored by each individual synagogue? If part of their problem is that one size doesn’t fit all, what’s the point of having a strategic plan in the first place? As a post-denominational Jew, I’m more more likely to be drawn to a particular congregation than I am to the movement as a whole.

  2. In the 24 hours between your 2 postings at least 5 new Jews (by my calculation) were born in Kiryas Joel, NY alone.
    So without a single ‘strategic plan’, without rebranding ‘congregations’ as ‘kehilot’, without a ‘vision statement’, the congregations in KJ managed to grow.
    And they’ll grow in the next 24 hours. And the 24 hours after that.
    Amazing how that works, isn’t it.

  3. Due consideration is a very low bar and not very different from saying, “The past has a vote, not a veto.”
    But it’s still a high bar for communities where the CJLS currently doesn’t even have a vote, and doesn’t necessarily receive any consideration. I brought this up as a concrete example of a way in which even the subset of independent minyanim that bear superficial resemblances to Conservative congregations (e.g. Hebrew egalitarian prayer) aren’t simply “Conservative in everything but name”, and aren’t just playing word games.
    They have plans to rethink their dues structure with the goal of moving away from a flat cost per synagogue member and more towards percent of each community’s budget.
    This is a good idea, and is necessary (though far from sufficient) if they want any minyanim to join: currently, USCJ dues would be more than many minyanim’s entire budgets (assuming all their active participants were to become “members” — I guess dues are free for communities that don’t have membership?).
    Two proposals that are getting heavy pushback in the public comments are to focus on high school and post-college
    It would be a mistake to treat post-college adults as distinct from adults in general.

  4. @Dave, Every 18 minutes a yeast population doubles and it also doesn’t need a strategic plan. More specifically to say that the Satmar movement, which has made complex land purchases to anticipate population growth, built and run charitable organizations and schools, doesn’t engage in long term planning is just ridiculous. To say that their governance is functioning well is ignoring the recent history of succession. To assume that every new Satmar baby will be a Satmar adult is blind to the organizations, like Footsteps, which exist to help those who realized they had to escape. Even ignoring all that, I really don’t care about relative populations between groups. I care that a movement has enough growth to be self-sustaining. Whether growth is 2% or 20%, it’s still growth and the sign of a healthy movement.

  5. @BZ, The CJLS is an organization of rabbis who study halachic topics and publish their research and commentaries. If they have published teshuvot on topics that are relevant or interesting to you, would you actively avoid reading them or letting the reasoning they contain influence your own conclusions? If I had to codify what this requirement would mean for indy minyanim, it would mean that one should try to find the relevant teshuvot and give them a serious reading along with the many other commentators one might study. That doesn’t sound like an onerous request to me. Of course that could only happen if they actually made all their teshuvot accessible instead of putting some beyond a password-protected RA members only section of a website: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/law/teshuvot_public.html
    I completely agree and don’t call indy minyanim “Conservative in everything but name.” I tried to make that point in the parenthetical at the end of the first paragraph and I’ll address this more directly in part 3.
    You’ll note that I refer to young leaders and not “young adults.” There are generational differences and some distinct needs for adults of varying ages, but they’re all adults. I just searched the strategic plan text for misuse of “young adult.” I was happy to see that they mostly use “younger adult” to refer to generational differences, but then it went off the rail in section for with repeatedly patronizing usage of supporting “young adults.” At least it’s in a separate section from the pre-college educational efforts.

    1. @BZ, The CJLS is an organization of rabbis who study halachic topics and publish their research and commentaries. If they have published teshuvot on topics that are relevant or interesting to you, would you actively avoid reading them or letting the reasoning they contain influence your own conclusions?
      No, I wouldn’t actively avoid it, and I do read CJLS teshuvot sometimes. My relationship to the CJLS is similar to the relationship between U.S. courts and foreign courts. Sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court will cite, e.g., Canadian law in its opinions, not as a source of authority but as a source of guidance. However, that’s different from saying that the U.S. Supreme Court should give due consideration to Canadian law every time it makes a decision.
      If I had to codify what this requirement would mean for indy minyanim, it would mean that one should try to find the relevant teshuvot and give them a serious reading along with the many other commentators one might study. That doesn’t sound like an onerous request to me.
      It’s not so onerous for a community that wants to affiliate with the Conservative movement. But it is one reason that some communities may not want to.
      I completely agree and don’t call indy minyanim “Conservative in everything but name.” I tried to make that point in the parenthetical at the end of the first paragraph and I’ll address this more directly in part 3.
      Yes, thank you!

  6. @C, I cover some of your questions regarding USCJ in part 3.
    I don’t think it’s possible to write a clear statement of what one can get from synagogues vs indy minyanim because any boundary I make, someone is going to find an exception to the rule. Like you say people are drawn to specific communities. It might be the davening, or the lunches, or the style of the leaders, whether they are lay or professional. You might want to be in a place with diverse programs that meet the needs of people at different life stages. You might prefer an community where everyone is in similar life phase to you. If you can find some or all of what you want in a Conservative synagogue, you’ll probably attend it more often.
    As for what individual synagogues can do to attract people, I suggest treating them as they are part of the community rather than people who might want to get services to you. I didn’t walk into a synagogue and ask to be on the board. My synagogue at the time wanted to make sure they had a diverse range of voices in leadership and they called my family (even though our dues/donations were insignificant to the synagogue budget). On the board, I was treated as an equal voice to the others and was given serious responsibilities regarding major synagogue decisions. If nothing else, that got me really invested in the community and I brought others in.
    I’ll address this more in part 3, but USCJ’s job should be to identify and cultivate the resources that help communities do the things they want to do. A strategic plan isn’t to figure out the style that fits everyone, but to figure out the best ways to allocate resources to help as many Conservative communities as possible meet their needs.
    I’m not sure this answers all your questions, but I assume this will be a continuing conversation.

  7. RE: USCJ and Public Policy. You wrote: “No one seems to be complaining that USCJ is planning to dump its public policy & advocacy roles. This is a welcome change after some past pathetic attempts at political relevance.” I am writing as the co-chair of the current USCJ public policy committee. The Strategic Plan imagines that at some point in the future the Conservative movement will create a unified public policy mechanism. Lets hope, that would be nice. For the moment, however, the public policy and social action committee is a prime address for the Conservative movement to join coalitions and participate in discussion and action on a wide range of topics, from reproductive choice to Israel advocacy, from greening synagogues to workers rights and the magen tzedek. In addition, members of the committee sit on a number of important national and international interfaith and public policy bodies, offering what is often a unique perspective (rooted in Jewish history and text, unpredictable in terms of left/right labels). The committee does its work by conference call and the budget is small. Finally, you reference in your posting a controversy from a number of years ago (the Roberts nomination) that I agree pointed out the need for change in our processes, and those changes were made.
    Thanks for the thoughtful response to the plan, I realize that the public policy committee is a small part of the total picture.

  8. I wish that I were better able to write as the others do here. Thanks for the insights. As president of a USCJ affiliated shul, I find the strategic plan to minimal in new offerings, offensive in the lack of depth and more like a body worried about its own survival than that of the Jewish community. The relationship between the RA and the USCJ is enough to make me speak often and work towards unaffiliating with the USCJ. Their plan is too little too late for our shul – but I am only the president – I don’t own it.

  9. Boxhead said:
    “In the 24 hours between your 2 postings at least 5 new Jews (by my calculation) were born in Kiryas Joel, NY alone.”
    Yes, Boxhead, they live in an insular lala-land community of anti-intellectualism, no family planning and none of them are raised to have the necessary cultural capital to leave if they want to. It’s so wonderful for them! Meanwhile, here in reality, the rest of us are trying to figure out how to make a contemporary, religiously liberal, relevant forms of Judaism work in the 21st century. Are you in? Or do you wanna go live in Kiryas Joel?

  10. Should I first protest the comparison of a movement of Jews to that of mindless yeast, or rebuke DAWM for, once again, resorting to name-calling intended to imply that the person he’s arguing with is stupid?

  11. RE: USCJ and Public Policy. You wrote: “No one seems to be complaining that USCJ is planning to dump its public policy & advocacy roles. This is a welcome change after some past pathetic attempts at political relevance.” I hope that is the case. I would prefer to do away with the public policy committee or make its mandate more focused — strictly Israel advocacy or issues pertaining to the practice of Judaism, not every political issue that comes down the pike. It is the height of arrogance to presume that all Jews are liberal Democrats, or that we all feel the same way about “workers rights” or enviornmental regulation. Recently, I had discussions with members of the Virginia General Assembly in response to JCRC lobbying on behalf of liberal causes (much of which I disagreed), I was told that some members of the legislature are starting to see some Jewish organizations as just one more liberal lobby, i.e., nothing special. I hope that this stops. USCJ will not help istself by alienating a growing percentage of members by taking positions on political or economic issues that are not essential to USCJ’s mission.

  12. @Rabbi Gordon, I guess someone is complaining. 🙂
    Slightly more seriously, I understand that some of the things the policy committee does are important, but some of them might fit better as programmatic efforts rather than policy issues (i.e. greening synagogues). More pointedly, you’ve brought up one of my biggest problems with the policy committee. It’s a small group of people with minimal budget who decide to issue policy statements and sign them as representatives of all Conservative Jews. This is a linguistic issue, but I don’t think it’s trivial. Here are two more recent examples:
    http://www.mercazusa.org/pdf/Women-of-Wall-Statement-1-13-10.pdf
    http://www.mercazusa.org/pdf/2-4-11-statement-to-obama-re-UN-resolution-on-israel-and-settlements.pdf
    Ignoring the content or purpose of these letters, both are signed by “USCJ” with only one even naming individual signers. The second one says that the signers of this letter represent “the over 1 million members affiliating with the Conservative Movement in Judaism in the United States.” At no point in the USCJ affiliation process do synagogues give USCJ the authority to represent them. Few of the named signers are even elected and probably the same few hundred people were the only ones who had a voice in hiring most of them – with their policy views being mostly irrelevant to the hiring processes.
    I’d have no problem if the above two letters were signed, with names, by the leaders of the Conservative movement and they were identified as “leaders of the organizations that support 1 million Jews in the US.”. To say they represent affiliated Conservative Jews implies that there is some representative process that doesn’t actually exist. I’d be ok if they decided public policy was important enough to make a representative process to issue statements. Whether or not I personally support specific statements is irrelevant. Having a minimally budgeted committee of a few people sending out press releases claiming to represent us all is not ok and it probably dilutes the desired message, as Andy Golkow’s comment implies.

  13. @Victor, I was trying to note that saying a movement of Jews is theologically successful based on procreation rates is as silly as saying yeast is theologically successful based on procreation rates. I do not think Satmars are yeast and I do not think procreation rates (beyond sustainability) are relevant to this discussion. Hope this clarifies.

  14. Yes, there is complaining from the peanut gallery. I am a member of a Conservative synagogue in northern Virginia, where I have served as treasurer and a trustee. I grew up in the Conservative movement. My bar mitzvah was at a Conservative synagogue in the Philadelphia area. My daughters each had their bat mitzvah (and I hope will someday be married) at our synagogue here. In northern Virginia, there is a joke that when we refer to the “old country” we mean New York. Unlike family and friends in New York and Philadelphia, when you get further out in Virginia, there wasn’t a lot of Jewish infrastructure a generation ago. At our congregation, as a community, we donated time, money, and work to build a synagogue from the ground up. I provide that as background, so maybe people will understand why some of us get a little upset at the prospect of our movement – which didn’t help us build the synagogue — taking positions on political and economic issues in our name. I don’t mind contributing money for Jewish education and infrastructure. I mind a great deal when our movement advocates a political agenda with which I largely disagree.
    A good example of misuse of resources is the Magen Tzedek project. I have read through the detailed Standards that have been drafted. I am concerned that when congregations are asked to get on board with Magen Tzedek there is not a full and fair disclosure of what is in the Standards. Many of the Standards are illogical, poorly conceived, and reflect a bias in favor of labor unions (why would the Teamsters be presumed to be morally superior to a company producing kosher food?). I get the idea that when these Standards were developed, there was a lot of preaching to the choir among like-minded people, but little rigorous analysis. If these people want to push their program on their own nickel, then geh gesund. But given the outright opposition from the Orthodox community, apathy or skepticism from most others, and certainly a lack of enthusiasm in the kosher food industry, USCJ should be more discerning with its resources.
    The Magen Tzedek issue is a symptom of a larger problem. There are some who argue that since most Jews are liberal, it’s okay to advocate for “liberal” causes. Even worse, I suspect that there are some who relish being the “big macher” and unilaterally speaking on behalf of Jews generally. I hope that when USCJ plots its course for the years ahead, it avoids the temptation to speak for members of the community on outside issues who do not need or want you to speak for us.

    1. “Outright opposition from the Orthodox community” and “apathy and skepticism from most others” will be the response to anything the USCJ does, so they shouldn’t let that hold them back.

  15. That is institutional thinking. Could you imagine a private sector firm saying “we have a product that faces resistance in the marketplace, it doesn’t seem to work very well, and nobody but us seems to want it, so let’s pump another $100K into it”? To paraphrase a line from Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: the private sector? They expect results!
    The fact is that Orthodox consumers are more of a market for Kosher food than Conservative consumers. If the Orthodox are apathetic or downright hostile, few people would be willing to pay an penny extra for the Magen Tzedek mark on their kosher food, and the Standards (as they are currently configured) will be met with general hilarity when reviewed in detail, doesn’t USCJ have another Edsel on its hands? Even Ford ultimately got the idea and dumped the Edsel.
    The point is that if USCJ wants to dump resources into the Edsel, don’t complain about being short of funds.

  16. @Andy, While I agree with your general concerns, I’m not sure Heksher Tzedek is the best example of USCJ gone astray. First, in the 2010-11 budget, it allocated $10K not $100K (I’m sure others are donating too). That seems like a reasonable amount of seed money to see if they can help a program get off the ground. I’d love it if USCJ set up their budget so that they could throw $10K of seed money into a lot more experiments knowing that only some would succeed.
    Also, even if the Orthodox are hostile to this specific attempt, it has created more press about labor ethics beyond the literal laws of kashrut (A real issue, whether or not you like unions). It also inspired, or at least gave cover to, similar efforts within the Orthodox community, like: http://www.utzedek.org/tavhayosher/standards.html
    I’m also not overly concerned about the market for this. Non-jews are a huge portion of the hectured food industry. I don’t know why, but they are, and major manufacturers aren’t just hecturing their products for the <1% of the US market that is Orthodox Jews. There’s a growing business of ethics/fair trade/organic certifications. If Magen Tzedek made a good trusted product that fit into that market, it would do well. Considering how long it has taken them and they still don’t have a single certified product, I’m skeptical whether this specific effort will succeed.

  17. @Victor, Here’s an article from May 2007 that says they had a 5 person committee working on this for a year at that point:
    http://www.forward.com/articles/10733/
    There are some obvious reasons that this might take a while. They need to create a precise definitions of ethical labor and environmental practices and environmental treatment that is challenging enough that it is a point of pride/uniqueness for a product to get certified. At the same point, if it’s too much of a paperwork burdon for companies, or requires too many on-site visits it won’t be worth the time/money cost. Balancing these two issues is hard. Why it’s so hard that, only after 5 years they only have draft guidelines is beyond my understanding, but fits within standard Conservative movement management quality.
    fyi, Andy is not quite right about unions. I just skimmed through the draft rules at:
    http://magentzedek.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Magen_Tzedek_Draft_Standards_Public_Review_090909.pdf
    There are specific requirements for salaries and some other labor practices. If the workforce is unionized, these standards are assumed to be met. If not, the company needs to do additional reporting. That seems like a reasonable balance to me. it also asks that a company remains neural in attempts for their employees to unionize. This matches laws in many states. It is a pro-union, but far from an extreme position.

  18. If “all” USCJ is putting into MT this year is $10K, then I am happy to stand corrected! I may have seen a higher number for an earlier year, or as a total, but if it’s not that high, great.
    I respectfully disagree as to how MT Standards that have been released relate to unions. First, companies have rights under the National Labor Relations Act. In numerous places in the Standards its says that it doesn’t matter if conduct is legal, if it is contrary to MT’s concept of ethical. As imperfect as it is, I think it’s a bit of hubris for MT to put themselves over the democratic process. I can’t see companies lining up to waive legal rights! Second, I refer you to what is called “show stoppers”, “union busting activities, such as hiring a consultant specifically known for this purpose . .” If activity is within a company’s rights under the NLRA, why can’t they hire whoever they want? Who are these really bad consultants? Does this suggest a “blacklist” of labor lawyers and consultants who oppose unions? I’ll bet you that in USCJ congregations, there are labor lawyers and consultants who work the management side. Some would be rather angry (to say the least) about being blacklisted by their own movement.
    Even though I care little about Magen Tzedek, I care about USCJ. For the good of our movement, I would hope that USCJ would make some changes if it continues the project:
    1. MT has said that they are currently negotiating with companies for a test run. I suppose that transparency is good for thee but not for me! If the companies and MT are currently “developing” (i.e., negotiating) the standards, will other companies get to do the same? There can’t be an appearance that its like buying a car (no two people get the same price).
    2.. There has never been a truly rigorous evaluation of the Standards. If you look at how lawyers “moot court” before an appellate argument, or how yeshiva-buchers debate a point of Jewish law, rigorous debate is part of our tradition. Its how ideas are ultimately improved. There are many provisions in the published Standards that are just plain ridiculous. As I understand it, MT’s position is that they’ve been fair and have listened to other points of view – but that is not the point. Example: “Is the company classified by the US government as a minority business?” D’ya think that Jews may have something to do with kosher food? Is there a higher level of social justice if 51% of a kosher food producer is owned by somebody from India? Even if this comes out of the final version, how did it get in to begin with?
    3. USCJ is set up for embarrassment by having other “partners” in the MT program, whose goals and beliefs are not necessarily the same as USCJ’s. The published Standards refer to Global Reporting Initiative, PAS2050, Rainbow Alliance, Social Accountability International, etc. Also, MT contracted with Social Accountability International to do audits and training. Leaving aside that these organizations do not necessarily have a “Jewish” agenda, who authorized USCJ to “partner” us with, even indirectly, Rainbow Alliance? Are any of these organizations doing business with BDS? If Pete Seeger can give us an unpleasant surprise, what about “social accountability” organizations?
    4. The reaction of most people to multiple violations of law by Rubashkin, which was the impetus of MT, is that kosher food producers should obey the law. Much of the promotional material for MT, and the materials that MT uses to seek endorsement by congregations, emphasizes the need to act within the law. However, the Standards that exist expressly say that compliance with the law isn’t enough, and trashes due process rights of companies. I believe that asking congregations to endorse MT without fairly disclosing what they’re signing on to is wrong. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to get called on it. I hope never to see the day when I can’t totally trust something that comes from USCJ.

    1. Andy Golkow writes:
      As imperfect as it is, I think it’s a bit of hubris for MT to put themselves over the democratic process. I can’t see companies lining up to waive legal rights!
      Companies have a legal right to put pork in all their products, but companies seeking an OU hechsher on those products choose to waive that legal right. Is the OU putting itself over the democratic process?

  19. Of course, if you want to join the Mickey Mouse Club, you have to comply with Mickey’s rules. Seriously, OU is performing a purely religous function, and the criteria it applies are purely religous. Here, MT purports to regulate what is entirely economic activity. Of course, MT has the right to say if you want our certificate, then comply with our rules. However, there’s a key difference. For example, Congress decided that the FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees. The MT standards say that all businesses, no matter what their size, must offer FMLA leave. All that I’m saying is that MT has decided that as a matter of social justice, compliance with the statute that Congress passed isn’t good enough. We’re not talking about segregated lunch counters or domestic slavery. Does USCJ want to take the position that governmental regulation of business isn’t good enough, and that we all know better? If so, then geh gesund, but you’re going to have to really make the case, and that hasn’t been done yet.

  20. @Andy, please re-read BZ’s comments. Companies constantly agree to standards that are stricter than US law. Kashrut is one example of this. If Nabisco thinks removing perfectly legal lard from Oreos to get an OU will sell a few more cookies, it is fully in their rights to do so. If they don’t, I don’t have to buy their product. This is true for a how array of standards for everything from football helmut quality to movie ratings, which have minimal force of law behind them, but manufacturers regularly agree to get certifications that they follow standards beyond the legal requirements.
    If a small business decides to voluntarily comply with FMLA to get the MT because they think it will bring them more business, then they are free to do so. (Certifications like this might actually be easier for small companies to get and give them a bigger advertising/sales boost than a giant company).
    If they have standards that other organizations have already built of staff to certify, why reinvent the wheel? This is the type of thing I’d like to see USCJ doing more often. They spend too much time trying to duplicate things in-house.
    Like I said, I’m not overwhelmed with excitement by MT’s current proposal and how long it took to get there, but I sense you are coming from the position that, if it’s legal it’s ethical. I strongly disagree with that position.

  21. Actually, I’m not at all saying that if its legal its ethical. We would all agree that laws requiring segregated lunch counters and public facilities were not ethical, and would not be today. Certainly, MT has the right to set its own rules, just like OU does. My question is whether or not those rules are worthwhile, logical, and supportable, and, if not, will USCJ wind up with an “Edsel”.
    To be more precise, regarding the interplay of law and MT, I have four points. First, we don’t presume that all laws are ethical. We presume that for better or worse, what comes out is the product of a democratic system, imperfect as it may be. When it comes to agency regulations (such as OSHA), there is a law called the Administrative Procedure Act, so there is a public process to all of this. Because MT is coming from the direction of ethics, not necessarily law, if MT is going to argue that any particular statute or regulation is not ethical enough, there is a burden of explaining why MT’s position is more ethical – not just saying it is because we say it is. Using FMLA as an example, MT says that it should apply to all companies “regardless of size”, whereas FMLA exempts small employers. The issue is not whether MT has the right to set its standard, only that if they want support, they should explain why social justice requires a small company to comply with FMLA. Also, they came up with a “social justice-based minimum wage” of 115% of the federal minimum wage. Not everybody lives in New York. If, for example, the average wage for a given job in a locality in Kentucky is $8.20 per hour, and the plant in question pays $8.25 per hour, why is it unjust to pay less than $8.34 (1.15 x $7.25)? Again, MT can set their standards however they want, but if they are asking for acceptance or endorsement, they should justify why a plant paying $8.30 or $8.33 per hour is “unethical”.
    Second, due process of law is a value in our society. In my view, this is an area where law and ethics parallel. There are multiple references to “charges”, or nebulous concepts such as “union busting”. The Standards should make it clear that companies are entitled to their due process rights, that they can assert their legal rights with counsel of their own choosing, and that were complaints are disputed, the adjudication process needs to be respected.
    Third, when MT asks people and congregations for their support, there is an obligation of full and fair disclosure. Given that “violations of the SEC regulations” is a problem, how can MT do any less? For example, regarding Halal, the Standards admonish “The Jewish community needs to do more to reach out to the Muslim community”. Maybe that’s true, but people being asked to endorse MT should know that’s in the Standards. Most lawyers will tell you that an advocate should never assume that the lawyer on the other side won’t spot weaknesses in your case. Pretending they don’t exist isn’t a good option. You can bet that if there was a debate on MT at our synagogue (which has not endorsed MT), I would be saying “here are some of the things they didn’t tell you”.
    Fourth, sort of a corollary to the others, if a certain point of view is going to be implicit in the Standards, it should be disclosed and explained so that people can make a determination for themselves whether or not this is something they’d like to support. Regarding labor unions, the Standards say that an employer should have “a written neutrality policy in the employee handbook”. That is not the law – employers are not required to be neutral, just to comply with the NLRA. If there is full and fair disclosure, we should hear an explanation as to why social justice requires an employer to be neutral if the Teamsters are trying to organize the company. Also, under “Gender Diversity”, the Standards prohibit “discrimination against GLBT.” In most states, including Virginia, this is not the law. I understand that for some people, this is a moral issue and the equivalent of racial segregation. That is not the point. Regardless of where one stands on that issue, people being asked to accept or endorse MT should be able to make an informed choice. In areas of the country where gay rights are not widely accepted, MT should give people an explanation rather than an edict.
    As an aside, I believe that some of the problems in the Standards are the result of some very sloppy drafting (or as the fictional Professor Kingsfield would have said, fuzzy thinking). If USCJ wasn’t involved, I wouldn’t care, but I don’t want our movement to look silly. I’m willing to bet that in most Conservative congregations, there are a flock of lawyers, accountants, and businesspeople who know these fields intimately.

  22. @Andy, This is getting more and more away from the point of this post. I think we’ll have to agree that we disagree. I can pick at various points of your logic, but you seem to dislike almost every aspect of the MT effort within the Conservative movement. Nothing I say will change your point of view. Assuming they eventually start certifying products, either people will become more inclined to purchase a product with an MT or they won’t. If it’s value-added to companies, the MT will succeed. If not, it won’t.
    So far the effort seems to have cost more volunteer time than money so I’m not overly concerned about its effects on the movement. As for making USCJ look silly, I think it’s much worse if USCJ tried to make long-term plans relating to college students with speaking to actual college students than whether MT fails.

  23. You are right that the subject has meandered from attempts at political relevants to MT! Despite our disagreement on MT, I very much respect and appreciate your efforts on behalf of USCJ. MT is another debate for another day, and I trust that we shall always bear in mind that its a debate between people who all care about Judaism and USCJ.

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