Global, Politics, Religion

USCJ Strategic Plan Part 3c

Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities
USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don’t think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.
I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I’ll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I’ll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don’t see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff’s job titles are supposed to do.

Most importantly, if USCJ is to get the most from it’s limited budget, it needs to rely heavily on volunteers. In the current structure, I see no place for volunteers to work with the professional staff to suggest, plan, or improve programming unless they’ve been elected or selected for a position. I’ve not once heard about a USCJ committee looking for input on various projects. How do a bunch of volunteers get connected so that they can participate in a discussion of common interests? In the case of education, the Jewish Education Change Network is one new example of how volunteers can participate in conversations that are cultivated by professional leaders. It’s still too young to call JECN a success, but I think it was created outside of denominational structures (though nothing stops USCJ from creating it’s own groups and forums on that site). As of this writing, I found a single one of USCJ’s professional educators on JECN. Currently, they’re barely part of this type of conversation.
To turn USCJ into an organization of connectors (as was suggested in the strategic plan), it needs to change how it places and evaluates staff. I have no clue how evaluations are currently done, but I’d love to see USCJ staff evaluations include metrics of how many continuing and new conversations they’ve had with people around the nation and the number of active volunteers on their committees. USCJ also needs to get away from its NY centric structure. While there are benefits to having most of their staff work near each other, that means they don’t need to master long-distance collaborative tools like shared documents, wikis, and social networking. If they set a goal of having 75% of their staff living farther than commuting distance from their NYC offices, they would need to integrate collaborative tools into their lives. Those same tools would facilitate their interactions with congregations and connections between communities regardless of location. Their staff would also be directly involved in a much more diverse range of communities and come in face-to-face contact with more people. Lower salaries from not having to pay NYC cost-of-living wouldn’t hurt either.
On the issue of staff salaries, I’d love to see more cases where USCJ pays partial salaries of synagogue/community employees. Instead of 8 people in a central office, imagine if 50 innovators across the country received $10K from USCJ to spend 15-20% of their time writing up their programs and directly helping out other congregations. This could let synagogues hire better people and benefit the wider community without a huge cost overlay. It might also benefit some Jewish professionals who bounce between several, completely separate jobs to pull together a full salary.
On the broader issues of funding and fundraising, it seems like some of the most-liked USCJ programs are either cheap (emailing list maintenance or local gatherings) or self-funding (USY and SULAM). Affiliation dues seem to go mostly to centralized staff, which isn’t the most exciting thing for philanthropists to support. This might be why USCJ decided selling board seats was the best way to convince people to write big checks. I simply can’t agree with this and the optics of selling seats works against engaging lay volunteers. A large, active base of lay volunteers is worth more than a few big checks. While the leaders might point to schools, like JTS, that have such policies for board membership, USCJ is not a school and its leadership structure can’t survive on the same model. It doesn’t hurt to encourage big donations and give those donors larger voices, but they can’t drown out other voices.
So how does USCJ fundraise the money it needs? I think USCJ needs to identify key programs or new initiatives that simply can’t self-fund. For example, Koach, the college out-reach program had about $70K in unsupported expenses and is listed on the cutting block in the strategic plan. Is there no network of Koach alumni or exciting new expansion ideas that could bring in an additional $70K/year? (The threat of cutting Koach – seemingly without speaking to many current students or alumni – seemed to create such a network in a matter of weeks. It also demonstrates the completely wasted volunteer energy within the movement. Whether for Koach or other Conservative efforts, why doesn’t the USCJ leadership regularly engage these people, who can almost instantly bring together a network of people who are passionate about a Conservative movement program?) Besides a $5 greeting card fundraiser, there’s not even a “donate” button at (That website, in general, could use work) If USCJ is talking about new collaborative education efforts, why can’t they fundraise for those? If staffers are given specific project initiatives, then their salaries are something that might generate more philanthropic interest. USCJ also needs to talk more about the number of communities and people that use their services. By meshing fundraising with collaborations and access to unaffiliated organizations, they might get donations from beyond the usual movement base.
I have no great and inspiring way to end this series of posts. I’m just a random synagogue member who was crazy enough to volunteer some of his time to write a series of blog posts that may or may not be ignored by the people who can actually change things. Perhaps there aren’t many people crazy enough to spend time writing posts like this, but there are many people who would volunteer time and energy to help create programs that benefit the Jewish community if there were exciting things going on that could use their help. Perhaps USCJ or other large Jewish organizations can take this to heart.
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

11 thoughts on “USCJ Strategic Plan Part 3c

  1. As one more example of USCJ’s management disorder, this strategic plan was supposed to be an overview of what is or isn’t working in USCJ. Section 3.3 says that they should “partner with institutions and organizations outside of USCJ” specifically including the Solomon Schechter Association. As noted in the plan’s comments by Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, a past president of the Schechter Day School Association, that association is actually part of USCJ with it’s offices and central staff physically at USCJ. If USCJ isn’t speaking to people in its own building, something is very very wrong with it’s management structure. If a past President needs to correct this error after a strategic plan draft was released, it calls into serious question whether the planning committee bothered to get feedback from anyone before the draft plan was released.

  2. Thank you for noticing us and helping us to publicize our efforts. A small correction: The Mahar Coalition was not founded in “a manner of weeks” but in a manner of hours. We began at 1am on Sunday, February 27 and have been in existence for less than a week. This demonstrates, as you say, the amount of people we can bring together and the energy and volunteerism we have and have never demonstrated simply because we’ve never been asked to give back. The Mahar Coalition’s main new element to this conversation is our willingness to change the assumption that college students want nothing to do with synagogues. We are willing to add value back into the system through community partnerships with local kehillot and show returns on investments in us not only in the future but the same year the money is spent.

  3. Change is hard, especially when all the power still remains in the same hands.
    Change is easy once you give up power to the change agents and steel yourself for the consequences.
    USCJ wants change? Figure out who to transfer (some) power to, and make it real.

  4. I love your idea about giving partial salary to more people and encouraging the USCJ to plant people outside of NYC. And I think that connecting with and encouraging more volunteers would cure a terrible sickness in Conservative Judaism: the idea that involved, active, and educated Conservative Jews must be professional Jews. I believe that the reason my schul is so successful and vibrant is the volunteerism. Almost everyone who is involved in the schul has volunteered for something at some point, and it fosters a stronger sense of community and investment in the schul. Plus, now that our rabbi is going on sabbatical, things can mostly just run per usual, with an interim hired for dealing with pastoral issues. But the adult education chair continues to coordinate the adult ed volunteer. The kitchen is still run by the volunteer mashgiach. The gabbaim, Torah readings, haftarot, etc. are all coordinated by their respective volunteers. The community is well-educated, self-sustaining, and one of the most educated and observant Conservative communities that I have seen.
    There is no reason that this kind of fostering of volunteerism couldn’t happen for the national USCJ organization. For instance, I think this is a big reason why USY is so successful. High schoolers volunteer their time and energy, and then feel invested in the local and greater community. It works beautifully. And then the high schoolers leave USY, and then often leave Conservative Judaism, because they realize that USY was as good as it gets in the Conservative movement.

  5. MOre than encouraging volunteerism, shuls should require it. Why should the only obligation to one’s community be money? IN fact, while money can’t be discounted to pay peoples’ salaries (and btw, I’m against the partial salary thing until the movement stops underpaying nearly all its employees, including its female rabbis and the majority of female staff who run and teach in its religious schools, pre-schools, who do its secretarial work…. and so on), it shouldn’t be the one thing everything is slavishly tailored to maximize.
    Instead, every shul should require those who join to pick three or four things from a list (I used to belong to a minyan where that was the criterion for membership – money was purely voluntary, and yet , the rent always seemed to get paid) – you could do it “Chinese menu” style (3 from column A, 1 from column B or 4 from column C).
    This would do a great deal to bind communities together. Granted, at first numbers will drop by people who can’t be bothered – tough it out – the setting of standards will make the movement healthier in the long run – just like it did for modern Orthodoxy.

  6. @Mahar Coalition, I’d say the response was percolating since the draft strategic plan was released several weeks ago. That a group of people when from deciding on what the unified response should be to implementing it in hours is the type of energy that USCJ leadership is simply ignoring.
    @Jew Guevara, I’m sure some members of the Mahar Coalition are graduating seniors. Any of you want to take over a beleaguered organization with several million dollars of debt?
    @Shosie, Great comment. It would be a miracle if USCJ could utilize volunteers to a fraction of the level as some if its affiliated congregations.
    @Kol Ra’ash Gadol, As with most indy minyanim, I think there should be very few, if any membership requirements. You can suggest monetary dues and volunteer hours, but no one benefits from excluding people who don’t or can’t contribute. I definitely agree that every synagogue should have a clear list of places were volunteers are welcome are needed along with a welcome path to people with new ideas regarding how they can volunteer.
    As far as I understand, your description of salaries does not fit the places where I go. I’m sure this is an issue in some places, but it is not unique to the Conservative movement or even religion. At the places I go, full time employees are given full time salaries with benefits. Part time employees (including after school teachers) get the market rate for our region. Some educators string together several part time jobs at multiple synagogues, but a synagogue can’t turn 5 part-time teachers for 5 grades into a single full time job. $10K salary supplements are one way to keep individuals in a single location for more time and bring them closer to the point where they can get full-time benefits too.

  7. Thank you for being an eye opener and drawing attention to important issues. You may feel like you are crazy for writing blogs about it but it is refreshing to see people getting involved and voicing their opinions. Also, while I do not fully agree that volunteering should be mandatory, your passion is admirable. I think that it should, however, be taken into consideration that not everyone realistically has enough time to physically go out and volunteer and we can find other ways to support the Jewish community. Any support is great and always appreciated. Thanks again for posting your thoughts are intriguing and relevant.

  8. Wouldn’t the money problem be ameliorated by simply merging with the Reform?
    What the Reform do + 20 years = What the Conservatives do
    Or in management report-synergies!

  9. Despite Dave’s sarcasm, it’s not a ridiculous question. As I mentioned in the first post, a huge portion of the infrastructure needs (i.e. leadership development, expertise to customize and nurture local education programs, etc) have little to do with theology. In fact, a lot of the things USCJ is supposed to do would be useful to a healthy chunk of Modern Orthodoxy. I can’t brush away theological differences, but where the differences don’t matter, collaborations should exist. If you’re going to try management-speak go all the way and push for trans-denominational synergies.
    Of course, quality communication is core to any of this and if large organizations can get internal communication right, they’re not going to do better if they scale up.

  10. “It might also benefit some Jewish professionals who bounce between several, completely separate jobs to pull together a full salary.”
    This is a broader problem in the Jewish community not limited to USCJ. Would that JFNA did this, or Federations or even the JCCA. Or anyone.
    But USCJ could take a leadership role in this regard and it could have massive positive implications for the Jews, though not for Congregations. This is how kehilot could be seeded. Roving Rabbis and other vetted individuals could act as agents provocateurs to incite various Jewish programs where there are none. This seems to be part of the plan but it is not quite clear….

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