USCJ wants to drop out of college

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is the Conservative movement’s main organization for supporting Conservative Jewish communities in North America. USCJ supports Conservative communities on college campuses through a suborganization called KOACH. It seems that this is no longer a priority. In an article about the proposed plan to defund KOACH, here is the summary of the rationale:

While [Rabbi Steven Wernick’s] organization remains committed to serving college youth, it has over the last three years been “very aggressive in aligning budget, staff and governance with our vision and mission in a strategic way.” Faced with an aging membership, a long-term decline in membership and attendant financial challenges, the United Synagogue has been focusing on shoring up existing congregations, seeking to integrate the educational system and engage the next generation of leadership. (

There’s a bit of a problem with this statement. After significant, movement-wide discussion and work, in March 2011, the USCJ board voted on a strategic plan to define USCJ’s priorities. Section 4 of the strategic plan covers one of the core goals of USCJ, engaging the next generation of leadership. Among other priorities, they decided to engage young Jewish leaders in conversation, design new efforts to focus on the post college generation, and:

It is recognized that a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation. It is not clear who should fund this effort and what the effort should look like. Since USCJ has been funding and administering the effort through Koach, in the short term USCJ should continue to do so in a highly focused and cost-efficient way. Simultaneously, USCJ should engage with college student leaders, and leaders of Conservative Judaism, to determine how best to work in partnership to ensure that the USCJ presence on the college campus not only remains but grows.

This paragraph was added after the first draft removed college outreach and public debate resulted in one of the few major changes to the plan between the draft and final versions. The strategic plan for USCJ states that college outreach, through KOACH until some other Conservative option is created, is a core function of USCJ.
While there are enthusiastic efforts focusing on preserving USCJ’s funding of KOACH (see, I don’t know enough to say whether the Conservative movement can do better than KOACH. Still, closing an existing program before starting a visioning and fundraising effort to create its replacement is a rather unorthodox way to engage college students and potential funders.
More broadly, USCJ has a core goal of engaging future leaders and nurturing new Conservative communities. Besides awarding a few microgrants though its new Young Adult Outreach, how has USCJ realigned its funds and human resources in the past year to address this core goal? If there were a string of engagement successes and healthy new efforts, I could see the USCJ board of directors considering whether KOACH is still a priority. Given the lack of other visible successes with engaging future leaders, abandoning a functional program without a clear replacement plan seems like a full abandonment of this core goal of USCJ.
When the USCJ board meets next week, instead of merely asking whether the approximately $23 million budget can spare around $200K for KOACH, they should be asking what happened to their strategic plan in the past year to prevent USCJ from funding something that was identified as a core effort. Given the pushback regarding KOACH just last year, this public discussion should have been initiated by USCJ months ago rather than in a news article based on leaked budget less than two weeks before the board’s budget vote. For the board to focus just on KOACH funding is to ignore the long-term planning, organizational, and communication issues that continue to plague USCJ even after its recent major reorganization.

8 thoughts on “USCJ wants to drop out of college

  1. In the interest of accuracy, the program has not been closed or abandoned. There is a proposal on the table (which, incidentally, has not yet been voted on, much less approved) to put KOACH on hiatus until funding can be secured.
    Folks, this is clearly an emotional issue, and one which we all care very much about. Rather than fan the flames of anger and resentment, let’s use the energy to help secure the funding to keep the program alive!

  2. @Aimee, I hoped I was clear on this point. This discussion is currently about a proposal that will be voted on by the USCJ board, not an actual decision. That said, I’d be hard pressed to understand the difference between defunding a program and putting it on hiatus. Dropping out of college doesn’t mean you can’t re-enter college later, but it is still dropping out. Also the idea that one will have more fundraising success after rather than before shutting an organization down is possibly without precedent.
    A strange, but perhaps workable approach would be to threaten to close Koach unless donors step forward. The lack of active, public fundraising and even the lack of coordinated press on this decision makes it seem like even this wasn’t the plan. A bit over a year ago, I commented that there wasn’t even a way to donate on the Koach page. Now I noticed a dollar sign in the top right corner of the Koach website that goes to a bare-bones fundraising page: with 12 donors total. If Koach fundraises it’s way out of this, it’s in spite of USCJ not due to any efforts by USCJ to “… ensure that the USCJ presence on the college campus not only remains but grows.”

  3. I’m not sure keeping Koach alive is a good idea. The movement is struggling generally, and campuses are simply not an area of its expertise.
    Koach is largely ineffectual in its mission anyways and has been for decades. I’m not sure why it took this long for someone to realize that it was a waste of money. A few campuses may have had more than an annual program through one of Koach’s roving staff, but how much of an impact does that make?
    If it wants to keep up with successful college outreach programs like Birthright, Hillel and Chabad, Koach needs to figure out ways to replicate their success or work through these and other entities.
    Rather than employ roving staff members, maybe USCJ needs to ask local C congregational Rabbis to do some educational and Shabbat programming at the closest campus in conjunction with Hillel or Aepi. Maybe the focus needs to be Birthright follow up that gets students to Conservative Yeshiva for a week intensive or even a similar similar trip stateside or working at a Ramah camp. A different model is needed, what’s been done doesn’t do much beyond lip service.
    It also seems strange that the guy who basically did nothing with Koach for all that time has been put in charge of Young Adult initiatives. Can Rich Moline point to any notable accomplishments during his tenure? What exactly is he doing now thats demonstrably different?
    Fanning the flames is precisely what Koach should be doing on campus, but it never kept up with the times. It was generally underfunded for its mission, which while important, was gone about rather clumsily. Koach was actually quite weak, the proposal to suspend and re-imagine it is long overdue.

  4. @Aimee, I should also add that my goal isn’t anger or resentment. It’s just that, if we focus on this one budget vote, we’re going to have the same conflict every year. I’d like to see the Conservative movement invest in colleges, but that investment cannot end with renewing the Koach budget and saying everything is fine. They did that last year and here we are again. If it is to fulfill its mission, the central leadership of USCJ needs to present a viable plan for what Conservative outreach and in-reach on college campus (and for adults in their 20’s in general) should look like. If the central professional leadership of USCJ is unwilling to put forward this effort without pressure, it’s the board’s job to provide the proper direction & motivation to the CEO & other central employees.

  5. @rachel,
    I’m not sure the movement is struggling as much as others claim, but its institutions, particularly USCJ, is in really bad shape and it’s unclear what is its areas of expertise. If providing cost-effect support to synagogues was its expertise, it wouldn’t be hemorrhaging congregations. Their strategic plan was supposed to help them focus their areas of expertise, but that doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
    I’m fairly agnostic regarding whether Koach survives in its current form and more concerned with what should be done. Koach doesn’t do much now, but it also doesn’t cost much either. If the money is being efficiently spent on programs that benefit some students, why cut it now? Some of your other pairing ideas are good, but they don’t requiring closing an existing program. While something is functioning, why suspend before reimagining? The only exception is if the existence of Koach is preventing the re-imagination process from occurring, but I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case.

  6. Let me be clear, this is not meant as an indictment of Rabbi Wernick. It is an indictment of a system that is set up to fail.
    USCJ is in deep financial trouble and, due to its lack of business leadership, things will get worse. They laid off a bunch of people to save money, but their labor savings for 2010-2011 was only $50,000. In addition, their cost of employee benefits and travel increased and ate up a good deal of their “savings”. Rabbi Wernick was hired as CEO, but now has hired a COO to do the work that was his responsibility as CEO. He has also hired a CFO and an HR specialist. And so far, we’ve seen no increase in service to their members. Rabbi Wernick has now been with USCJ for 3 years and there is still no sign of a turnaround. What company would keep a new CEO, hired to turn the company around, after no progress in a year, let alone 3 years? Why do they keep hiring Rabbis to run a $25 million operation rather than a talented business person?
    As for Koach, I’m not sure it would ever work, but it certainly can’t work with the lack of money and talent to get it off the ground. What can they accomplish with a $200K budget, spread out over approximately 2,600 accredited colleges and universities in the US? That’s an average of $77.00 per school. What can you do with that? You can’t run much of a program at even $100,000 a year, so how much good will two Koach programs a year do?
    Hillel has about 500 on campus programs in the US. Why not take the money and create programming that can be used by Hillel, but credited to the Conservative movement? I’m sure that Hillel would love an infusion of added programming and an additional $200,000 to pay for it. Screen Hillel for the campuses with the largest Jewish populations so that the programming is available to the larges number of people. $5,000 would go a long way when used by an existing organization that already has a built in infrastructure. $5,000 a year to 40 large campuses will reach more Jewish kids than Koach has ever reached, and it’s a way to present Conservative Judaism to Jewish kids brought up in more than just the Conservative persuasion.

  7. The model Koach employed had inherent inefficiency. While USCJ needs to be in the campus game, they way they’ve done it doesn’t work for anyone least of all USCJ. USCJ as a body serves congregations, and serving individuals has never been its strong suit. Perhaps it can build on its strength and work through /serve Birthright or Hillel they way it does synagogues- er Kehillot.
    “While the USCJ cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.” from uscj strat plan
    What’s sort of astonishing to me is that in the year since the strat plan there’s been so little in the way of outreach to think about this issue. Maybe they will simply start fresh with USY / Ramah alumni and go from there- it would make a great deal of sense…
    Regardless, I hope some fresh minds can be brought into the thinking on the subject. Inclusion of a new generation of thinking and leadership would go a long way.

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