Culture, Religion

Why would a new congregation join USCJ?

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. The Conservative movement’s health, particularly its synagogue arm, USCJ, is not great. My previous post focused on the suburbanization of Conservative Judaism. The rapid decline of USCJ-affiliated synagogues is partially due to the continuing decrease in the numbers of suburban Jews in the old Jewish population centers. In 2010, 659 synagogues were affiliated with USCJ. Now, there are 620. The decline isn’t surprising. When populations move, such as the current shifts away from the older suburbs, we expect synagogues to close or merge. The issue is what happens in the new Jewish population centers, whether they are in walkable suburban areas or cities. Where are the new Conservative communities? This Summer, I contacted several people within USCJ to ask about synagogues that have joined USCJ in the past few years. I was unable to get a precise number, but the communications staff with whom I corresponded could only think of three synagogues that recently joined. As best as I could tell, all three are older synagogues that changed affiliations or reaffiliated after a lapse. I don’t know of a single community that is less than 10 years old that has joined USCJ in the past 5 years. A movement that is losing synagogues due to de-suburbanization is one thing. A movement that hasn’t figured out how to get new communities to join has a serious problem.
As Jewschool readers well know, new Jewish communities are being created all the time. In theory, these communities might want to affiliate with the Conservative movement, but this hasn’t been happening. Here are three examples that hopefully highlight the movement’s gaps.
1. The decline of new USCJ-affiliated synagogues has happened along with the rise of independent minyanim and havurot. Thanks again to the shifts away from suburbia, these communities often appear in neighborhoods with large, young Jewish communities, but no nearby synagogues (or no nearby egalitarian congregations). Other times they are near or even meet at existing synagogues, but there’s nothing new about this. Breakaway communities that tap an unmet demand for something different are how many Jewish institutions got their start. Not every new community would fit in the wide Conservative tent, due to differences in theology or practice, but many would. I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read that place the onus on the leaders of these communities to join a movement, but the opposite question is more useful. Why would one of these groups join USCJ? USCJ provides no services that one can’t easily find elsewhere that would help get a new community off the ground. There are already healthy online and in-person collaborations across minyanim that don’t require the expensive USCJ infrastructure. Perhaps in past decades, branding a community as Conservative was a way to attract new people, but the internet provides better ways to spread the word about a new community than USCJ ever did. USCJ has taken some steps to make it possible for these new communities to join, but they haven’t made any changes to give these communities a reason to work with USCJ.
2. I was a member of a self-labeled Conservative synagogue that wasn’t affiliated with USCJ in its early years. The synagogue grew into a vibrant community without any help from USCJ. When the congregation needed a new rabbi, Rabbinical Assembly union rules required it to affiliate with USCJ movement to be able to interview Conservative Rabbis for the position. I was part of the group evaluating whether affiliation was worthwhile. USCJ offered us useful things if we affiliated, but none of these (besides the pool of rabbis) seemed necessary. For example, affiliating with USCJ allowed the congregation to send children to USY, but the synagogue already had happy kids in BBYO. USCJ offered help in finding “replacements leaders when the rabbi went on vacation,” but the congregation already has a large pool of lay leaders. In the end, the synagogue decided to affiliate for the sake of the rabbi search and decided to get what services it could from USCJ while speaking up about the problems we saw in the organization. (This is the origin of my improveuscj at gmail address.)
3. IKAR in Los Angeles has all the trapping of a suburban Jewish Community Center style synagogue. There’s a large paid staff that leads services, pre-K child care, education programs for many age groups, and membership dues. (Yes, I know IKAR is also unique in many ways.) It has at least 15 paid staff, including 3 rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement. Nothing they do couldn’t fit within the bounds of a Conservative synagogue. They have gone from an idea to more than 500 households in less than a decade, in a town with multiple alternative synagogues of all kinds, and they did this, I assume, without any help from USCJ. IKAR seems to have a good relationship with the Conservative movement and (from their website) it looks like they participate in Conservative rabbinical school internship and other training programs. Perhaps, when Rabbi Sharon Brous decides to move on from her current role and they need to hire a replacement, USCJ might come calling, but that seems awfully late.
These cases bring home two main messages: 1. USCJ has not adapted to support communities with atypical structures or goals, particularly if they have knowledgable congregations. 2. USCJ is not useful to new communities getting off the ground.
In the past few years, USCJ has significantly reorganized. This difficult work has primarily focused on improving services and finances so that current synagogues don’t decide to leave. Not losing members is a good start, but it is not enough. USCJ and the Conservative movement as a whole needs to figure out why a new community would want to join. I’ll give some thoughts on this topic in my next post, but I have no clue if my ideas are right and no answer is easy.

9 thoughts on “Why would a new congregation join USCJ?

  1. If
    a/ There are fewer and fewer USCJ congregations and
    b/ The USCJ won’t let its graduates interview with non-USCJ congregations
    Then why would anyone enroll in a USCJ seminary?

  2. @Dave, USCJ isn’t a seminary. It’s a synagogue union. The Rabbinical Assembly is the rabbi’s union for rabbis who graduate from several rabbinical schools, including the Jewish Theological Seminary and America Jewish University. Just like any rabbinical school, not every student plans on becoming a pulpit rabbi. The hiring exclusivity agreement between USCJ and the RA was mutually beneficial for decades. If USCJ keeps shrinking, the Conservative rabbinical schools will have to start enrolling fewer students interested in pulpit jobs or the RA will break their exclusivity agreement with USCJ. If nothing changes with USCJ’s trajectory, I’m betting on the second option.

  3. – The RA is not legally a Union, and the USCJ is not a “closed house”. What happens is that members of the RA (I think) cannot accept interviews at non-movement houses of worship until the USCJ members have had first crack. In the opposite direction, a USCJ shul can hire whomever they want. The CCAR (Reform) is much more like a union and Reform shuls are truly a “closed house”. There is lawsuit on this going on right now because the CCAR pretty much behaves like a union without having the legal obligations of one.
    – While I generally agree with you on all sorts of things I am not sure if “new” synagogues joining is a way to measure health and/or success.
    – Most independent Minyanim are not full service organizations that synagogues are. They do not require the support system that a movement can offer. I am VERY skeptical about USCJ but in a FB conversation last night I managed to make a pretty long list of benefits we get where I work because of our movemental affiliation. It is not that we could not duplicate some of those items on our own; it is that it is much easier for us to be in a system than to be creating our own. Most of the items I listed are not relevant to the average independent minyan (pension system, board leadership development, communities of youth staff and other professionals sponsored by the movement)
    – That having been said, I am not sure USCJ is well positioned to support any new members given that they seem to have no idea what the current member synagogues are up to. I say this based on how few local synagogue leaders presented at the Centennial even though, between DC and Balto, there are a LOT of cool things happening in CJ shuls these days.
    More telling is how a number of independent minyanim that look and act like particularly strong Conservative communities go out of their way not to be given that label. We have a tarnished brand which is something that will take many years to fix (if it can even be fixed)

  4. I don’t know what legally makes something a union, but a rabbi waiting for USCJ synagogues to interview first is a closed shop. There is a rabbi hiring season. In practice, it means one can only start interviewing at non USCJ synagogues after the core of the hiring season is completed and any prominent non-movement jobs are taken. If one is asked to interview for a job out of season, what does it mean to give USCJ synagogues a first crack? I think RA rabbis can ask permission to interview elsewhere, but it is not guaranteed that they will get permissions.
    The same is true from the synagogue perspective, saying one can only interview RA rabbis during the prime hiring time & then get the remainders afterwards (only after asking permission) is a closed shop.
    The two metrics of success of pretty much any organization are how well it retains its existing users/members and how well it recruits new ones. USCJ has probably gone from sub-par to ok in the past few years on retention, but the geographic shifts & aging/death of members means retention is not viable over the long term. If they can’t make a case why a new group of Jews who are a community would what to speak to USCJ, that is a serious problem. This is also the reason I mentioned indy minyanim and two fairly standard full-services synagogues. It’s one thing to say USCJ can’t offer much to indy minyanim. It’s another thing to say that USCJ only become really useful to a synagogue a fixed location, professional rabbi/staff, school, etc after it successfully gets going.
    Please share your list of actual benefits here or elsewhere. I’m sure I know some of them, but it would be a useful contribution to this discussion.

  5. The issue with the placement process is that the RA and USCJ work for the rabbis on the placement process. They do not work for the congregations who pay the dues. This is a conflict of interest and it plays out to the detriment of the congregations. Our Shul was independent for most of its life. We affiliated and then quit after 5 years.

  6. @Dan AB wrote:
    “It’s another thing to say that USCJ only become really useful to a synagogue a fixed location, professional rabbi/staff, school, etc after it successfully gets going.”
    Good concluding argument as to why new shuls matter. I had not thought of it that way before.
    Here is what I shared on FB as to the movements non-religious functions for shuls:
    (a) Retirement plans – I have a great range of funds to invest my retirement account into because USCJ set up a big national pool.
    (b) Staff development/training – As a new Ed Director I was able to attend a heavily subsidized 3 day retreat run by USCJ experts in shul education. There are lessons from that retreat that I am still using three years later. Same with my role as a Youth Director; The 24+ hours that I just spent with my Seaboard USY colleagues at the Centennial provided me with about 10 new ideas and strategies for me to implement to improve my programs.
    (c) Volunteer development for shul communities.
    (d) National networks for volunteers and professionals.
    (e) I mentioned this as a negative above but, for better or for worse (I go back and forth on this) a structured system, run with the RA, that is meant to ensure that when a shul searches for a Rabbi the process is fair and equitable on both sides AND shuls get the right match (I know mine did here in DC).
    (f) This is not happening to its fullest extent yet, but only a large national organization can acquire and invest the $$ needed for certain types of projects. It takes YEARS to put together a translated Chumash or Siddur which is why most of them are published by the established movements; very few independent publishers have the resources necessary to make something like Etz Hayim or the new Gates of Prayer Siddur.
    (g) Can’t talk about the value of USCJ without mentioning USY and its value to the communities that really take advantage of it, including my own.
    Adding to the list – there has been a LOT of positive feedback about the expanded Sulam brand.

  7. Totally useless presentations. They do presentations and programs, and the PowerPoints are from the 80s and look like they are high school projects. The staff that shows them several times could not even answer questions about them. They also won’t share them because they are so old and embarrassing, with data that is quoted form the 80s or 90s, and not updated since. Their information is so outdated. They have also cut staff so much it is hard to get a call back from anyone except the one person who deals with your temple. There is little to no admin staff, and no one is creating new presentations or coming up with any new thoughts. It kills me to smash a Jewish organization, but this one has outlived its usefullness. And they don’t try to recruit new members, i have emailed them and talked to people there to volunteer my services nd they just dont return the call or want help.

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