United Synagogue Turns Inward

New focus on member synagogues proposed along with outreach to non-traditional minyans.

02/08/11
Staff Writer
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Faced with a declining membership, an increasing number of Jews who shun synagogue affiliation and the movement’s “best and brightest” migrating to post-denominational or Modern Orthodox settings, the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism is seeking to reinvent itself.

Under a proposed strategic study that was one year in the making, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will refocus to concentrate exclusively on helping its 652-affiliated congregations “deliver a vibrant Conservative Judaism to North America,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, its executive vice president and CEO, told The Jewish Week.

“With the reality of priorities and resources, we feel that at this time the primary task of United Synagogue is to partner with congregations,” he explained, adding that there would no longer be an “emphasis on individual Jews.”

In addition, there would also be an attempt to reach out to havurot and independent minyanim often comprised of single and young married couples without children who grew up in Conservative congregations but no longer want that structure.

“Supporting them today could help build Conservative kehillot [sacred communities] tomorrow,” according to a draft of the strategic plan.

The report suggests dropping the words “synagogue” and “congregation” and replacing it with the word “kehilla” because a congregation is a “sacred community.” The change would be seen as welcoming to those who believe in Conservative ideas but are uncomfortable with the “Conservative movement” label. In addition, it is hoped that the USCJ can “become a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism as well.”

“The motivation of North American Jews for synagogue affiliation has changed and we need to create an organization that operates as an engagement model,” Rabbi Wernick explained.

The proposed changes come following blistering criticism of the USCJ two years ago from both lay leaders and clergy of its affiliated congregations. They charged that the organization lacked vision and financial transparency, and was in drastic need of an overhaul to make it relevant to its members.

Although the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found the Conservative movement to be the largest denomination with 43 percent of affiliated Jewish households, that figure plunged to 33 percent in 2000.

Since then, affiliation has continued to decline. The USCJ said it has lost about six percent of its congregations (a drop from 693 in 2001 to 652 in 2010) and about 15 percent of its members (dropping from 241,300 membership units to 204,200). The largest membership change came in the Northeast, which recorded a 30 percent plunge in membership units.

The drop in membership impacted the largest congregations the most. Whereas in 2001 there had been 36 congregations with more than 1,000 membership units, that figure dropped by 33 percent to just 24 in 2010. And the number of congregants in those synagogues plunged by 38 percent from 49,400 membership units in 2001 to 30,700 last year.

“Among congregations of every size and in every region, there is growing ambivalence about their continued membership in USCJ,” the strategic report said. “At a time when they are cutting their own congregational budgets and clergy’s salaries, few leaders express enthusiasm for paying dues to an organization that they feel is not delivering.”

Among the strongest critics was Arthur Glauberman of Scarsdale, a founder of Bonim, a group of lay leaders from a number of Conservative synagogues. A former president of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, Glauberman said he was pleased to see the plan recommend that synagogue dues to USCJ be lowered. Dues currently provide 80 percent of the organization’s $10.5 million budget. But Glauberman questioned the way the plan proposes to reduce dues — by attracting philanthropists.

“I’m skeptical how that is going to be done when this is a time when people are not writing checks to new organizations,” he said. “United Synagogue has never really relied on serious philanthropic outreach; how is it going to develop it now?”

These philanthropists would also be invited to sit on the board of the USCJ and asked for a minimum gift of $10,000 annually. The current board raises only a little more than $100,000.

But Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago, a leader of the Hayom Coalition, 25 of the largest USJC synagogues that had also lobbied for change, welcomed the idea.

“The United Synagogue is an international organization that could very well impact the future of American Judaism,” he said. “From that perspective, it is exactly the kind of organization that some high-profile people should be interested in being involved with. Once you bring those type of people into leadership positions, philanthropic possibilities will grow exponentially.”

Rabbi Siegel said that if approved, the governance changes “would be a quantum leap for the organization” because it would for the first time allow rabbis, cantors and educators to be involved in a serious way as leaders of an organization that until now was led by lay leaders and professionals.

Glauberman said there should have also been a call for a reduction in staffing and other expenditures, in addition to bringing in philanthropists.

“I still believe they are overstaffed for what they provide,” he said. “And how important is it if they want to change for the 21st century to be in an expensive building [in Manhattan]?”

Rabbi Siegel said he welcomed a section of the plan that calls for a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the different arms of the Conservative movement. For instance, talks are now underway regarding its various educational programs, everything from pre-kindergarten through high school and graduate education.

“This is a long overdue discussion about how these organizations can work together to avoid a duplication of effort that sometimes happens,” he said.

Glauberman said he would have liked to have seen some discussion in the strategic plan “about reaching out to the intermarried and how we can make them feel more supported so they don’t leave” the movement.

Jacob Finkelstein, co-chairman of the commission that developed the strategic plan, said that detail would come later. He compared the plan to “a 30,000-foot road map — you can sort of see the road and the route, but not the twists and turns.”

Nevertheless, some specifics have begun to emerge. Instead of the 65 programs United Synagogue currently offers, there would be no more than 20 or 30. Among the programs that would be affected are those that deal with college-age students, those for senior citizens and the Fuchsberg Center in Israel that is used for congregational missions and education programs.

“We are reimagining our role from being program providers to resource providers,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, executive director of the Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue. “So we would no longer be running regional or national programs for college-age students but providing resources for local communities to interface and engage with their own college students or local college students.”

Rabbi Wernick said the movement’s college-age group Koach would still have a presence on college campuses but there would be “greater cooperation with Hillel … which operates successful programs like peer-to-peer Jewish community building. … One possible iteration is that Hillel would do the engagement training with them and we would do the Conservative values training.”

But all of these changes are just in the proposal stage. In the coming weeks, comments on the strategic plan will be solicited from across the country. For instance, on Feb. 22, Rabbi Wernick and members of the strategic planning commission are slated to meet at 7 p.m. at Temple Israel Center at 280 Old Mamaroneck, Road in White Plains. Based on the input, changes would be made before the plan is presented for approval to the United Synagogue board on March 13.

Once approved, work would begin in spelling out the changes, one of which would be to change the organization’s name to reflect its new mission and focus.

“New directions provides new opportunities for re-engagement,” Rabbi Wernick said. “Once the board agrees to change direction, we can begin. It’s like wanting to take a vacation with adult children – everyone has their own idea of where to go but we can’t go until we all agree. Once we know where to go, we’ll figure out how to get there.”

Last Update:

03/10/2011 - 09:36

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Around 1990, the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism (UTCJ) deleted the word CONSERVATIVE from its name, and is now The Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ).
There is only one way Conservative Jews can lower their intermarriage rate and increase synagogue attendance: by becoming Orthodox.
How does a denomination "become a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism"?
This would make the conservative movement the SMALLEST of the three major denominations in the US. This after having been the LARGEST one 20 years ago. How did this happen?

mismanagement! that's what

I agree the Conservative movement is irrelevant in 2011. With the Reform movement becoming more traditional ritually yet more socially inclusive they have been the movement of choice among those raised in Conservative households as services in Conservative shuls are sounding more Orthodox. At least Reform and Orthodox are honest. One says that they are not bound by Halacha and the other says they are
The quality of the Rabbi's coming out of JTS is of a very poor quality. They look at this as a job and do not have the passion for what they are doing. For many of them this is a third or fourth career and they were failures and thus look at this as easy. To be a Rabbi ,you have to have the passion , set an example for others to emulate and have a spouse who is also involved. This takes 24/7 of your time. The Chabad does it right and we should follow their example. The Rabbetzin is also very important. Too many of the Rabbis of today tell you their wife is not part of the package when they are hired. The buck stops with the Rabbi of each congregation and the growth of the synagogue depends upon them, the programs they run and the examples they set.Paper goals are not worth anything if the Rabbi can't put them into action on a local level. Why are some syangogues successful and other not is the question? Todays population want smaller and more personal synagoues where the Rabbi knows your name.
Perhaps one of the saddest things I saw happen in the past 20 years was big congregations refusing to host chavurot for fear they would sap the energy of the congregation. Well, look what's happened! They lost their chance to bring people in. They were wrong and maybe that's the end of the story. I thought it was a mistake, but nobody asked me. I attended a chavurah in a small Conservative congregation. It was inspiring and fun. Small groups continue to be. There's little value in Congregation Enormous without breaking it down into chavurah-size groups.
Get a spine, USCJ. Is USCJ still spending mega bucks on outreach to intermarrieds? I hope not. For G-d's sake, don't go after those who have already checked out. Don't spend a penny on them. Conservative synagogues are stuck on Judaism 101 and won't move on -- they don't do education at a suitable, sophisticated level. We are Conservative born and bred and ready to make the move to the local Orthodox shul which has more substance to offer -- and doesn't pander to intermarrieds. The non-egalitarian thing is the stumbling block, of course. Also, the NY USCJ staff must have life tenure -- the same people running things as they did when I was a teenager 35 years ago. Same old same old. Sell your building, cut your staff, focus on congregational needs and keep the really successful things -- USY and Israel trips. But, you can do those with fewer staff too --
"These philanthropists would also be invited to sit on the board of the USCJ and asked for a minimum gift of $10,000 annually. The current board raises only a little more than $100,000." What? More Big Cigars running yet another Jewish organization -- and one in which all members supposedly are equal before their maker? This seems like a formula for killing the Conservative movement more quickly. Many young Jews-- and some of us no longer so young -- long ago wearied of having our organizations run by groups of big givers (many of whom populate synagogue boards but only a few times a year populate synagogue-sanctuary seats). Why do you think so many younger Jews, ones really involved with Jewish life, flee congregations? They want to be able to shape their own religious observance -- often at a more-intense level than is available bnai mitzva-centered services directed from the bima. I am very fond of my congregation's rabbis and hazzan, and I go to shul every week. I generally enjoy services. But the most-satisfying davening experiences I've had came in a group of about five dozen of us, mostly younger, who held our own service in the chapel for a couple of years -- a move that satisfied us but antagonized a good deal of the "upstairs" (and more-upscale) daveners. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I believe that few of us downstairs daveners thought ourselves religiously superior to those upstairs; we just wanted a different style of service, one we ran ourselves that felt more intense and mayble also more heimish than the formalities in the big room. I'm grateful for the big givers' support of our institutions, but the Golden Rule applies: He who has the money makes the rules. As the numbers suggest, that's not appealing to more and more Jews, many of whom want to take more ownership of their Jewish lives and rituals.
While I agree with the critics who say the report places too much focus on labels (e.g., Kehilot vs synagogues or congregations), what really concerns me is the proposed move away from programs to resources. If USCJ has a strength, it is in those very programs that serve individual Jews, such as Koach, USY, and even some that focus on preschoolers or senior citizens. To say (as Rabbi Savenor does) that USCJ will focus on providing resources rather than programs ignores the fact that many congregations are too small to offer stand-alone programs, either due to lack of a critical mass of participants in their vicinity or to a lack of expertise or staff. In addition, the proposed focus on "resources" seems in direct conflict with Rabbi Wernick's "engagement model"; individual Jews are "engaged", not congregations or Kehillot! Rabbi Wernick: Please explain how this shift will help with "engagement"!
I am Orthodox-trained, 'black hat'. Out of genuine curiosity, I visited a handful of Conservative synagogues. I'm sorry guys, the problem isn't the 'synagogue' label but rather the watered-down, sing-along-with-rabbi nonsense. How in the world are intelligent adults supposed to feel comfortable in a Tot-Shabbat-like service?
After all the changes during my lifetime there is little conserved in Conservative Judaism. The rabbis years ago had a real background unlike today's young rabbis who seem to know little other than how to give a sermon. A service with music and english words seems far removed from Judaism, and even that feeble attempt hasn't drawn worshippers. With the intermarriage rate among members, I doubt that the movement will be here in another 30 years.
Yes, the Conservative movement is losing members (most of who are rarely seen in temple anyway) because it is lacking spirituality and substance. Either a Jew accepts the Torah as given at Sinai and observed for thousands of years, or they can go to the reform movement which holds that all is optional. A middle ground where you can change some, but not all, observances at the whim of the rabbi presently occupying the pulpit is untenable. A movement that preaches sabbath observance and kashrus, which are observed by few of it's members, and only some of it's clergy is seen as flawed. Those that accept the Torah have headed to the orthodox synagogues, while those who feel that all obserbvance is optional have gone to the reform. The movement is waning.
Again, what about observant Jews who want egalitarian, or do you think that is an oxymoron?
Talk about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic! Maybe I'm among the "best and the brightest" as this article says because, after growing up in the Conservative movement, I fled to Modern Orthodoxy. If you actually believe in G-d and Torah, this is the only home for you. And if you don't, well then, your yiddishkeit is only cultural, like a residual affinity for lox and bagels, there is no reason whatsoever to stay in organized Jewish life, and either you or your kids will (chas v'shalom) intermarry and raise Christian kids of their own - which is what happened to the vast majority of the Jews I grew up with. I'm not surprised, but I am saddened by the continued decline of the Conservative movement. It invented a new religion, called it Judaism, and sold its followers a bill of goods. As far as I can tell, Conservative Judasim's only message is this: be ethical, and "repair" the world, whatever that means. And anyone can do that - be ethical and recycle or whatever - from outside Judaism as well.
What do you do though as observant Jews who want an egalitarian setting? Hang out alone every shabbos -- that may be the ONLY thing keeping anyone observant in the Conservative movement.
"Maybe I'm among the "best and the brightest" as this article says because, after growing up in the Conservative movement, I fled to Modern Orthodoxy..." I have to say, I am not only a Graduate of List College, the Undergraduate program of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but I went on USY Israel Poland Pilgrimage (With the above mentioned Rabbi Savenor as the Group Leader), and on Nativ their year program in Israel. So, I'd like to think I am in the best and brightest, "the future leaders"... I fled to Atheism, Treif and being a free human being instead of in the thrall of a make believe God and his self appointed earthly emissaries. Best and brightest and you went Orthodox? If you were best and brightest at the least you would be post-denominational, and the best, Pagan.
Rabbi Steven Wernick said: “With the reality of priorities and resources, we feel that at this time the primary task of United Synagogue is to partner with congregations,” he explained, adding that there would no longer be an “emphasis on individual Jews.” It is my observation that most successful outreach programs today make a point of emphasis on individual Jews. "dropping the words “synagogue” and “congregation” and replacing it with the word “kehilla” because a congregation is a “sacred community.” The change would be seen as welcoming to those who believe in Conservative ideas but are uncomfortable with the “Conservative movement” label." Changing label words?!? Are they serious? I think if that aspect of the plan is put into action United Synagogue, or United Kehilla, will be ridiculed. On a practical idea to deal with a real issue, I agree with Arthur Glaberman, the lay leader from Scarsdale, when he says "he would have liked to have seen some discussion in the strategic plan “about reaching out to the intermarried and how we can make them feel more supported so they don’t leave” the movement." My advice for United Synangogue: Deal effectively with a handful of core issues. Let another organization lead endless discussions on concepts and theories.
Response to Mr. Loring: Lack of sufficient benefits for "line staff" is a valid issue, among synagogues and schools of all Jewish denominations (not just Conservative). However, why take out your concern on the back of Hekhsher Tzedek? Instead, be glad that because of Hekhsher Tzedek, these issues are once again on the table. With all due respect, it might be better to devote your energy to helping solving these issues, rather than to attacking this useful new project.
Because do as we say not as we do mentality has destroyed Conservative Judaism for too long. It stops here.
Gee, it sounds like someone has really been "stung" by Heksher Tzedek! That would indicate that it IS needed and IS a developing success.
I could use a big donor for my board as well. I am creating a movement to boycott the Heksher Tzedek. The Conservative movement has to learn a lesson here and that is the days of do as we say not as we do Judaism are over. It is my experience as part of various Conservative Judaism's synagogues and schools that line staff such as preschool teachers and support staff within these Conservative Jewish institutions are not provided with the benefits packages such as health insurance and decent wages that the Heksher Tzedek is demanding of food companies to have in place for their own line staff employees. Additionally in my experience I have found that many Conservative Jewish institutions do not provide unemployment insurance to their own line staff. I ask the Jewish Week to do some comprehensive reporting and document these hypocritical actions on a national scale. I realize some Conservative Jewish institutions have done a better job on this task when they realized they could be called on this problem. Kol hakavod to them. But I still think these practices still continue en masse within Conservative Jewish institutions today. The Heksher Tzedek said recently that they have started to inspect three companies and hope to give those companies a Heksher Tzedek in the near future. To those companies I say the following. You are being duped. And your products will be boycotted until the Heksher Tzedek is taken off your products. If someone can provide funding to promote the need for a boycott of the Heksher Tzedek please contact me on Facebook. I would be glad to talk with you.

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