A plan to cure what’s ailing Conservative shuls

A plan to cure what’s ailing Conservative shuls

National body seeks ‘significant changes’ in focus, leadership

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

USCJ leader Rabbi Steven Wernick said his organization’s strategic plan emphasizes “a new way of doing things.”
USCJ leader Rabbi Steven Wernick said his organization’s strategic plan emphasizes “a new way of doing things.”

The Conservative movement’s synagogue umbrella organization has drafted a new strategic plan that seeks to improve its governance, reduce the financial burden on member synagogues, and make the movement more attractive to independent congregations that eschew the Conservative label.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s plan comes after a year of deliberations and was prompted by trends both narrow and broad. Internally, synagogues were asking for “more bang for the buck” from an organization to which they pay annual dues.

More broadly, the Conservative movement has been struggling to define itself at a time when centrism is falling out of favor in religion as well as politics. The number of USCJ synagogues declined sharply in recent years from 800 to 650. In the past nine years, the report notes, there has been a 14 percent drop in membership.

The plan calls for focusing on three “core functions”: strengthening and transforming current congregations, or “kehillot”; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership.

The draft, released in January, will be voted on by the organization’s board in March.

“This plan calls for significant changes in focus and leadership and dramatic improvement in the way United Synagogue partners with its congregations and others across North America,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s chief executive officer and executive vice president, in a prepared statement. “The strategic plan emphasizes tangible change, organizational transparency, openness, and a new way of doing things.”

The draft calls for “a serious review of all current continental and district programs to see which should be continued, which need to be restructured to be mission-congruent, and which need to be eliminated.”

Programs getting the closest scrutiny include Koach, USCJ’s program for college students, and Hazak, its program for seniors. Internationally, the relationship between USCJ and the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem will also be reexamined.

USCJ’s public policy and advocacy roles have been nixed and will be transferred to “a new entity.”

There is a renewed focus on partnering with synagogues to “expand membership, increase participation, cut costs, and increase revenue.”

The new plan was crafted in part as a response to criticism leveled at the organization by Hayom, a group of rabbis who got together in 2009 to demand changes. They suggested that confidence in USCJ among rabbis and lay leaders was in sharp decline, and many were questioning the value of services they were receiving. They charged the organization with a lack of vision and strong leadership and an inability to offer a compelling global movement presence or message.

The plan was drafted by a joint committee of members from both USCJ and Hayom.

“We believe that the implementation of this plan should go a long way toward demonstrating the value of United Synagogue and restoring the confidence of member congregations,” said Rabbi R. Michael Siegel of Chicago, a leader of the Hayom coalition, in a prepared statement.

The plan is also offered as a way to stem the tide of the shrinking number of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews.

The organization is beginning to phase in use of the term kehilla, to replace “congregation” and “synagogue.” The term is meant to emphasize the notion of a “sacred community,” according to the draft plan, but also addresses another problem for the Conservative movement: the rise of independent minyanim, or congregations, that “do not necessarily belong to official Conservative congregations or feel comfortable with the ‘Conservative movement’ label.”

The organization, therefore, is also anticipating a name change.

“Many of those engaged in serious, post-denominational Judaism are, in effect, expressing the principles, ethos, substance, and style of Conservative Judaism,” according to the draft.

Locally, rabbis are welcoming the plan, but remain skeptical. Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield called the new plan “encouraging,” and particularly embraced the name change.

“I especially like the semantic change from congregation to kehilla, implying, as stated in the draft, the need to build ‘sacred communities,’ which is a term that I have stressed to my congregation.”

But he was more wary of the focus on “core functions,” worrying that they were a call to look inward.

“I do agree with the concept of strengthening our core, but I remain a strong proponent of keruv [outreach], as I continue our kehilla’s mission of a tri-keruv approach: keruv to those [in] interfaith relationships, to the [gay] community, and to those from the FSU community. I think our toughest goal is to bring in those in the 20s-to-40s demographic, and I continue to work on programming to attract them, even going out to where they are.”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell was a vocal member of the Hayom group.

He called the strategic plan “a beginning, but only a beginning of a transformation process in re-engineering the USCJ.” While he applauded the effort, he is watching to see how it is implemented.

“The next important step will be the recruitment of a new cast of imaginative leaders to be installed in December 2011. It will be these new USCJ leaders who will be charged with taking Conservative Judaism’s congregational arm effectively into the 21st century.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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