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Layoffs at embattled United Synagogue
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Layoffs at embattled United Synagogue

Conservative movement’s congregational arm trimming budget, reorganizing

Teens from Maplewood-South Orange USY on a President’s Day trip to Philadelphia. Courtesy Sam Jacobson
Teens from Maplewood-South Orange USY on a President’s Day trip to Philadelphia. Courtesy Sam Jacobson

Facing financial pressures, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Conservative Movement’s congregational arm, has reportedly laid off a portion of its staff in a bid to trim its budget, NJJN has learned.

Staffers at USCJ were informed shortly before Passover that layoffs would be imminent, though rumors stretched back to the beginning of the year. Decisions were communicated to individual staffers at the end of April.

The layoffs are part of a broader strategic plan, a new Roadmap to Strategic Success and Operational Sustainability, which included measures to balance the USCJ’s operating budget. The organization will also be moving its offices and consolidating its United Synagogue Youth movement for teens into “branches,” each composed of two to three regions.

According to Alissa Pinck USCJ senior director of marking and communications, who responded to NJJN’s inquiries by emailfollowing the layoffs synagogues will receive “more support” from USCJ, including more access to best practices, “curated” educational content, and program ideas and guidance in “forming and maintaining affinity groups.” All the programs such as the leadership conference known as Sulam will continue.

Pinck said that responsibilities for Jennifer Stofman, the current manager of the Mid-Atlantic District, “will only change slightly,” although she did not elaborate beyond saying that staff members like Stofman would have “a chance to share more of their individual expertise with congregations across the continent.”

Regional affiliations and conventions will remain unchanged, and the teenage experience will be the same as well, Pinck said. The only difference for USY, including New Jersey’s Hagalil region, she said, is that it will add “new opportunities,” and programming will begin in new settings like schools and camps.

The development of the plan began in January 2018, according to a letter from USCJ obtained by NJJN. It calls for increased collaboration between Conservative Movement organizations such as Ramah camps, JTS, and the Rabbinical Assembly, its rabbinical arm, and calls on USCJ to “centralize operations, recruitment, finance, and systems staff.”

The letter continues, “We are redefining staff positions to align job descriptions and key performance indicators with the goals set forth in the plan and, regrettably, we are reducing our employee head count as of this morning.”

The news comes at a time of transition for two of the Conservative Movement’s largest institutions. Rabbi Steven Wernick, former CEO of USCJ, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, former CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, each announced in March 2018 that they would step down from their roles the following year. (Wernick, formerly of Caldwell, is senior rabbi at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation.) USCJ has yet to name a new CEO.

This is not the first time the USCJ has faced financial troubles. In 2013, a JTA report found that the USCJ had run a deficit of $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million in 2011. The organization had unveiled a strategic plan in 2011 after years of declining membership and revenue. At the time, a senior executive at one of the movement’s largest synagogues told JTA that United Synagogue leaders were “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”

The movement’s troubles have extended far beyond the financial in recent years. Controversies over intermarriage have caused a deep chasm, as the Reform Movement has embraced the practice, threatening the Conservative Movement from the left. While the Conservative Movement forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages, some high-profile rabbis have openly flouted the rule in protest. In October, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards overturned a rule, instituted in 1972, forbidding Conservative rabbis from attending intermarriages.

Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. NJJN senior writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed reporting.

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