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.”