United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism reorganizes

On the job for barely two months, the new chief executive of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, is announcing a restructuring of the organization.

For some critics, United Synagogue has been a poster child for the movement’s ills and Wernick, who spoke to JTA in our offices Thursday morning, wants to make it smaller and better, reducing the number of regions from 15 to six and eliminating five positions in the main office, with more layoffs likely to come.

Synagogues have complained for some time that they don’t get enough value for their dues to the organization, and Wernick says he is determined to change that. He also wants to reform an unwieldy organization that is "over-institutionalized," with a bloated board and insufficient accountability. On this front, the organization’s board will be voting this week on proposed governance and structural changes aimed at granting Wernick more authority, while also making the United Synagogue more directly accountable to the congregations that pay the dues.

"The fundamental goal of United Synagogue has to be strengthening synagogues," Wernick said.  

Many young Conservative Jews fall off the map between college and having children, and Wernick’s reorganization aims to place programming for youth and young adults under one heading and provide "seamless programming" as individuals progress from one age group to the next.

(Thanks to colleague Ben Harris for this entry. If you’re looking for a break from nonprofits, check out Ben’s world travels for JTA at his new blog, The Wandering Jew.)

And here is the press release from USCJ:

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UNITED SYNAGOGUE’S STEVE WERNICK ANNOUNCES REORGANIZATION

Long the subject of speculation and rumor, Conservative group says it will restructure programs, cut staff in NY office

NEW YORK – In a highly anticipated reorganization of the synagogue arm of Conservative Judaism, its new leader, Rabbi Steven Wernick, today announced a sweeping change in the structure of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Wernick said that more than 10 percent of the venerable organization’s 44 central staff would be cut, that he would commit new resources to a reconstructed and larger youth department, and that there would be an increased focus on the support and connections to new and emergent communities to better build and maintain the identity of Conservative Jews as they grow from childhood to become young adults.

“This is the job I was hired to do,” Wernick said, barely two months into his position as executive vice president and CEO. “Our financial situation, made perilous by the economic downturn and worsened by the changing demographics and expectations of our movement, demanded that we take this action. We will flourish only if we restructure and reprioritize United Synagogue. The systems we had in place worked well for us for many years but today we have to adjust to new realities.”

Those adjustments will be most evident in United Synagogue’s offerings for children, teenagers, college students, and people in their 20s and 30s, as the programs offered them will be combined into one department. “Those programs have been our greatest strength,” Wernick said. “And we will give them the boost they need to reach new heights by giving them new vision and creativity to fuel them.” The new department will provide seamless programming for its young people as they age out of one group and grow into the next.

United Synagogue’s Kadima and USY programming are geared for middle school and high school students, while Koach targets college students and Kesharim focuses on people in their 20s and 30s. Part of the restructuring will expand Kesharim from a small committee that provides minimal grants to new minyanim to an initiative that provides more resources to young adults and to new and emerging congregations. With this new structure, United Synagogue hopes to foster relationships with young Conservative Jews more effectively and to address their programming needs.

Wernick noted that offering these programs during the college and young adult years is critical. because “United Synagogue must offer young adults program options that are relevant and meaningful to them. We inflame their imaginations, engage their spirituality, and provide them with social networks in Kadimah and USY, and then help them develop intellectually, socially, and spiritually as Conservative Jews with Koach as they go on to college and then out into the world through Kesharim. In order to grow our movement, Conservative Judaism should remain an integral part of their identity by the time they have families of their own. That should lead them to join Conservative synagogues and make sure that the movement always changes and grows,” he said.

The transformation Wernick is undertaking will happen in stages, he said, calling this first part “very difficult.”  With his move this week he already has begun to work on one of his strategic goals, reinvigorating the youth program. The other goals include strengthening synagogues, sharing best practices with member synagogues, and crafting a compelling description of Conservative Judaism. And Wernick indicated that the regional structure also will change in the next several months, and more cuts will be coming throughout the organization. “We have had to let go a number of people who have worked with us with great devotion and diligence for many years,” he said. “We regret having to do that, but we had no choice. On the other hand, we are retaining those employees who we believe have the skill to further our vision.” He also noted that in January, we will hire a graphic designer, a development expert to work on alumni relations, and an associate in that department.

“This is a difficult time we are living through,” Wernick said. “Full of sadness on the one hand and excitement on the other. We empathize with the colleagues whose careers at United Synagogue have had to come to an end. We wish them every possible success and happiness. We also look forward to the new opportunities that await us.”
 

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