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Conservative synagogue group releases new strategic plan

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NEW YORK (JTA) — In the latest attempt to reverse the fortunes of what was once America’s largest synagogue denomination, the congregational association of the Conservative movement has released a draft strategic plan that seeks to improve its governance, reduce the financial burden on member synagogues and refocus its attention on “sacred communities.”

The result of more than a year of deliberations, the plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism calls for a narrowing of the group’s focus and a raft of organizational changes, from the establishment of regional advisory councils to a name change.

Specifically, it urges the United Synagogue to focus on three core areas: strengthening “kehillot,” or sacred communities, a change that points to the possibility of non-synaogue-based affiliation; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership. 

“These are the core functions that synagogues have been asking for the most,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the UCSJ executive vice president, told JTA.

The plan is the latest effort to diagnose and treat the ills of the Conservative movement, which has been overtaken as the largest Jewish denomination in the United States by the Reform movement and is still struggling to articulate its position at the center of the Jewish religious spectrum.

The movement endured a bruising battle in 2006 as it sought to formulate its policy toward gay clergy, and the economic recession has dealt a punishing blow to the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

But the movement’s troubles have been most acutely felt within the United Synagogue, which has faced its own serious budget gaps and seen its member congregations decline 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.

In 2008, three Canadian synagogues — among them the largest movement-affiliated congregation in North America — quit the USCJ claiming, among other things, that the organization was not providing a decent return for their membership dues. Then, on the eve of Wernick’s appointment as president, the USCJ came under withering criticism by some of the movement’s most successful rabbis, who in a coalition calling itself Hayom (“Today”) called for a new strategic planning process.

United Synagogue was largely responsive to Hayom’s demands and has billed the strategic plan as a joint effort between the two.

Rabbi Michael Siegel, a Chicago rabbi and leader of Hayom, said the plan represented a “huge step forward” and a “bold move” on the part of the USCJ leadership. Nevertheless, he said, it is only a first step.

The United Synagogue does not possess the expertise to deliver on the plan, Siegel said, and its implementation will therefore require a “leap of faith” on the part of member congregations.

“If the United Synagogue is willing to cooperate and collaborate with organizations that are succeeding in those areas and become the conduit to Conservative congregations for the ideas that are being promulgated around the synagogue world, I think it will succeed,” he said.

The USCJ board must approve the plan before it becomes operational. Its next meeting is scheduled for March 13.

Much in the current plan is a direct response to the criticisms Siegel and others have leveled at the organization in the past. The plan calls for a new governance structure, including a General Assembly of representatives of each kehillah, as well as regional district councils that elect their own representative to the board of directors. It also calls for a reduction of synagogue dues.

More than 80 percent of UCSJ’s $10.5 million budget now comes from dues. The reduction would be paid for in part by increased philanthropic contributions and unspecified new “profit centers.”

The plan also proposes reshaping the organization’s board to include philanthropists and “thought leaders.” The board now raises only about $105,000. 

But Wernick said the plan’s greatest significance is its recognition of broader sociological changes in American Jewish life. Synagogue membership is no longer considered a requirement for Jewish engagement, and many of the movement’s most promising younger members have migrated away from formal identification with Conservative institutions.

Adapting to these changes, Wernick said, requires a different kind of organization, one that does not take membership for granted. 

“The way in which you get people to show up is to engage them where they are,” Wernick said. “It’s a different organizational model, bottom up and not top down. Our synagogues, the way in which they are organized, are top down.”

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