United Synagogue confident in face of budget gap

NEW YORK (JTA) — Despite a budget deficit twice what was expected, the leader of the Conservative movement’s synagogue umbrella group says the group will balance its budget within two years.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, told JTA that his organization was anticipating a budget hole of more than $1 million in 2013 — well beyond the anticipated $544,000 gap.

Nevertheless, the higher number is significantly lower than the $3 million and $2.7 million deficits the USCJ ran in 2012 and 2011.

Wernick said the deficit resulted from a continuing decline in the dues paid by the member synagogues to the USCJ and a failure to meet a $1.69 million fundraising goal.

Wernick said he expects to bring the budget into balance through a combination of cost cutting and increased fundraising, adding that the organization already has $1 million in donation commitments for the coming year.

“We’re feeling a lot more confident that we have the people and tools in place to meet the budget that we put together for this next year,” Wernick said.

Among the cuts announced is the “deferral” of Koach, the organization’s college outreach program serving some 25 campuses and about 3,000 students. Koach was nearly eliminated last year, but an eleventh-hour fundraising campaign granted the program a temporary reprieve.

“We remain committed to the notion that Conservative Judaism needs to have a meaningful presence on college campuses,” Wernick said, noting that he hoped the program would continue in some form even though the financial resources are not available at present.

USCJ sought to accentuate the positive this week, emphasizing the organization’s upcoming biennial celebration in October in Baltimore and noting that with $40 million in assets, the group was not in long-term financial danger. Wernick said the organization was exploring ways to turn some of those assets into cash.

Wernick also noted that the organization had grown its fundraising capabilities dramatically, from $100,000 in 2011 to $600,000 in 2013.

One of the three institutional pillars of Conservative Judaism, USCJ serves some 800 member synagogues, the bulk of them in North America. In recent years, the organization has come under withering criticism for its perceived unresponsiveness, if not irrelevance, to the needs of its members.

A strategic plan released in 2011 called for the USCJ to focus on three core areas: strengthening its “kehillot,” or sacred communities; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership.

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