In yet another indication of the problems plaguing the Conservative movement, as many as 40 synagogues are considering withdrawing from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism because the movement’s congregational arm doesn’t serve their needs, according to a leader of a new group pressing for change.
“I say stay and change from within, but 30 to 40 other synagogues may leave,” said Arthur Glauberman, a founder of Bonim (“Builders”). He was referring to multiple comments on a United Synagogue listserv.
Bonim, which claims to represent about 50 synagogues along the East Coast, is now speaking openly of ousting the current United Synagogue leadership, slashing the group’s $14 million budget and restructuring the organization. It is also calling for the closing of all 15 of the movement’s regional offices in order to save money on rent and staff.
“The United Synagogue has become so absorbed with its own power and is out of touch with providing services to member organizations,” said Glauberman, president of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale.
“Four years ago, there were over 750 United Synagogue synagogues; now the number is under 700,” he said. “Why are congregations dropping out? Because there is no value in being a member unless you are looking for a rabbi or want to be connected to [United Synagogue Youth]. It’s a shame they don’t seem to understand that.”
Synagogues pay dues to the United Synagogue based on the number of congregants. Dues for a synagogue with a membership of 250 families pay about $10,000 a year, and a number of synagogues are behind in paying their dues because of the economic downturn, according to Glauberman and others.
On April 23 leaders of United Synagogue met with Bonim representatives to hear their concerns.
This was the second time United Synagogue leaders have met with synagogue representatives upset with their leadership. In March, the leaders met with representatives of the 25 largest United Synagogue congregations, which called themselves the Hayom (“Today”) Coalition. That group — which includes such prominent rabbis as and David Wolpe, Gordon Tucker, Jack Moline and Alan Silverstein — is working with United Synagogue to develop a long-range strategic plan for the movement by September 2010.
One of its organizers, Rabbi Michael Siegel, said in a letter to colleagues that the group was formed because “there is also a sense that we are failing as a movement.”
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and now chancellor of the Orthodox Yeshiva University, was even more blunt about the future of the Conservative movement. He told The Jerusalem Post last weekend: “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”
Rabbi Lamm, who was in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University, was referring to statistics from the National Jewish Population Survey. It found in a 2001 survey that of the 46 Jewish households that belong to a synagogue, one-third were affiliated with Conservative synagogues — a 10 percent drop since 1990.
Although the Reform movement grew from 35 percent to 38 percent during those 10 years, Rabbi Lamm said it was “because if you add goyim to Jews, then you will do OK.”
The Reform movement in 1983 adopted a policy of patrilineal descent, which recognizes as a Jew the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother provided the child is raised as a Jew.
“Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture,” Rabbi Lamm told the newspaper. “With a heavy heart, we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.”
Bonim leaders say their group complements Hayom but that it is striving to make immediate changes. “If we waited 15 months to act, everybody would suffer,” said Robert Rubin, another founder.
Asked about plans to run a “rebel” slate of candidates at the December convention to oppose the slate being proposed by the nominating committee, Rubin said it would depend on the candidates chosen by the committee.
“We’re looking for a progressive, innovative slate of people who are capable of viewing the United Synagogue in a different light,” he said.
Rubin said he was still anxious to see the United Synagogue’s budget because “we can’t be supportive of them if we don’t know how they are spending money and what their priorities are.”
He said United Synagogue has promised to post the budget on its Web site for the last three years.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization’s executive vice president who is retiring in June, said the attempt to post the budget has been going on for the last year.
“We don’t want to put up the figures without a clear explanation of what they are,” he explained. “We want to be helpful and transparent. But the budget needs a narrative. It will be done. This is not a stall. … The economy has caused us to spend more time on our budget and we can’t do both at the same time. But we’ll get to it because we believe they have a right to see it.”
Rabbi Epstein’s departure and the search for a successor sparked calls for a re-examination of the United Synagogue when some synagogue leaders objected to being excluded from the search committee.
Glauberman said his group is seeking to learn “what United Synagogue is doing for its members and where it spends its money so that it has an impact on member congregations. … Most synagogues feel they are not getting [the benefit of membership], and quite a few congregations looking for ways to save money have United Synagogue dues at the top of the list to cut.”
But Ray Goldstein, United Synagogue’s international president, said he is convinced that “some lay members of congregations know very little about United Synagogue. I know we are providing services to some that say we are not. … There may be a disconnect between what the lay people are aware of and what we do.”
Goldstein also acknowledged, however, that there are synagogues whose leaders are “unhappy” and he said efforts are being made “to do what we can to reduce that.”
“We know congregations are feeling the economic impact and we are trying to do everything we can to be sensitive and provide services that are important,” Goldstein added. “We hope that people understand that we are hearing their concerns and will act accordingly.”
David Sacks, another Bonim leader and president of Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring, Md., said he has raised enough money to send at least three buses to the United Synagogue convention Dec. 6 in Cherry Hill, N.J. He said he is convincing congregants to travel to the convention just for the business meeting in order to make motions and vote on resolutions that would reform the organization.
“This would be an excellent forum for people to state their case,” he said.
But Sacks said convention officials have informed him that each congregant would have to pay $225 to register for the convention before they would be allowed to attend. He said he is asking synagogue presidents to write letters to try to get that policy rescinded.
Another leader of Bonim, Bert Schwarz, past president of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, said he was board member of United Synagogue for about 15 years and believes it has been “sliding downward” for a number of years.
“They shrunk the board by two-thirds and now we have only two people representing all of Westchester on the board,” he said. “I don’t believe the administration is addressing the problems at hand.”
He said he would support a rebel slate to challenge the slate to be recommended by the nominating committee.
“It would certainly wake up the leadership,” he said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t been brought up before. … The hierarchy of United Synagogue is not addressing the core of the masses in the synagogues and not paying attention to what is going on. They are going about their merry way and we’re going to come to a real crisis.”
“Money is not being spent wisely to support the synagogues,” Schwarz added. “Everything at United Synagogue is done on a national basis, but in today’s economy not everyone can afford to go to one place. … The convention is too expensive.”