Quick action and an early rebellion at USCJ


Both the Forward and the Jewish Week followed up on the news, reported here last week, that the new chief of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, was moving ahead with plans for layoffs and a reorganization of the body that some see as emblematic of the movement’s decline.

Perhaps it was inevitable that someone wasn’t going to be happy, and now we know who.

From the Jewish Week:

Bonim (“builders” in Hebrew), a group of lay leaders from a number of Conservative synagogues around the country, issued a statement Tuesday saying the actions of USCJ are “too little, too late.”

Bonim announced the creation of an exploratory committee to consider forming a new entity to assist congregations with membership, fundraising, leadership development and programming. It said it has raised more than $50,000 to study the need for this new entity and that if there is sufficient interest, it would be launched by the first of the year.

“At a time when other national organizations are undertaking wholesale restructuring in order to meet the needs of their constituency today, the USCJ is tinkering around the edges — focused on preservation rather than delivering value to their members,” the statement said.

One of the group’s founders, David Sacks of Silver Spring, Md., said he believes that there are at least 20 congregations just in the Washington, D.C., area that would join the new entity.

“There are synagogues that are in trouble, and nothing they [USCJ] are saying is about synagogues — it’s only about themselves,” he said. “They just don’t get it. We want to provide synagogues with what we think USCJ should be providing, and it clearly is not their focus.”

It’s not entirely clear how large and influential a group Bonim is, though 20 synagogues in the nation’s capital — assuming that claim to be credible — is not so easily overlooked. But it’s also worth noting that another body that has strongly criticized the USCJ — this one made including some marquee movement names — is backing Wernick. Perhaps more significantly, rather than jump ship, the group is working on a plan of its own to revitalize the organization.

The Jewish Week again:

Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago, a leader of the Hayom (“Today”) Coalition, representatives of 25 of the largest USCJ synagogues that had lobbied USCJ for change, said he was impressed by the actions of Rabbi Wernick, who assumed his new job in July.

“It shows he is a good listener,” he said. “He took it upon himself to go around the country and speak to congregations, synagogue presidents and rabbis, and he took careful note of what have been long-term issues. It’s refreshing to see him respond to these concerns as quickly as he has.

“Obviously it is going to take some time to create mechanisms to properly respond to the needs of synagogues, but he deserves to be commended for the good work he has done in such a short amount of time.”

Rabbi Siegel added that the actions taken by the USCJ board may have been “historic” in the way it addressed “an array of issues and come up with concrete changes. United Synagogue is responding in ways I have not seen in my 27 years in the rabbinate. But one should not get confused with what is taking place at the board level and the long-range strategic plan Hayom is working on.”

He said a professional would soon be hired to manage the plan, which should be completed no later than next September.
“The faster we get the report out, the more discussions we will have across the country and the better it will be for everybody,” Rabbi Siegel said. “We’re going to be looking at every aspect of this organization to ensure that we will be able to serve the needs of synagogues in the best way possible.”

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