United Synagogue On Sounder Footing


Although conceding that the road to fiscal solvency is tougher than anticipated — this year’s $1 million budget shortfall will be double what was expected — a leader of the Conservative movement expressed confidence that the 2015 budget would not have to tap into reserves, more than half of which have been depleted in the last four years.

“There is not a single company that can do the kind of turnaround we are [doing] without spending money,” explained Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Until the turnaround began, the Manhattan-based United Synagogue — the umbrella organization for what was once American Jewry’s largest denomination — had come under increasing criticism from its member synagogues, many of whom have been struggling to survive amid economic and demographic challenges.

Over the last four years, Rabbi Wernick said, his organization has withdrawn between $6 million and $6.5 million from its reserves, and the 2014 budget has been adopted with a $200,000 shortfall. By the end of the fiscal year ending June 30, the amount in reserve will have dropped to about $5 million.

But at the same time, the new strategic plan being implemented to make the organization leaner and more responsive to the needs of its 630 synagogues is proving a success, according to several current and former lay leaders.

“There is a feeling now that the United Synagogue is working and on line to provide synagogues with what they need, which is training and programming,” said Irwin Scharf, a former president of the organization’s New York Metropolitan region. “Many people I speak to are happy with what’s going on.”

Before Rabbi Wernick was hired four years ago with a mandate to overhaul what many viewed as an organization in crisis, a big complaint from synagogues was that United Synagogue did little for them.

Richard Skolnik said that when he was first elected international president in 2009 he regularly found e-mails from synagogue leaders asking why they were paying dues to the national organization.

“Now, people are saying, ‘You guys are terrific, what’s next?’” he said.

In the pipeline, Skolnik revealed, are efforts to develop a national health plan for member congregations and find ways to cut costs through group purchasing.

“The cost-containment program,” he said, “was tested on about a half-dozen synagogues, and they achieved a cost savings of from $25,000 to $70,000.”

Martin Werber, a national board member for the past two years, said he has observed “a big change in the culture of the organization.”

“For the people on the board it’s all very exciting,” he said. “I agreed to come on the board because United Synagogue needed to change to meet the needs of kehillot [communities] and Conservative Jews, and I felt the new leadership was eager to engage in the challenges we have. I feel very optimistic about where we are headed.”

Six rabbis from the Hayom coalition of rabbis and lay leaders whose call for a re-visioning and restructuring of United Synagogue led to the development of the strategic plan adopted in 2011, expressed similarly positive sentiments.

“We are pleased with the progress United Synagogue has made toward becoming the organization our kehillot need it to be,” they wrote. “What impresses us is the seriousness and dedication with which the USCJ staff and board have worked to effect a major change, and how much has been accomplished in a relatively short time.”

The rabbis said they were particularly impressed with the restructuring of the organization’s board, which was reduced from 175 members to 50; an increase in donations; a streamlined operation with “impressive new talent” and a “focus on the core mission of strengthening and connecting Conservative kehillot, congregations.”

But Arthur Glauberman, former president of Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, said he is concerned that “the culture really has not changed.”

“While they now call congregations ‘kehillot,’ I don’t see that the change has been substantial,” he said. “If they really wanted to change, they would have gotten out of Second Avenue, where they have two floors of an expensive office building. They could sublet that space. It creates a tremendous overhead that they have to meet.”

In addition, Glauberman said that although the new leaders have brought in some “smart, gifted people,” a major problem is that the organization “has to answer to big and small synagogues and it is very hard to be a leader of a movement that has to answer to a lot of different parties.”

“Small synagogues feel the organization is not as receptive as it is to large synagogues because the large synagogues pay more dues and get more bang for the buck,” he added.

Skolnik said that rather than sit back and wait for member congregations to approach the national organization with an issue, the United Synagogue now has teams of “kehillot relationship managers” who proactively reach out to synagogues.

“They talk to them not about dues but about how their community is doing, and about programming and Shabbat experiences and dinners and Hebrew school,” he said. “They build relationships so that after [Superstorm] Sandy they were able to move bar and bat mitzvahs from synagogues that had been destroyed in the storm to synagogues that had power and electricity,” Skolnik said.

Rabbi Wernick pointed out that although fundraising had not been a priority before he was hired — only $100,000 had been raised in 2010 — the figure rose to $500,000 in 2012, and almost $1 million has been committed already for the next fiscal year.

“We have increased fundraising by 1,000 percent,” he said. “Next year we expect to raise $2 million, and we have commitments for $11 million over the next five years in restricted and unrestricted donations. We are doing what the strategic plan said, and are deferring some programs and continuing to expand our leadership training initiative, SULAM (ladder).”

A program deferred because of a lack of funding will be the Koach/college outreach program that began 23 years ago and has “touched tens of thousands of students,” Rabbi Wernick said. It offered such things as campus-based learning, Israel travel, campus grant programs, internships and a student newsletter.

Although the program was slated to end last year, a plea by students and a fundraising effort saved it. But Rabbi Wernick said fundraising requirements to keep the program operating in the next fiscal year had not been met and that Koach is to end June 30.

In a letter explaining the decision, Rabbi Wernick, Skolnik and Alan Weissman, chair of the Young Adult Committee, explained that two other initiatives — an internship program in partnership with Hillel, and a Birthright program for participants with Asperger’s syndrome — would continue.

But they promised that all efforts would be expended to “secure the necessary partnerships and funding for a robust campus presence in the future.”

In an interview, Rabbi Wernick pointed out that United Synagogue’s Israel-year program for recent high school graduates is also continuing for 75 to 100 participants each year.

“They come back from Israel with a deep Israel connection and are active on campus,” he said. “In over four years, we have had 300 to 400 graduates of Nativ on college campuses. … Conservative Judaism will continue on campuses as long as there are Conservative Jews on campus.”

He noted that United Synagogue will be celebrating its 100th birthday in Baltimore in the fall and that he expects as many as 1,000 people to attend the festivities.

“We had a board of directors meeting last weekend [in Great Neck, L.I.], and the people there were focused,” Rabbi Wernick said. “They were thinking strategically and looking for solutions.”

He said that although “nobody was happy with the budget” of $11.6 million, it is $2.5 million less than when he was hired.

To help achieve that savings, there have been a number of staff layoffs. The latest occurred Tuesday and Wednesday of this week when nine full-time and three parttime employees were given pink slips. Rabbi Wernick said 70 percent of them were back-office staff and the rest middle management. When all the cuts are finalized, he said he expects a total staff of 89 full-time and “20 something” parttimers.

And although United Synagogue has continued to lose affiliated congregations, he said such numbers will no longer be the measure of future success.

“Success will be the number of Jews our communities interact with. What is going on in the Jewish world is driven by market factors — demographics have changed. We now have 60 percent of U.S. Jews living in four states: California, New York, New Jersey and Florida. And 70 percent are in seven states when you add Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia and Maryland. They are in major urban communities and their suburbs, and so we will continue to see shrinkage in the number of congregations. Success will not be the number of synagogues but their impact of Judaism on the greater Jewish and general world, and the number of Jews participating in Jewish life and engaged in activities sponsored by institutions like synagogues that add meaning to people’s lives.”