In the latest belt-tightening move made by a financially strapped Conservative movement, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism last week laid off four executives, among them some high-level USCJ employees.
But the layoffs, following several similar moves in the last few years, are the last planned ones for the foreseeable future, according to the executive vice president of the movement’s congregational arm, Rabbi Steven Wernick.
The layoffs follow the recent announcement that USCJ will sell its Manhattan headquarters, and that the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, will sell two dormitories, as well as some of its air rights on campus in order to finance a redevelopment project at its Morningside Heights campus.
Rabbi Wernick confirmed that USCJ last week laid off more employees, “some … for reasons other than financial,” but he declined to give an exact number or the names of the staff members.
The list includes a USCJ director of special projects, the director of the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, the director of major gifts and an assistant information technology director, according to an observer with close ties to the Conservative movement, who spoke to The Jewish Week on condition of anonymity in order to maintain those connections.
Rabbi Wernick, who was read a list of the names of those reportedly let go, would not confirm or deny them, saying he would not comment.
Rabbi Wernick said there are no more layoffs “that we are contemplating at this moment.” He said the most-recent cost-cutting measures, part of a long-term “reorganization,” will enable USCJ, which had run up a cumulative deficit of several millions dollars, to reach its goal of eliminating the deficit within the next few years, and will enable the organization to better “focus on our core functions” by outsourcing some services and streamlining other programs.
While published reports in 2013 put the organization’s cumulative deficit over the previous two years at more than $5 million, Rabbi Wernick said the figure last year was less — about $3.1 million. He said the deficit last year was reduced by more than $500,000.
The layoffs and other cost-cutting measures — in 2013 it shut down its college outreach program — are designed to produce annual savings of $350,000-400,000, the rabbi said.
Asked if the new executive-level layoffs harm the ability of USCJ to operate efficiently, Rabbi Wernick said, “Not if you have an understanding of what our core job is,” working with member congregations and kehillot [communities], Rabbi Wernick said.
But the observer who asked for anonymity called the latest USCJ layoffs “just the latest … public acknowledgement that they’re barely making it,” that the economic measures instituted by Rabbi Wernick since he became chief executive of the organization in 2009 are not succeeding in bringing USCJ out of the red.
The financial worries apply to the movement overall as studies show that Conservative Jewry is an aging and shrinking population.
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While the number of Conservative congregations in the United States has fallen in the last few decades from 850 on 1985 to around 650 today, partly because of synagogue mergers, Rabbi Wernick maintained that “they’re not dropping out now … some [congregations] are joining [USCJ],” Rabbi Wernick said. He declined to give numbers of member congregations.