The synagogue association for North America’s nearly 600 Conservative synagogues is coming out of a summer of changes leaner and more efficient, say its leaders, after years of financial turmoil.
After months of layoffs and restructuring, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has new digs and will save over $1 million annually, according to the organization’s interim CEO. (USCJ’s operating budget is about $16 million.)
“We are now on a path towards fiscal sustainability, with a balanced budget and enough operating cash and fiscal discipline in place to manage our operation and stay on budget,” said Ned Gladstein, who assumed the presidency of the 70-year-old organization in January. “We are now concentrating on operational effectiveness, partnerships and building the network.”
But the umbrella group still has a number of challenges, coming primarily from member synagogues who question whether they still need a centralized entity. In a time of fast-moving change in the Jewish community and struggles to attract new members to what was once America’s largest Jewish denomination, synagogues are asking whether the dues they pay USCJ are worth it.
“Aside from summer youth travel, we don’t need the overhead and infrastructure of USCJ and USY [United Synagogue Youth] anymore,” Rabbi Avi Olitzky, spiritual leader of 1,250-household Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., told The Jewish Week.
The rabbi, whose congregation remains affiliated with the USCJ, was clearly torn by developments.
“I grew up in USY and loved it,” he said. “But the landscape has changed, and many of us could do our own [youth programming]. It won’t be today, but the time is coming. The world has been decentralizing in many areas, and it is about time the movement catches up.”
USCJ, like umbrella bodies representing other Jewish denominations, functions as a combination trade association, resource center, and standard bearer for its member congregations. Its website promises, “Only as one powerful, connected network can we advance the critical role an authentic and dynamic Judaism plays in the Jewish world and beyond.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said that “being a part of a synagogue organization has value because you get to interact with other like-minded people, but the old-fashioned model under which [the USCJ] was formed is outdated. Because of the internet and other developments, synagogue organizations are less vital than they once were.”
But Gladstein said in an email that despite advances in communications technologies there is still “a need for engagement — the building of meaningful relationships grounded in trust between individuals, between synagogues, between the various organizations that comprise the Conservative movement. The number one reason our congregations want to be a part of our network is because they do not want to feel alone; they want to know that we are in this together and part of something bigger. … USCJ’s fundamental role is to ensure that our congregations are not islands unto themselves, that they are more than just the sum of their parts, that they are in relationship with one another for the benefit of all.”
Winning over critics like Rabbi Olitzky and Sarna is the next task after a summer of cost-cutting move. This summer USCJ broke its 15-year lease and moved from rented offices in the Financial District to new offices at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights. The rent at these offices, located in the former Brush Residence Hall, is much lower — one source in the movement referred to it as “the family rate.”
At the beginning of the year, USCJ’s financial picture was looking very bleak. The organization had amassed more than $7 million in what Gladstein called “extraordinary one-time expenses” and ongoing budgetary deficits over the past eight years, and annual dues revenue had dropped by about $3 million over 12 years. Available operating cash was less than half of what was needed to operate efficiently, and without an infusion of funds from non-operating sources, it expected to run out of ready cash by the end of this year. In fact, the budget for the 2019 fiscal year was projected to close with an operating deficit for about $760,000, according to Gladstein.
Shortly before Passover the organization’s leaders started to implement a series of moves designed to substantially reduce costs. Notices were sent to all staff members telling them that layoffs were coming. The axe fell at the end of April when 13 staffers — both part-time and full-time — were laid off.
The move uptown affords the organization the strategic benefit of being near offices of some of the Conservative movement’s other arms – the Masorti Foundation that advances Conservative Judaism in Israel, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Cantors Assembly, the seminary, Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and Camp Ramah, according to Leslie Lichter, its interim chief executive officer.
“The location is really conducive to developing ongoing collaboration, and that is what we are going to enhance: projects to work on together and partnerships,” she said, adding that this December’s biennial convention in Boston is being held jointly with the RA.
These steps are in line with restructuring called for in the USCJ’s Roadmap to Strategic Success and Operational Sustainability. It began being implemented in January 2018 and is designed to guide the organization for three to five years.
In all, the USCJ workforce reductions and restructuring — primarily in overhead costs — will save over $1 million annually, according to Lichter.
Although its supporters maintain the USCJ provides a forum for shared ideas, leadership training and help with fundraising and membership growth, detractors complain they rarely see anyone from the organization and those they do see are ill-equipped to address their needs.
“There is no accountability and no transparency,” said a representative of one synagogue who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Why would any congregation in their right mind throw more money into the pit?”
Lichter acknowledges that the group had faced a cash flow problem but she said it has been overcome now that the boards of the USCJ and its Supporting Foundation voted in August to withdraw $2.65 million from the foundation for use “essentially as a line of credit that will be fully repaid in any 12-month period.”
The foundation was created in 2015 with money from the sale of USCJ’s office condominium at 820 Second Ave. That money has grown with interest and through investments to about $8 million. Until the July vote, the USCJ had taken only the interest from the foundation and did not repay it, she said.
“But coming into this year, the synagogues told us they wanted us to operate efficiently and sustainably,” Lichter added. “Leveraging that asset to support the work of the USCJ and its affiliates is very much the purpose of the foundation. The money is not to be used for operating funds but for cash flow to allow us to operate more effectively because of the seasonality of our revenue and expenses.”
Unlike other synagogue umbrellas, the USCJ relies on philanthropy and on only one primary source of income: dues from its nearly 600 synagogue affiliates. By contrast, the Orthodox Union gets money not only from its synagogue affiliates but for its kosher supervisory program. The Union for Reform Judaism gets income from dues from its approximately 900 synagogues, philanthropy and program fees from summer camps.
The centrist Conservative movement has been buffeted in recent years by outside trends, namely a growing divide between liberal and tradition-minded Jews that has benefited Reform Judaism to its left and Orthodox Judaism to its right.
In recent years, declining synagogue membership has resulted in member synagogues either shutting down or merging with other Conservative or Reform congregations. Others left citing financial or ideological reasons. In a strategic plan in 2011 that proposed overhauling the USCJ it noted that member congregations had declined in recent years from 800 to 650. In the prior nine years, there had been a 14 percent drop in membership. Lichter said membership today has dropped to below 600. But she noted that about 25 congregations joined or rejoined in the last five years and that the majority pay “fully billed dues,” which range up to nearly $100,000.
“To my knowledge, I can think of two synagogues that have disaffiliated because of a lack of perceived value,” Gladstein observed.
But The Jewish Week has learned of at least three synagogues that have left in recent years and a number of Jewish leaders said they knew of others as well. All of these Jewish leaders, who work in synagogues across the country, insisted upon anonymity before they would agree to speak. Lichter did not answer how many synagogues have left, saying only: “There is always a small ebb and flow, and our synagogues have multiple reasons they do one or the other.”
After its financial overhaul, the organization’s next task is convincing critics that it still has value to reluctant congregations.
“We have our own financial issues, there is no sense throwing good money into an organization that is going to implode,” said one synagogue leader. “Things there are not in great shape [at the USCJ]. They are no better off today than they were six months ago.”
Rabbis and current Jewish leaders have complained that the organization has no long-range mission or governance plan, no financial plan that spells out its budget and sources of funding. Lichter refuted that charge, saying: “The USCJ has a long range mission, a governance plan, and a financial plan that spells out the budget and sources of income.”
“The financial state of the USCJ is too tenuous,” said one Jewish leader. “We made the decision to suspend paying our dues and we hear that their biggest fear is that others will follow.”
Critics also point to the fact that Lichter, who most recently worked as a marketing director, is only the interim CEO and that there is no search to find a viable permanent CEO following the departure of last Feb. 1 of Rabbi Steven Wernick after a decade in the position. Lichter said the USCJ expects to have a “CEO in place for the second half of 2020.” They have not yet begun the search process for a new CEO. In addition, critics question why the organization has not re-established a program for college students after eliminating it for budgetary reasons several years ago.
Sarna said the decision to close the program in 2013 for budgetary reasons “will end up being seen as a disastrous error. …The abandonment of the college campus at the very time the Orthodox were investing vast resources will mystify people. Where is the next generation going to come from?”
Rabbi Olitzy also offered this observation: “I don’t think I would be speaking out of turn if I said synagogues belong [to the USCJ] because of USY or the JRB [the retirement plan for clergy and employees of institutions affiliated with the Conservative movement] that is held over their heads.”
Another Jewish leader whose congregation withdrew from the USCJ appeared exasperated in speaking about the group.
“The Conservative movement is not doing anything compelling. … As much as I passionately believe in Conservative Judaism, it has been unsuccessful in communicating to the next generation of committed Conservative Jews, and that is one of the reasons we pulled out.”
“Like many Conservative synagogues,” he continued, “we were facing financial challenges. We had someone come in and address us about how we could be a self-sustaining congregation. He was from United Synagogue and he was supposed to tell us about ways to become self-sustaining and suggest ways for us to reach out to members and raise money. He left, unable to answer our questions and unable to be of any help. We tried again later with another representative from United Synagogue. … He too fell short of what we needed.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom in Denver, told The Jewish Week that the USCJ is “working to re-enliven our movement. The USCJ is taking it very seriously. … Their role is to elevate rabbis and lay leaders who are doing this critical work.”
And e-mail interviews arranged by the USCJ with several leaders of USCJ congregations found individuals who praised the organization. Among them were Robert Panzer, immediate past president of Temple Israel in Great Neck, L.I., who wrote that the USCJ provides a “forum to share ideas, problems and solutions. USCJ has leadership programs for synagogues, such as Sulam [“ladders”] for presidents, which I attended, as did my successor. We have participated in Sulam for Planners, Sulam for Emerging Leaders, and Sulam for Current Leaders. All of these have allowed for our growth as a congregation.”
Rance Block, chair of the USCJ’s District Leadership Committee, pointed out that many congregations have participated in strategic planning programs, leadership training seminars, membership retention workshops and “many Webinar offerings discussing synagogue security, fundraising, finance operations, and operational effectiveness.”