Feb 9, 2010

uscj.org: "United Synagogue's Transformation Continues"

uscj.org: "United Synagogue's Transformation Continues"


February 2010 - What organization began in 1913 with 22 members, charged 25 cents per member, was led only by men, had standing bodies that included the Committee on Propaganda, and by its second year was financially secure, with a bank balance of $465.01 after all expenses were paid?

Yes, you guessed right. It was the United Synagogue of America, a Union for Promoting Traditional Judaism. Its first president was Solomon Schechter and its original executive council included Cyrus Adler, Louis Ginsberg, and Mordecai Kaplan. (The United Synagogue Recorder, the organization's first newsletter, reported in its first issue, in 1922, that Schechter had written that United Synagogue "will be the greatest bequest that I shall leave to American Israel.") The council was to be made up of 21 people. There were no regions, although not all member synagogues were in the Northeast. By 1916, the 44 synagogues ranged from Baltimore to Boston to Buffalo, from Ohio to Illinois to Iowa, from Missouri to Colorado to Nebraska; almost all were in the United States but at least one was in Montreal.

The board met but once a year, and the minutes included impassioned and reasoned descriptions of Conservative Judaism, defined in the context of the Reform and Orthodox worlds but not as mere reaction to them.

It also includes reports of needs necessarily unmet because there is not enough money, of Jews facing assimilation and wishing to fight it but needing support.

Some things change and others stay the same. United Synagogue has morphed considerably over the last 97 (!) years, but its goal – to ensure that a sane, moderate Judaism flourishes, faithful both to halacha and to the life around it – has not changed.

As the board minutes and back issues of the Recorder – later changed to the United Synagogue Review – make clear, there always has been a tension between the organization's intentions and its resources, and it always has scrambled to find ways to reorganize to match them.

This month, we have reorganized again, in a move so far-reaching that it is being called a transformation. Understanding that in our digital age geography matters less than bandwidth, and in an attempt to save money by cutting duplications of services, we have gone from 15 regions to five districts and two regions, and plan eventually to have six districts.

The transformation plan, part of our new bylaws, was voted into existence by our board of directors and ratified at our international biennial convention in December. The plan changes our governance structure, reducing the size of the board and creating a new body, the general assembly.

We have done the painful but necessary task of trimming our staff, and we have reassigned our regional (now, of course, district) staff according to the matrix system, so each one has a dual set of responsibilities, one to the shuls in the district, the other to a program or department. Each district employee is both a service provider and a consultant, with a specialty, able to travel across the continent to help member synagogues.

Our new executive vice president and CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, wrote a letter, about the transformation plan – its potential, its risks, the excitement it evokes, and the pain that inevitably it caused.

At the same time, a coalition of Conservative synagogues, the Hayom Coalition, has begun working with us on a long-range strategic plan. We do not know what research for the plan with turn up nor what direction the plan itself will take, but we have pledged ourselves to work with Hayom for the continued good of our member synagogues and even beyond, for the continued good of Conservative Judaism.

Our transformation plan is new; its implementation has just begun, and it is certain that it will change as it butts up against reality. But the fact that we have begun to change and will continue to do so is incontrovertible. In that, we are doing what we have done since we were founded, following in the footsteps of such leaders as Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginsberg, and Mordecai Kaplan. We are recognizing our core values, acknowledging outside reality, and figuring out how we can not only hold onto but champion those values as we adjust to the real world around us.


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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