Mar 2, 2011

Jewschool: USCJ Strategic Plan: Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be

Jewschool: USCJ Strategic Plan: Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be

The USCJ Strategic Plan, Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be

Any useful long-term plan needs to be a bit idealistic. In my mind, USCJ's strategic plan was a bit too heavy on the idealism with very little vision or practical conception of how to get there. Here, I've taken the ideals already in the USCJ strategic plan and tried to envision what an organization would need to look like to possibly reach some of these goals. I humbly acknowledge that my ideas have their own leaps of logic and limitations and could receive similar criticisms to those I've thrown around. Then again, I'm not consultant who spent a year and charged $30,000 to write up USCJ's actual strategic plan. Even if USCJ collapses, perhaps this could be part of a discussion of how other large Jewish institutions interact with the broader communities they serve.

I'm going to try to divide the challenges/goals of USCJ into three main categories: (1) Becoming a "nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism" and Conservative movement regrowth, (2) Improve Conservative Jewish education (particularly pre-college education), and (3) Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities.

Nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism and Conservative movement regrowth

The strategic plan talked a lot of about working with various non-movement communities, like independent minyanim, and perhaps bringing some of them into the movement. I don't think USCJ cares precisely about creating a healthy post-denominational network. I also doubt that the ideas listed in the strategic plan: giving consulting, technical, and financial support to independent communities, are especially useful to those communities. These are nice in theory and may be worth trying, but I just don't see USCJ successfully creating value-added resources for these communities given its own limited resources. That said, USCJ could pay attention to independent community leaders as sources for the next generation of USCJ staff. Letting great leaders turn their passion into a profession can bring in people who have the skills to benefit affiliated and unaffiliated communities.

This also leaves us asking what it would mean to be a useful "nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism." Any successful plan needs to focus on what the movement gains from collaborations. It is in the best interest of the movement to increase the number of locations where a Conservative Jews can practice and where unaffiliated Jews actively participate in communities that fit within Conservative philosophy. Whether those communities consider themselves Conservative is barely relevant. Compared to traditional synagogues, indy minyanim require relatively little money and time to create. They can and do appear in areas where success isn't definite. In other cases, they appear in areas with existing synagogues, but will experiment with different styles of community to see what brings people in. Innovations in these communities can spread to other Conservative or unaffiliated communities. (As I write this, I'm realizing this sounds a bit like the Chabad model, except with even lower start-up costs for each site and no zealous central authority.) Most importantly for the movement, many successful independent minyanim become places where Conservative Jews can find sacred communities.

I do not think it is worthwhile to anguish over whether various indy minyanim do or do not formally affiliate with the movement. Make affiliation possible; try to create real benefits for indy minyans to affiliate. But the potential few thousand dollars of affiliation dues won't be worth as much as the volunteer-time, energy, and additional places to pray and learn that could be gained by non-judgmentally collaborating with independent communities with common goals.

Before this is shot down as overly idealistic, according to the most recent public budget 48% of USCJ revenue comes from dues and another 42% comes from programs. USCJ is already committing to shrinking the percent of revenue from dues. Thus, the program-based revenue becomes more important. Many of the programs that bring in revenue are restricted to affiliated congregations, but could be of value to many others. This doesn't make sense to me. By opening up programs, like USY and other youth programs, to anyone who wants to pay for them, you don't just bring more children into a Conservative education; you bring in income that can make these programs better. Perhaps unaffiliated families or communities would need to pay a bit more, and perhaps participation in these programs might encourage independent communities to affiliate, but that's secondary to giving more children access to these successful programs. The same goes for self-funding non-youth programs like the Sulam leadership workshops. If they're so popular with leaders within the movement, why not let leaders of unaffiliated communities or even leaders affiliated with other movements pay to attend? I'd even go as far as to suggest allowing unaffiliated congregations that want to hire a Rabbinical Assembly rabbi to pay a fee for access, as is done by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. The affiliation-as-entrance-fee model is no longer working for the Conservative movement.

The benefits of opening USCJ hosted programs to more communities comes at the cost of limiting the benefits of affiliation. It becomes much easier for dissatisfied synagogues to leave USCJ. That said, if the cost between buying into a host of programs and affiliating is minimal, the cost of affiliation is minimal. If a program isn't appealing enough for congregations to use it, perhaps it shouldn't be a major part of the USCJ budget. Programs that are clearly vital but can't be supported by affiliation or programmatic dues are probably great targets for focused fundraising. If USCJ takes this path, success could benefit currently affiliated synagogues as well as other communities who could access these programs.

This concept also helps rebut the repeating melodrama about the decreasing number of families in USCJ affiliated congregations with new numbers and new ways to define success and identify weaknesses. Being able to respond to such articles with examples of where the movement is growing or Conservative-friendly programs are gaining strength allows for a new narrative. To go one step farther, the two articles linked above turn declines in USCJ affiliation into attacks on all non-Orthodox Judaism. Finding ways to push back on these attacks with solid numbers benefit all of us who value diverse Jewish practice.

Improve Conservative Jewish education

Whether it's USCJ or some other Conservative organization, the problems with the Conservative movement's education programs are central issues for the health of the movement. Simply put, the vast majority of children who are growing up in the Conservative movement are not being given the opportunities to gain the knowledge needed to become full participants (let alone leaders) in their own communities. For a movement whose purpose includes keeping Hebrew as the language of prayer, not placing children on a solid path to knowing the full liturgy and its meaning is a failure. The strategic plan rightly says that USCJ needs to get the movement's various educational organizations working more closely together, but punts on what their goals should be except to say there should be a "blue-ribbon panel" to figure it out. Perhaps training children to have the basic skills needed to be the next generation of full participants in Jewish prayer might be a good starting goal.

When asked why this isn't currently happening, a very common answer I hear is that day schools do a great job (and many do), and so we just need to figure out how to get more of the children in the Conservative movement to attend them. However, the day school attendance numbers are barely budging, and they aren't at a level to sustain the movement. As of 2008-9, Solomon Schecter day schools in the US enrolled 13,223 students and all non-Orthodox day schools enrolled 38,572 students (Tables 2 & 4). In 2006-7, Conservative supplementary schools enrolled 55,915 students (making up most of the 80,237 enrolled in non-Orthodox and non-Reform supplementary schools: Table 3). Even in Metro NY, with many day school options, 8,500 children were in Conservative supplementary programs vs 560 in Solomon Schechter day schools.

This leaves the movement in a situation where most of the Conservative movement's education-focused money and intellectual energies are going towards optimizing the education for a small fraction of the movement's children. Given that other educational options have been starved of resources, it is no wonder that over 1/3 of young Jew leaders attended day school (Table 7). I've lost track of the number of intelligent and passionate leaders of synagogue Hebrew schools and other synagogue leaders who have told me that, if I want a serious Jewish education for my children, day schools, not their own schools, are the only option. As a parent, my choices are to abandon my excellent public school system and pay over $20K per year for each of my children so that they can receive 15-20 hours per week of Jewish education in a day school (with the day school taking over my children's secular education also), or to pay less than $2K per year for each of my children to receive 3-6 hours a week of Jewish education in a supplemental school (some which assume that children are coming from homes without any Jewish practice). This stark choice is not ok.

There are a growing number of voices encouraging secular Hebrew-language charter schoolswith separate religious education. Even then, how many children would attend such charter schools?

If the goal is to give as many children as possible the best education options as possible, we need significant innovation in supplementary Jewish education. Sadly, we can't count on the support of USCJ leaders in this effort right now. Whether or not the Hebrew charter school model is a good idea, it disturbs me that the head of the Solomon Schecter Day School Association (which is part of USCJ and has overlapping staff) thinks "it would be demoralizing, counterproductive, and against the best interests of existing institutions" to have Solomon Schecter expertise and teachers become involved in afterschool religious education paired with Hebrew charter schools. While I've heard that Schecter day schools do an excellent job, it's worth reminding their leaders that a 25% drop in enrollment in a single decade (Table 2) might also be demoralizing to teachers and against the best interests of existing institutions. Solomon Schecter schools could be trying to find ways to educate more children, gain additional revenue, and spread the salaries of high quality teachers across more families.

USCJ can also look outside the movement to bring useful resources to its communities. For example, the TaL AM Hebrew language curricula are generally well regarded, but they only sell their resources to schools with teachers who have gone through their educator training program and pay a non-trivial licensing fee. Why can't USCJ negotiate a price that lets synagogues buy in to this program for their supplemental programs? Why can't they get some USCJ education consults certified to train others so that synagogues don't need to ship teachers to one of the few Tal AM led workshops? Why can't USCJ work with TaL AM to adapt the program for children who study for 6-8h/week in supplementary schools or with a combination of supplemental schools and tutors? I don't know if TaL AM specifically would make a good collaborator, but this is an example of how USCJ could leverage its modest staffing and budget to benefit the majority of its families who aren't in day schools.

More broadly, many of us are trying to reimagine the possibilities for supplementary education. We want a middle option between day school and a few squeezed hours of supplemental school. For example, there are efforts like Kesher and Edah, which are trying to merge the aftercare that working parents already require, with high quality Jewish education. As far as I know, these efforts are getting minimal, if any, support from national Conservative movement organizations.

In places that don't have enough kids for day school or aftercare models, many parents who want more Jewish education for their kids combine supplementary school with additional tutoring or replace it with tutoring. This seems to happen outside formal education programs. Knowledgeable parents develop their own curricula and find their own tutors, but not every committed parent has the knowledge base to develop a curriculum for their kids. Something as simple and low cost as a tutoring curriculum wiki would be a huge help to a lot of families and could easily fit in a USCJ programmatic portfolio. Facilitating those efforts through synagogues (curriculum selection, pairings of students with tutors, etc) also makes those synagogues relevant to more people.

More bluntly, if large Conservative institutions like USCJ, are trying to be relevant in the lives of Jews, why aren't they part of these efforts? When I've spoken with Conservative movement staff about their programs for young children, I invariably hear about new programs that they are developing themselves, and piloting in one or two congregations in the New York or Los Angeles metropolitan areas, with no resources to offer my family or my congregation unless we've been chosen as one of the pilot congregations. What prevents USCJ from focusing its limited resources on documenting good practices so that every new attempt isn't trying to reinvent the wheel? Why can't they simply publicize and disseminate details about programs that work?

Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities

USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don't think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.

I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I'll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I'll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don't see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff's job titles are supposed to do.

Most importantly, if USCJ is to get the most from it's limited budget, it needs to rely heavily on volunteers. In the current structure, I see no place for volunteers to work with the professional staff to suggest, plan, or improve programming unless they've been elected or selected for a position. I've not once heard about a USCJ committee looking for input on various projects. How do a bunch of volunteers get connected so that they can participate in a discussion of common interests? In the case of education, the Jewish Education Change Network is one new example of how volunteers can participate in conversations that are cultivated by professional leaders. It's still too young to call JECN a success, but I think it was created outside of denominational structures (though nothing stops USCJ from creating it's own groups and forums on that site). As of this writing, I found a single one of USCJ's professional educators on JECN. Currently, they're barely part of this type of conversation.

To turn USCJ into an organization of connectors (as was suggested in the strategic plan), it needs to change how it places and evaluates staff. I have no clue how evaluations are currently done, but I'd love to see USCJ staff evaluations include metrics of how many continuing and new conversations they've had with people around the nation and the number of active volunteers on their committees. USCJ also needs to get away from its NY centric structure. While there are benefits to having most of their staff work near each other, that means they don't need to master long-distance collaborative tools like shared documents, wikis, and social networking. If they set a goal of having 75% of their staff living farther than commuting distance from their NYC offices, they would need to integrate collaborative tools into their lives. Those same tools would facilitate their interactions with congregations and connections between communities regardless of location. Their staff would also be directly involved in a much more diverse range of communities and come in face-to-face contact with more people. Lower salaries from not having to pay NYC cost-of-living wouldn't hurt either.

On the issue of staff salaries, I'd love to see more cases where USCJ pays partial salaries of synagogue/community employees. Instead of 8 people in a central office, imagine if 50 innovators across the country received $10K from USCJ to spend 15-20% of their time writing up their programs and directly helping out other congregations. This could let synagogues hire better people and benefit the wider community without a huge cost overlay. It might also benefit some Jewish professionals who bounce between several, completely separate jobs to pull together a full salary.

On the broader issues of funding and fundraising, it seems like some of the most-liked USCJ programs are either cheap (emailing list maintenance or local gatherings) or self-funding (USY and SULAM). Affiliation dues seem to go mostly to centralized staff, which isn't the most exciting thing for philanthropists to support. This might be why USCJ decided selling board seats was the best way to convince people to write big checks. I simply can't agree with this and the optics of selling seats works against engaging lay volunteers. A large, active base of lay volunteers is worth more than a few big checks. While the leaders might point to schools, like JTS, that have such policies for board membership, USCJ is not a school and its leadership structure can't survive on the same model. It doesn't hurt to encourage big donations and give those donors larger voices, but they can't drown out other voices.

So how does USCJ fundraise the money it needs? I think USCJ needs to identify key programs or new initiatives that simply can't self-fund. For example, Koach, the college out-reach program had about $70K in unsupported expenses and is listed on the cutting block in the strategic plan. Is there no network of Koach alumni or exciting new expansion ideas that could bring in an additional $70K/year? (The threat of cutting Koach - seemingly without speaking to many current students or alumni - seemed to create such a network in a matter of weeks. It also demonstrates the completely wasted volunteer energy within the movement. Whether for Koach or other Conservative efforts, why doesn't the USCJ leadership regularly engage these people, who can almost instantly bring together a network of people who are passionate about a Conservative movement program?) Besides a $5 greeting card fundraiser, there's not even a "donate" button at koach.org. (That website, in general, could use work) If USCJ is talking about new collaborative education efforts, why can't they fundraise for those? If staffers are given specific project initiatives, then their salaries are something that might generate more philanthropic interest. USCJ also needs to talk more about the number of communities and people that use their services. By meshing fundraising with collaborations and access to unaffiliated organizations, they might get donations from beyond the usual movement base.

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I have no great and inspiring way to end this series of posts. I'm just a random synagogue member who was crazy enough to volunteer some of his time to write a series of blog posts that may or may not be ignored by the people who can actually change things. Perhaps there aren't many people crazy enough to spend time writing posts like this, but there are many people who would volunteer time and energy to help create programs that benefit the Jewish community if there were exciting things going on that could use their help. Perhaps USCJ or other large Jewish organizations can take this to heart.

I'm a parent in my early 30's. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I've been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20's. I've davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it's worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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