Feb 27, 2011
Feb 25, 2011
Mechon Hadar founder seeks to integrate halacha and ethics
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom || Bay Area Masorti || ShefaNetwork.org
Feb 24, 2011
by ImproveUSCJ, improve.USCJ@gmail.com.
They have plans to rethink their dues structure with the goal of moving away from a flat cost per synagogue member and more towards percent of each community's budget. They want to reduce USCJ revenue from dues and increase revenue from donations creation of profitable programs. Such a change would benefit affiliated synagogues and make a real entry path for low-budget minyanim. USCJ plans to restructure and streamline governance and to work harder to distribute much more of their revenue to all their geographic regions. They also plan to invest more in situational expertise and having staff make useful inter-community connections rather than having USCJ attempt to create one-size-fits-all programs. It seems like they are finally realize they cannot "create, develop and disseminate educational, religious and tikun olam programming to meet the needs of our congregations and their members" in-house, which is the first point of theircurrent mission.
Two proposals that are getting heavy pushback in the public comments are to focus on high school and post-college and leave college to Hillel and Chabad and to figure out how to make the Conservative Yeshiva more financially independent from USCJ. They really seem to be talking about shrinking their college programming, Koach, which costs $70K around the country and another $78K for salaries at SUNY Binghamton. It's clear they don't want to abandon the Conservative Yeshiva, but they do want to figure out some ways to pay back loans without taking $500K out of USCJ's $18million annual budget. While, successes of the Yeshiva are clear, the earlier financial decisions to spend millions of dollars on new building and renovations in Jerusalem without securing sufficient donors has given USCJ an unsustainable amount of debt. It is a bit concerning that the person who held ultimate responsibility for this fiscal mismanagement as the former CEO of USCJ, is now director of the yeshiva's Fuchsberg Center that he help underfund.
The other shockingly novel ideas in the plan are to "transform and strengthen" existing affiliated communities, encourage and build new communities (hello indy minyanim again), and focus heavily on childhood education. They also want to shrink and pare down non-core functions. It's very fuzzy what those non-core functions are. Very impressively, "USCJ will help kehillot expand membership, increase participation, cut costs and increase revenue." After they're done with that, they will work on perfecting renewable energy technology.
Despite being mildly encouraged by some of these ideas, I still doubt they'll be able to pull much of it off. To actually implement many of these changes, they'd need an almost complete turnover of professional and lay leaders to bring new skill sets into the organization. I just don't see this happening. They've shied away from mentioning most actual staff cuts and while they rationalize the few specified cuts, they tend to be from programs that cost more than they bring in. For example the logic of why they shouldn't care about Jews while they're in college is fairly impressive.
This statement describes the members and not the role of USCJ. It's as if a company's vision was, "We are a company whose products are purchased by beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate people." They double-down on the ridiculousness of this by making it a membership requirement to agree with that vision. "Our customers are wonderful because we won't sell products to anyone who isn't wonderful." The problems go beyond this statement. Despite all the logistical changes, I still have no clue what types of programs USCJ sees itself doing a few years from now. Will it do any content creation or will it primarily be a connector between other communities. If they want to be a connector and work with indy minyanim, are they planning to hire lots of people from the indy minyan world and/or with strong information technology backgrounds? They only have the budget to do that if they fire most of their existing staff.
For their focus on pre-college education, they clearly want work with other parts of the movement, and try to get the many education arms working together. I'd be very happy if they can get day schools to seriously share and adapt resources with supplementary schools. It's a shame of the movement, and the larger Jewish community, how much innovation is directed towards day schools when so many more children are in our supplemental schools. They still seem to want to keep an unmanageably large portfolio. In various parts of the plan, they are coordinating other organizations to synergize and integrate all their educational programs, developing a coherent education philosophy (what happened to one-size-doesn't fit all?), having their own educational consulting teams, and punting the goal of an educational vision to a "blue-ribbon panel" of the "best educational thinkers." I'll check back in a decade to see how that vision statement is coming along.
The part of this plan that is getting the most press is the explicit goal of bringing unaffiliated communities into the fold. Lowering dues is lovely, but what are they planning to do to actually give these communities a reason to affiliate? The proposal lists giving consulting, technical, and financial (e.g. interest-free start-up loans) support. Based on my experiences with indy minyan leaders, they have their own networks of mutual support and often have more technical expertise than anyone I've met at USCJ. Loans could be useful, but the organic growth models from zero budgets seem to be working and even an interest free loan is a gamble for a new organization with an idea but no membership.
They talk about engaging young Jewish leaders about what they want from USCJ. This is something they just now think is a good idea? How about before 91% of USCJ affiliated synagogue members were over 40? They suggest helping adjacent (suburban) Conservative congregations create formal or informal satellites in urban areas. Are there any examples where this has been a useful model for new minyanim? With indy minyanim running from denominational labels, why would they want to be a satellite? For that matter, how is a formerly 800 family suburban synagogue that now has 50 families with no one under 60 going to make a satellite when they can barely afford to fix a leaky roof or hire staff? USCJ wants to decrease its direct investments on college campuses to focus on post college, but this assumes these are separate worlds. I've lost count of the number indy minyanim across the country with key founders from a few cohorts of Harvard students and, despite Harvard alumni office indoctrination, their students aren't that special. Speaking of Harvard, it's one of many communities where the on-campus minyamim include a healthy post-college crowd. In my grad school, there were also fuzzy borders between the undergrad, grad student, and post-college communities.
Most of my critique so far relate to the USCJ planners not thinking about aspects enough to create an implementable vision of their future. There is one aspect of the plan that goes in the completely wrong direction and would work against many of their other goals. USCJ clearly wants to listen to more voices and young leaders. Unfortunately, to build their donor base, they write "The majority of the leaders of the new USCJ should be drawn from a pool of philanthropic investors, who are capable of, and motivated to, making significant investments in the new USCJ."
I don't know about you, but nothing makes me want to write large checks than the chance to sit on a 30-50 person board of directors. Don't worry, if you want to be on their board or have another lay leadership position, but can't write a $10,000 check, you just need to find someone else to bankroll you. It's stately quite clearly in Section 10.4 and footnote 4. Any unsold lay leadership positions with go to people with "intellectual stature to influence the course of American Judaism" or organizational leaders with "a demonstrated track record of judgment and wisdom." While recognizing they need more donors and accepting that money buys influence, how do young voices or even the voices of synagogue leaders get a place at the board table if the majority of seats are literally for sale?
Despite being fairly negative here, if they can follow through on most of these plans, they might actually prevent a mass exodus from USCJ. That might give them some breathing room to figure out what they really should do next. I'll attempt to envision an organization that would be an asset to the larger Jewish community in part 3.
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.
Masorti Matters on JPost: "Rabbis: OK for president to rape"by Rabbi Andy Sacks, Director of the Masorti Movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
Thursday Feb 24, 2011
Remember the "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the game of Monopoly. Well, it seems as though not a few prominent rabbis in Israel are trying to play that card right now.---
Israel's former president, Moshe Katsav, has been convicted of rape. Not one count but two. He was further convicted of indecent assault, sexual harassment, and obstruction of justice. There appear to have been other violations – but I shall stick to the proven facts.
The assaults took place against women who were working for Katsav. Each count of rape is punishable by up to sixteen years in prison. The unanimous verdict was handed down by a panel of three judges. The presiding judge, George Kara, said that Katsav's testimony was "strewn with lies, small and large," and the court was convinced that the sexual relations were not consensual and that the rapes had involved the use of force.
"There are no two states of Israel just one state," said Shimon Peres, Katsav's successor as president of Israel. "There are no two kinds of citizens here. Citizens of only one kind exist in Israel, and all are equal in the eyes of the law."
Harassment by those in power is far more common than we may suppose. But this conviction, hopefully, shall send a message to aggressive misogynists that the world will no longer tolerate such behavior; it is both improper and illegal.
Enter the rabbis. Today's newspapers carried the following headline: "Rabbis Send Letter of Support To Katsav." No, you did not misread the headline. Dozens of Israel's most eminent Zionist rabbis believe Katsav to be innocent.
Their letter reads, in part, "All of the people of Zion are sighing and groaning under the burden of the poisonous media, waiting for the return of pureness to our public life and hoping for the day when the injustice will be removed and the truth will come out – and then many, many people will be redeemed and rejoice with you."
Fact: I am part of the "people of Zion" and I will not rejoice. I am sickened by the blatant disregard of these rabbis for a system that even (sadly in my view) offered Katsav every opportunity to walk away with no prison time and barley a slap on the wrist. His continued arrogance, as he awaits sentencing, is pathetic.
But no less pathetic is the slap on the face to Israel's judicial system by these rabbis who ought stand up on behalf of the injured, who ought, unlike those Anti-Zionist Haredi rabbis who do not recognize the authority of the State, pursue justice.
Not all prominent Orthodox groups joined in the party on behalf of Katsav. The well respected, Orthodox feminist group, Kolech, reacted by saying: "Rabbis who signed onto such a letter to Katsav need to understand that by standing up for a convicted rapist, they become accomplices... and cause promiscuity and harmfulness by authoritative men toward their subordinates."
Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avodah said that the letter "adds no honor to the Torah."
I, of course agree with those critical of the letter. What would cause these rabbis to express such opprobrious views is beyond me. It is beyond my comprehension that they would even think such thoughts.
But, I shall conclude by saying that the rabbis who signed the letter do not make me ashamed to be Jewish today. They make me shamed that they are part of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom || Bay Area Masorti || ShefaNetwork.org
Feb 23, 2011
Jewschool: "The USCJ Strategic Plan"
Part I: USCJ as it is
This will be the first in a series of three posts on the USCJ strategic plan from guestposter "ImproveUSCJ.".
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 1: USCJ as it is
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
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has just released a strategic plan. This is in response to an ongoing effort to revive an organization that is rapidly losing members and relevance. Large factions of remaining members formed groups like Hayom and Bonim to demand significant changes or the creation of new organizations. This is all at a time when major Jewish publications are writing articles saying that the decline of families in synagogues affiliated with USCJ is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism. It's not completely clear why synagogues' refusal to write large annual checks to an organization that wasn't giving them much back in return is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism or even a decline in the Conservative movement, but it makes for a catchy article title. Many of Judaism's large, communal institutions are losing strength and significance. Due to errors in management and vision, USCJ's recent decline has been particularly impressive.
It's worth noting why large institutions, like USCJ, matter. Simply put, if small communities have common goals, putting some time and money into an organization that helps them meet those goals can be a good investment. The common goals and funding needs vary depending if you're USCJ or the National Havurah Committee, but the concept is the same. Before talking about what USCJ plans to do, I wanted to discuss what it currently does, and sketch its current problems.
What USCJ Does
No community looks to USCJ for theological inspiration and I doubt they ever have. Theirstandards for congregational practice mention "God" once in Addendum 1.2.2i. It looks more like a union contract that religious doctrine because that is the purpose of the organization. Neither membership nor non-membership in USCJ says much about shifting trends in religious belief. Members look to USCJ as a resource to support their own efforts, provide ways to connect people between communities, and provide institutions that benefit the larger community.
Many groups run under the umbrella of USCJ including: USY, which is the Conservative movement's youth programming, Nativ, the movement's year-in-Israel program, and KOACH,their college outreach program, and the Solomon Schechter Day School Association. USCJ has also invested heavily and very actively pushed fundraising for The Conservative Yeshiva. How much of central USCJ funding goes to each of these organizations and how much control central USCJ leadership has over them varies widely. Still, all these programs have had clear successes, and I suspect many people reading this have been directly affected by at least one of them. (For what it's worth, as a Jew who was linked to Conservative synagogues for all but 4 years of my life, I didn't participate in any of these and spent a single unpleasant Summer at a Ramah Camp – the camps are run by JTS. Either I break all the assumptions of what makes an adult committed to Jewish practice or the universality of the assumptions are wrong. I suspect the second.)
USCJ provides leadership and programmatic training and support through its Sulam workshopsand organizational and education consultants along with moderated listserves to connect synagogue presidents and other officers. They also helped develop some educational programming and curricula. I've never participated, but I've generally heard good things about Sulam. While others might have had good experiences, I've never seen a situation where USCJ consultants have the time or skills to enrich my synagogues' programming. I'm sure I've come across curricula that had their origins in USCJ, but I'm not sure if anyone currently looks towards USCJ for innovative educational materials.
I think the USCJ budget also contributes to the creation of the Conservative movement's siddurim, chumashim and machzorim. The books are often tested in USCJ affiliated congregations.
Finally, USCJ is a synagogue union and has many positive and negative trappings of unions. They have a closed shop contract where rabbis in the Rabbinical Assembly can only be hired by USCJ affiliated synagogues and are not allowed to look for synagogue work at non-USCJ synagogues. They have similar, but less stringent, contracts with the Conservative cantors' andeducators' unions. In the distant past, when the ratio of USCJ synagogues to RA rabbis was larger and online job searches didn't exist, I could see how these policies were beneficial to all. USCJ encourages having people get respectable salaries to work in the Jewish world.
Why USCJ is in trouble
Demographic changes always happen. Some are theological, some involve Jewish practice, and some involve geography. All the movements have shifted their theology over the years and I doubt these play a large part in USCJ's decline. On the other hand, USCJ was blind-sided by gradual changes in what Jews want to do and where they live. It has gone from a movement that was actively encouraging synagogues and their leaders to move to the suburbs in the 1960's & 70's to confused leaders trying to figure out why the following generations didn't want to populate those same suburban shuls. At this point, a 9% of USCJ affiliated synagogue members are under 40, with a quarter of affiliated synagogues having serious financial difficulties. Forms of Jewish community that are not dues paying synagogues have no relationship with USCJ.
Most drastically for USCJ's current problems, very little of the above list of programs affects affiliated synagogues on a regular basis. USY's active leadership structure and programming is fairly independent from USCJ. I was originally going to write that USCJ subsidizes USY dues, butit actually looks like USCJ expects to earn a profit on its youth programming with synagogue dues paying for other parts of the budget. There's very little in leadership training that is unique to the Conservative movement. If a synagogue has an active and knowledgeable membership, it needs very little, if anything, from the various consultants and centralized programming. Many synagogues that need help complain they can't get it from USCJ. Thus, the people who are actually paying dues to USCJ see very little direct returns on their money. To make matters worse, USCJ has cultivated an opaque leadership style behind unmanageably huge boards of directors. I'm not sure anyone could tell me how programmatic ideas and change flow through a company with this organizational chart.
Two things keeping some dissatisfied synagogues affiliated with USCJ are the threats to prevent synagogues from hiring RA rabbis and prevent their children from participating in USY if a synagogue leaves USCJ. Being forced to pay dues by threat does not build a satisfied customer base. I'm not sure whether "immoral" is an appropriate word for threatening children's education and connections in a Jewish community of their peers in USY if parents don't want to pay USCJ dues, but immoral is the first word that comes to mind.
In the face of mass threats of unaffiliation and unwillingness to pay annual five figure dues, USCJ and Hayom launched a strategic planning process last March. They just issued the draft strategic plan to be voted on by their board of directors next month. The Executive director will hold 4 public meetings all around the country (NY, NY, NJ, and Chicago) to show that they really care about all their membership's voices
I'll comment on the details of the strategic plan and how it does or does not address the problems in part 2.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom || Bay Area Masorti || ShefaNetwork.org