Sep 15, 2009

Jewish Week: "New Vision For USCJ Gets Mixed Reviews"

Jewish Week: "New Vision For USCJ Gets Mixed Reviews"
by Stewart Ain
Staff Writer with a record loss of 33 congregations and a $1.3 million deficit, the board of the United Synagogue for

Conservative Judaism approved Sunday a sweeping reorganization plan.

"A decade ago we had 800 congregations, we had 700 congregations in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and today we have 667 congregations," Rabbi Steven Wernick, the USCJ's new executive vice president and CEO, told The Jewish Week Monday night. "The drop-off of 33 congregations is the most significant single-year decline the United Synagogue has ever experienced," Wernick said.

He said 19 of the 33 congregations "decided not to affiliate because they were not satisfied with what they were getting for their dollars."

When the USCJ's board met here Sunday, Rabbi Wernick said its members realized there was a need for change and it adopted what he called a "transformation plan that will assure a more equitable distribution of resources, no matter where the congregations are geographically."

As a result of these changes, Rabbi Wernick said he hopes to convince the 19 to renew their membership.

But Bonim ("builders" in Hebrew), a group of lay leaders from a number of Conservative synagogues around the country, issued a statement Tuesday saying the actions of USCJ are "too little, too late."
Bonim announced the creation of an exploratory committee to consider forming a new entity to assist congregations with membership, fundraising, leadership development and programming. It said it has raised more than $50,000 to study the need for this new entity and that if there is sufficient interest, it would be launched by the first of the year.

"At a time when other national organizations are undertaking wholesale restructuring in order to meet the needs of their constituency today, the USCJ is tinkering around the edges — focused on preservation rather than delivering value to their members," the statement said.

One of the group's founders, David Sacks of Silver Spring, Md., said he believes that there are at least 20 congregations just in the Washington, D.C., area that would join the new entity.

"There are synagogues that are in trouble, and nothing they [USCJ] are saying is about synagogues — it's only about themselves," he said. "They just don't get it. We want to provide synagogues with what we think USCJ should be providing, and it clearly is not their focus."

Another of Bonim's leaders, Diana Lerner of Poway, Calif., said in a statement: "The group seeks to offer congregations a choice between the ineffective policies of an expensive institution and a new, more agile synagogue association that begins with a mantra of client services."

But Rabbi Michael Siegel of Chicago, a leader of the Hayom ("Today") Coalition, representatives of 25 of the largest USCJ synagogues that had lobbied USCJ for change, said he was impressed by the actions of Rabbi Wernick, who assumed his new job in July.

"It shows he is a good listener," he said. "He took it upon himself to go around the country and speak to congregations, synagogue presidents and rabbis, and he took careful note of what have been long-term issues. It's refreshing to see him respond to these concerns as quickly as he has.

"Obviously it is going to take some time to create mechanisms to properly respond to the needs of synagogues, but he deserves to be commended for the good work he has done in such a short amount of time."

Rabbi Siegel added that the actions taken by the USCJ board may have been "historic" in the way it addressed "an array of issues and come up with concrete changes. United Synagogue is responding in ways I have not seen in my 27 years in the rabbinate. But one should not get confused with what is taking place at the board level and the long-range strategic plan Hayom is working on."

He said a professional would soon be hired to manage the plan, which should be completed no later than next September.
"The faster we get the report out, the more discussions we will have across the country and the better it will be for everybody," Rabbi Siegel said. "We're going to be looking at every aspect of this organization to ensure that we will be able to serve the needs of synagogues in the best way possible."

Another critic of USCJ who has been won over by Rabbi Wernick is Arthur Glauberman of Scarsdale, who had been a founder of Bonim. 

"Having listened to Rabbi Wernick, I think we have a responsibility as Conservative Jews to be supportive of what he is trying to do to change United Synagogue to be a more responsive and transparent organization," he said.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Wernick insisted that his organization has made a "strategic decision to change the way we do business and to move in a more directed way and to understand that more adaptation will be needed in the future.

"On Sunday we took steps to start restoring our value-added tools. Synagogues want strengthening. They want meaningful relationships with our staff and a reinvestment in our youth department. We want a sharing of best practices and models of success, and we want United Synagogue to play a role with other groups in the movement — coming together as a movement with a compelling message of who we are."

The 19 congregations that disaffiliated are in areas of the country with smaller Jewish populations that have received fewer services from USCJ, Rabbi Wernick said.

"There has been an inconsistent delivery of services across the system," he acknowledged. "Service was based on membership, and congregations with fewer Jews did not get as much service."

Rabbi Wernick said a proposal to change the dues structure for synagogues would be discussed as part of a long-range strategic plan. Dues are now based on the number of members in each congregation. Under consideration is a plan to base dues on the size of the congregation's budget and financial position.

The board Sunday approved the elimination of the group's 15 regional offices and the creation instead of six district offices, each covering a similar number of congregations.

It also approved shrinking its own board from 180 members to 75 and "the creation of a national assembly that is designed to be more representative of congregations," Rabbi Wernick said.

"The assembly would appoint the directors, approve the budget, deal with affiliate members and vote on the appointment of the executive vice president and chief executive officer," he added.

Those bylaws must now be ratified at the USCJ's biennial convention in December in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Because the USCJ's operating budget comes largely from congregational dues, Rabbi Wernick said this year's budget has been cut by $1 million to $13 million. And he said last year's $1.3 million shortfall was covered by unrestricted reserves, which will be tapped again this fiscal year to cover transformation costs and another budget shortfall. At the end of the fiscal year, $3 million in unrestricted reserves will remain.

Some of the changes being made were recommended in a 2004 report by consultant Jack Ukeles. Stephen Wolnek, a past president of USCJ, said some of his recommendations were made at the time but others were deferred because "things were going well and there wasn't the impetus to do it."

But now, he said, with demands for change compounded by the economic crisis, the Ukeles report was reexamined.

"We had a basis upon which to go forward — we didn't have to reinvent the wheel ... The leadership of United Synagogue heard the problems and is addressing them. They are listening to their constituency and making changes."

Rabbi Wernick added: "I'm creating a clear vision of what United Synagogue should aspire to, and the reorganization is to create the means to get there."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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