Aug 28, 2010

Blogpost from Mike's First Draft: "USCJ Districts: An Alternative Vision"

USCJ Districts: An Alternative Vision
by Michael Culp Gilboa
Last year the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as part of its efforts to cut costs and redefine its mission, announced that it would be consolidating its 14 regions into six super-powered districts. Being a bit of a geography dork, I had one question: What are the new districts and what are their borders? So I emailed the USCJ and asked them what their new districts were going to be. I received no response to my email. A few months later I went on the website and saw that, lo and behold, the new districts had been unveiled. They are:

Metropolitan New York (METNY)
Southeast Seaboard
Pacific Southwest
Northern Pacific

Now, I wouldn't be going to rabbinical school if math were really my thing. (I'd be an astronaut.) Nevertheless, even I can tell that the six promised districts have somehow become seven. Also, there is a massive geographical disparity in the size of these districts. So I decided to do a little figuring. Here's the old region map, near as I can tell:

View Old USCJ in a larger map

And here is the new district map:

View New USCJ in a larger map

As you can see, the districts are just the former regions smashed together. While this is definitely the easiest way to consolidate, I am left wondering. The ostensible cause of the redistricting was the contraction and demographic changes that the Conservative movement has experienced. Certainly these changes have not been uniform, yet we are relying on the old borders to be part of the new solution. I am also instinctively uncomfortable with the contrast between the New York City district and my own home state's "Here There Be Dragons" district. This Central region behemoth is just a nightmare of logistics and planning, and it's hard to imagine trying to make the case that Pittsburgh, Denver and San Antonio share the same regional concerns in the same way that Staten Island and the Bronx do. Plus there are seven districts when they promised us six.

(Astute readers will note that I left Canada out of the regional calculations. Recent trends seem to indicate that they are more interested in doing their own thing anyway, and I think Conservative Judaism ought to evolve in its own way in Canada, not having to be the little brother to the U.S. movement. No offense is implied.)

I decided to fight my instincts and ignore geography, instead looking at the numbers behind the districts. According to the USCJ website, here are the number of synagogues in each district:

Northeast: 101
Metropolitan New York: 101
Mid-Atlantic: 105
Southeast Seaboard: 115
Central: 118
Pacific Southwest: 61
Northern Pacific: 29

Total: 630

Aha! This is the reason for the geographic disparity. They are trying to create an equal number of synagogues in each district. (Except for the Northern Pacific district, which really ought to have been incorporated into the Pacific Southwest. I guess that's our mystery seventh district.)

So, problem solved, right? Not really. All of this thinking of mine led to more thinking and wondering, and then I realized that I don't know why the USCJ even needs districts. What do they accomplish? What is their purpose? I've been doing a lot of reading, and I'm still not sure. I thought maybe they were to facilitate USY. As a youth organization, they have to plan events with everyone being reasonably nearby. But it turns out that USY has its own districts anyway.

As near as I can tell, the USCJ has districts because it always has had them. What do they provide that couldn't be done from New York? Something I'm sure, but probably not enough to justify maintaining all of these offices. I certainly don't mean any offense against the people who work in those offices. It's just that I've been involved in synagogues in lots of different ways, and I haven't really seen these regional offices playing a role.

It occurred to me, though, that I knew what they COULD be doing. Unfortunately, this was going to involve more math. It's not enough, you see, to make sure there are an equal number of synagogues in each district. There are so many different sizes of synagogues in our movement. In fact, we have five designations for them: very small, small, medium, large, and very large. I decided to plot these out, giving one point to the very small synagogues, and so on, up to five points for the very large. After looking at some maps and doing some addition, I realized that around two-thirds of Conservative Jews live in about a dozen highly-concentrated geographic areas. Outside of those areas, synagogues are few and far between, and almost always "very small."

The purpose of districts, then, ought to be clear. The "Here There Be Dragons" section of the United States is not an obstacle to our map-making; it ought to be the guiding purpose of our organization. Concentrated Jewish communities should be paired with large swaths of land outside of their concentrated area. The inner district should then be communally responsible for building up Jewish life in their outer territory. This is a model I am happy to have borrowed from certain churches who use a diocesan system. In these churches, established diocese are often paired with "missionary diocese" where the church is growing.

Some might point out the immediate problem that Conservative Judaism in fact isn't growing. To me, that's exactly the point! Here I am proposing a model of districts that exist not just to exist, but are part of a larger vision for the future of the movement. Conservative Judaism ought to be planning and preparing itself to be a leading voice for major growth in American Jewish life. We ought to be filling in the map with mitzvah-centered communities which are repairing the world. Either that or we ought to close down.

My proposal calls for 12 districts, 11 of which exist in concentrated areas of Jewish population. Using my point system, I attempted to draw districts of around 80 points. The largest outliers were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 34 points, the Chicago area, with 49 points, and northern New Jersey, with 119 points. I considered scrapping the Bay Area district, but I found that there was no other district in which to comfortably subsume them. Also, with a 2% synagogue affiliation rate for the Jewish population, the Bay Area is uniquely primed for expansion.

The twelfth district, the Expansion District, occupies the rest of the United States. It is geographically the largest by far, but contains only one-third of the American Jewish population. It is mostly inhabited (Jewishly) by isolated communities in mid-sized cities. These synagogues ought to share a district because they share the same challenges. The single Conservative synagogue in Altoona, Pennsylvania shares more in common with the single Conservative synagogue in Bakersfield, California than it does with the many synagogues in nearby Philadelphia. For very small synagogues, size more than geography is their primary common attribute.

The Expansion District is also subdivided among the other 11 districts, relative to each district's size on the point scale. Each district is assigned a section of the Expansion District at a ratio between 45% and 55%. For instance, the New England district, which has 77 points, is assigned a section containing 42 points, or about 54% of the district's size. The 11 districts are tasked with providing material support for the Jews in their section of the Expansion District. In other words, they are responsible in that territory for Conservative Judaism's development and expansion.

For eight of the 11 districts, I drew borders that were primarily concerned with geography. Thus, southern Florida is paired with northern Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But three of the districts have a special assignment. Metro New York, Long Island, and northern New Jersey are home to the largest and most established Jewish populations in the United States. They are also adjacent to each other and to other large Jewish populations which inhabit the highly urban east coast. Thus they have been assigned portions of the Expansion District which are not contiguous to their territory. These districts are in a special position to offer their support to a wider swath of territory, and their ready access to transportation resources makes geography less of a concern.

View Proposed USCJ in a larger map

I believe that this organization of the synagogues in the USCJ would help to establish a 21st-century purpose for the United Synagogue. It would strengthen ties between the regions, and by giving our more prosperous and larger synagogues a stake in the undeveloped territories of Jewish life, it would encourage a renewed sense of purpose for Conservative Judaism. I welcome any thoughts about this proposal.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  ||  Bay Area Masorti  ||  || 
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