Feb 27, 2011

A Tisch Podcast: "Radical Judaism: When Heresy Began"

Radical Judaism: When Heresy Began
with Rabbi Menachem Creditor - February 27, 2011

One of Judaism's most precious aspects is our lack of dogma, a lack which defies fundamentalism and extremism.  But there have been those Jewish leaders through the course of history who have proposed faith-litmus-tests, statements of belief, as measures of Jewish authenticity and admission tests to join the Jewish People.  Join this conversation about Jewish identity, deeds, and belief, one which challenges the notions of "in" and "out" based on any issues of faith.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Feb 25, 2011

NJ Jewish Standard: "Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Torah Belongs to Jews, not Denominations"

NJ Jewish Standard: "Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Torah Belongs to Jews, not Denominations"

Mechon Hadar founder seeks to integrate halacha and ethics

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Ethan Tucker has created an institution, Mechon Hadar, that combines the free-form Torah study of the Orthodox yeshiva with the co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism. Mechon Hadar identifies with neither denomination although its faculty, students, and lay leaders overlap with both.

Tucker stumbled into his career as non-denominational institution-builder in 2001, when he invited friends to informal Shabbat services in his apartment. This was not the first minyan to bring together young participants from the Orthodox and Conservative worlds on Manhattan's Upper West Side, with a combination of traditional davening and egalitarian participation, but for whatever cultural and demographic reasons, Tucker's initiative tapped a tremendous demand. Sixty people showed up. Three weeks later, there were 100 participants and an urgent need to find a larger space. What took shape as Kehilat Hadar — from the Hebrew word meaning splendor and honor — became the vanguard of a wave of independent minyans across the country. These communities are the subject of a recent book, "Empowered Communities," by Conservative-ordained Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Tucker's partner in founding the minyan.

The success of the minyan marked Tucker and Kaunfer as leaders. They received major grants from the Avi Chai and Harold Grinspoon foundations that enabled them to launch Mechon Hadar in 2006, initially as an intensive summer program. Mechon Hadar is now in its second year of offering full-time learning for the nine-month academic year. It has 22 fellows, mostly recent college graduates, who receive stipends to support their Torah study, and 50 slots for this summer's program.

"We want people to think about spending significant time studying Torah," said Tucker. "The vision is to create a community of adult learners. We are not a rabbinical school nor will we start one."

Hadar students are "a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity," Tucker said. "No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students."

Tucker himself eschews denominational labels. He graduated from Harvard, studied in Israel for three years at the liberal Orthodox yeshiva in Maale Gilboa, and was ordained by Israel's Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. He received a doctorate in Talmud from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where his father, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, had served as rabbinical school dean and still teaches.

Tucker acknowledges the good and important work that denominational organizations do for the Jewish people, but says that "denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people."

In a 90-page online article — http://bit.ly/egalitarian — regarding women leading services, counting in the minyan, and reading from the Torah, Tucker examines classical sources and contemporary halachic discussions from both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before concluding that Jewish law recognizes the possibility and perhaps even the necessity of a gender-egalitarian minyan in the context of a gender-egalitarian society.

For Tucker, a central challenge for Judaism today is to integrate the ethical and ritual realms into a single religious conversation.

"Can ethical behavior ever conflict with halacha?" asked the title of the class he gave for the community at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County last Wednesday evening.

He presented a text from Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, an early 20th-century Hungarian Orthodox rabbi, concerning cannibalism. Is it better to eat human flesh — which the Torah does not prohibit — than the flesh of an animal explicitly prohibited by the Torah?

Tucker asked participants to study the text with a chevruta, study partner, and someone read it aloud as he mined it for meaning.

Glasner argued that it is worse to eat human flesh because the Torah assumes a baseline of acceptable human behavior.

"Anything reviled by human society in general, even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah, is forbidden to us even more than explicit biblical prohibitions," wrote Glasner.

Tucker summarized: "The Torah … when practiced properly will cause all the people around to look at you and say, 'What an amazing way to live your life.'"

The Torah, he said, "demands a conversation that is completely and totally integrated, where I am not having one conversation about what the Torah and Shulchan Aruch demand of me, and another conversation about what my ethical qualms say about the issue, and there will be some kind of death match between the two. Understand that it's one conversation, with the title, 'What does God want?'"

For Tucker, "We don't have the luxury of bifurcation. This is critical to what the religious world needs in the 21st century. We have to think, holistically and in an integrated way and with a passion, that the Torah speaks to us."

It is this aspect of religiously and ethically wrestling with classical Jewish texts that animates the learning at Hadar, said Tucker.

University Jewish studies courses "completely lack the religious component," he said. Also, in most religious settings, "certain intellectual pathways are closed off as being not worthy or beyond the pale."

"There is a a deep thirst for the kind of learning we're doing here, with an insistence on learning sources in depth, in the original language, with the same vigor and seriousness as would be applied to any serious intellectual endeavor — a willingness to have all questions on the table, where the process of learning is that one can ask any question and imagine any possible answer. We have that, in a very conscious and deliberate religious context. We're not just academically exploring questions; we're trying to understand in our learning what God wants from us in this world, how are we supposed to act, how do we make decisions," he said.

For more on Ethan Tucker, including his favorite books of halacha and how Mechon Hadar differs from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, see Larry Yudelson's blog at Jstandard.com.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Feb 24, 2011

Jewschool: "The USCJ Strategic Plan" Part II: Critique of the strategic plan

Jewschool: "The USCJ Strategic Plan" Part II
Critique of the strategic plan

by ImproveUSCJ, improve.USCJ@gmail.com.

The first thing that jumps out of the USCJ strategic plan is a revolutionary change in membership focus. They are no longer an association of synagogues. They are now an association of "kehilot." There's even a whole paragraph about why this is so significant and how they plan to create a team to figure out how to rebrand USCJ with a new name to match this word change. This is part of the growing trend where transliterated Hebrew is considered more profound than English [insert random quote from Steven M. Cohen here]. Beyond the excitement that the Conservative movement has finally discovered transliteration, it is a welcome part of an effort to create ways for groups of Jews that don't call themselves synagogues to affiliate with USCJ. They even say they want USCJ to become "a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism." (Hello Indy Minyanim! We love you! Really! Honest! Ignoring lots of evidence to the contrary, we still consider all of you expatriates of our movement and want to welcome you back.)

Despite some comments by a founder of Kol Zimrah, USCJ affiliation says surprisingly little about the halachic authority of the CJLS. Acceptable practices for affiliation simply require a community's mara d'atra (literally "master of the place": the authority learned enough in Torah and Jewish law to be the decisive voice on any Jewish legal questions) to give "due consideration" to the published opinions of the CJLS. Due consideration is a very low bar and not very different from saying, "The past has a vote, not a veto." USCJ does not address whether they will change the affiliation requirement of every community needing a Rabbinical Assembly approved mara d'atra. I don't see how most indy minyanim would be able to affiliate with that requirement and it would be fascinating to watch USCJ make mechanisms for defining acceptable practices without it.

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.

No one seems to be complaining that USCJ is planning to dump its public policy & advocacy roles. This is a welcome change after some past pathetic attempts at political relevance.

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.

More fundamentally, despite all these operational changes in how USCJ will be run, I still see little vision for the purpose of the organization. Their proposed vision statement is an embarrassment:
"The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is a community of kehillot – sacred communities — committed to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian or traditional. Our kehillot create the conditions for a powerful and vibrant Jewish life, empowering Jews in North America to seek the presence of God, to seek meaning and purpose in Torah, to fully engage with Israel, and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world and the Jewish People. Together with other centers of energy identified with Conservative Judaism, we articulate and disseminate our approach to Judaism."

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.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

A Special Arava Institute Evening in Berkeley with Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed

Can a car really produce

its own energy?


Join us on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm as

Friends of the Arava Institute & Jewish National Fund present a special program featuring


Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed


Director of the Arava Institute's

Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation.


David Brower Center

2150 Allston Way

Berkeley, CA 94704


Building on Israel's vision to create a "Silicon Valley" for Renewable Energy, the director of the southern region of Israel's leading research center in renewable energy is planning a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area.   


The world-renowned research of Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies' Center for Renewable      Energy and Energy Conservation, aims to reduce the world's reliance on fossil fuels for transportation.  He is perfecting a process that would enable vehicles, from cars to planes, to produce their own hydrogen energy on an as-needed basis, using an entirely-renewable system that harnesses solar power.  Dr. Abu Hamed has been awarded Israel's   prestigious Dan-David Award for this ground-breaking research, which he believes is only a decade away from practical use. 


As if Dr. Abu Hamed's research isn't in itself compelling enough, the Director of this program at an Israeli academic institution is a Palestinian, helping to lead a student body of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and others looking to bridge cultural and political   divides through environmental cooperation.  

Free of charge, but RSVP requested.  To RSVP, click here.


Masorti Matters on JPost: "Rabbis: OK for president to rape"

[ed note: Rabbi Andy Sacks' conclusion is mine as well: "...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." And so I ask, though I know this cuts both ways: how do we, as a Jewish People, call out this destructive voice from within the guise of rabbinic authenticity? -rmc]

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 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Feb 23, 2011

Jewschool: "The USCJ Strategic Plan" Part I: USCJ as it is

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 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

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