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.