The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the Conservative movement, ran a cumulative budget deficit of more than $5 million over the past two years, according to a recent JTA article.
But while the numbers “are not in dispute,” according to Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ chief executive officer, the future of the movement may not be as bleak as the figures alone suggest.
“There has been no secret of the challenges faced by Conservative Judaism over the last several years,” Wernick told the Chronicle. “And United Synagogue has felt the challenges the hardest, and has also been at the center of them. But we have a large, exciting strategic plan in place to provide relevancy to the 21st century, and to help our Conservative kehillot become stronger and to grow.”
Wernick emphasized that the deficit was a result of “investment in the turnaround” of the institution, concentrating on business issues in Israel and North America, and a new focus on leadership and learning.
“We have heavily invested to make sure we do this right, and we are primed for growth,” he said.
Since the strategic plan was rolled out two years ago, it has “met with great success, and our efforts are bearing fruit,” he continued.
The evidence of that fruit, he said, lies in the adoption by many member congregations of strategies learned from the USCJ. Those strategies have helped improve many aspects of congregational operation, including membership and dues structuring, early childhood programming, human resources and operations and finance.
“We’re doing the work that congregations demanded of us four years ago,” Wernick said. “Yes, we’ve spent money — a lot of it. But there is no debt. Because United Synagogue had the foresight to put away money for a rainy day, it still sits on millions of dollars of
In fact, while the USCJ has seen more than a 10 percent drop in its overall assets, those assets still total $40.1 million, according to the JTA article.
“We continue to plan our financial circumstances,” Wernick said. “Our strategic plan includes increasing philanthropy. We increased almost a half million last year, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
But to increase philanthropic contributions, the USCJ will certainly need the buy-in of its affiliate congregations. And the presidents of the three Pittsburgh congregations affiliated with the movement differ in their assessment of how well the central institution is faring in meeting its constituents’ needs.
“There is a great need for improvement,” said Stefi Kirschner, president of Congregation Beth Shalom.
In these tough economic times, when fewer young people are affiliating with congregations in many religious denominations, she said giving funds to the USCJ can be a tough sell to congregants.
“This is an ongoing challenge for the Conservative movement,” Kirschner said. “Each of us has to focus on our local needs before we focus on central institutions. But we can work together to make us all stronger.”
Kirschner acknowledged that some aspects of the USCJ’s programming have improved since its re-organization three years ago, and the umbrella organization did provide Beth Shalom with a religious school consultant, she noted.
“But that was three years ago,” she said. “The relationship did not continue.”
Other services provided by the USCJ to Beth Shalom include consultation for its early childhood program, and Webinars, Kirschner said.
“These are welcome,” she said, “but they were late in developing outreach to local communities. A lot more work needs to be done on both sides. If they wish us to be strongly connected to the central institution, then they need to engage and support the local community.”
Miles Kirshner, president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, on the other hand, said he is satisfied with the services his congregation receives.
“USCJ does provide us with all the services we seek from them,” he said. “Beth El is a committed USCJ kehilla. We understand that they are in the process of implementing a strategic plan and we support them.”
Being affiliated with the USCJ continues to be important to Beth El congregation for ideological as well as operational support, according to Kirshner.
“They provide us with our identity,” he said. “It’s important to know there’s a set of standards we rely upon.”
Beth El also relies upon USCJ for various consultation services, including those for education, leadership and business assistance, he added.
The USCJ also remains relevant to Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, according to Paula Garret, president of the congregation. Tree of Life, she noted, was one of the founding members of the USCJ.
Rather than getting pushback from her congregants regarding USCJ affiliation, Garret said members of her congregation largely support it.
During merger discussions between Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha three and half years ago, many congregants “expressed an interest in maintaining our affiliation [with the USCJ] in support of the Conservative movement,” she said.
Like leaders at Beth El, Garret also frequently consults with the USCJ on management issues, as it is a resource bank for the combined knowledge and experience of its member congregations.
“We don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” she said.
Noting that the USCJ was now “reinventing itself, re-imagining itself,” Garret sees the success of the organization depending upon its ability to maintain its relevancy, a challenge for local congregations as well.
“We’re living in a challenging time for Conservative Judaism,” Wernick acknowledged. “We have significant hurdles we have to cross, but we’re doing it systematically, with our eyes open.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)