Reinventing the Conservative Movement

February 1, 2006
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Jacob B. Ukeles

The Conservative movement is the logical home for the large numbers of American Jews who are committed to Judaism as their religion and who seek a middle ground between the rigors of Orthodoxy and the laissez-faire of Reform Judaism. And the solution to the current malaise of the Conservative movement – noted in other essays in this issue of Sh’ma – is not about fixing ideology; it is about making Conservative synagogues exciting, compelling, and engaging places that will draw the finest graduates of the movement’s outstanding educational and youth programs. The organization that should be leading the charge to revitalize Conservative congregations is the lay arm of the movement: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

The good news is that after an intensive three-year effort, the USCJ has a plan, backed by the former and current presidents of the USCJ, to transform itself into a high performance organization, with a core mission to re-energize its North American congregations.

The bad news is that while there has been some change since the plan was completed sixteen months ago, the pace of change has been glacially slow.

The “Transformation Plan” would enable USCJ to:

  • Support new and emerging congregations, especially in high-growth areas
  • Identify the congregations and educational programs that are exciting and compelling and help other congregations learn from these “models of excellence”
  • Develop and disseminate “inreach” strategies to help congregations connect with the large numbers of self-defined Conservative Jews who don’t belong to a congregation
  • Develop and disseminate outreach strategies to help congregations to connect with unaffiliated Jews
  • Attract philanthropic leadership to the national movement to invest the resources needed to make Conservative congregations more engaging places

The “Plan” argues that the USCJ requires fundamental reform of governance as well as organization and regional structure before it can help re-energize its congregations. A few examples will illustrate what changes are needed:

Synagogues, which are supposed to be the focus of the organization, have virtually no say in its governance. The members of United Synagogue are the delegates to the biennial convention rather than the constituent congregations. The ultimate authority in the United Synagogue needs to be a Board of Directors composed of congregational leaders, not a convention that, at best, is attended by 600 people.

United Synagogue has 22 separate departments, and each is understaffed. With so many separate departments, it is more difficult to set priorities or to shift directions because each department represents its own constituency and turf. The number of national departments should be reduced and existing staff resources should be consolidated to focus on a limited number of high-priority objectives related to the core mission of energizing congregations.

On this vast continent, connections with congregations must take place in the field. The United Synagogue has fifteen regions; all but one, the New York region, is hopelessly understaffed. Substantial disparities exist in size, leadership, capacity, and strength in the regions. With resources spread so thinly, high turnover, and uneven staff quality, it is difficult to serve congregations, let alone to re-energize them. Staffing levels reflect resources based on dues collection, so areas of Jewish population growth in the West and South are under-budgeted compared with older centers of the Northeast and Midwest, reducing the United Synagogue’s capacity to help emerging congregations. Regional staffs need to be consolidated into a limited number of fully staffed, larger offices. The staffing level and budget of each of these offices should reflect needs, not dues-paying capacity.

While some leaders of United Synagogue see the need for dramatic change, many do not. It remains to be seen whether an organizational culture so committed to maintaining the status quo can rise to the challenge of reinventing itself in the face of urgent necessity.

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Dr. Jacob B. Ukeles is President of Ukeles Associates, Inc., a New York-based planning and management consulting firm with clients in the Jewish community, non-sectarian voluntary sector, and local government. Dr. Ukeles served as director of the three-year management review of United Synagogue described in this article.

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