A few comments to Fred's thoughtful party line post. I will try to keep this one short and to the point (wish me luck).
1. The reason why people start to gripe this time of year (and on other occasions as well) has less to do with Judaism but more to do with a fact that it is a another new fiscal year at USCJ where they have been unhappy with the results of the prior year and they are dealing with the beginning of their own synagogue's fiscal year which have been lean while wondering if putting their scarce resources into USCJ dues is worth it.
2. I do not think people really are concerned about USCJ being govern by a much smaller Board in fact more people who complained in the past actually wanted this (myself included). What they are seeking is a Board who is responsive to their questions, that is not entrenched and has a lot of new blood and that is transparent. So far this has not really occurred.
3. Many think the strategic plan process was faulty in a number of respects and that accounts for a large portion of people not fully buying into the plan.
4. As I have previously posted it would be useful if USCJ did a much better job of explaining in detail how they plan to implement the strategic plan so their actions would make sense to the congregations who are dues paying members of the organization. If there were definitive time boxed milestones to measure how the implementation was proceeding and how satisfied the congregations are with the results people would be a bit more satisfied and could objectively weight the results against what was promised.
5. Since USCJ has not been known for delivering results in the past and has not been transparent in the implementation of this plan a number of people including Menachem, other members of the Hayom Coalition and other congregations have felt that they should not really further invest in USCJ either in whole or in part through dues until they see tangible results. I actually agree with Fred here that simply not being willing to pay dues is a bit unfair to USCJ but I also think for those people who are concerned about not wanting to pay dues until the metamorphosis occurs there is a novel middle ground with I think is very fair and ethical. These congregations should pay dues into an interest bearing escrow account. If the congregation by the end of next fiscal year feels USCJ has done a good job and they see value for their dues and want to continue to be members they release the escrow to USCJ and continue to pay dues as normal. If however in a year from now they are not happy with the progress that is being made and/or find no great value in the results they can take their money back and no longer be a member of the organization. What could be more fairer than that, especially since USCJ has a reserve to continue to do the plan and will hence will be held accountable for its results. Let's face it at some point in time the "trust us we know what we are doing line of USCJ leadership gets stale" and why should struggling congregations who have serious doubts pay for services that are not rendered off the backs of their congregants. I have battered this around with some others and think it is an out of the box approach to this issue.
6. I personally much preferred your three bullet points describing at a high level what USCJ plans to excel at than your statement is its mission is to essentially be a linking concierge as for most congregations (let's take for example a mid-size congregation that pays $40K in dues) that become a very expensive concierge and they could hire a part- time staff person that through research especially in today's technology age could link them to great vendors and resources to assist their congregations. So not sure having a concierge is going to make any congregation think they are getting much value from USCJ (especially when a relationship manager is responsible for 50+ synagogues in a region).
7. The mantra of let's not voice and critiques or differences in a public forum sounds to me a bit like a totalitarian regime that wants not to hear dissent or hear from activists. Of course if USCJ was really more responsive to individual inquiries it might satisfy some not to air their differences in a public forum. Unfortunately that has not been the case in the past. Perhaps that will change in the new fiscal year. I find nothing wrong with public discourse so long as a) its factually accurate and not propaganda or misleading to the reader or b) it offers constructive suggestions and does not simply critique.
Anyway that my two Shekels before Shabbat.
Have a wonderful Shabbat everyone!
Steve Katz, IPP
Over the past couple of weeks, there's been a flurry of posts to this and other (in particular USCJ's Presidents' Listserv) listserv bemoaning the various faults of USCJ. Is it possible that in our national psyche the combination of several successive Parshyot of discontent plus the approach of the weeks during which we contemplate the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple (along with the various other national tragedies said to have occurred on Tu B'Shevat) inspires us to reenact the discontent at approximately the same time each year? Perhaps this year, we've been inspired by the reorganization that was announced in mid-June. Many of us know and deeply admire some of the USCJ professionals who were asked to leave the professional staff. Without foreknowledge of the process and criteria that drove the decisions that resulted in these staff changes we are included to second guess and assume the worse. Clearly, the results couldn't be more wrenching for anyone other than those who were told that their tenures were coming to an end, but I know that those involved in making the staff realignment decisions grappled with those decisions for months before finalizing them.
In March USCJ's Board approved a new strategic plan. This plan was a joint effort of the HaYom Coalition and USCJ with considerable support from a well-respected consulting team lead by Jack Ukeles. The changes were needed in order to move forward towards fulfilling the goals of the strategic plan.
Recently is has been suggested that USCJ is "other". The fact is that it is a confederacy of congregations. It's not an organization of individuals. It's not our uber-shul, nor should it be expected to be. And as Menachem rightly wrote, it is not Conservative Judaism. But what does it mean to be a confederacy of congregations and what do the member congregations get for their membership? Earlier this week I wrote an offline response to a posting to the USCJ Presidents' Listserv (BTW, it's one of >USCJ 100 Listserves on which congregational leaders get to exchange ideas, questions, successes etc. with one another). I'm copying part of the original post, and my response.
Here's the original post, from Rebecca; a congregational president how has just been invested:
Regarding Harry's comments: How is it that on the one hand, we have an organization (USCJ) and on the other hand, we have synagogues? What exactly is the relationship? Does USCJ govern the synagogues, or do the synagogues govern USCJ? Who is in charge?
I ask this because it appears from the comments that the synagogue leaders feel that we have no control or significant influence over USCJ policies and procedures. Yet is it not the case that the synagogues fund United Synagogue—its salaries, programs, and real estate? How can it be that we must wait passively for bookkeeping to be made transparent? Can we not demand (morally, legally) to see the books? In short, whose organization is this?
And why are decisions made at higher levels without notification or consultation with the local leadership? No one sought my (or my IPP's) input before local staff were laid off/fired/let go.
I am not merely being provocative; I really don't know the answers to these questions.
Here's my response:
Although not all details are in the summary reports, the books are open for anyone who wants to review them in full detail. Because of the complexity of the total budget, practice has been for the USCJ Treasurer or other member of the financial team to review the documents with anyone who is interested in the details. This practice ensures that questions can be answered as they arise. The budget is reviewed, debated and approved – either as presented or as amended – by the board of directors.
Like many other large, dispersed stakeholder organizations, over the past two decades, USCJ leadership has become less representative and more centralized. Our stakeholders – the congregational leaders – wanted a more responsive organization. However, the level of representation (significant actions could only be approved at biennial conventions) made responsiveness impossible. The concept now is to give each Kehilla a seat on the general assembly (G.A.). Congregational representatives will be asked to attend semi-annual G.A. meetings and G.A. input will be important. However the Board will be the primary governance body. This is consistent with best not-for-profit organizational practice, and when you think about it, makes the most sense if USCJ is to have any chance of becoming more responsive to the needs of our member congregations. In my 5 years' experience on the Board, although I've occasionally felt that some of my fellow board members were stuck in the 1970's, I have been consistently impressed by the sincerity, integrity and passion for Judaism that I've found among both my fellow lay leaders and the professional staff.
Of course, centralized governance requires a substantial level of stakeholder trust. USCJ hasn't necessarily done a great job of keeping the stakeholders in the loop. I've been offering quite a few constructive suggestions. That's more productive than the posting of histrionics on public Listserves that are intended to be communications channels among folks with similar responsibilities within their congregations (Presidents, Membership Chairs, etc.). The Listserves are intended to be meeting places where creative ideas and successful experiences (programs, practices, etc.) are shared among peers. Your questions are legitimate. The last editorial comment isn't directed at you. I'm sharing how I feel about three or four Listserv members who have been regurgitating the same non-productive Lashon Ha'ra for the nearly 9 years (initially as a congregational EVP) that I've been either a member or monitor of the Presidents' Listserv. Yes, we need to build better relationships between USCJ-central and our member Kehillot. There are processes coming on line to help USCJ do that better than they ever have before. If we do this right, by this time next year the dynamic between USCJ-central and our Kehillot will have improved substantially. The entire focus of the recently (March) approved strategic plan is to have USCJ focus on key areas where we can help our Kehillot thrive.
I hope that this provides at least a partially satisfactory answer to your questions.
USCJ's transformation is about becoming an organization that excels at helping our congregations function well:
· developing a strong effective cadre of congregational leaders who understand that although there are similarities between Kehillot and other not-for-profit businesses, a Kehila (Kedusha is implied) is a sacred community and as such has characteristics that make it unique from any other form of not-for-profit entity
· Providing consulting to congregations on strategic planning, budgeting, development, membership and other operational areas
· Providing a broad array of tools that Kehilla leaders can obtain online and tailor to their specific needs
Again citing Menachem's post, other Conservative Movement affiliates have developed great programs for increasing spirituality, for better understanding the role of Mitzvah in our lives and numerous other areas. It's no USCJ's mission to duplicate what's being done well by others or to compete with the other affiliates. It's USCJ's mission to act as almost a concierge, linking congregational leaders to the best resources available, whether they come from within USCJ, or from the RA, Federation of Men's Clubs, Women's League, the seminary or other affiliates. However, I disagree with Menachem's suggestion that everyone just ignore USCJ until it has completed its metamorphosis. The new strategic plan was derived from the feedback that we received from two surveys in which all congregational leaders were asked to participate. The implementation plan, currently in development, reflects the priorities that identified.
As I've written before, when attached and vilified, people become defensive and their ability to hear valuable ideas becomes impaired. USCJ needs good ideas. We need better processes for two-way communications between our Kehillot and the central leadership team, but we must all keep in mind that however passionate we might feel about a given issue, others of equal intellect and Jewish engagement might hold a different perspective with equal passion. We must check ourselves before writing posts and ask if we are emulating Hillel and Shammai (two great schools of commentators named after two late, 2nd temple period sages) and arguing for the sake of heaven, or are we emulating Koraḥ (re-read last week's Parasha of that name)?
As we begin the month of Tammuz, let's be mindful of the apocryphal tale of the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple; of the mindless antipathy between Kamtzah and bar Kamtzah (Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Gittin 55 a & b – you can find an English rendition of the story online). Let's use our network to build vibrant Jewish life as Conservative Jews. To those of us who are community leaders – either professional or lay – let's work together to help USCJ become the organization that is envisioned in the strategic plan. Share your constructive ideas. If you have personal critiques, share them personally with individuals who can respond effectively. Keep them out of the public discourse. Your audience is not empowered to act surgically. General disaffection is a blunt weapon that leads to the diminution of us all.
May all of us who are passionate about our approach to Judaism – Conservative Judaism – continue to go from strength to strength.
This has been a long post, but after reading all of the factually incorrect, non-constructive posts to Shefa and the Presidents' Listserv that have appeared over the past several weeks, I felt that I had to offer my two Shekalim.
Shabbat Shalom v Chodesh tov,
Chair, Leadership Development Committee, USCJ
Chair, Central Congregational Council, Mid-Atlantic District, USCJ
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