Thank you for your constructive comments to my pre-Shabbat post.
As I wrote, I have any number of issues with how USCJ has operated historically, while at the same time – since attending SULAM in 2003 – I've felt that there's tremendous benefit to be derived from the wide range of tools and programs available from USCJ –particularly for congregational leaders. I've never relied on USCJ for a professional search, but our congregation has had dynamic pre-Kadima, Kadima, USY and Hazak chapters for as long as I've been a member (my family joined 14 years ago after moving to NJ).
As some members of the Shefa network might recall, my first USCJ windmill was non-day school educational programming. I tried to get a grass roots effort going at the 2007 Biennial Convention. My thought at the time was that there was a critical mass of expertise within Shefa's ranks and that we'd be able to develop curricula that USCJ – lacking the in-house resources to do development - would be anxious to adopt. The effort withered due to lack of interest.
I'm still interested in seeing the CJ Torah website concept that you had championed move forward. I know that the initiative was put in the conceptual parking lot during the Strategic Plan development effort. If USCJ doesn't want to or doesn't feel they have the resources to enable them to take ownership, perhaps the team that you assembled move ahead without USCJ.
I agree that many folks critiqued the plan. But most of the comments that I saw were from people who didn't seem to understand the difference between a strategic plan and an operational plan (or what USCJ is now calling an implementation plan). The strategic plan is all about "what". What is the vision for the organization as articulated in a relatively short list of well articulate strategic objectives? I didn't see many criticisms of the proposed focus. Most people wanted to see more details about how USCJ was going to achieve the articulated strategic objectives. It makes little sense to map out an implementation plan before the objectives have been vetted. So now we are in an uncertain period as the implementation plan gets drafted and vetted. Some fundamental pieces in areas where there was already a strong consensus have been moving ahead quite smartly – the leadership development program is one such area. The program for current leaders is just about ready for full launch (individual modules have been piloted throughout North America during the course of the 2010-2011 academic year; feedback to date has been very positive – typically along the lines of "why hasn't this kind of stuff been available before?"). Continuing to use the new leadership development program as an example, it has taken a significant level of effort (three staff professionals investing > 50% of their time on the program's development) since July 2010 to create this six-module program. Quality, new programming doesn't happen without substantial planning, creative work and vetting through pilot efforts. I'm not as conversant with what other USCJ teams are doing, but know that there are other similar efforts in the works, designed to help the organization meet its strategic goals – all of which focus on building stronger sacred communities.
However, at the same time, USCJ as an organization is trying to evolve out of the not-invented-here syndrome mentality. When I first become involved at the international level, too often after suggesting various types of partnerships I was confronted with defensive pushback. USCJ could only prove its worth by being THE provider for all programming content. That has changed. As I wrote (yes, perhaps it's the party line; but in truth it's my perspective on what is actually going on) the USCJ leadership has decided on the areas in which we are the most logical center of excellence and the areas in which other entities (both CJ affiliates and other entities – for example Alban Institute) bring more expertise to a need than USCJ could possibly muster. When I speak of a concierge model, USCJ is staffing up a team of Kehilla Relationship Managers (KRM) who will be charged with cultivating strong working relationships with our member congregations. Although some KRM are likely also specific areas of expertise, the regional variability of support will be replaced with consistent (God willing exceptionally great) support. Continuing in the area of leadership development and using it as an example, we've had a strong Regional leadership development program running for a couple of years in NJ, but it wasn't available to congregations outside our Region. Now, leadership development program facilitators form throughout USCJ will be trained and able to deliver well vetted content throughout USCJ. That's the new model. The types of support congregations could get regarding budgeting, membership recruitment, youth programing, and perhaps a dozen other critical areas depended on the skill set of individual Regional Executive Directors.
Moving forward, the KRM will act primarily as connectors to ensure that Kehillot don't get lost in the shuffle as too many have in the past. I suspect that it may take another year or two before this new model is optimized. In the meantime, both paid staff and unpaid volunteers will collect lessons learned in order to steepen the learning curve. That's the basis for my argument in favor of making direct contact with the individual or individuals who can take action based on recommendations that they received from the field, and my argument against polemics driven largely by old news. Yes, four years ago it was difficult to get budget data. The budget is now available for and download form the USCJ website. So why even mention that have been resolved?
If we use this forum and other Listserves as venting zones, we promote negative energy. We risk disenchanting people who might otherwise aboard and help us build our shared envisioned future. I'm in no way suggesting that USCJ be given a bye for things the organization is doing poorly. What I am suggesting is that we focus on what we can do at the grass roots level to make Conservative Judaism and CJ Kehillot – whether they be 250 year old brick and mortar synagogue communities or emergent independent Minyanim – vibrant and compelling to those who want to be part of the only movement that continues the rabbinic process organically, much as it had existed prior to the mid-19th century.
Regarding your interesting idea of an escrow account, I'll simply ask, how well would your congregation function if a significant percentage of those members who felt that they were paying $2,000 for high holiday seating made the same offer. Let them place their dues in escrow for a year. If at the end of the year they wanted to attend the Shul for H.H. they'd release the escrow. To paraphrase the most famous Republican presidential non-candidate: "how would that work out for you?"
Either we believe that a well-functioning confederation of Conservative congregations is worthwhile and serves for the benefit of our movement or we don't. If we don't believe that such a confederation has value, then we can choose to go it alone. If we believe in its value, then we work towards making it serve our needs optimally. The consensus within the change management/strategic planning literature is that the process of reinventing an organization is traumatic and lengthy – typically taking 3 to 5 years. We are 1.5 years into the process, which started with the hiring of Ukeles & Cohen in late 2009. It took 15 months from process launch to the approval of a new strategic plan. It will undoubtedly take a year or two before the impact of the new plan's implementation efforts will be broadly felt. That may be "the company line" but it's also consistent with just about any tome you'll read on change management. Is no small sign of commitment to change that the members of the USCJ Board, when they voted to approve the plan, knew that most were voting themselves out of their place at the table. Some of these folks have been serving USCJ for decades. By voting affirmative, we indicated our willingness to step aside in order to make room for a team who could enable USCJ to achieve its articulated goals.
We live in an era of instant gratification. An era in which companies created by teenagers mushroom into multi-billion dollar entities within months after launch. USCJ isn't that type of organization. Changes still go through a vetting process that provides opportunities for representatives from all of or member Kehilot to weigh in. Yes, I'm bullish on USCJ. I'm also concerned about how we navigate through the transition process. Making this work is going to require creative agility and innovative thinking from all of us. Let's focus on generating great ideas instead of public critique. BTW, my bias on this issue comes first from my Navy training - always praise in public and criticize in private. This aligns with the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot which teaches us that to embarrass someone is like committing murder. Is not a faceless entity (although, as I've written often, there's great opportunity for improved communications), it's people like you and me who care deeply about Judaism the future of Conservative Judaism and particularly the invaluable role that USCJ can play in ensuring a vibrant future. Intentionally or not, public, broadside attacks on USCJ are taken personally by the staffers and actively engaged volunteers. Some argue that in order to rebuild, you must first topple existing structures. You've been paying close attention to what has been going on over the past month, the organizational changes within the professional side of the house have been extraordinary. I have no inside news, but I have a strong sense that the structure of the volunteer organization will likely undergo a similarly dramatic change. The emerging concept is that of the expert volunteer. I anticipate that looking forward, volunteers will be recruited because of specific knowledge and skills that they have that enable them to provide specific types of support to our Kehillot and the central staff. Now that's going to be an interesting transition.
As I seem to be ending an increasing number of emails lately, may we all continue to go from strength to strength,
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