Friday, July 1, 2011





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:



Good questions.


The Strategic Plan ( provides some of the answers and the USCJ bylaws ( provide most of the others.  


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 Kora (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,



Fred Passman

Chair, Leadership Development Committee, USCJ

Chair, Central Congregational Council, Mid-Atlantic District, USCJ



The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism promotes the role of the synagogue in Jewish life in order to motivate Conservative Jews to perform mitzvot encompassing ethical behavior, spirituality, Judaic learning and ritual observance. The mission of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is to strengthen and serve our congregations and their members.


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