Dear Fellow Members of the Shefa Listserv,
I have rarely written but have enjoyed reading the discussions on this listserv for many years. Recently I have been debating responding to the posts regarding the discussion about the USCJ and their upcoming "Conversation of the Century". A few years ago, in the Spring of 2009, I was involved in organizing a "rebel'" group called, Bonim, whose purpose was to attempt to lobby for major changes in the USCJ. Our group formed at the same time that 25 of some of the largest congregations were creating a group that became known as Hayom and would later join forces with the USCJ as partners working together in hopes of creating a more transparent organization. As a founding member of Bonim, I felt that after Rabbi Wernick had been selected to lead the USCJ, we should disband our group and be supportive of the new leadership.
There were many Bonim members who felt that we should stay active and act as a "watchdog" but I felt that we needed to give the new team time to regroup and did not want to risk undermining the future of the USCJ. On reflection, I wonder if that was such a wise move. Prior to Rabbi Wernick's tenure, the USCJ had accumulated huge expenses agreeing to pay out exorbitant pensions and "golden parachutes" to former leaders and executives. They also spent $14,000,000 to buy two floors at 802 Second Avenue, one of the most expensive business districts in New York City. These huge expenditures were made at a time that the USCJ was feeling flush with cash, having sold their buildings on Fifth Avenue and were able to make executive decisions without thinking (or caring) of how it might impact on their long term planning.
In 2008, when I was finishing up my term as president of my synagogue, I was invited to join the METNY Board. Although I wasn't an accountant, I was curious about the finances of the USCJ and thanks to Rabbi Charles Savenor, who was then Executive Director of METNY, I was encouraged to make an appointment to meet and spend a few afternoons with Brian Boczko, who was the Chief Operating Officer of the USCJ. Mr. Boczko shared with me the specifics of the actual budgets and explained that it was costing the USCJ $13,000 a month in maintenance to maintain their new office space. While the present leadership might say that I am sharing "old news" that is no longer relevant given all the changes that have occurred over the last few years, I wonder how much change is possible when the costs of operating their structure and paying salaries for retired staff as well as their pensions, takes such a huge bite out of their annual budget?
After Rabbi Wernick and his new team had time to review the costs and expenditures of being in such expensive space and the costs of paying out pensions that were out of his control, he could have urged that they move out of their headquarters. Synagogues all over the country have had to downsize and change their strategies given the changes in our economic climate. If the USCJ had opted to walk away from their emotional and psychological need to being next door to the Israeli Consulate and just steps from The United Nations, they could have won a great deal of respect from their member congregations that were facing similarly difficult financial decisions. Instead they have refused to budge and instead have been forced to keep firing dedicated and gifted professionals and to continue to eliminate programs. It's possible that even after downsizing, they still would have had to make more difficult staffing decisions but instead their focus seemed to turn to semantics, making a great fuss about how "congregations" would now be called "Kehillot" and focusing on how all they needed was to create a new group of philanthropists who would make up the millions they needed to continue to thrive.
About a week ago, I received a letter from Harvey Rosen, Chair of the Development and Marketing Committee of the USCJ. It was one of those mail-merged letters that looks personal, but was sent to every lay leader and many rabbis who may have served on a board or in some other region over years. The letter was written with the hope that if we were still on the fence about whether to attend the convention, this letter would make the decision a no brainer. it certainly had that effect on me. The letter begins by announcing their plans to honor me:
"In Honor of your service to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, for our next academic year, we will institute, in your name, a day of learning at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. On that day, the Yeshiva students will honor your legacy with vigorous debate, study and discussion, and will acknowledge your support of our movement…."
Is this the best way for the USCJ to try to "market" the Conversation of the Century"? And if the letter was a sincere attempt to announce this "day of study", why would the USCJ's marketing committee send it out? Unless the point of the letter has nothing to do with study and everything to do with how the USCJ chooses to spend its money? Many of my friends who received at least one copy and in some cases as many as three, were disheartened and frustrated by what they felt was just another sign that the "changes" so many of us are looking for and the reasons for attending this great "conversation" seems to be more about rewrapping the old, rather than exploring new ways of engaging a truly serious discussion about why we should look to the USCJ for those solutions.
While the core of the letter was describing the issues that will be addressed at the convention, the final paragraph was written to try to touch lay people where they really need to be reached. Here is a brief excerpt:
"…., I would like to personally invite you to attend the Centennial Celebration so we may recognize you in person at dinner on Sunday evening, October 13, 2013. Your efforts and commitment to USCJ have helped us reach this time in our organization's history.
While the expenses of running the USCJ organization has grown, their staff continues to shrink, and their bigger problems remains unchanged. If the chair of marketing and development thinks that the best way to bring past and present "leaders" of the USCJ to the "Conversation of the Century " is by suggesting that Yeshiva students will honor their service with vigorous debate and that their names "may be recognized" at the dinner during the event, I can't help but wonder how many thousands of dollars was spent on this letter writing fiasco? Members of the USCJ care less about having naming opportunities and more about where is the USCJ leading us and what will their structure look like in the next few years?
Reading the recent posts makes me worry that while the "officers" of the USCJ are still very loyal about broadcasting how wonderful the new USCJ is but the infantrymen and women in the trenches see the future of the USCJ with a far more pessimistic perspective. I disbanded Bonim four years ago because I didn't want to be part of the problem of undermining the USCJ, but hoped to see the new leadership work towards a successful transformation. On reflection, as the USCJ keeps shrinking its staff and programs and promising a brighter tomorrow, I think it might be time to start thinking about which organizations can help bolster the future of Conservative Judaism instead of trying to embark on reframing an old conversation by calling it something new.
Arthur Glauberman, past president of Shaarei Tikvah, The Scarsdale Conservative Congregation and former member of the METNY and national board of the USCJ.