Leaving institutional egos behind
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Leaving institutional egos behind

The Conservative movement’s United Synagogue, Rabbinical Assembly enter new partnership

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, left, Eric Leiderman, and Rabbi David Fine
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, left, Eric Leiderman, and Rabbi David Fine

The era of the silo system — where separate organizations in the same general world, working toward the same general end, function independently of one another rather than in partnership — would seem to be coming to an end in the Conservative movement. In July, as part of a move to bring about a new level of collaboration between the rabbinic and lay arms of the movement, the Rabbinical Assembly and The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will start to share one executive director.

As a result, said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, who now is the CEO of the RA but soon to be the head of United Synagogue as well, “the focus will be on the people we want to serve, putting institutional egos aside.”

Pointing to existing models of joint activity — in the area of rabbinic placement, for example — Rabbi Blumenthal said, “We’re looking for ways to be of more support to congregations, to take partnership to a new level.” Calling the joint convention in Toronto the two groups held in December, which brought lay leaders and rabbis together, “a powerful experience,” he said, “We understand the potential of bringing rabbis together with other professionals, to create new energy and explore big issues.”

The move to bring the two organizations together has been “an organic process,” Rabbi Blumenthal said. “Each organization looked at itself and recommitted to its core mission” — and put it in writing, the RA with the RA Vision, and United Synagogue with its Roadmap. “The RA mission is to support and connect rabbis. The USCJ supports congregational life. When each committed to its own core work, it created a space to come together because it meant we were not trying to inhabit another organizational space but rather commit to our own core missions.” And those missions, he said, ultimately have the same goal.

The move to strengthen and grow the RA/USCJ partnership began about 18 months ago, before Rabbi Blumenthal took over the reins of RA leadership from its CEO at the time, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld. “The two organizations were looking for ways to work together,” Rabbi Blumenthal said, citing such efforts such as the joint convention and joint board meetings, as well as public statements issued in both their names. “I’m really impressed with the quality of both boards and the leadership of both organizations,” he said.

They recognized “that we’re in a new era. It can’t be about institutional egos but rather about the ways we serve the Jewish people. They’re ready for a new model.”

The new arrangement is not a merger, Rabbi Blumenthal said. The RA and United Synagogue are “remaining as two separate organizations, with separate boards and financial structures, but we’ll integrate the work we do. We’ll be pursuing one mission, to bring our version of Jewish life and Torah to more people in more ways.”

To do this, each organization must realize the goals of its strategic plan. “My first job is to help each organization be effective in achieving those goals,” he said. Job two is to help stimulate thinking “on how we come together to form a stronger collaboration.”

The new relationship provides “a way for rabbis and lay leaders to have conversations about important issues,” and he hopes that it also will create closer relationships with Conservative organizations. “Masorti and Masorti Olami were part of the planning,” (Masorti represents the Conservative movement in Israel, and Masorti Olami is the name the movement uses outside North America; Canada is part of United Synagogue), he said. “Lots of different organizations were consulted in the process of designing this collaboration.”

Yet another goal is to model this kind of partnership so that other parts of the movement will want to sign on to the effort.

The plan “was not designed as a cost-cutting measure,” Rabbi Blumenthal said. “We came together as partners, not to save money.” He and other leaders do hope, however, that the collaborative effort — “our vision for a re-energized broad center of Jewish life” — will attract interest from funders.

Asked how the new plan will affect individual congregations, Rabbi Blumenthal said that “in the 21st century, effective synagogues reflect a partnership between clergy, staff, and lay leadership. We talk about it; now we will live it. It’s a powerful message.”

The RA already is involved in a joint project with United Synagogue and NAASE, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogue executive directors, sharing a Zoom workshop on staff supervision. “The USCJ invited the rabbis and executive directors to participate,” Rabbi Blumenthal said. “More than 60 people took part, and it was well received by both groups. It’s a great example of that kind of partnership.”

On the question of how the new arrangement will relate to groups within the movement that are not connected to synagogues, Rabbi Blumenthal acknowledged that “more than 40 percent of our rabbis don’t work in congregations. They bring our Judaism to people in a variety of other settings, whether on campus, as chaplains, or in other communal settings. We understand that this is all part of the movement.

“We’re thinking about how to serve people who don’t fall into the sphere of United Synagogue or the RA organizations, such as those on the college campus, people who are finished with college and often don’t join synagogues for 15 years, and those who are spiritual seekers,” he continued. “What are their needs?”

Rabbi Blumenthal and his wife, Marci, live in Gaithersburg, Maryland; he is the founding rabbi of Shaare Torah congregation, which opened in 1995 and he led for a quarter of a century, until last April. Begun with just 25 families, the synagogue today boasts about 300 of them. Rabbi Blumenthal also helped create Washington, D.C.’s Ramah Day Camp and local outreach programs to millennials. Jacob and Marcie Blumenthal have two children, who both are in college.

The issue of Conservative college students looms large for Eric Leiderman, who grew up in Englewood and graduated from the Moriah School there. He is the president and co-founder of Masorti on Campus, which he and other students created after United Synagogue’s Koach program for college students was put on a hiatus from which it never was recalled. Masorti on Campus recently held its sixth annual student leadership Shabbaton, this year at Brandeis Hillel. “We had 85 representatives from 24 campuses,” Mr. Leiderman said.

Now 28, Mr. Leiderman is excited by the new partnership, and he hopes that it will inspire United Synagogue to take a renewed interest in Conservative college students. “I’m very much in the camp of breaking down silos and working more cohesively as a movement,” he said. Still, “the devil is in the details.” He’s now a Springboard Ezra fellow at Hillel Milwaukee, serving students on a variety of campuses. (The Springboard Fellowship is a two-year paid fellowship that provides recipients with early career experience in the Hillel world, working on college campuses across the continent. Ezra Jewish education specialists are trained to bring pluralistic and experiential Jewish education techniques into their work.)

Right now, Mr. Leiderman said, Masorti on Campus is trying to put together a coalition, “a whole ecosystem of programs that college students work for or participate in,” such as Ramah camps, United Synagogue Youth, and synagogues, where they may work as Torah readers or in other capacities. He is hoping to bridge the gap between young Conservative Jews who go through USY, age out, go to college, and then may wait as long as 15 years before they join a synagogue. Calling USY and Nativ, United Synagogue’s gap-year program in Israel “great avenues to advertise” Conservative campus programs, Mr. Leiderman said that he would like to see a stronger partnership with United Synagogue and better communication, perhaps through the USY alumni network.

“The RA has been a good friend,” he said. “We share projects together. We’re always open to new ideas and partnership, especially in fundraising.”

Mr. Leiderman, who as president of Masorti on Campus is on Mercaz’s slate for the World Zionist Organization’s election, said he’s using his connections on college campuses “to try to get out the vote.” That’s because Conservative Jews are part of a global movement, he said. “We struggle when we’re not a voice at the table.”

Rabbi David Fine, an RA board member and the religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, said he participated in a number of discussions on the issue of the RA enhancing its relationship with United Synagogue. While he agreed that the collaboration is not a merger, “it is a step in that direction,” he said.

A strengthened relationship makes sense, Rabbi Fine said. “They’ll share the CEO, both organizations have offices in the same building, and the thought was that one of the challenges that plagues the movement is the different organizations, all being run separately and trying to align people. It’s a large tent, a broad coalition. If the two organizations can work together, it will have an extraordinary potential to breathe new life and meaning into Conservative Judaism, pooling resources to reach the Jew in the pew.

“The mission of the RA, besides being a professional organization for Conservative rabbis, is to teach Torah. The USCJ offers a platform for that.”

He noted that one complexity that arose in the course of discussions is that the RA is a worldwide organization, but United Synagogue covers only North America. It therefore had to be made clear that the RA is not disengaging from its global mission but is working with United Synagogue to consolidate the movement here in what he called a “pragmatic retrenchment because of financial realities.”

Rabbi Fine stressed that the new arrangement is not a corporate merger, “but just the sharing of a staff position. Each organization is splitting compensation.” (To translate, Rabbi Blumenthal’s salary will come from both the RA and United Synagogue; each group will cover the rest of its own expenses separately.) Still, he said, it might be necessary to make other staffing arrangements to cover the lack of a full-time CEO for the rabbinical organization. “While it’s cost neutral now, it opens up possibilities to explore a merger, consolidating our vision,” he added.

Rabbi Fine agreed that there are a growing number of RA members who do not work in congregational settings. “As a profession, we’re expanding, and there have been changes in how seminaries prepare rabbis for different types of constituents,” he said. Suggesting that United Synagogue might “look beyond the membership affiliate model” — now all its members are synagogues, and there is no way for individual people to join, should they want to — he pointed to findings such as those of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s wide-ranging “Portrait of American Jews,” which found that increasing numbers of Jews chose not to affiliate with synagogues and do not pay membership dues. “There’s so much to soak up without entering the walls of a synagogue,” he said; other organizations, such as JCCs, provide a great deal of Jewish education and Jewish community.

The question, Rabbi Fine said, is “How do synagogues continue to reinvent themselves and remain sustainable? We have to meet Jews where they are, work with the USCJ to reach them and redefine what it means to be part of a community.” Perhaps, he said, we might move beyond the word “synagogue.” After all, he noted, Solomon Schechter — the European-born American rabbi who was the founder of the United Synagogue, and early president of the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and in general was the architect of Conservative Judaism in America —intended that term to mean the totality of the Jewish community. “If we have the opportunity of achieving his original vision, that’s very exciting,” he said.

Rabbi Fine said he did not foresee great opposition to that concept of United Synagogue moving away from the word “synagogue.” “I think the agreement announced and the USCJ’s willingness indicate openness to new definitions and to evolution,” he said. “We may not in the past have fulfilled Schechter’s vision, but we can do that now.”

Rabbi Fine is excited by the new arrangement, which requires both retrenchment and redefinition, he said. “I give credit to those who put this together. Hopefully, it succeeds and this is the beginning of different elements of the movement coming together. We need evolution rather than revolution.

“Different synagogues and Jewish institutions are not in competition with each other, but with lack of affiliation and lack of commitment,” he said. “Everyone realizes that we’re not working against each other but with each other for common goals. With fewer Jews and fewer dollars in play, it’s even more important to work together.

“It needs good leadership. This is a reflection of that.”

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