United Synagogue at centennial crossroads

United Synagogue at centennial crossroads

Local leaders talk about goals and challenges

Rabbi Jim Rogozen, left, is the United Synagogue’s chief learning officer and Harvey Rosen is a lay leader.

It was a hundred years ago that Rabbi Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, founded the United Synagogue of America to promote traditional Judaism in America.

It brought together synagogues between the two extremes that then dominated American Judaism: Reform congregations that had rejected such traditions as Hebrew worship, head coverings, and kashrut; and the Orthodox shuls where Yiddish sermons and a lack of decorum failed to speak to the new generation of American-born Jews.

In his inaugural address as United Synagogue president in February 1913, Schechter used the words “conservative” and “orthodox” interchangeably to describe the kind of Judaism he wanted to spread across North America. For a time, during the postwar expansion of Conservative Judaism in the new suburban Jewish congregations, the United Synagogue was a crucial resource, writing textbooks and prayer books designed to appeal to American youngsters of the television generation. (A young Maurice Sendak illustrated two books for the United Synagogue back in the day.)

Now known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Schechter’s organization is preparing to celebrate its centennial in October with a convention in Baltimore amidst a rocky multiyear process of reorganization, which has seen a refocusing of direction, downsizing, and recurring budget deficits, combined with the ongoing hope that the organization will be able to rely on wealthy contributors rather than its member congregations for funding.

Three Teaneck residents are playing outsized roles in the evolution of the organization – two as professionals, one as a lay leader.

Harvey Rosen is chair of the United Synagogue’s board’s development committee. Development is nonprofit jargon for fundraising. That puts Rosen in charge of the shift from depending on membership dues levied on synagogues (around $60 per family), a model that worked during Conservative Judaism’s boom years but started to flag as the number of Conservative congregations and their members fell in recent years.

Following the 2008 economic crisis, some of the largest Conservative congregations threatened to revolt: Collectively they were paying a large share of the organization’s budget but didn’t feel they were getting much in return. In fact, total dues for larger synagogues came to $30,000 or even $60,000; those payments could have permitted them to hire an additional staff member, which would have had a direct and immediate impact on the congregation. Some synagogues held back some or all of their dues, even redirecting some funds to other Conservative institutions.

So, in 2009, as the United Synagogue brought in Rabbi Steven Wernick as its executive vice president and CEO, it adopted a new strategic plan, which moved away from the dues model.

Rosen said the transition to a philanthropic model, where the United Synagogue attracts money from donors and foundations, “has been going well. It’s a long process that takes a lot of patience and persistence.”

In the fiscal year that ended in June, the United Synagogue raised $600,000, according to a report from JTA, the international Jewish news service. That was a substantial increase over the mere $100,000 the group raised in 2011, but still it was well below the budgeted target of $1.7 million. JTA also reported that United Synagogue lost $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million in 2011.

The board has been reduced in size to 44 members from 175, with new members being tapped for their ability to contribute or raise money. “We have raised significantly more from board members then we had last year,” said Rosen, but declined to give any specifics.

When Schechter founded United Synagogue, he saw it as crucial to ensuring the survival of traditional Judaism in America in the coming generation. He wanted to prevent synagogues from embracing Reform Judaism, he sought for synagogues to adapt to American mores, he wanted to begin educating Jewish women and girls. He even called for making kosher food available across the country so travelers wouldn’t be tempted to break the dietary laws. (That was a goal later accomplished by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.)

So what would Rosen’s pitch be to philanthropists in 2013? Why should Conservative Jews, who historically have constituted the backbone of nondenominational groups, including federations, start redirecting their charitable gifts to this specifically Conservative organization?

“As a development person, I’m not gong to ask you to write a seven figure check for the organization as a whole,” Rosen said. “The new model is that donors are not interested in umbrella organizations but are more interested in targeting their gifts to programs. I’m more likely going to ask you to write a check to one of the many successful programs we have going.”

These, he said, include Sulam, a program for training synagogue presidents and the next generation of potential synagogue leaders.

United Synagogue also is helping synagogues with their strategic planning and in general “helping synagogues do a better job of managing themselves,” Rosen said.

Another major thrust of the United Synagogue is its youth programs – United Synagogue Youth and Nativ, a gap-year program in Israel.

“We’re hoping to bring more kids to Israel, and bring more kids to our national convention,” Rosen said.

USY programs now suffer from the organization’s lack of independent funding; in fact, program revenue from USY exceeds USY program expenses, according to the United Synagogue budget. By contrast, the Orthodox NCSY is able to subsidize its programs from the proceeds of the OU’s kashrut supervision; the nondenominational BBYO organization has brought in money from foundations.

“I know NCSY has millions of dollars available for Israel programs and the price of their programs are lower because they have money coming in. We could double the numbers on our Israel programs if they could be priced like NCSY or BBYO programs,” said Rabbi Jim Rogozen, who oversees USY as the United Synagogue’s chief learning officer, a post he assumed last year after serving 19 years as head of the Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland. He now lives in Teaneck.

After graduating high school, former USYers find that the United Synagogue has little to offer. The United Synagogue “suspended” Koach, its program for college students, pending the arrival of enough targeted donations to keep the program, which had been budgeted at $225,000, afloat. And efforts to reach out to young adults, which were a crucial part of the strategic plan adopted in 2009, have been shelved.

To bring in the donations, the United Synagogue last year hired its first director of development, Jonathan Boiskin, who had spent seven years at the Rutgers University Foundation, where he was associate vice president for major gifts and raised more than $100 million.

“He’s doing a great job,” Rosen said. “He really knows the world of philanthropy. He’s done a wonderful job in organizing the United Synagogue and professionalizing the development part of what we’re doing. That’s a major cultural change for the organization.”

So far, nearly a million dollars in fundraising has been committed for the new fiscal year, according to Wernick. The total budget last year was about $22 million; the organization has more than $40 million in assets, primarily real estate.

Does Rosen think United Synagogue will reach its fundraising target this year?

“Going from zero to sixty, going from a position where the organization did no fundraising to a position where we want to do three or four million dollars a year of it, takes time,” he answered. “It takes a developing of relationships.

“I think we’re on the right track. We need to staff up our organization. We just hired someone to handle our major gifts. He has been working for JTS in Florida the last couple of years.” That’s Rabbi Andrew Shugerman.

“We just secured a huge grant for the Schechter Network” of Conservative day schools,” Rosen said; Boiskin “was very important for that.”

However, that grant won’t all end up on the United Synagogue’s balance sheet; the Schechter Network plans to spin off into its own independent organization – with its own board and fundraising operation – in the coming year.

Dr. Elaine Cohen, who like Rosen and Rogozen lives in Teaneck and is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom there, also played a crucial role in getting the Schechter grant.

Cohen joined the United Synagogue staff ten years ago; at first, she oversaw the day schools from within its department of education. During her tenure, “one of the things I worked on which I’m really proud of, is the new branding where we became the Schechter Day School Network,” she said.

That branding will take the next step forward sometime next year, as the network becomes an independent nonprofit corporation and ceases being a division of the United Synagogue.

“It’s not a divorce from the United Synagogue,” Cohen said. “There will continue to be close institutional ties. There will be a close relationship. What that will look like, it’s premature to say.”

The grant for the Schechter Network comes from the Avi Chai Foundation; it is for around $2 million for two years, with the prospect of further extensions. It grew from a grant Cohen received for a strategic planning process; now, with a clearer sense of direction, the grant will enable the network to expand its staff. For years, lack of funding left Cohen as the network’s only employee. She is retiring in June 2014. Her successor, Dr. Jon Mitzmacher, who heads a Schechter school in Jacksonville, Florida, already is part of the team; Cohen also was able to hire a Texas-based program director.

Cohen anticipates adding further staff, including fundraisers, as the organization moves to independence.

The Schechter movement has not been unaffected by Conservative Judaism’s rough demographic fortunes; down from a peak of nearly 50 schools, it had 43 until last week, when the number dropped by one with the announcement that the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick would not re-open.

The school, headed by Rabbi Stuart Saposh of Teaneck, had announced on August 8 that it would close if it could not resolve its financial and enrollment challenges.

No new school has joined the network in several years, but there are discussions going on with potential members, Cohen said.

When the Schechter network cuts loose and becomes independent, it will join a long list of affiliated yet independent Conservative organizations that includes the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Cantors Assembly, and three separate organizations for Conservative synagogue executives, Jewish educators, and youth directors. Then there’s the National Ramah Commission, which oversees the movement’s Ramah camps; the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism; the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and Mercaz, the movement’s Zionist organization.

The organizations often have worked at cross purposes and been jealous of their turf. Even plans for United Synagogue’s centennial conference failed to coordinate the event with other organizations, both inside and outside the movement.

Trying to have Conservative organizations work together is one of Rogozen’s goals as chief education officer.

He has formalized a process of cooperation that at its best had been informal; at its worst, organizations often more were concerned with defending their turf than with advancing the Conservative movement as a whole.

“Instead of people from different organizations meeting each other a couple of times a year, I have a working committee with representatives from all the different groups so we can plan together, fundraise together, make programs together,” Rogozen said. “All of the stakeholders can sit around the table and we can share information, we can create ideas together, we can support one another. The idea isn’t that the United Synagogue is always out in front. We want to facilitate the conversation and be supportive and help make conversations.

“There’s a lot more conversations going on. There’s a lot more jointly sponsored initiatives.

Such initiatives: “We’ve had conversations with Ramah to do a new program with USY, a summer in the city program that would be based on tikkun olam. We’ve had conversations with the Rabbinical Assembly about addressing issues of interdating and intermarriage in both synagogue and Schechter settings.

“Ramah has created something called the service corps, where they’re sending recent college grads into the community to facilitate programming. I was on the phone with the head of Ramah to talk about how those people can work with USY people in the communities,” Rogozen said.

“With more money we could put more people in the field together to help strengthen the congregational schools.”

Ahh. If only there were more money. If there were more money, then the United Synagogue could help send educators to the synagogues… and the synagogues might think they’re getting value for the tens of thousands of dollars they pay in dues… and might be more inclined to pay.

But until then…

Rogozen believes that “the resources exist” to support United Synagogue, and “if people were cultivated and they were presented with an exciting, passionate vision, they would give.”

He has a twofold pitch for supporting the Conservative movement.

“First and foremost, the foundation of Jewish life in America for the last 60, 70 years has been a result of the central, moderate view of the Jewish world. Look at the growth of day school education: The innovators and people who brought it to the professional level it is at were the Schechter schools. We’re still enjoying the contributions the Conservative world made to the Jewish community.

“Number two, we’re seeing a polarization of views in the Jewish world from far left to far right. I think the centrist view is a balancer for the Jewish world. It’s necessary. There is a need for a passionate, well-reasoned, well-educated center. That middle, passionate center needs to be funded for the strength of all of us.

“It’s not always as attractive as the people who give the appearance of being innovative and breaking all the molds all the time, but in the long run the center has a tremendous amount to give for the stability of the community.”

The lack of support from Jewish philanthropists is not a problem only at the national level, Rogozen continued; it hurts local synagogues.

“Within Conservative congregations there are plenty of people who donate significant amounts to other organizations. At the national level, they’re getting a lot of money and leadership from Conservative congregations. The congregations haven’t necessarily engaged those people as donors.

“A lot of what we’re doing is trying to encourage organizations to restructure, to have mission-driven and strategic financial plans that allow them to work and develop this capacity.”

United Synagogue, he said, wants to help synagogues “reinvent themselves and transform themselves into more effective and purposeful organizations.”

By focusing on providing services to synagogues, United Synagogue is trying to be relevant to the constituency whose contributions continue to make up the bulk of its revenue.

But some critics charge that by becoming in large measure a synagogue consultancy service, United Synagogue is missing out on the chance to implement Solomon Schechter’s original charge of pushing widely for a dynamic American Judaism respectful of tradition yet open to change.

“It’s a mistake, because there is no organization in the Conservative movement that was there to support Conservative Jews,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California.

Earlier this summer, Creditor wrote a column in his local Jewish newspaper, J, arguing that it would have been better for United Synagogue to shut itself down than to have shuttered Koach, the United Synagogue’s college program.

That United Synagogue “closed down the most transformative of its programs, while Chabad and Orthodox campus outreach professionals are exploding with funding, is so very, very sad,” Creditor wrote.

The closing of Koach, along with the firing of the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and earlier cutbacks in the United Synagogue’s Hazak program for older adults, are “a reduction in the imaginative possibilities” of the organization’s work, “which truly only supports the establishment as it currently exists,” he added.

Creditor contrasts the shriveling of United Synagogue programs to vitality happening elsewhere, “in ways that would have been seen by Solomon Schechter as his vision unfolding,” particularly in such nondenominational programs as Hadar in Manhattan, Ikar in Los Angeles, and Boston Hebrew College.

“These new independent networks are hybrids of tradition and change that are working to engage the American Jewish community,” he said.

At United Synagogue, “Some of their new professionals are incredibly passionate Jewish leaders and gifted educators,” said Creditor; he counts Rogozen among them. “They’re leading the best way they can.”

But he doesn’t believe the institution can “be saved by a few visionaries. It is the entire infrastructure that is the problem.

“The very people the United Synagogue is losing should have had a voice at the table,” Creditor said. “The decision that was made to focus on communities and not individuals was a decision not to bring their voice in.”

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