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How do you solve a problem like USCJ?

You start by dissolving it and setting its flagship youth org, USY, free to fend for -- and rebrand -- itself
A recent convention of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth arm. Via Usy.org
A recent convention of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth arm. Via Usy.org

The New York Jewish Week, among other Jewish news outlets, has reported on the layoffs announced Tuesday by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). “Facing financial pressures”, the article tells us, “the USCJ has reportedly laid off a portion of its staff in a bid to trim its budget”. According to a source who wishes to remain anonymous, what the article does not say is that the largest portion of these layoffs has come from the youth department, which basically means United Synagogue Youth (USY). Granted, USY has the largest chunk of the USCJ staff. In fact, before Tuesday’s layoffs, USY had 40 staff members while the rest of USCJ had about 35. However, while it is easy to cut staff, cutting staff for the one part of USCJ that has a large impact on the future of Conservative Judaism may have been a mistake.

What does this all spell for the future of the Conservative Movement? That remains to be seen. A big question that must be asked is what do local synagogues, or kehillot to use the current USCJ nom du jour, actually get from USCJ? For starters, they get USY, and in many congregations, USY is a major part of their youth programming, if not the entirety of the program.

On the USCJ website, when you search to find what it is that USCJ actually does, the only statement you can find is that “We strengthen kehillot“. There is a document entitled “Benefits of Affiliation”, which seems to focus on developing local kehillot, a link to USY, links to the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel, and a few other services such as website hosting, IT services, and one link dealing with congregational education. If I wanted to find info on the Conservative Movement, and what it means, I would be very hard-pressed to find anything on this website. To go back to the question, what do local Synagogues get from their USCJ membership? Other than USY, a biennial USCJ convention and a few decent programs such as Sulam, not too much!

I believe that to move Conservative Judaism into the future the immediate answer is that USCJ must be dissolved. It is an unstable organization that has almost no relevance today.

USY, the largest and most important part of USCJ can be spun off. It has the largest staff of any USCJ department (probably still so after Tuesday’s purge) and it plays the most important role in shaping the future of Conservative Judaism. Spinning off USY gives USY the ability to set its own agenda. USY will be free to create dynamic new programming, expand by reviving Koach, the Conservative Movement’s college level program, and most importantly, bring in Congregations which are not affiliated with USCJ. Bringing in un-affiliated Congregations would only serve to increase membership and involvement throughout North America and the world. USY would likely require an annual affiliation fee from Congregations in order for them to have local USY chapters. This fee would likely be less than the current USCJ dues, and it would basically end USCJ, as Congregations would not be willing to pay for USY affiliation and USCJ affiliation as two separate things.

USY can then use modern Internet based forms of fundraising, as well as tapping into its vast alumni network to bring in the remaining funds that it will need to operate. I think many people do not donate directly to USY in that it looks like the donation is just going to USCJ. With USY spun off, that would no longer be the case. In the end it could even help ease the biggest reason USY programs are getting smaller; they cost too much. USCJ makes USY turn a profit on all of its programming. Sometimes a large profit at that. Granted, this profit helps to fund USY’s overhead, but the truth is overhead to run USY should be coming from USCJ to begin with. USCJ for years has not fully subsidized USY, while USY has subsidized USCJ. This practice would hopefully be lessened and allow USY to have lower cost programs.

I have been involved in different ways with USY since I was a USYer back in the 1980s and I truly believe that this can all work. I also think it would be the prime time for USY to totally re-brand itself as NOAM-USY to put it in line with Masorti Olami’s youth groups (called Noar Masorti, or NOAM for short).  Masorti Olami is the international Organization of Masorti (Conservative in North America) Synagogues around the globe.  Noar Masorti means Masorti Youth, and is the international version of USY.

Whatever is left of USCJ then can be subsumed by other groups in the movement.  Any education services can become part of JTS and the Jewish Educators Assembly (JEA). Other parts can move to the Rabbinical Assembly, Cantor’s Assembly, Men’s Clubs, Women’s League, JYDA, and NAASE. In fact, this could really be the catalyst to bring all of these groups together.

We are at a major crossroads for the institutional leadership of the Conservative Movement. It’s time we realize that just because this is the way things have always been done does not mean that this is the way we must move into the future. The time is now to make the brave changes that can help save Conservative Judaism and ensure its survival into the future.

About the Author
Phil Goldwasser served on the board of directors of his synagogue, The Highland Park Conservative Temple - Congregation Anshe Emeth in Highland Park NJ, and chairs the youth committee. He holds a masters degree from JTS. For close to 20 years he was involved with USY as a USYer and staff member. Now he is learning how to be a parent of USYers and Kadmianiks.
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