Oh USY, Oh USY…

USYers at a recent USY International Convention

Let me start out by saying that I still hold by my original thesis. On May 3rd, I published a blog post on the Times of Israel stating that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is an unstable organization that has no relevance today.  I added that United Synagogue Youth (USY), the one good thing from USCJ, must be spun off as its own independent organization for it to survive and excel into the future.  I still stand by my belief, but I am willing to modify it a little.  I will admit that I made the article a bit sensationalist, but I did want to get the message out there.  The point of my article was to get people to discuss these issues, and with that criterion, my post was a total success!

I am willing to modify what I said, but I still strongly believe in the need for USY to have a level of autonomy from USCJ.  I do believe that USY can move into the future and still be connected to USCJ.  However, for that to happen, USY needs to develop greater independence from USCJ.  Before continuing, a little history is needed.   Throughout USY’s 60+ years, USCJ appointed a youth commission that was the oversight body for USY, and that committee, together with the professional staff, created an amazing program without much interference from USCJ.  Today we are seeing a much greater level of control over USY, and this has caused many people to worry.

What kind of changes would make people worry so much?  In the previous reorganization USY tried to move to a “shared service” model.  Shared Service is a buzzword these days in the not for profit world.  The idea is that different USY regions do similar programs and if part of the work could be off-loaded to a central source, then the regional staff would have more time to engage with the youth.  This sounds great, but for whatever reason, it never worked in practice.  With the new reorganization, they are trying again to move to a shared service model.  At the same time, they are merging regions into larger groupings they are calling branches.  In the last reorganization they also tried merging regions into groupings called districts, but those districts are being scrapped in favor of the new, geographically larger branches.  This rapid change is part of what is getting people nervous.

Last week, I had a video meeting with Dana Prottas, the Director of Teen Engagement for USCJ (Director of USY) and with Diane Novick, who is the chair of the International Youth Commission, which has been re-formed to have a greater role in the operations of USY. The meeting was cordial and I had the opportunity to ask them a number of questions about the changes that have been made to USY.

However, what Ms. Prottas and Ms. Novick told me is not all bad. Each region in USY had a Regional Teen Engagement Director (RTED). While the last reorganization tried to centralize the programmatic aspects of USY, the new plan combines regions and one of the two RTEDs will take on the program aspect and one will take on the outreach and engagement aspect. On paper, this all sounds great. It frees up a professional to spend more time in the field meeting with USY chapters and working on recruitment of new USYers. The only downside is of course, the two professionals will now have a much larger geographic area in which to work. On top of this there will be at least one part time person in each region doing outreach as well.

All of this leads to another change. Being a synagogue-based youth group, USY has always relied on the local synagogues to try to recruit their own members to join USY. Different chapters have had different levels of success with this. In New Jersey there were always chapters that had 5 USYers, and also chapters that had 100 USYers. Everything depended upon the local synagogue: its size, its commitment to youth programming, etc. The number of synagogue members in USCJ has dwindled over the years, as has the number of USY members nationally. Lose the synagogues, lose their members’ children. So USY is faced with trying to find ways to rebuild and reach more youth. To do this they would like to move to the NCSY model which understands that to get more kids, you need to go out to them. Under the previous model, this would have been very difficult. As a synagogue-based group, it is difficult to reach out to other groups.  I believe that it can be done by opening USY to non-affiliated congregations and independent minyanim.  We do have some Conservative Day Schools in the country, and we could try to partner with them.  How this would actually work in practice would need to be worked out, but it could be great method of reaching Jewish youth not being served by our congregations.

That was the good part. Perhaps where I am most concerned is the question of who is making these decisions. USY has always been what I call a bottom-up group. The kids are the focus and they are the leaders. Each chapter has a board of officers and those USYers plan the programming for the chapter with a paid advisor.  Each region has a board of officers who help plan the regional programming. The international level has a board of officers who are there to help the regions and chapters and to run different aspects of the International Organization. Other youth groups are what I call top-down groups. The adults at the top plan programming for the youth at the bottom. For example, Camp Ramah is a top-down youth program. The staff plan the summer program for the kids. Young Judea is a top down program where the staff plan different Israel trips and other programs for the kids.

Being a bottom-up group, USYers need to be involved in every aspect of what happens to USY. And, the local and regional levels need to be involved as well.  These changes have been made without consultation of any regional youth commissions, any USYers, or any local or regional youth directors. For those who are worried, I think these are the most important points and the core concerns. Teen leadership and development is what makes USY unique and strong.  To be fair, both Ms. Prottas and Ms. Novick told me that Ms. Prottas did, in fact speak with people throughout the country when working on the reorganization.  I, personally, do not know any of the people with whom she spoke.  But that does not change the problem.  Changes like this should have been done with months of consultation with many people throughout the country.  Because the reorganization was tied to the budget cutting, the USY international staff had very little time to deal with this.  The president of the USCJ board gave them a very short time to do what should have taken at least a year.

There is no question that today things are different in our society from the way they were when I was in USY.  There is definitely the need to see some changes.  However, there is also a proven program that has been very successful.  A regional Kinnus may bring together 200 USYers to spend Shabbat learning and having fun.  These programs must be kept.  Part of the reorganization has touched on how many Shabbat overnight programs are going to be kept.  It is important for each region to keep programs that are successful, and if there are some that are not so successful, then you can get rid of them.  But ending programs in order to push more outreach is not the answer either. Maybe we need increased local control – programs that work in one region/district/branch may not work in another. Centralization has been difficult, poorly administered, and inefficient so far. Why are we creating more of it? We have strong advisors and directors who are fully committed to helping our local chapters thrive.

So, it all goes back to autonomy.  USY must have the autonomy to make decisions for itself.  The USY professional staff have had years of experience in USY and really know what needs to be done to keep USY thriving.  USY must be able to do its own fundraising and hire its own director of development.  USY fundraising MUST go directly to USY.  USY must be governed not by USCJ, but by a functional Youth Commission, which CAN report to USCJ, but NEEDS to operate independently.  Without these changes, I fear that USY will become a youth group focusing on only social programming and/or summer travel.  USY can move into the future.  It requires some brave people to make some important decisions.

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 Kadimaniks.
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