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This fall, United Synagogue celebrates a remarkable milestone – our Centennial year. To
celebrate the occasion, we’re hosting a gathering in Baltimore unlike any in recent memory.
Dubbed the Conversation of the Century, the USCJ Centennial will bring together everyone who
cares about the Conservative Jewish future – renowned thinkers, congregational leaders,
professionals, clergy, performers, and more – for several days of learning, sharing, and
inspiration designed to rethink and revitalize North American synagogue life.
As this landmark event approaches, and as we come to the end of our fiscal year, I’d like to
report to you on the work we’ve been doing over the past year and how it affects you, our most
Because USCJ is at such a major turning point, we also asked some of our most important
partners – including some who were once very critical of USCJ – to reflect on our progress to
date. Their statements are attached.
The New United Synagogue
Our congregations face a myriad of challenges – financial uncertainty, demographic changes,
and profound cultural shifts in religious identity and affiliation. The guiding mission of the new
United Synagogue is to be a valuable partner in helping kehillot navigate this pivotal moment in
Jewish life. The goal: to strengthen congregations and help transform them into the most
compelling kehillot kedoshot, communities of meaning, relationship, and sacred purpose – the
kinds of communities that 21st century Jews yearn for and will wholeheartedly support.
I’m happy to report that in the two years since we embarked on a far-reaching plan to remake
USCJ, we have achieved real, measurable progress toward becoming the kind of partner you
need us to be – more efficient, more responsive, more transparent, more effective, and more
narrowly focused on work that strengthens Conservative kehillot.
Have we accomplished everything we hope to do? Not yet. Whether in the business or non-profit
world, it’s a simple fact that major turnarounds take both time – several years, by most estimates
– as well as financial resources.
I’ll describe our budget situation in detail later on in this letter, but speaking for a moment as a
rabbi, when I think of where we are I imagine the Israelites traversing the wilderness that lay
between Egypt and the Land of Israel. Our people went through a major transformation during
that journey, moving from dependent, fearful former slaves to a strong nation ready to conquer a
land and establish a new and just society.
United Synagogue has not yet made it to the Promised Land. But with your support, we have
overcome major obstacles and undertaken profound changes. Egypt is far behind us. The Jordan
River is coming clearly into view.
Transforming and Strengthening Kehillot
In his new book, “Relational Judaism,” Dr. Ron Wolfson says that Jewish institutions must move
away from being “program-centric” organizations and toward becoming “relational
communities.” But how does a congregation do that? What are the steps? A major part of
USCJ’s work with kehillot focuses on helping answer those questions.
United Synagogue’s leadership training initiative, SULAM, has expanded from a standalone
program for congregational presidents to a series of programs that offers our kehilla leaders a
“sulam,” a ladder, of in-person training, webinars, and learning modules for everyone from
emerging leaders to current leaders to a revamped, intensive capstone program for presidents.
As a write this, teams from several synagogues – rabbis, executive directors, and lay leaders –
are here in our conference room as part of a new “action community” that will spend months
doing high-level work on developing and implementing a strategic plan for their respective
congregations. Dozens of other synagogues are using our strategic planning materials on their
own. (Read what kehillot are saying about this program in the New Jersey Jewish News and
learn more on our website.)
This year, we rolled out new training modules on financial sustainability, which you’ve told us is
one of your key challenges. The response to recent programs on exploring new dues structures
was phenomenal, with just one webinar attracting some 200 people from 90 kehillot.
You’ve also said that replenishing the leadership pipeline is crucial if your kehillot are to thrive.
We developed Sulam for Emerging Leaders, an intensive engagement program targeting
members in the 30-45 year old age group. It’s been adopted so far by 31 kehillot, reaching 500
new leaders this year, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We are now accepting
applications for a new cohort of this program. Learn more on our website where you can also
find information about joining the conference call on Thursday, June 13 for prospective
All told, more than 1,000 people from 125 kehillot are now actively engaged in our learning
community, focusing on vision, governance, finances, or their own leadership strengths. We
hope you’ll take advantage of all these new ways we can be your partner in strengthening your
Helping You Contain Costs
A great many of you have told us that the most pressing challenge you face involves financial
sustainability. In addition to helping you explore new dues models, we are continuing to find
ways that United Synagogue can leverage the size of our community to help individual kehillot
For the last year, we have been working with a consultant to determine the feasibility of creating
a national health plan for our affiliated congregations. This project is now close to completion,
and in approximately two months, we’ll know if the plan will work. In addition, we are now
working with a cost-containment consulting firm on a partnership that promises to offer kehillot
what we have found, in a pilot program, to be a very effective cost-containment audit.
Stay tuned for more information on both of these programs in the near future.
As currently structured, Conservative Jewish learning is simply not adequate to ensure a vibrant
future. The 2011 strategic plan called on United Synagogue to convene all of the Conservative
institutions involved in education to create a new, collaborative vision for K-12 Jewish learning.
A little over a year ago, we convened a panel of some of Conservative Judaism’s most thoughtful
educators, rabbis, cantors, academics, and lay leaders, along with two highly experienced
education and policy consultants. The group represented nine different Conservative institutions
and organizations. After a year of work, we collectively developed an ambitious plan called “A
New Paradigm for Jewish Learning for Conservative Judaism.” This new vision would integrate
formal and experiential education using the knowledge and resources of our camps, academic
institutions, synagogues, Schechter schools, youth programs, and more.
The goals are to dramatically improve kehilla-based learning; expand the number of children and
teens participating in immersive Jewish experiences; create linkages between kehillot and
programs that offer immersive experiences, such as Ramah and day schools; conduct and
disseminate research and development, spearheaded by JTS; and develop outstanding
professionals and the further use of new technologies.
I invite you to take a look at the new learning paradigm on our website.
We realize this is only a report. Our next step, already underway, is creating a strategy for
implementation and, for USCJ, raising funds to allow a meaningful investment in bringing our
part of the plan to fruition. Already, however, our former education and youth departments have
been merged into a new Department of Learning, which meets and plans together. We’ve also
created a new Learning Committee, made up of nationally known educators, lay leaders, and
representatives from a wide range of Conservative Movement organizations.
Meanwhile, our educational consulting work and USY programs continue to improve and grow.
We are now putting the finishing touches on a new USY strategic plan. Last year, some 15,000
young people participated in this powerful youth program, and we sponsored our first-ever
Alternative Spring Break, in which 81 teens spent Chol HaMoed Pesach volunteering in a part of
New Jersey ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Our congregational school consultants not only ran numerous regional workshops but worked
individually with hundreds of kehilla staff and lay leaders across North America – including
preschool staff – offering information and guidance on subjects like pedagogy and best practices,
curriculum development, supervision, budgeting, programming, technology, and professional
development. We expect a high turnout for this summer’s New Directors Institute, a multi-day
workshop that includes year-long mentoring for new congregational school directors.
We have also worked to expand and upgrade the Schechter Day School Network and to provide
more scholarships for our Israel programs.
Governance: A Leaner, More Transparent, Responsive Organization
Last December, an unprecedented event took place in Las Vegas: the first-ever meeting of the
USCJ General Assembly of Kehillot. This new body comprises representatives of each of our
more than 600 affiliated congregations, and it reflects a new avenue for USCJ accountability to
our members. You elect our board of directors. And only you, our members, determine your dues
to United Synagogue. In fact, at this first meeting, the G.A. voted to pass a small dues increase
proposed by the United Synagogue board, the first such vote ever taken.
We’ve also improved governance by drastically reducing the size of our board, transforming it
into a much more functional, efficient body with meaningful opportunities for service and a new
expectation of financial commitment. From a high of 185 members in 2009, the board now
includes 45 members (with a limit of 50). We’ve attracted a myriad of new people to board
service, including highly accomplished professionals, major Jewish philanthropists, and
outstanding members of the clergy.
Finally, you are doubtless aware of our new system of serving congregations through our Kehilla
Relationship Managers. This group of experienced professionals devote themselves to knowing
your congregation and your concerns, to meeting your needs for service and consultation, and to
making sure you take advantage of USCJ resources. You have told us how much you value this
new system, not only for its improved level of service, but for improving your ability to let us
know when you have a problem or concern.
The USCJ Budget: Expanding Revenue
As they confront demographic changes, aging buildings, and new patterns of Jewish affiliation,
many of our kehillot face declining membership or other sources of financial pressure. Our
financial health is directly tied to yours. United Synagogue is responding to this reality in several
ways. For instance, we continue to provide approximately $1.2 million in unfunded variances.
We are also working intensely to significantly expand revenue from philanthropic sources.
Though we had hoped to be further along this year in reaching our development goals, we have
made great progress – philanthropic giving climbed from $100,000 in 2011 to $600,000 in the
past fiscal year. This year, we have almost $1 million already committed toward our FY 2014
goal. And over the next five years, we already have several million more dollars in commitments
or in an active pipeline.
This is an extraordinary accomplishment for an organization that three years ago, had done
almost no direct fundraising.
Closing Our Deficit
Over the last four years, we have been fortunate to have a reserve fund large enough to finance
operating deficits caused in large part by declining dues revenues, as well as the cost of our
transformation and other one-time, extraordinary expenses. But we knew that in the upcoming
fiscal year it was essential to take steps to eliminate the deficit. Prudent financial stewardship
demands that we don’t let reserves dip below a certain point and indeed that we begin to
replenish these funds.
I’m pleased to report that our board has just passed a budget for FY 2014 that brings us very
close to these goals and positions us for a balanced budget in the next fiscal year, FY2015. We
did this by scouring our operation for further ways to save money and by focusing even more
deeply on our core priorities, those that add further value to what we do for you. To accomplish
this we also have had to make difficult and painful reductions in staff. We do not take staff
reductions lightly, and took this step only after making every other possible cut.
To be clear, our present challenge is one of cash, not long-term viability. United Synagogue has
more than $40 million in assets, and we are currently doing a cost-benefit analysis on converting
some of our extensive real estate assets into cash as a way to replenish our reserves.
As part of tightening our spending, we must defer spending this year on the KOACH program on
college campuses. As promised, we continued to fund the program last year, and we developed a
bold new plan for college outreach. But to be effective, college outreach requires millions of
dollars, monies which we have determined must come from philanthropy. We continue to have
meaningful discussions with potential partners and funders, but have not yet achieved the types
of commitments needed. So we are deferring the initiative until such time as we can fund and
implement a robust and meaningful college outreach program. We will, however, maintain six
college interns in partnership with Hillel, and will continue our Birthright trip for children with
We are also deferring our program of young adult micro-grants until USCJ’s overall financial
situation improves or funding can be secured. However, we are continuing our young adult
initiatives in other ways: through Sulam for Emerging Leaders, the Conservative Yeshiva, and
working with kehillot on engagement strategies. We are also in the process of forming a young
adult advisory board to the United Synagogue board of directors.
I must emphasize that in finding ways to save money, one thing we did not do was divert
resources from the areas we’ve done so much to improve and which directly serve our kehillot –
learning and kehilla strengthening.
I’m confident that the work we’ve now accomplished in cutting costs and expanding
philanthropy leaves us poised to become an even stronger partner for our member congregations.
Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center
Our 2011 strategic plan called for a blue-ribbon commission to complete a full strategic review
of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, the heart of Conservative Jewish life in Israel for North
Americans and an asset for Israel’s Masorti movement. This review was completed last year and
adopted by the USCJ board in June 2013.
The Fuchsberg Center includes the Conservative Yeshiva, residence halls for youth groups,
students and other visitors, two dining rooms, an auditorium, lecture halls, and an outdoor
amphitheater. Over 600 visitors participate in the center’s educational, yeshiva or
youth/adult programs, and 3,000 visitors from more than 75 Conservative/Masorti kehillot
worldwide visit the center each year.
Last year’s review called for the center to move toward becoming a financially self-sufficient
entity with its own CEO and board of directors. We have hired an accomplished, highly
respected Jewish educator and institution builder, Rabbi Loren Sykes, to be the center’s new
CEO. Now we are in the process of recruiting distinguished members to sit on a new Fuchsberg
board and creating a fundraising strategy that would launch the center on the road to financial
independence. In addition, Rabbi Sykes is planning exciting new initiatives to raise the center’s
profile and make it even more of a home in Israel for North American Conservative Jews.
I hope you and others from your kehilla are planning to come to the United Synagogue
Centennial in Baltimore this October. This event will be an unprecedented gathering of people
from all corners of the Conservative Jewish world – a chance to think, dream, and plan together
about meeting the needs of 21st century Jews. Featuring an inspirational Shabbaton, and a
compelling conference, it will give you, our congregational leaders, the ideas, tools, and
resources you need to thrive in the coming years. Take a moment to go online and learn more
about this extraordinary event, which promises to be a new beginning for us all.
More To Be Done
I wish I could tell you that we’ve accomplished everything we set out to do in our 2011 Strategic
Plan. But there is much more we hope to do in the next one to three years in order to further
strengthen Conservative kehillot. In addition to expanding our current programs, there are parts
of our mission – primarily seeding new kehillot and doing more to engage college-age students –
that have been temporarily put on hold as we work to raise needed funds.
I assure you we are doing everything in our power to raise these funds – and based on the
feedback we’ve received from donors, I’m optimistic we will succeed.
Thank you so much for your continuing support and partnership. Working together with a sense
of common purpose, we can, in the words of our 2011 vision statement, create the conditions for
a powerful and vibrant Jewish life in North America.
Please feel free to contact your kehilla relationship manager or myself with any questions or
Rabbi Steven Wernick
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
June 10, 2013