United Synagogue’s Strategic Plan
by Joanne Palmer
MARCH 2011 – It sounds melodramatic to say that the fate of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism hangs on the vote that will be taken at its board meeting on March 13, but is it melodrama if it’s true?
In a process that began two years ago, an ad hoc commission made up, for much of its existence, of six United Synagogue representatives (five lay leaders plus the executive vice president) and six rabbis and lay leaders representing HaYom, an organization created to counter what its members saw as United Synagogue’s inadequacies, hired consultants and met to craft a strategic plan that would map out United Synagogue’s future.
To be fair, as United Synagogue representatives point out, the problems that United Synagogue has encountered are not unique to it or all of its own making. The Conservative movement as a whole is often reported to be in trouble, the result of a still-to-be-fully-disentangled conflation of changes in demographics, economics, and cultural assumptions. It remains the center and anchor of the Jewish world; when it is true to itself it is committed to acknowledge and work to balance the tension between tradition and change, to live both in the world of our ancestors and the one that surrounds us now. But that’s a taut and narrow rope to walk, and sometimes we shake and it looks like we might fall over. (We haven’t yet.)
The world has changed, and United Synagogue, like many other institutions, both inside and outside the Jewish world, or for that matter the religious world, has not kept pace with that change. But the forces that gave birth to it in the first place – the need for a central institution to provide support and guidance and knit members together – remain, even as the goals and the means at our disposal to meet them have changed.
So, in response to dissatisfaction with United Synagogue but guided as well by a belief in the necessity of the existence of either United Synagogue or an organization much like it, HaYom formed itself and presented United Synagogue with its demands. The two groups began to work together. From the beginning, everyone agreed that a plan would be devised and presented to United Synagogue’s board, which would have to vote it either up or down, with no chance for amendments. If it is voted in, the hard work of implementing it will begin. If it is voted down, HaYom has said that it will take the plan directly to the congregations and implement it itself.
The commission, now grown to include representatives of other Conservative movement bodies and shepherded by consultants Dr. Jacob Ukeles and Dr. Steven M. Cohen, came out with the first draft of the plan late in January. Since then, United Synagogue’s executive vice president and CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, has been touring the continent, presenting the plan to Conservative Jews, both in person and through webinars, often joined by other United Synagogue or HaYom representatives. His goal is to explain the plan and the needs it meets. The commission has been soliciting responses to the plan, both by email and as publicly readable comments on our website. One of the webinars was recorded and anyone who is interested is invited to watch it.
By design, the strategic plan focuses on large, abstract ideas. For the most part, implementation planning has been left for the next stage of the process. “For now, we’re flying at 300,000 feet, mapping out the contours of the landscape,” says one of its two co-chairs, United Synagogue representative Dr. Jacob Finkelstein. Dr. Finkelstein, who is a professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine, and radiation oncology at the University of Rochester’s school of medicine and dentistry, is a member of United Synagogue’s board. He has been encouraged by the way the members of the commission, who began by distrusting each other, have grown into a team. This, he hopes, provides a model for the rest of the movement.
According to the plan, the new United Synagogue must restructure itself to work toward four main goals. It must focus on its core functions; build new models of membership, participation, leadership, and governance; create an effective regional presence, and expand its financial base and use the funds it earns or raises in different ways than it does now. The plan expands on those four goals, but there is room for much more expansion, definition, and detail in the implementation plan to come.
The details that we do know show a new emphasis on the importance of strengthening individual synagogues, and redefines United Synagogue membership to go beyond the traditional congregational model. The plan revises the language United Synagogue uses; it now calls synagogues and other centers of Jewish prayer and life “kehillot,” saying that the Hebrew term makes clear that each is a sacred community. It reaches out to independent minyanim, arguing that most tend to be Conservative in all but name, the spiritual home of many of our most Jewishly educated grown children, offering them a renewed relationship with the movement. It stresses the primacy of education and envisions a seamless system that takes Conservative Jews at least from early childhood through young adulthood, and eventually through the rest of their lives, and does so with the active help of the rest of the Conservative movement. It talks about new ways to finance itself that rely less on dues and more on philanthropists; the plans for its new board include people who have the means and the inclination to make large donations as well as people labeled “thought leaders.” It redefines the work of staffers in United Synagogue’s district offices and of the lay leaders with whom they work.
The plan still is fluid, at least to some extent, and its creators continue to welcome responses and insight from anyone interested enough to offer them. But on March 13, the board of trustees has the responsibility of voting on it. A great deal of thought, emotion, good will, and hope has gone into it; we all hope that once it is thoroughly fleshed out it will become the blueprint to a newly flourishing future.