Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Conservative trouble

Threatening Rebellion, Synagogues Demand Conservative Movement Reforms
By Anthony Weiss
Published March 17, 2009.

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A group of presidents of Conservative synagogues is threatening rebellion and even possibly secession if the Conservative movement’s congregational arm does not make prompt and dramatic structural changes, the Forward has learned.

In a letter addressed to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s president, professional head and board, the synagogue presidents accuse the organization of being “opaque,” disorganized and even vengeful, and demand serious changes within 90 days.

“We believe that the organization has become insular, unresponsive, and of diminishing value to its member congregations,” the congregational presidents write in the letter, which was obtained by the Forward but has not yet been sent.

In the letter, the signatories hint that if their demands are not met promptly, their synagogues may ultimately withdraw support for USCJ.

Those behind the letter say that a dozen congregation presidents have committed to signing so far and that they ultimately hope to attract anywhere between 25 and 50 synagogues. They said they expect the letter to be sent around March 23.
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The letter surfaces a little more than a week after a separate coalition of rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents from 25 of the largest Conservative congregations in the country, calling itself HaYom, also sent a challenging letter to USCJ’s leadership. That letter, though less specific in its demands, expressed similar dissatisfaction with USCJ and requested a meeting with the organization’s leadership. Such a meeting has been scheduled for March 19.

Word of the latest letter also comes just after USCJ announced that it had selected Rabbi Steven Wernick, a pulpit rabbi at a prominent Philadelphia-area synagogue, to be its new executive vice president, pending contract negotiations and board approval. Both HaYom and the presidents’ letter criticized the USCJ search committee that worked to fill the position as being too secretive.

Robert L. Rubin, the primary drafter of the presidents’ letter and treasurer of Adas Israel Congregation, a large and influential Washington, D.C., synagogue, said he began work on the letter after calling around to other congregations beginning this past summer and finding that none of them — large, medium or small — were pleased with the services they received from USCJ. Adas Israel’s president, Edward Kopf, has signed the letter.

The letter levels a series of charges against USCJ, including that its actions are “controlled by a relative few,” that “there appears to be a culture of entitlement and intolerance on the part of the professional and lay leadership,” that complaints are met with “a fervent attempt to quash dissent” and that “the official governing bodies are so large and/or so insular that they are unresponsive or unworkable.”

It also requests a number of changes in USCJ’s policies. The letter demands, among other things, that USCJ publish its recent budgets and the contract of its current executive vice president, hold a series of open discussions for congregations to voice their concerns, and shrink and reorganize its governing boards. The letter sets deadlines for action on these items ranging from 30 to 90 days.

In response to a description of the letter, USCJ’s international president, Raymond Goldstein, said that he agreed with a number of the concerns raised, including the need for greater transparency and the description of the organization’s governance structure as unwieldy. He said that he and others at USCJ had worked to try to address these issues. He also said that a number of the demands, such as posting the budget online and holding town hall meetings, seemed reasonable. But Goldstein strongly disagreed with the assertion that USCJ tries to quash dissent.

Although some in the Conservative movement have expressed hope that the selection of Wernick could set a new direction for USCJ, it seems unlikely that it will satisfy this letter’s signatories. The letter says that the professional head of USCJ should be a “Chief Operating Officer with proven successful organizational skills,” and Rubin said that the ideal would be someone with significant experience running a large, multi-branch organization.

Wernick, 41, has been a pulpit rabbi since he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1996. He is currently the spiritual leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa.

Goldstein called the letter’s position on the role of the top professional “terribly parochial” and said that the search committee had taken management skills into account in choosing Wernick.

Rubin said that this letter was written separately from the HaYom letter, and that he sees the two efforts as distinct but complementary. He said that HaYom’s concerns about the movement are broader and more philosophical, while those expressed in the presidents’ letter are more concrete and short-term.

Even as the presidents’ letter expresses a desire to work amicably with current USCJ leadership, it also lays out potentially drastic consequences if substantial progress is not made. The signatories write that they have “chosen to continue our support, both financial and otherwise, for the next 90 days.”

“Barring acceptable results within the next 90 days, a next step would be to energize the larger USCJ constituency to demand change on or before the convention in the fall,” the letter continues, referring to USCJ’s biennial convention in December. “Finally, assessing our continued commitment to the existing organization, while an option, is our choice of last resort.”

While breaking off ties with USCJ would be a dramatic step, it would not be without recent precedent. In April of 2008, three large Conservative congregations in Toronto withdrew from USCJ, complaining that they were not receiving adequate services.

Goldstein said he was open to working with the letter writers but didn’t like their confrontational tone.

“I would look forward to partnering with these people rather than have them feel it necessary to threaten,” he said.

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