US Conservative synagogue group tightens belt in restructuring effort

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to eliminate its 15 "regional" office to create six "district" offices.

uscj (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
NEW YORK - Facing a tough economy and dwindling membership rolls, the umbrella group for Conservative synagogues announced a major overhaul in its structure. The reorganization of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism eliminates several positions in its New York office. With renewed attention on a larger youth department, it will eliminate its 15 "regional" office to create six "district" offices. The organization will also focus on "seamless programming" for post-college Conservative Jews, many of whom lose touch with their congregations until they start families. The restructuring is pending final approval from the organization's board, which is set to meet Sunday. The goal is to decentralize United Synagogue and make it more smaller and more flexible. "Our financial situation, made perilous by the economic downturn and worsened by the changing demographics and expectations of our movement, demanded that we take this action," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, two months into his stint as United Synagogue's executive vice president and CEO. "We have to adjust to new realities." Indeed, United Synagogue has long been accused by synagogues and congregants of being out of touch with its constituents, and lacking accountability to dues-paying congregations. As a result, United Synagogue has been shrinking in recent years. There are currently 665 congregations in the United Synagogue, compared to 700 last year. "A lot of that shrinkage is due to the credibility issue today," Wernick said. "Those synagogues have not stopped defining themselves as Conservative synagogues," he noted. "But for whatever reason, they are not affiliating with United Synagogue." On top of that, the economy has taken a toll. According to Wernick, United Synagogue's budget took a 12 percent - or $1.3 million - hit. At the end of the day, the organization realized a $9.2m. net revenue, down from an expected $10.5m. "That's the economic pinch, which is brought upon by the pervasive feeling that United Synagogue has been ineffective and by just sheer economics," he said. The proposed adjustment focuses on the organization's programming for children, teenagers, college students and young adults by combining the programs into one department. In broad strokes, the change eliminates 15 "regions" and creates six "districts." "Each of those districts will have staffing that will be primarily working from virtual offices and will have the type of skill set to help us achieve the goals," Wernick said. "So we're going to decentralize United Synagogue in the sense that rather than having a bunch of programmatic activities in New York, we're going to disperse the activity." By providing a more "client-centered relationship," United Synagogue hopes its more flexible staff will be able to address the needs of congregations. "There are congregations that are demanding change," Wernick said. Wernick, who said he anticipated the reorganization to take place in stages, conceded that the first part would be "very difficult." In particular, United Synagogue let several staffers go. "We regret having to do that, but we had no choice," he said. He expects to be able to make new hires next year to address the new needs of the organization.