TORONTO — The transition that will incorporate the Canadian region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), along with three of its nearby U.S. counterparts, into a new entity called the NorthEast district is officially underway, according to an update issued by the umbrella group.
The reorganization is expected to be complete by the end of 2010 and is part of a larger restructuring of the UCSJ that will consolidate 15 regions into six districts. The purpose is to save money and hopefully improve service delivery by sharing resources over a wider geographic area.
But the move comes amid concerns in Canada that the USCJ hasn’t been sufficiently attuned to the needs of its Canadian shuls, and after a number of local synagogues broke away from the group in 2008 partly for that reason.
The Canadian region includes 16 congregations from Ontario to the east coast, and will be combined with the old Connecticut Valley, Empire (New York State, western Massachusetts, and southern Vermont) and New England regions. There are some two dozen USCJ-affiliated congregations in Canada in total.
As part of the transition, Albany, N.Y.-based Howard Goldberg, formerly assistant director of the USCJ’s Canadian region, became assistant director of NorthEast district on Jan. 18. He’s the main contact person for Canadian region congregations. Aaron Kischel, who is based in Boston and served as the New England region’s executive director for many years, is the new district director.
As well, Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, who is based in Toronto’s USCJ office, has been appointed “consultant,” a newly created position to serve the needs of congregations here.
Rabbi Gorman will also continue as director of youth activities. Kadima and United Synagogue Youth will “remain as they are for the foreseeable future,” the communique said, referring to the geographic boundaries for the two youth groups.
Paul Kochberg, president of the Canadian region, told The CJN last week that “more and more,” the USCJ – the umbrella for some 700 North American congregations – is becoming sensitive to Canadian needs, aside from occasional use of American-focused terminology.
“They sometimes talk in terms of ‘national,’ as opposed to ‘international,’ ” he said. “We just continue to correct them.”
However, he described two recent glitches as being more serious.
On Jan. 13, USCJ members were informed about a Haiti relief fund. An online payment option was available only through a U.S. website – not through the Canadian office with tax receipts available for Canadians, until the omission was pointed out to them.
The previous day, a press release was sent from Goldberg’s office urging congregations and congregants to write to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, to express concerns about the issue of women being allowed to pray and wear a tallit at the Kotel. Miriam Ziv, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, wasn’t mentioned until a later e-mail, after Kochberg brought the faux pas to the USCJ’s attention.
Joanne Palmer, USCJ’s director of communications, said that Oren had spoken about the issue at the USCJ’s biennial convention, and that was the reason people were asked to write to him, although that was not explicitly stated at the time.
Kochberg said that the organization’s leaders, including executive vice-president and CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick, who started in those positions last summer, are “mindful of making sure that Canadian synagogues are recognized as being Canadian. They’re mindful of the difference and they want to be sure that notwithstanding this merger, the Canadian nature of our Canadian synagogues will not be lost.”
The most recent communique from Goldberg’s office stated, “During a time when a number of regional offices across North America are being closed… the decision of the USCJ international leadership to retain a USCJ office in Canada, and specifically in Toronto, is a demonstration of the importance that USCJ places on the role of Canadian congregations within USCJ.”
Kochberg said that “synagogues here and in the States essentially need the same services – help with fundraising, help with membership development and retention, and leadership development.”
Wendy Schneider, co-president of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ont., agrees.
“We have an ongoing and very positive relationship with USCJ,” she said. “I’ve been very satisfied with the level of service I’ve gotten.”
She cited help with the synagogue’s website, which uses the organization’s server; two USCJ listservs that she is on; and ongoing support from Goldberg when the synagogue was undergoing staffing changes. “I don’t think we could have done it without him,” she said.
Schneider is aware that other congregations have had issues over services received in relation to fees paid. Had her synagogue not obtained support from Goldberg, “maybe we would have felt that way. too,” she said.
When Toronto’s Adath Israel Congregation, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue and Beth Tzedec Congregation left the USCJ in 2008, they cited mainly financial concerns, but also philosophical differences.
Mark Marmer, a board member at Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Thornhill, Ont., doesn’t believe philosophical differences are important when it comes to the USCJ, which is primarily focused on delivering services, not mandating theology.
“Synagogues operate autonomously [with respect to implementing a particular religious philosophy], but I think that synagogues need these services,” he said.
As co-chair of Shaar Shalom’s membership committee, Marmer received assistance from Goldberg both through in-person visits and via Skype. He added that the USCJ has changed its approach: “Instead of just passively waiting for synagogues to call them and say, ‘I need this,’ they’re trying to make one-on-one personal connections with the synagogues.”