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USCJ CEO optimistic despite budget challenges

Tags: International

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says he feels “very enthusiastic and confident” about the organization’s future, despite a budget deficit reported by JTA last week.

According to the Jan. 8 article, the USCJ, the congregational arm of the Conservative movement, ran a cumulative budget deficit of more than $5 million over the past two years, including losses of $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million the previous year.

Rabbi Wernick attributed the losses to three one-time expenditures: the settlement of a longstanding lawsuit related to ownership of the movement’s Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem that cost $887,000; structural reorganization resulting in a large number of severance packages, and the cost of implementing a new strategic plan.

“I was hired [in 2009] to be a change agent and develop a strategic plan, and to completely retool United Synagogue to provide value to its member congregations and to the Jewish world. That costs money,” Rabbi Wernick told The CJN.

The reason for his confidence, he said, is that the “United Synagogue, over the last 20 years, was smart enough to create a significant reserve fund, and at this moment, we’ve been using it for what those funds are reserved for: a strategic turnaround and difficult times. The cash drawdown that has been used over the last two and three years has been tied directly to our strategic plan and to one extraordinary expense, a litigation judgment.”

The USCJ, which has an annual operational budget of approximately $11 million, is preparing a fact sheet for congregants and will post its most recent audit online after its next board meeting Jan. 17, the rabbi said. “We want people to know the truth, and every person I’ve spoken to who’s been involved in business knows that it costs money to do a turnaround… That’s a capital investment in the future.”

Rabbi Wernick told JTA that the organization hopes to reduce the deficit to $600,000 next year, and to balance the budget the following year.

Dues revenues from member congregations have been declining because USCJ hasn’t increased dues in the past five years, Rabbi Wernick said. In July, there will be an increase of $1 per household, and there is a new fundraising arm as well.

In Toronto, three Conservative synagogues left USCJ in 2008, and Beth Tikvah Synagogue followed suit two months ago.

The organization has more than 600 member congregations (with 20 in Canada), representing a 14 per cent drop over the past decade, according to JTA.

“Over the last several decades, it’s no secret that Conservative Judaism, numerically, has been in decline,” Rabbi Wernick said.

“Most of the decline over the last decade has been fuelled by synagogues that have closed, merged, or for financial reasons can no longer afford to stay affiliated.” He added that of those congregations that have left USCJ, Beth Tikvah is in the minority for leaving because they “weren’t finding value in their affiliation.”

Rabbi Philip Scheim, spiritual leader of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue said his sense is that the USCJ is one of many national Jewish organizations that are struggling, along with synagogues that are facing similar challenges.

“Society is moving away from the concept of membership,” he said.

“I believe that belonging to an organization like United Synagogue is reflective of individuals belonging to a shul… You’re doing this because you believe in what you’re supporting. You believe in the values an institution represents.”

Rabbi Scheim noted the value of the USCJ’s youth programs in particular. For USY members to meet with their peers from across North America at annual conventions is “very powerful,” he said.

“The truth is a major congregation is not necessarily going to need the services that a small congregation in a struggling community would need,” he said. “But I think it’s meaningful to be part of something greater than ourselves.”

Rabbi Scheim – who in 2009 was part of Hayom, a group of “rabbis who basically formed a protest group” seeking change within the USCJ – said that, more recently, “good efforts have been made,” including synagogue leadership development programs.

As well, Rabbi Scheim said he’s “thrilled” to be part of a large community of congregations that help each other at times of crisis and welcome each other’s members when they visit.

Irving Siegel, a past president of Thornhill’s Beit Rayim Synagogue and USCJ’s kehilla strengthening chair for eastern Canada, said that “United Synagogue remains the voice of Conservative Judaism here in the GTA and in North America… It still has the infrastructure for the Conservative movement. There’s nothing really like it within North America that represents Conservative Judaism.”

“The investments we’ve made are working,” Rabbi Wernick said. “More and more synagogues are now acting to be able to take advantage of the resources we have.”

In Canada, the USCJ is “working to provide more value,” including an attempt to reconnect with congregations that are former members or potential members, Rabbi Wernick said.

At a recent USCJ event in Toronto, approximately 10 synagogues were represented by more than 30 people, Siegel said. As well, a Toronto conference on “Sacred Strategies, The Journey from Functional to Visionary” is scheduled for April.

With files from JTA

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