Streamlining operation

Conservative movement restructures USY, cutting its regional framework

Organization leaders say move is necessary in light of limited resources, look to focus on 'leadership training, Torah learning, and a deep connection to Israel'

United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group, is undergoing a dramatic restructuring, cutting out its regional framework and leaving only its individual chapters and overarching North American umbrella. The removal of this middle tier of the youth movement is meant as a cost-cutting measure, the group told stakeholders in an email on Wednesday.

This is the latest contraction of the Conservative movement’s youth programs in recent years amid shrinking membership and budgets. USY in particular has been shrinking for several years, with chapters and regions merging. Late last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced that it was suspending, at least for a year, its Nativ gap-year program, and earlier this year, USY merged its Israel trips with Ramah.

By doing away with regions, with their boards and convention chairs, USY will be removing a number of leadership positions for Conservative teens — a potential area of concern as it relates to the so-called “leadership pipeline” for the movement. (The regional boards who are being elected this spring will retain their positions for next year through this transition.)

In a letter, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the USCJ, and Julie Marder, who was named senior director of International USY last week, told stakeholders that the new streamlined USY would focus on “the things that work — leadership training, Torah learning, and a deep connection to Israel.”

Blumenthal told eJewishPhilanthropy that the Conservative movement determined that slimming down the organization and focusing on key areas was the best way forward.

“I think that all models are changing. This process was a result of a lot of listening to our stakeholders, as well as our prototypes for these kinds of programs, and we expect that’s going to continue. We discovered some of the things that work. We’re going to grow and build those. We expect that the program will grow and deepen its impact,” Blumenthal told eJP.

“We went through an extensive set of listening sessions, talking with teens, parents, youth staff and professionals and with our alumni, to learn both what was most impactful for them, and also what the biggest needs are within the teen community. Based on that, we’re structuring what we hope will be the deepest and most effective impact,” he added.

Blumenthal said USCJ did not intend to lay off its USY regional directors but would instead transition them to other roles within the organization.

Blumenthal and Marder acknowledged that removing the movement’s regions, which divide the U.S. and Canada into 15 smaller chunks with regional leaders, events and conventions, was the “biggest shift” in the new restructuring and the most likely to draw criticism.

“Some of you are going to be sad and upset about that. We get it. We love our regions and will always think of ourselves as CHUSY and Seaboard USYers,” they wrote. “However, the reality is that the regional structure spreads our limited resources far too thin and it shows.”

The USCJ said the decision to cut the regional framework was necessary as it relied on “synagogue-level staffing that no longer exists in many communities, and it has not generated critical masses of teen participation in some areas, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In place of the regions, USY will work to strengthen individual chapters — often individual large synagogues or groups of synagogues — and expand its international, movement-wide activities.

This includes increasing the number of international conventions from its current one to at least six each year. “This approach stems directly from teens’ telling us they want the chance to connect internationally, which used to be limited to one convention each winter,” they wrote. “We will also continue to offer our flagship international summer programs and exciting new travel adventures.”

Blumenthal said the organization would offer scholarships to help cover the additional travel costs associated with international — as opposed to more local — conventions.

“We have scholarship funds that we’ve always used to help students with travel, and we will continue to deploy those to bring folks from all over North America to these various [conventions],” he said.

In their letter, Blumenthal and Marder said the organization would also expand its digital programming to virtually bring together teens from different parts of the country “for studying Jewish texts and deeper conversation in areas such as Israel education and advocacy, standing up to antisemitism, preparing for the college campus, and social activism.”

Blumenthal told eJP that while the regional board and convention chair positions are being removed, the movement hopes to retain these teen leaders in different capacities. 

“Just as those leaders helped plan regional programs, we will engage them in planning our international conventions, immersive programs and leadership experiences,” he said. “They will determine the types of activism they want to be engaged with and help us design educational programs. They will help us determine both the structures and the programs that will implement this new plan.”

Blumenthal and Marder said the organization would also provide additional funds to chapters and communities during this transition. 

“We are allocating funds to subsidize these efforts heavily so USYers can engage deeply through conventions and immersive experiences that will connect them to one another, the Conservative/Masorti Movement and their Judaism,” they wrote.

Blumenthal told eJP that the funding is coming “from the dues that our congregations pay to USCJ, as well as philanthropy from our alumni and other supporters.”

Haley Cohen contributed to this report.