Dues, Fundraising and the Shrinking United Synagogue

The USCJ never engaged in serious fundraising or, with a few notable exceptions, cultivated a pool of major donors. The main focus of its reorganization is to try to make up for decades of lost time in this arena.

by Rabbi Joshua Cahan

There have been many expressions of frustration about the drastic cuts implemeneted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) as part of its budgetary retrenchment. Many of the comments wonder why “the Movement” does not understand how programs like Koach and the Conservative Yeshiva ensure the future of the Conservative Movement. The critiques often begin with the assumption that the USCJ leadership is making the cuts because they think these programs are simply not worth the investment.

Actually, this criticism is somewhat misplaced, and it is essential to understand why. I am not among those who foresee the demise of the Conservative Movement or of the USCJ. I do, however, believe that entrusting Koach and the Conservative Yeshiva to the USCJ may have made their failure inevitable.

The key to this failure lies in the basic structure of the USCJ, which leaves no room for supporting these projects, a problem pointed out recently by my colleague Rabbi Ethan Linden. He notes that “the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is funded largely through assessments on synagogues.” Its budget comes from dues paid by member institutions rather than from fundraising and philanthropic support.

When I pay dues to an organization, I expect a certain Return on Investment (ROI). I expect to receive services and support commensurate with my contribution. If I don’t get that, I do not join. For the USCJ, this means that they cannot afford to divert their resources from services provided to synagogues because they must make those synagogues feel that they are getting sufficient value for their dues so it is worth paying for membership. Indeed, part of the rapidly escalating budget crisis is that more and more synagogues are deciding that USCJ membership is not worthwhile.

Here is what that has meant in practice: There were four main projects of the USCJ intended to provide resources to teenagers and young adults, of which three have essentially failed. Koach, the program to support Conservative communities on college campuses, was chronically underfunded and had much less overall impact than expected before being “suspended” indefinitely this month. The Conservative Yeshiva and its parent body, the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, always lived on a shoestring and a mounting debt. The new USCJ Strategic Plan has now forced it to raise its own funds, which led to the dismissal last month of its Rosh Yeshiva and spiritual center, Rabbi Shmuel Lewis. The third failure has gone mostly unnoticed – the Schechter Network, the organization that was meant to bind together Schechter schools much as the National Ramah office links Ramah camps, has been basically defunct for years, with one heroic laborer offering what support she can with zero funding or support. Individual Schechter schools have succeeded or failed entirely on their own. The exception to this rule of failure? USY, which continues its robust and highly successful youth programming. The reason is simple: USY is always well-funded because it is run through synagogues and is thus a key element of serving and supporting synagogues.

A crucial clarification: The USCJ Executive Board counts among its members strong supporters of each of these programs who are deeply pained to see them cut. They care about teaching Torah and supporting campus communities. In fact, the USCJ sponsored Koach, Fuchsberg and Schechter in the first place, despite their being outside of USCJ’s synagogue focus, in part because members of the USCJ leadership thought they were important and no other Movement institution was prepared to take them on. But because these projects were “ancillary” to its mission, they were never given the resources or nurturing that they needed to flourish.

In flush times, USCJ could divert some funds to non-synagogue programs that fit with the overall mission of Conservative Judaism. But those funds were essentially the leavings, the pocket change you drop in the tzedaka box. And in tougher times, even those funds dried up. USY, by contrast, remains fully funded because USY takes place within synagogues, and is therefore seen as a service provided, a reward of membership, an ROI. Indeed, for years the threat of losing USY has been the one force keeping many shuls within the USCJ.

This is not to demean anyone in the system. It is the conceptual frame that limits us – what is framed as dues generates an expectation of a Return on Investment. And so, despite their personal commitments, the leaders of the USCJ are left with no choice but to focus their limited resources on satisfying this expectation. Neglecting the synagogues, their funders, would threaten the USCJ’s very existence.

The flip side of being a dues-based organization is equally important: the USCJ never engaged in serious fundraising or, with a few notable exceptions, cultivated a pool of major donors. The main focus of its reorganization is to try to make up for decades of lost time in this arena.

Fundraising is fundamentally different from dues in two ways. First, donors give money to build up a cause or program that they see as having larger importance. They expect no direct personal benefit (political donations aside). Money raised to support a great program goes only to serving that cause. It is not one slice of an ever-shrinking pie of “general operating funds”. It is also scaled differently. When paying dues, I pay only what is required of me and expect not to pay more than anyone else. In contrast, donations reflect how important a project is to me – if the cause is worthy or personally meaningful, I will give more as a gift than I would be willing to pay as dues. And the pool of people willing to give is far wider than the population directly served by the project.

But here is perhaps the most crucial difference between organizations that fundraise and those that do not. Effective fundraisers articulate and convey a compelling vision for the mission and potential impact of the organization. They share that vision with stakeholders both large and small and get them excited and passionate about the work the organization does. The impact of this labor-intensive task goes far beyond the money raised. It builds an army of people who know what it does, who have a sense of why it is needed, and who will speak with pride about their support for it. It creates a Brand. Camp Ramah, another Conservative institution, is a good example of how passionate fundraising can help create a high quality product. A flowchart of the relationship between fundraising and healthy organizations might look like this: The urgent need to fundraise ? the careful cultivation of funders ? constant expression and refining of the vision ? innovation and growth ? engaged and passionate supporters (both donors and clients) ? a great Brand.

The USCJ has never been structured to do serious fundraising and has thus not traveled this growth spiral. This is, I’d argue, in large part responsible not only for its failure to properly fund its non-synagogue projects, but for the fact that the Conservative Movement (as opposed to the Ramah camps or the Jewish Theological Seminary as institutions) has such a poor reputation in the Jewish world. The “Movement” as an entity is associated most closely with the USCJ. Yet the USCJ has not hired leaders who had or clearly shared a vision of why it is so vital because organizationally it did not need them. It always hired managers to oversee its collecting and spending of dues.

So there has been no one to articulate the deep truths about Torah that Conservative Judaism represents, or to explain why a major investment in Conservative campus programming is the direct route to cultivating a new generation of young families to fill our shuls. The last-ditch effort to fundraise for Koach failed because it did not have a leader who could make potential funders believe that it had only begun to realize its full potential. There is no buzz in the US about the amazing Torah of the Conservative Yeshiva and the absolutely profound impact it has had on its students because no one was ever given the mandate to spread it. Many Schechter schools consider the Schechter name to be more of a liability than a credential, something that no Ramah Camp would ever say. It has been like Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life with no George Bailey.

There are many great and visionary leaders in the Conservative movement. And yet, the projects that are changing the face of contemporary Judaism that most reflect Conservative Torah, many of them led by Conservative rabbis, are happening mostly outside the confines of Movement institutions – Mechon Hadar, IKAR, Women of the Wall, the Shefa Network, and Avodah, to name just a few. These institutions market themselves – they loudly proclaim that they have something important to say, and they say it.

It is, I am convinced, a great blessing that this era of reliance on the USCJ for all things Conservative is over. Any non-synagogue project that we hope to see succeed will need to start with leaders who will go out to spread the gospel about their work – to make skeptics not only into funders but into believers in both the value and potential impact of their work. It will take a new kind of working together – an understanding that each project’s success is everyone’s success, because the more dynamic, transformative projects we build, the more potential funders and, more essentially, potential consumers will come to believe that what we are trying to build is truly indispensable to a rich Jewish future.

Rabbi Joshua Cahan has taught Rabbinics at the Schechter Westchester High School since receiving his Ph.D. in Talmud from JTS. He founded and directed the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for 8 years. He is also part of a group of alumni of the Conservative Yeshiva working to help envision its post-USCJ future.