The Reports of United Synagogue’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

by Howard Wohl

eJewishPhilanthropy has thoughtfully provided a forum for discussion of current trends and highly important issues. A number of recent articles have commented on current challenges faced by organized Jewish institutions in the USA. The articles discuss new ideas and new emerging organizations and often describe historical legacy organizations as if they are ‘dinosaurs’. One such article by Rabbi Joshua Cahan is typical of this when it refers to “the Shrinking” United Synagogue.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “the reports of United Synagogue’s death have been greatly exaggerated”.

United Synagogue is emerging as a powerful organization that is taking on a wide-ranging agenda. It has expanded and greatly improved upon its Sulam program for lay leaders and is addressing issues facing both small and large Congregations. It has issued a thoughtful Education Paradigm, offered meaningful support for the Fuchsberg Center and it has just announced receipt of a two million dollar grant to support the Schechter Network. While tough decisions are being made, fundraising capabilities are being geared up and enthusiasm is building.

I write this as someone who has generally been critical of Jewish not-for-profits for their inertia and unwillingness to face up to changing realities. My background is that of a businessman who has turned his attention to improving the quality of our Jewish organizations so they can better respond to the needs of the Jewish People. My wife Diane and I are both engaged through dedication of our personal time and our financial support. We share a passion for the welfare of the Jewish People, the strength of our Jewish Communal organizations and hope through these efforts that we can assist American, if not World, Jews to embark upon their individual Jewish journeys.

The context is all too familiar; today we are all Jews by Choice. We now live, or at least most of us choose to do so, in free societies that allow us to live a Jewish life in a modern society. This has led many individuals, Jews and non-Jews, to question the need for any religious affiliation with a strong increase in the percentage of individuals who answer “None” to the question of what their affiliation is. At the same time, societal changes have led to, inter alia, growth in intermarriage, heightened forms of individualism, a blurring of the boundaries between Jewish and Western values and a change in women’s roles in society.

Many observers see this as a Manichaean division between good and evil, black and white. Extremists on both sides, Christian, Moslem and Jewish, see this as a choice between living what some suggest is ‘authentic’, a religious existence characterized by insularity and acceptance of “fundamental values”; others believe that the foundational sources need not be taken literally but instead we should follow the ethical imperatives of each religion.

I see us as a People who have chosen to be exemplars to the World. As such, Jewish values are central to our lives and we need to adapt our institutions so they can be inspiring, relevant and meaningful. This is where the non-Haredi Jewish world has failed, by not providing inspiring leadership they have allowed Chabad and other non-normative organizations to claim the mantel of authenticity and garner support from those who are unaware of what Chabad stands for and against.

Yet there are organizations that get it and are succeeding. United Synagogue is one of those that has made impressive changes to its structure, is making a real impact and has gained significant attention and new funding. This is one of a number of Jewish Organizations that have been transformed by capable professional and lay leadership. A great example of recreating Jewish organizations is BBYO. BBYO was founded in 1923 and was part of B’nai B’rith for eighty years. In the 1920s Jews saw themselves as outsiders excluded from many organized activities, be they golf clubs or fraternities. BBYO provided a space for Jewish teenagers to join together and in so doing to mature, develop leadership skills and meet other Jewish teenagers. This remarkable insight led to hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens enjoying life-long relationships and fond memories. In the post-War era Jews began to climb the economic ladder and left the ‘old neighborhood’, generally for the suburbs, establishing hundreds of new Conservative and Reform synagogues. Many Jewish organizations failed to respond to a new generation which was more comfortable interacting with non-Jews, more American in their attitude and open to technological advances. By the 1990s BBYO had been in such precipitous decline that its very existence was being called into question.

Charles and Lynn Schusterman saw BBYO as a great brand that could be harnessed by new leadership to ideas relevant to 21st Century Jewish teenagers. Today’s Jewish teenagers are more diverse, by religious background (about half of them having only one Jewish parent), by sexual identity, by how they see themselves as Americans with a sense of inclusiveness and a fierce belief in their individual power to make change. The first major hire that the new BBYO board made seemed to be a roll of the dice. Matt Grossman, 32 years old with no managerial experience, was chosen to be its lead professional. I am proud that I served (and continue to serve) as a lay leader and mentor to Matt. What a difference new leadership made! Ten years ago barely 10,000 Jewish teens were engaged in BBYO; today there are more than 40,000 enthusiastic teens in North America and teens in England, Israel and Bulgaria, to name but a few, have jumped on the BBYO bandwagon. BBYO’s staff is highly motivated and the organization operates on a par with top for-profit companies. This change was precipitated by a Change Agent who had a bold vision of how to provide the space that teenagers still require along with the opportunity to feel Jewish pride, to connect with Jewish traditions, to be empowered, to provide community service, to advocate for the democratic, Jewish State of Israel and to even learn more about Jewish texts in an open and respectful environment.

Many of America’s most well-known Jewish organizations are umbrella groups such as Hillel and United Synagogue. In both instances I think of them as similar to a Franchise Operation. Sometimes that works very well as in the case of McDonald’s, where a well-regarded brand allows the Company to demand high standards from franchisees. This encourages the sense of all working for the Common Good. Unfortunately, most umbrella groups lack this value proposition and end up with finger-pointing and name calling. Hillel is one example of an international organization with hundreds of franchises all over the globe. Hillel’s Board (on which Diane served for two decades) has realized this disconnect and the lack of a value proposition and its new lead professional (I have been privileged to be on that Search Committee) will have a clear mandate to get all boats rowing in the same direction. I hope to see positive change there as well.

United Synagogue has received a clear mandate as well. Leading congregational Rabbis had created a group, Hayom, to advocate for significant change at United Synagogue. It was clear that changing demographics, economic strife, lack of lay leadership and declining capabilities had forced them to demand change today. The USCJ Board chose Rabbi Steven Wernick to be the Change Agent who would be entrusted with the task of reinventing United Synagogue. United Synagogue’s board did the unthinkable, reducing its board from 175 to 45 and set board standards that require members to honor their oath to the Jewish People and to Judaism.

Rabbi Wernick asked me to join the board and in the fourteen months that I have been engaged I see a new sense of purpose at United Synagogue. Rabbi Wernick has changed the culture, boldly bringing in talented professionals with records of success who are empowered to pursue the most sensible, most effective and most efficient approaches to strengthening Kehillot. Yes, the culture is changing for the better. Tough decisions are being made as United Synagogue fulfills its pledge to reinvent itself. You don’t have to accept my observations, Hayom issued a statement that said in part, “Now, two and a half years into implementation, we are pleased with the progress United Synagogue has made toward becoming the organization our kehillot need it to be. What impresses us is the seriousness and dedication with which the USCJ staff and board have worked to effect major change, and how much has been accomplished in a relatively short time”. They also wrote, “a number of solid achievements that we particularly applaud … are: the successful restructuring of the USCJ board and a more responsive form of governance; the growth of outside philanthropy to raise revenues from sources beyond congregational dues; a streamlined, more efficient operation that includes impressive new talent; and above all, a focus on the core mission of strengthening and connecting Conservative kehillot, congregations.”

High praise indeed. New funders have sensed this and have pledged two million dollars to ensure that Schechter Day Schools succeed, money has been pledged to support the Fuchsberg Center and others have offered significant challenge grants. For the first time, United Synagogue is in full fundraising mode. There is a growing recognition that Jews want to be part of a movement that stands firmly on our People’s principles and beliefs without equivocation. It is a continuing affirmation of what our People have always been, a light unto other Nations and a Chosen People with a sacred purpose and mission.

So, there still remain critics who have not heard the news (that is why I am happy to pen this). So as a lay leader I welcome all to join us as we celebrate United Synagogue’s Centennial Celebration. It will be a conversation among all who care about the future of the Jewish Community and the Jewish People. Be prepared to discuss and debate where we are and where we should be headed. Join us as we stand proudly on the cusp of a new Jewish Era that further cements the presence and promise of Jewish life.

Howard Wohl is a philanthropist involved in a number of charitable organizations. Howard spent more than forty years leading two successful businesses. His views are based on decades of involvement and he is proud to be associated with organizations undergoing change and working for the welfare of the Jewish People.