Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Visioning Future Success: The Next Iteration of a Central Organization for Conservative Judaism and Kehillot

As the USCJ prepares to vote on its new strategic plan prepared in conjunction with the Hayom Coalition, I feel compelled to share a vision of what a central organization designed to insure the future of Conservative Judaism could look like. We know that people are moved by and energized by vision which then leads to support for strategy and tactics. By no means do I believe that I have all or even any of the answers nor is this intended to be a comprehensive or complete response; rather, it is meant to spur a public discussion not about the past or the present but about the future. Finally, there is nothing here that is great chochma - most of what is suggested here reflects what is going on in the best of the business and not-for-profit world. By focusing on what is already working, constantly evaluating it, and driving creativity and innovation, the future of our movement can be secured.

I welcome any and all comments and suggestions and hope this will begin a respectful and intense discussion about the future of the central body of North American Conservative Judaism.

As we move into our next stage, I believe that to succeed, we and our central organization must:

  • Change our name.
  • Articulate a set of core values for the Movement.
  • Provide multiple visions for what soulful, meaningful, compelling, intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, mitzvot-based kehillot can be by highlighting the best that exist today and envisioning new models for tomorrow
  • Provide high quality marketing materials to support our brand on the local level
  • Negotiate contracts with consultants in each region of the country to support our kehillot in areas where they need it: marketing, hachnassat orchim, budget and finance, mediation, legal, etc.
  • Be the highest quality provider of media based learning for our constituents at every level using existing platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and whatever may develop in the future.
  • Support early childhood and young family inreach and outreach education programs
  • Lead the best middle school and high school youth programs directed toward building the next generation of thoughtful, committed, observant, creative, progressive Jews
  • Invest heavily in supporting our college students by focusing on campuses with large populations of our students
  • Work with post-college students, known by some as the lost generation or often referred to as Emerging Adults, to develop and implement models that will keep them connected, involved, learning and growing in the context of the values of our Movement.
  • Make The Fuchsburg Center in Israel the pinnacle of experiential and intensive Jewish learning for high school students, college students, graduate students and Adults.

A branding expert that I know often quotes Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who when asked what the band wanted to accomplish responded:

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

We are faced with the challenge of determining or at least clarifying what it is that we are about, what we uniquely do and, in actuality, accomplishing it at the highest level of quality.

Changing Our Name

The name United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is not a core value - it is a name, one that is no longer viable. Rightly or wrongly, the name is now a hindrance to our moving forward with success. There are many examples of companies and organizations changing their name as part of a process of reinvention. Whatever sentimental attachment there is to the name USCJ, it must be replaced with a new name as soon as possible.

One possibility for a new name for our central organization is Masorti Kehillot International of North America (MKI-NA). The name Masorti is already in use by our sister movements outside North America and adopoting it in combination with a preference for Kehillot instead of Synagogues, along with identifying a specific region, starts to unify the brand.

Many other possibilities exist. What is important it that the current name is not an asset but a liability. I am by no means committed to the name MKI-NA. There are certainly disadvantages to it such as the fact that the individual words may not resonate with our kehillot. I do, however, use the name MKI-NA for the rest of this document to be consistent in dreaming about the future, and as a way to demonstrate the urgent need to change our name.

Articulating Core Values

In Built to Last, Jim Collins argues that one of the reasons why some companies achieve true long-term success is because they have a clear, unchanging set of core values. They stress innovation not by changing those values but by innovating because of them. To know where we want to go, we must have a compass that provides unwavering, value-based direction, core values that will not change. MKI-North America will join with all of the other central institutions of the movement to articulate our movement’s core values. MKI-North America core values could be:

  • Neshama - We are committed to investing in the individual souls of our congregants. We recognize that before the intellect is engaged, we must reach the soul of each person
  • Kehilla - Building and strengthening sacred, spiritual community is what we do. It is the point where we nourish individuals, connect them to others, and engage them all with The Divine.
  • God - The point of strengthening the individual and community is to be constantly in the Divine-Human dialogue, working to make the world a worthy dwelling place for the Shekhina.
  • Talmud Torah - Soulful, serious, creative study of our sacred texts at all ages and stages brings us into direct dialogue with each other and with God. Torah, broadly defined, is the compass that directs us to a perfect world.
  • Mitzvot - Our Covenant with God brings obligations and rights. Mitzvot are the path to perfecting the world described by our tradition. They are the glue that binds the individual neshama to the community and to God. The kehilla manifests this value by building a variety of rich communities throughout the week and year with a central focus on Shabbat communities of living and learning.
  • Egalitarianism - MKI-North America believes that egalitarianism, however it is manifest in each kehilla, is central to the future of the Jewish people.
  • Hachnassat Orchim - Not only a core value but a mitzvah, MKI-North American Kehillot will be the models for making people feel welcome.
  • Israel - Our ancestral and national home, MKI-North America is committed to the right of the Jewish People to have our established state in our ancestral homeland. We revel and take pride in its success, share our heartfelt critiques out of a desire to strengthen her as a democratic home for the entire Jewish people and for all of her citizens, and make it an essential center of Torah for our constituents.

This list can be changed, lengthened or shortened. It is presented here as an example and as a discussion trigger. Once agreed upon by the entire MKI-North America and the other movement central institutions, however, it cannot change. Tactics and strategies for imbuing kehillot with these values may change but the values themselves must be timeless.

Best Current Practices and New Directions

MKI-NA will devote much of its time to identifying best practices in and for our kehillot, those that are genuinely unique, that promote strong participation, that succeed in building the strongest sense of kehilla, and that bring fulfillment and growth to our members. MKI-NA will work to encourage new models of creative, compelling, kehillot that can be adopted by current or new kehillot. MKI-NA will create program incubators to set aside time to develop new models of belonging and contributing. MKI-NA will be expected to be honest and critical of programs that do not meet commonly established standards of excellence while actively promoting those that do.

The Brand

MKI-North America is the protector and promoter of the brand, in this case, thoughtful, soulful, intellectually honest, Torah and Mitzvah based, egalitarian Jewish community. MKI-North America will provide a clear and thorough brand strategy to support all of its kehillot. Moreover, MKI-North America will provide the highest quality national marketing materials to support that brand on the local level, materials that can be tailor-made to the needs of each constituent kehillah. This is one of the main tasks of a central organization.

Constituent Kehilla Support

It is our belief that MKI-NA should focus on doing and supporting in our constituent kehillot what it uniquely does, do it at the highest quality level and subcontract the rest. Therefore, MKI-NA, working in partnership with our kehillot, will develop a list of common areas where kehillot require support from outside consultants. MKI-NA will then negotiate contracts for consultants in those areas for each region of the country. Such areas may include but are not limited to:

  1. Fundraising
  2. Budget and Finance
  3. Mediation
  4. Marketing
  5. Hachnassat Orchim or Excellence in Support
  6. Leadership Development
  7. Succession Planning

In each of the defined regions, MKI-NA will negotiate prices for congregations based on membership units. When kehillot require consulting services in these areas, they will be able to call and set up appointments with prices already agreed upon. Regional staff will serve as liaisons between the consultants, the kehillot, and MKI-NA.

Regional or distric staff (whatever the final terminology may be) will serve as the local presence of MKI-NA. In addition to serving as the liaison between kehillot and outside consultants, they will also serve as outside evaluators of the process and monitor success. They will be regular and constant presences in the kehillot, maintaining strong ties between all of the local kehillot, as well as serving as a direct presence for the national organization.

Social Media as a Platform for Learning and Connecting

Using pre-existing platforms such as YouTube, etc, MKI-NA will be the premier provider of compelling Jewish learning opportunities for every age and stage. Torah developed in North America, in Israel and around the world will be made easily accessible. MKI-NA will ensure that only the finest, highest quality presentations will be sent out. TED talks serve as a model of what excellence can be. Similarly, G-D Cast demonstrates what creative learning can look like. MKI-NA will make it easy to know about and subscribe to the best of the Jewish Internet without having to build expensive platforms or portals. Moreover, by using resources that are easily accessible via the Internet and promoting those resources, all of our kehillot regardless of how remote or accessible, large or small, will benefit, whether they are webinars created and delivered by the movement or videos, courses, articles, etc that are posted by others.

Young Families and Early Childhood

MKI-NA will focus much of its energy on assisting kehillot in developing and running the most compelling early childhood and young family education programs possible at the most affordable prices. Investing in and connecting family neshamot to the kehilla at the earliest possible time, providing excellent, positive Jewish early childhood experiences, and connecting families to one another will help insure the future of each kehilla.

Kadima and USY

For decades, many of us have heard people say that they belong to the central organization to gain access to rabbinic placement and to the youth programs, Kadima and USY. Whether or not such statements are accurate or acceptable, we should embrace the centrality of our youth programs to the future of our kehillot and our movement. MKI-NA youth programs, Kadima and USY, will be on the cutting edge of where kids are going in the future. Careful understanding of the changing nature of youth and youth programs will help set a path to keep our children engaged Jewishly during these years in a thoughtful, egalitiarian, observant kehilla. This kehilla within the larger Kehilla will not mirror the leadership or programming structure of the larger adult Kehilla; rather, it will be attuned to and up to date with where kids are and where they are going.

MKI-NA will support the infrastructure for national and international programs, will retain current models that work well, and develop new models to engage more teens than ever before.

Koach - The College Years

The college years are, in many ways, the most crucial in insuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of our kehillot. As such, MKI-NA will make an unprecedented financial and personnel investment in the college years. At the same time, we recognize that it is impossible to deliver high quality programming, experiences, and community on every college campus. As such, MKI-NA will work together with Hillel to strengthen the quality of programming on the vast majority of college campuses.

MKI-NA, together with the other central Movement organizations and local kehillot, will identify the ten college campuses in North America that consistently become home to the largest numbers of our kehillot’s college students. MKI-NA, through its college arm, will hire ten rabbinic families, one for each campus or metropolitan area, to reach out to and connect with students constantly thoughout the year. They will be their rabbinic family during their college years.

MKI-NA Campus Rabbinic Families will build model kehillot for and with college students, will model what such kehillot can be like, and will reach out directly to individual students to support them in their spiritual journey during their college years. Such Rabbinic families must be our highest quality graduates who are also passionate about working with the college-age population. MKI-NA will provide a great salary, housing, and budget for a period of no less than four years for a family that agrees to take on this challenge.

It is crucial that we keep in mind that there are plenty of our students that will not be at these largest of campuses. MKI-NA will adopt a model similar to that of the Goldring / Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) pioneered by Macy Hart to reach out to Jewish students on those campuses. MKI-NA will create regional college rabbis who ride the circuit in different parts of the country on a regular basis to strengthen and support these students.

To give over the college-age to those who are already working in these ways on campus is to cede our future to them. Make no mistake: I greatly respect what these organizations do. We should learn from them and do what only we can do: provide the same services in a way that strengthens the spiritual and critical minds of our future kehillah neshamot.

Finally, in designing programs and methods for successfully impacting the college cohort, MKI-NA will actively seek out the opinions of diverse members of the college student population and include them in the process.

Connecting with Emerging Adults

Given the success of our youth programs and our summer camps, we are uniquely positioned to keep our post-college emergent adults connected. We will use existing networks and programs and develop new ways to help these crucial populations connect Jewishly in the ways that speak to them at this point in their lives. This may be done in the context of existing kehillot or in new settings in ways similar to PJ Library programs that take place in family-friendly settings, etc. A multitude of possibilities for success exist and the populations are actually looking for ways to connect. MKI-NA will include members of this age cohort in the conversation about what their needs are and the best ways to meet those needs. MKI-NA will seek out a diverse set of opinions in this regard.

MKI-NA will share best practices from local communities and organizations. It will develop training models for kehilla leaders to develop the skill sets necessary to grow the involvement with and investment in our post-college emerging adults whether or not they “join” the kehilla in an official way. MKI-NA will create a position on the national level to learn from organizations that focus on this population and that which is important to them, organizations such as ROI, Reboot, etc.

Israel, The Fuchsberg Center, and the Conservative Yeshiva

MKI-NA, as part of Masorti Olami, recognizes the central role of Zionism - broadly defined - and the State of Israel to our future. A center in Israel devoted to serious Torah study that is both critical and soulful, that reflects the core values of movement, is crucial to our survival. Many high school students, college students, graduates students, and families experience their most powerful personal Jewish transformations in Israel and MKI - NA must have an address to provide those experiences.

At the heart of this endeavor lies the Conservative Yeshiva. MKI-NA will insure that this exceptional institution has the financial resources required to recruit students, to provide them with stipends to make it possible to take a year off to learn, and promote it constantly as the place to go and do Torah Lishmah - be it in the summer, for a few weeks, over winter vacation, etc.

The faculty of the Conservative Yeshiva will provide exceptional learning opportunities in-person, online, and via live stream that reflects the values of MKI-NA, which will work to insure its long-term financial viability.


I am more convinced than ever that what we need today is a vision of success - one that is compelling, that will energize and inspire people, and that is eminently achievable. Vision and a leadership willing to make revolutionary change on the national level is what will insure our future. This is an attempt to jumpstart that discussion. I realize that this effort does not include: summer camp, educational structures, seniors, revenue to support the vision, or a host of other topics. At the same time, the conversation, and the development of a vision has to begin somewhere. I know that there are many who want to engage in such a conversation and I hope this stimulates public discussion about future visioning of success for our movement.

© Copyrighted Rabbi Loren Sykes, February 28, 2011.  All rights reserved


Stephen Schmidt said...

I like the list of core values - but they are not the core values of most North American Conservative Jews. (They are of some, and more commonly of the highly active, but not of the substantial majority). Few of us have much interest in discussing souls or spirituality; we've lost those folks to Renewal. G-d is also a concept most Conservative Jews are reluctant to discuss. (The word was apparently banned from the Hebrew school at my shul for a few years for fear of alienating parents by talking to the kids about G-d. The ban has since been lifted but the word is still rare.) Talmud Torah is virtually unknown in the movement. I think it's a little more common in larger urban areas, but still, I doubt whether more than 10% of Conservative Jews engage in any regular text study. Exclude Torah commentary, and the fraction studying Gemara, midrash or other rabbinic texts can't be much over 1%. You can ask any kid in our school what "mitzvot" means and with very few exceptions you'll get "good deeds". The adults mostly have the same answer. They are committed to "good deeds" but the notion that the Torah is the source of them, or that there might be mitzvot that only Jews can do, is foreign. Welcoming guests is also something that is not on the agenda at far too many Conservative shuls, though it is rising as the number of shuls with seriously falling membership grows. I do think most Conservative Jews are interested in community, but often one with little or no religious character. The only two of these "core" values that I think most North American Conservative Jews really hold are egalitarianism and Israel, though even the latter is not as strong among younger members as it is among the older.

The real question is whether we 1) make a serious effect to get members who don't hold these values to embrace them, which is likely to fail, or 2) appeal only to those who already hold them, which will cause us to shrink rather further, or 3) change to a more popular set of core values. I'd much like to try the first, but I'd rather settle for the second than accept the third.

Steve Schmidt

Alex said...

What a great plan!
I do have a couple of questions, though.

First: regarding the name. While I think that MKI-NA is a great name, especially in that it unites us, of only by title, with our sister movements across the globe, do you think that the greater American Conservative community would catch on to it? I feel as though the Hebrew in the name would throw many off. What are your thoughts?

Second: regarding the youth. I completely agree that we need to "embrace the centrality of our youth programs to the future of our kehillot and our movement. " And I am glad that you put a significant emphasis on the youth. However, I did notice that you didn't mention the Ramah movement, particularly where I was expecting it—in your discussion of USY, Kadima, and teen programming. How would the Ramah camping movement play a role in MKI? Would it continue to exist seemingly independent of the movement or do you think that it would be advantageous to do as many have said in the past—to integrate the year-long programming that USY and Kadima offers with the summer experiences that Ramah offers?

Alex Krule