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“The Case for METNY” METNY USCJ Leadership Conference – March 18, 2009/ 23 Adar, 5769 Rabbi Charles Savenor

, Executive Director, METNY USCJ It is wonderful seeing so many of you here tonight. It is my hope that we will together, grapple with the complex challenges of our day, and discuss the future of METNY USCJ and the Conservative Movement in our region. That we have rabbis, educators, youth professionals, executive directors, and lay leaders here tonight attests to the fact that interest remains high in METNY’s future, and, equally important, that the solution to our challenges can only be met by working together. Since I began working at METNY in July, the playing field has changed dramatically. First and foremost, we find ourselves in an economic downturn. Second, groups within our movement are raising issues about United Synagogue. Recent articles in “The Forward,” “The Jewish Week,” and “The Jerusalem Post” have described the demands of “Hayom” and various synagogue leaders. These issues are of vital concern, because they involve us all. Third, demographics point to a decline in the size of our movement. Our members are the oldest. Our best and brightest are seeking spiritual sanctuary either within the modern orthodox camp or in independent minyanim. With these vital issues on the table, we no longer have the luxury of time or extended learning curves. These challenges demand our immediate attention and forward thinking. In order for METNY USCJ to thrive, it is essential that we look beyond the horizon, to the future. Faced with rebellion, war and criticism from every corner, President Abraham Lincoln offered these words to Congress: The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Lincoln’s remarks are as relevant today with our contemporary challenges as they were in his day. His words serve as an inspiration to those of us who care deeply about Conservative Judaism and hope for the success of the United Synagogue. “The case for METNY” this evening focuses on my vision on how our region can reach new heights in the next three to five years. Forward thinking will guide us towards reorganization and renewed success. My vision is informed by synagogue visits, board meetings, and coffees with lay leaders and rabbis, and focus groups around the region. During these focus groups with our president councils, our main objective has been to listen to you, to learn about your successes and challenges, and to discuss how we – synagogues and the METNY region - can work together most effectively. What has become clear is that our synagogues yearn to be heard. Some need assistance, all want partnership. Some question the value of their membership, none are fully aware of what METNY


offers. While some are frustrated with USCJ, all want to see USCJ - and METNY for that matter succeed. So in making our “case for METNY,” it is vital that we “act anew” to create something innovative, fresh and authentic. The pillars upon which this revitalization will be rest are what I call the 3 C’s: 1) communication, 2) consultation, and 3) community. By embracing these three items as our mission, we can create a renewed METNY that will provide value to its members and contribute to the revitalization of Conservative Judaism. COMMUNICATION As we approach change, we need to change our approach. There was a time when some synagogues viewed their dues to USCJ as a donation or as sign of support for Conservative Judaism. The economic crisis has caused a paradigm shift, and, as much as we need donors, we will seek synagogues to be our partners and investors in the vitality of our organization. Any synagogue that belongs to USCJ can expect quality services. Truth be told, METNY USCJ is customer service provider. This means that we will strive for excellence in how we answer the phones, the presentation of our materials, and the responsiveness to your needs. We are revamping our website so that it becomes a valuable resource for our leaders, as well as a tool to bring our synagogues together with common purpose. It will also serve as a gateway to Jewish life in the Metropolitan New York area. I envision a METNY that will be proactive about the integration of technology into our synagogues for efficiency and the strengthening of our communities. Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next will be utilized because our future members will be looking there as potential portals of entry into the Jewish community. Communication, true communication, is a dialogue. It enables both parties to grow and support one another. There is nothing more special than when we talk to each other “panin el panin,” face to face. Like Moses, a sincere discussion, a meeting of the minds, can cause us to glow and even smile. Both METNY and your synagogue have much to offer one another, so it is vital that we find a way to create a common bond through engagement that elevates both parties in a real way. Equally important, communication requires a sense of trust, and the best avenue to this destination is transparency. In an effort for more transparency, our region will share our budget with our affiliated synagogue members and issue an annual report. An annual report signifies accountability and creates expectations. When every penny counts, we want you to know how we are utilizing our collective resources to strengthen Conservative synagogues and our movement in the New York area. Furthermore, we encourage all of our synagogues to do the same. Trust also emerges when we can speak openly with one another. With this in mind, I deeply respect the various groups raising their concerns to our national USCJ leadership. Their conversation 2

represents an opportunity to build trust. It is my sincere hope that their discussions tomorrow will lead to greater understanding and involvement for the sake of our future. This sacred trust we are creating on a regional level entails perpetual attention so we can act as partners to revitalize our synagogue movement. It is with this in mind that I advocate for the creation of a Liaison Board within METNY. Believe it or not, this group – not yet activated - is already described in our By-laws. We will meet twice a year with synagogue representatives to share ideas, dialogue about real issues and work towards our common future. By embracing communication as one pillar of our mission, we can create a renewed METNY that will provide value to its members and contribute to the revitalization of Conservative Judaism. CONSULTATION The second pillar of my vision is consultation. METNY runs a plethora of programs, many of which are excellent. USY is probably our best program. It is wonderful that we have youth directors here this evening, because you are entrusted with leading our youth and shaping their formative Jewish experiences. I have been delighted to learn this year that our USY regional youth professionals meet with chapters and youth commissions on a regular basis. Their discussions are not limited to programming; these visits are designed to enhance the quality of our chapter leadership. Running great programs is important, yet programs do not define a mission. Rather programs should flow directly out of the mission. With limited resources and manpower, we can no longer conduct business as usual. Rambam teaches us that if you give a man a fish, you have fed him for one meal. If you teach him how to fish, he can always feed himself. It is the responsibility of the region to teach us all how to fish. Thankfully we live on the coast. A major plank in METNY’s mission is helping our synagogues function most effectively. I believe that METNY can make the biggest impact by moving away from simply running programs and embracing the role as your synagogue consultants. As consultants we will work with you to help your synagogues reach the next level. For some shuls, this may mean setting goals and creating a mission. For others, it might entail training sessions in budgeting. Some may need volunteer engagement workshops, and others assistance with reinvigorating their youth program. Last year METNY began offering “PaRDeS Yaakov,” which is a professional teacher training module. PaRDeS Yaakov enables us to see the facts on the ground and work with principals and teachers in the context of their experience. This initiative is representative of the consulting we will offer in a variety of areas. A strong METNY region will have as its hallmark quality leadership training. We will offer not just excellent workshops and conferences, like tonight’s program, but also local leadership training 3

sessions in your synagogues or in our revamped leadership councils, which will replace the presidents councils. Equally important, we will offer training sessions for our METNY clergy. It has come to my attention, by serving as one of the deans at JTS Rabbinical School and now through meetings with colleagues, that our rabbis and cantors need ongoing training in budgets, fundraising, strategic planning and the development of spiritual entrepreneurialism. We will partner with the CA and RA in this initiative. Our region will do sacred work by contributing to the professional education of our spiritual leaders, and all of our synagogues and their members will benefit in the process. Our lay and professional leaders have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. We also will partner with UJA, BJE and JCRC. What we cannot provide for you with in-house experts, we will utilize funds from our budget, or raise them, to supply you with the best possible resources available. This will be one of the benefits of membership to METNY. While I believe deeply in leadership training sessions, I feel that we can help our synagogues most by seeing you “in action” on Shabbat. With this in mind, METNY will create opportunities for properly trained lay and professional leadership teams to visit your communities for Shabbat. Informed by Ron Wolfson’s The Spirituality of Welcoming, we will develop criteria of excellence in worship, welcoming and engagement to evaluate your synagogue. We will explore the following: “Do your services reflect your communal goals?” and “how does a visitor experience your community?” We will follow up our visit with a report and meet with your synagogue leadership to see how you can implement our suggestions to reach new heights. Tomorrow I am looking forward to attending Sulam 35, USCJ’s premier leadership training conference for synagogue officers. Part of our new METNY initiative will offer leadership training and consultation on par with Sulam. By embracing consulting as one of our mandates, we can create a renewed METNY USCJ will enable our synagogues to be beacons of Jewish inspiration and transformation. COMMUNITY Creating Jewish community is fundamental to everything we do. Only through creating a sense of belonging and a connection to Torah do we have a chance to impart our values to the next generation. The economic crisis will make this sacred enterprise that much harder. Professor Beth Wenger, the author of NY Jews and Great Depression, explains that during the Great Depression synagogue membership was adversely affected. If history serves as our guide, our membership numbers will most likely go down. During this current economic downturn, it is essential that we revisit our missions, become excellent at what we do, and be welcoming and supportive centers for all those who walk through our doors. This past Sunday I attended a Synergy conference at UJA on fundraising and the economy, which METNY co-sponsored. One of the speakers mentioned that how synagogues deal with their


members during this downturn will be remembered for years to come. It is my hope that we will be gracious and welcoming when someone calls for help, be it financial or psychological. Research shows that Passover is one time during the year when synagogue attendance spikes up, and not just for Yizkor. I pray that that “all those who are hungry” this year will be given the kavod they need to feel like free men and free women. In order to ease the economic downturn for our region, METNY has launched a cooperative purchasing program. We are leveraging our size – over 100 synagogues and 25,000 Conservative households – for the benefit of our members. What has been most impressive about this purchasing plan has been the contemplation of what it means to be part of a community united by common concerns and actions. I advocate that we also use our size to lobby in Albany and Washington, DC, for issues of importance to our Conservative Movement. In order to shape a regional community, I envision our creating a mechanism to communicate directly with our 25,000 affiliated households. I realize that some leaders may have their hesitations with giving us their membership lists, yet I strongly believe our region can make a case through direct contact that will benefit us all. We talk a lot about the Conservative Movement, but I feel recently that there are precious few times that we actually feel like a movement. What is a movement anyway? In my eyes, a movement is a group that has momentum, a common purpose, a special mission, and a shared future. What are examples of a movement? One example is Chabad. Their messengers go all over the globe to spread words of Torah with a smile. Their message is readily accessible because their hachnasat orchim is a shared value they live, and not a program they run. Another example is the campaign of President Obama. His campaign mobilized millions of people to buy into his vision. Their fundraising over the internet raised an enormous amount of money based upon the number of donors, not necessarily the size of their contributions. What we learn from the Obama campaign is that small commitments mean a lot! The smallest gestures can frequently represent a burgeoning grassroots commitment to something larger than ourselves. When was the last time we felt like a Conservative Movement in the New York area? My vision is that we find ways to get all of our 25,000 households in our 108 shuls to make even the smallest commitment to ritual in their lives. Stephen Carter, a Yale law school professor and author of the thoughtful book about faith in America, The Culture of Disbelief, writes:


In order for religion to be taken seriously, it must express a system of rituals, values, commitments and beliefs that define our relationship with God even if they go against the grain of society. In this economic downturn synagogue affiliation may be at risk, but there remains a tremendous need for outreach and spiritual healing that can generate faith for generations to come. Our Conservative Movement has a chance to reinvigorate itself by making the case for communities that are inspiring, authentic and tied to Torah. Our underlying objective is ultimately to be a catalyst for a sincere development of faith and commitment to the mitzvot. This commitment to a system of commandments mandated by God’s Voice in Torah goes against the grain of our society that values autonomy and personal choice above all. Still, this is the hallmark of Jewish life and the way we express our commitment to God. A rededication of ourselves to God and to a life framed in the values of Torah will enhance our synagogues, and transform our members’ homes. By working together to promote Jewish life in our Conservative synagogues, we have the tremendous opportunity on a regional level based upon our size and close proximity to model what it means to be part of a religious movement. We will work together to inspire every Conservative Jew to commit to a statement of principles so that Shabbat, Kashruth and Tefillah are regular fixtures in their lives. One segment of our Conservative Movement who, I believe, understands what it means to be part of a religious community is our youth in USY. USY is very successful, yet would you believe that some of our strongest synagogues do not have USY chapters. USY plays a vital role in my vision for METNY, because our youth are our future. However, when USYers come home from conventions and camp, they frequently feel their voices cannot be heard within their own communities. We cannot afford to lose our youth now or later, especially in their home synagogues. In light of this challenge, METNY will work with our synagogues’ lay and spiritual leadership to integrate the elements of Independent Minyanim that are attractive to our USY alumni who have opted out of our movement. These efforts will create spiritual homes not just our current USYers, but can pave the way for USY alumni to return to their roots. By embracing community as one of our mandates, we can create a renewed METNY USCJ that will provide value to its members and contribute to the revitalization of movement. REORGANIZATION In a recent interview, the CEO of Coca Cola, Muhtar Kent, opined on the current economic crisis: Turbulence is a time to focus on what matters most to your business.... It is a time when waste and duplication need to be shed. When I read this, I thought he was talking about METNY.


The revitalization of METNY will be accompanied by a reorganization of our staff, resources, and landscape of the region. We have several items on the agenda that will require action in the coming months: 1. Mergers – Several of our synagogues are no longer financially viable, so we will facilitate conversations about how they can merge. If a complete merger is not possible, then we will explore combined Hebrew schools, youth programs, and adult education. 2. USY – Since our current regional model is based on higher numbers than we currently have, we will reorganize our overall program to be more fiscally responsible. 3. Education – We will work with our religious schools to create Jewish educational models that blend formal and informal approaches. The challenge will be balancing change without sacrificing quality. These extraordinary times demand bold leadership and creative thinking from all of us. CONCLUSION To tackle these vital issues, we will work with all arms of the Conservative Movement (RA, CA, JTS, Ziegler, Women’s League, Men’s Club, JEA, and JYDA). We will engage in ongoing, open discussions with all of our partners about the essential issues pertaining to our shared future. One question that I have thought a great deal about over the past seven months is how do we measure our success? I have received two main responses to this question: Jews and dues. In other words, success has been defined by either the size of our congregations or the amount of dues we bring in. “The Case for METNY” we heard this evening creates a different caliper for success. We will know success has transpired when our METNY synagogues are mission driven, financially stable, supportive and inspiring Jewish communities. Our movement has a unique and relevant message to share with the Jewish people, and by working together we will assure that this message is communicated daily within our communities. By embracing communication, consultation, and community as our mission, we can create a renewed METNY USCJ that will provide value to its members and revitalize Conservative Judaism for us and our children. I look forward to working with you to actualize this vision. Thank you!