United Synagogue’s New Bylaws

JOANNE PALMER reviews the changes that will make United Synagogue more agile and responsive to the needs of its member kehillot

by Joanne Palmer

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On March 18, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s board of trustees voted to accept new bylaws. This was the second reading for those bylaws, and the second time they passed. Both times, the vote in favor was overwhelming, much higher than the already formidable-sounding two-thirds majority that was required.

With that second vote the bylaws were accepted, along with new standard operating procedures to support them. United Synagogue now will begin its second century in 2013 as a revitalized, reshaped, and reenergized organization.

The bylaws are a direct result of the strategic plan that the board accepted last March.

It took courage for many of the board members to vote yes, and that they did so anyway was a testament to their commitment to United Synagogue. One of the changes the bylaws now mandate is that the board will be smaller, and another is that board members are expected to give United Synagogue not only time and energy but also to see it as a philanthropic opportunity, and an opportunity, moreover, that they can share with their friends. Many board members, some of whom had been with us for years, or even decades, had to vote themselves off the board. That was pure self-sacrifice, and we honor them for it.

The new bylaws will make United Synagogue’s governance more agile and responsive, not only by reducing the size of the board and the number of committees the board oversees, but also by redefining the partnership between the executive committee, the board, other lay leaders, and United Synagogue’s staff. The committees will oversee the areas that the strategic plan recognized as core to the organization’s mission – kehilla strengthening and transformation, education, young adult engagement, and assisting new and emerging kehillot. (A kehilla, or sacred community, is the term the framers of the strategic plan have chosen to describe the various communities that make up United Synagogue, feeling that the change in wording reflects the change in orientation.) The new bylaws will increase the organization’s accountability to the member kehillot. That accountability will be institutionalized in the relationship between the General Asssembly, which will be composed of a member from each kehilla. There are many mechanisms that will speed and oversee that process, demand a new focus on priorities, measure whether those priorities have been achieved, and empower staff to implement the changes.

United Synagogue also will engage with lay leaders who are not on the board in a different way. We will recruit them to offer their services as kehilla ambassadors or expert volunteers, sharing their expertise, teaching, and training.

Leadership training is one of the areas where our member kehillot most want help. Leaders would like help in making themselves more effective at the positions to which they have been elected. They would like to be able to grow not only managerially but spiritually, and they would like their kehillot to become places where people come for spiritually and emotionally transformative experiences, to learn more about their people and themselves. They also would like help in identifying and training the next generation of kehilla leaders. In response to that need, we have expanded and reimagined Sulam. That program used to train new and prospective synagogue leaders; now, it has become a three-part enterprise that includes Sulam for Current Leaders, Sulam for Presidents, and Sulam for Emerging Leaders. The goal – we would call it a dream but it is achievable – is to train 5,000 leaders in the next five years. Think what that will do for Conservative Judaism!

Another change that has resulted directly from the strategic plan and the new bylaws is the system of kehilla relationship managers. Our KRMs are our grassroots support system.

United Synagogue and Conservative Judaism represent and embody Jewish life as the product of eternal truth, millennia of history and tradition, and openness to the world as it is now. It is the vital center of North American Jewish life, the place where tensions are negotiated and challenges are faced. The new bylaws, with their new understanding of the relationship between the central organization and the kehillot, are a necessary tool, a way to help us balance on the high wire.

“I am very proud of the collaboration between our professional staff and our lay leadership in crafting these new bylaws,” international president Richard Skolnik said. “The endgame is to provide a refocused energy that truly has an impact on the services that we provide to our more than 600 kehillot.”

“The vote is a major achievement in United Synagogue’s reorganization,” CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick said. “It aligns new strategies with governance, staff, and structures. Our leaders affirmed the wisdom of our mission, vision, and strategic plan, our commitment to excellence, and the value we add both to our affiliated kehillot and to the larger Jewish world.

“‘The person who occupies himself with the needs of the community – it is as though he occupies himself with Torah,’ the Talmud tells us. United Synagogue’s leaders listened to the needs of its community of kehillot, and it acted on them. This courageous vote will lay the foundation for our next 100 years.”

The new bylaws are the next step in the path that has taken us from the creation of the coalition of Conservative leaders that hammered out the strategic plan to now. We look forward to the strengthening and revitalization of United Synagogue and of Conservative Judaism. We will achieve that work together.