Where We Are Now

USCJ’s immediate past president looks back at the remarkable changes of the last five years.

by Richard Skolnik

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In December 2009, when Rabbi Steve Wernick and I took on the leadership of United Synagogue, it’s no exaggeration to say that after almost 100 years, the organization was in crisis. But I and a lot of other people were unwavering in our belief in USCJ and its mission. We believed in the need for a dynamic center of North American Judaism, and we knew that United Synagogue was uniquely able to keep that center vital and strong. We knew that our synagogues – our kehillot – needed us to remake ourselves so that we could become the visionary, effective partner that would help them transform themselves into sacred communities for the 21st century.

Five years later, having stepped down as United Synagogue’s international president, I want to reflect on where we are right now, at this moment.

Today’s United Synagogue has been restructured and reimagined in a way that puts strengthening Conservative congregations at the center of our work. Our focus today is on partnering with our kehillot to build the kind of intentional Jewish communities that will inspire new generations.

We believe that strengthening kehilla leadership is essential to that effort. Five years ago, I talked about how we would expand our much-loved Sulam training program for kehilla presidents. We still offer that famous retreat for new presidents – in fact it’s even richer and deeper than before. But the word “Sulam” is now the name for a whole menu of intensive learning programs for synagogue leaders at every stage of their experience, helping them create a vision for each kehilla and a roadmap for getting there.

We said five years ago that it was crucial for us to replenish our leadership pipeline. Our staff has turned that vision into a highly successful program called Sulam for Emerging Leaders. Thanks to this initiative, come June, over 1,000 new synagogue leaders will have been identified and become much more deeply connected to their kehillot, their rabbis and each other. Many are already serving in leadership roles.

We have a network of 20 synagogues working with our new family engagement specialist, Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal, in an effort to get beyond the basics of family programming and take their family engagement efforts to the next level. Thanks to the Ruderman Family Foundation, we are launching a new community initiative on inclusion – helping our kehillot become places where people with disabilities feel fully welcome and can be fully engaged.

Then there’s USY. Thanks to a generous grant, we are ramping up our outreach to teens and re-imagining our approach to reaching this crucial age group. We’re expanding our summer program opportunities and redoubling our efforts to bring more students to our renowned gap year program in Israel, Nativ, which is now in its 34th year.

The essence of United Synagogue is this: we are inclusive, collaborative, innovative, and focused on reflecting the Jewish world as it is today and as it will be in the future.

When I became president of United Synagogue five years ago, I had dreams about where we could go and ideas about how to get there. As Israel’s former president Shimon Peres once said, “Dreams are the making of a better tomorrow.” What’s remarkable is that I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who shared my dreams, who also believed that United Synagogue could not only overcome its difficulties but could once again make a powerful impact on North American Jewish life. I can’t thank all of these people enough for working with me, supporting me, and allowing me to see so much of what we dreamed about come to fruition. I especially want to thank Rabbi Wernick and his exceptional USCJ staff. I also thank my tireless, deeply committed board who no matter what the request or what the need, never said anything but “Hineni,” here I am, hineni, how can I serve?”

I know that there is more to do, and that achieving some of our goals will take time. But I’m confident that with Margo Gold as president, with our talented board members, and extraordinary kehilla partners, United Synagogue can only go from strength to strength.