Conservative shuls getting by without national ties

Oakland Congregation Beth Abraham's roots stretch back almost 94 years. Congregation Netivot Shalom was inaugurated 12 years ago in a Berkeley living room.

Yet as different as the backgrounds of the self-labeled Conservative congregations are, similar motivations have pressed both to remain unaffiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the national umbrella group of the movement.

"Do I personally, and we as a synagogue, believe that there should be a national organization of Conservative synagogues? Yes, absolutely," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Netivot Shalom. "So, having said that, I stand pretty firmly on a solid, philosophical base [when dealing with] the next question: 'If that's the case, why don't you affiliate?'"

Well, to start, it isn't cheap.

The USCJ charges a congregation $45 for every "full" dues-paying household, with a sliding scale of "half" and "none" for congregation members who pay less. For Netivot Shalom and Beth Abraham, which both feature between roughly 300 and 350 member households, the annual dues would be in the vicinity of $12,000.

"Well, I'll tell you, that's $10,000 to $12,000 back in our operating budget!" said Netivot Shalom's board secretary Debby Graudenz. "I've worked in private nonprofits for many years, and the world of nonprofits is not one where you can easily blow $12,000."

While money is only one issue in the East Bay congregations' decisions to remain unaffiliated, it is an important one. Beth Abraham had been a USCJ member, but a financial dispute in the mid-1990s spurred the congregation and the organization to part ways.

"Over a five – or seven-year period, they thought we owed a significant amount more; they did not believe the number of families that were paying dues," recalled Paul Raskin, Beth Abraham's president of the board. "Our temple had taken on a number of Russian immigrant families as non-paying members back then, and we couldn't afford to pay for that."

At roughly the same time, Kelman's fledgling congregation proposed a "starter rate" to buy into the USCJ. It was turned down.

"For a brand-new synagogue just trying to get off the ground, and in our case with a not very wealthy population base without a history of financial wherewithal, [the fee] is an extremely difficult bullet to bite," said Kelman of his 12-year-old congregation. "We proposed to them a three-year graduated buy-in. They said 'all or nothing,' so we said 'nothing.'"

Members of both Netivot Shalom and Beth Abraham said that, for a relatively high price tag, they felt affiliation just didn't offer "enough bang for the buck." Not surprisingly, Jay Weiner, the USCJ's executive director of the Northern California and Pacific Northwest regions, sees things differently.

"Sometimes we're sort of like a health club: If you use us you get your money's worth, if you don't you may feel like you're not," said Weiner, who oversees an area ranging from the Bay Area to Edmonton Alta. "Access to 800 congregations in the U.S., Israel, Mexico and Canada allows for some wonderful networking. So just in that alone, it's worth it."

Weiner mentioned affiliated congregations have access to USCJ staff, consultants, Web space and, most importantly, affiliation with the national United Synagogue Youth group and full access to the rabbinical and cantorial hiring processes.

Members of Beth Abraham can personally attest to the difficulty an unaffiliated Conservative congregation faces when attempting to land a rabbi. The USCJ acts as the official middleman in the process, collecting the names of congregations with vacancies and rabbis looking for posts — but only from affiliated congregations. Unaffiliated congregations are only allowed access to the process between June 15 and the High Holy Days.

Even given five months notice by outgoing Rabbi Mark Diamond earlier this year, Beth Abraham was still forced to go without a rabbi for four months, getting part-time relief from Reform Rabbi Samuel Broude and Rabbi Jerry Danzig, both of whom were semi-retired (Danzig, incidentally, enjoyed presiding over the High Holy Days services enough that he offered to serve as the congregation's full-time rabbi, and was recently hired).

While both congregations lament being shut out from the rabbinical hiring process and the inability to nationally affiliate their youth groups, deep-seated philosophical differences with USCJ principles necessitate their independence.

"One area in which [the USCJ] has chosen to make a decision has to do with the hiring of gays and lesbians to be teachers and counselors in youth programming," said Kelman. "They've said gays or lesbians may not be staff members. I strenuously object to that policy.

"They have also issued a policy saying that the Jewish partner in an intermarriage may not be hired by a congregation," Kelman added. "That's another one to which I strongly, strongly object."

Sarrae Crane, the USCJ's director of social action and public policy, emphasizes that the organization has not issued "policies" on homosexuals and intermarried Jews, but "guidelines," and congregations that disregarded the "guidelines" would not be punished. Yet this isn't enough for members of Netivot Shalom and Beth Abraham.

"I'm the president of the congregation, and I'm a lesbian," said Netivot Shalom's Pauline Moreno. "So that might slay me a little bit."

Raskin adds that "it would be an absolute shanda" to freeze out gays, lesbians and intermarried Jews from staff positions within the congregation.

"We have a disagreement with these policies," continued Raskin. "It's almost a moral feeling that we don't want to join the organization and lie that we're following their policies when we won't."

Members of both congregations also add that recent infighting between the USCJ's national office in New York and the Pacific Southwest regional office has not gone unnoticed.

While Lavey Derby, president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, says that Beth Abraham and Netivot Shalom are the only unaffiliated conservative congregations in the general vicinity, he stresses that a congregation's USCJ status has no bearing on the religious experience of its congregants.

"If somebody were to walk into, say, Netivot Shalom, he or she would experience a wonderful, conservative service and ambiance. The only thing it doesn't have is a membership in the United Synagogues," said Derby, rabbi at Tiburon's conservative Congregation Kol Shofar. "It's not an ideological issue, by and large. It's a political issue."

And while officials with Netivot Shalom and Beth Abraham both refused to rule out affiliation some time down the road, a scenario in which the congregations would fork over a significant chunk of money to join an organization with which they hold serious philosophical differences is, to say the least, far-fetched.

"To this day, [leaving the USCJ] is a tough decision, because we lost some key services with which they provided our community," said Raskin. "But you can't pay that much of your budget into an organization with which you have a significant difference."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.