Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha has been placed on “suspension” from membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the North American umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues.
The suspension stems from the Squirrel Hill congregation’s nonpayment of its USCJ dues, and not from Rabbi Chuck Diamond’s recent announcement that he will be officiating at interfaith weddings, as that announcement came following the implementation of the suspension, according to Rabbi Paul Drazen, USCJ’s staff director of the committees on public policy and congregational standards.
But if TOL*OLS does become current with its dues, Diamond’s new interfaith marriage policy would be in violation of Conservative standards and could be problematic, according to Drazen.
“That would be something that would be worthy of discussion,” Drazen said, adding that USCJ member congregations are required to conform to the standards set by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and it would be very “unusual” to have a congregation violate those standards.
Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate at interfaith weddings, and Drazen said he knows of no Conservative congregations affiliated with the USCJ that violate that policy.
“Generally, congregations stick to the standards of the Rabbinical Assembly,” Drazen said.
Diamond is not a member of the Rabbinical Assembly.
Tree of Life, which merged with Or L’Simcha in 2010 to become Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, has a storied past with the Conservative movement, reaching back more than 100 years. It was one of the first congregations nationwide to affiliate with the United Synagogue of America, the precursor organization to the USCJ, established by Rabbi Solomon Schechter in 1913. But the congregation’s alignment with the Conservative movement goes back even further, to 1886, when it joined the Jewish Theological Seminary Association, according to the Rauh Jewish Archives.
TOL*OLS’s dispute with the USCJ is nothing new, according to Michael Eisenberg, president of the congregation.
“While [Tree of Life] was one of the founding members of the USCJ, it has had an up and down relationship with USCJ in the past,” Eisenberg said.
The issue is money, he said, adding that USCJ dues are too high relative to the services the organization provides.
“The value of being a member of the USCJ is kind of hard to pinpoint,” he said. “Our congregants don’t really seem to care [about membership in the USCJ], but the money it asks for in dues is phenomenal.”
Dues to the USCJ are calculated based on a formula that includes the number of a congregation’s members, and how many of those members pay full dues, defined by the USCJ as $500 or more a year, according to Barry Mael, USCJ’s director of kehilla operations and finance.
Several years ago, leaders of TOL*OLS began sending out letters to congregants proposing a voluntary contribution to the USCJ of $69.50 per family, in lieu of the lump sum required by the USCJ for membership. The congregation then submitted whatever money it collected to the USCJ, although the amount received was considerably less than the required dues, Eisenberg said.
“We took all the checks and said to the USCJ, ‘This is what we’re giving you,’” he said. “For the past three or four years, they took it. But now they’re playing hardball, and said they couldn’t do it.”
“Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha has always been fiscally responsible,” he continued “When we look at the money [the USCJ] is asking for, and what we we’re getting, there’s nothing to get. We showed them a willingness to give them a check this year, and they declined it. But they have no leverage.”
The USCJ does work with congregations that have trouble meeting their dues assessments, and provides subsidies to many of its members, said Andrea Glick, the USCJ’s director of online communications, media, and marketing. It is “a long process” before a congregation is placed on suspension, she said.
But once a congregation is put on suspension, “it has no access to any of our services,” Glick said. “Suspension is a final warning.”
This is not the first instance of TOL being suspended for nonpayment of dues, Eisenberg said. He noted that a review of old congregational minutes revealed that this happens “on again, off again.”
“But in this case,” he said, “nobody cares. Nobody is saying we have to get back to the USCJ. They are asking for an absurd amount of money, and I’m looking for what’s going to be best for our congregants, the things that are of value to the congregation. USCJ would be at the bottom of the barrel.”
Likewise, several other area congregations that fall or have fallen under the Conservative tag have, in recent years, ceased to maintain their membership in the USCJ.
“United Synagogue is nothing but a Jewish Teamsters union,” said Bob Korfin, president of the Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville, which let its membership in the USCJ lapse many years ago. “It was too expensive, and we weren’t getting anything in return.”
Likewise, New Light Congregation let its membership lapse some 10 years ago, according to Barbara Caplan, co-president along with Marilyn Honisberg, of New Light.
“It got too expensive,” Caplan said. “And for the money we were giving them, we were getting no help.”
During a time when New Light was between rabbis, Caplan said the USCJ failed to provide them with names of potential candidates and was of little help with programming ideas.
“But it was the money more than anything,” she said. “It was way out of our league.”
The USCJ also proved to be too expensive for Beth Israel in Washington, Pa., which ended its membership in the organization several years ago.
“We had no problems with the association at all, but the president and the board decided to drop it because we just couldn’t afford it,” said Marilyn Posner, president of Beth Israel.
Of the area congregations that refer to themselves on their websites as “Conservative” or as having “Conservative services,” the majority are not members of the USCJ. That list includes: Adat Shalom, Beth Israel Center, and Parkway Jewish Center, as well as TOL*OLS.
Only Congregation Beth Shalom and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills are currently members in good standing.
For Beth Shalom, the benefits of the USCJ are worth its hefty price tag.
“It entitles us to be part of USY, and it’s important for our youth to be associated with USY,” said Beth Shalom President Howard Valinsky.
Additionally, as Beth Shalom searches for a new rabbi, membership in the USCJ also entitles the congregation to interview rabbis ordained by Conservative seminaries.
For Beth El, the “number one reason” it remains committed to the USCJ is “identity,” according to Miles Kirshner, president of that congregation.
“What I mean by that,” Kirshner said, “is that the USCJ gives us a set of standards upon which we can rely, and we can be relied upon.”
But the local trend of many Conservative congregations opting out of the USCJ mirrors what is happening across the county. The USCJ has seen a 14 percent drop in its total membership rolls over the last 10 years, according to a JTA report earlier this year. This comes as no surprise in light of the recent Pew survey that showed that only 18 percent of Jews consider themselves Conservative, down from 41 percent in 1971.
Those numbers may decline even further, as the Pew survey confirmed that, among the non-Orthodox, intermarriage has reached 70 percent.
For Eisenberg, Diamond’s decision to officiate at interfaith weddings is an acceptance of that reality, and important to the perpetuation of the congregation’s membership.
“Without allowing intermarriage, young people will go to the Reform movement,” he said.
Whether or not TOL*OLS is still a Conservative congregation is debatable, according to Eisenberg.
“It’s a tough label,” he said. “Right now, the shul, you would say, has a Conservative service, meaning the amount of Hebrew, and some of the customs are Conservative. But the question is, if there is [acceptance] of interfaith, is it Conservative?”
Time will tell whether other Conservative congregations follow suit and permit interfaith weddings, he said.
“We may be ahead of the curve, and in five years, they may catch up with us, and we’ll be Conservative again,” he said. “It’s a tough label, but we’re not looking to fit into a certain portion of the spectrum, and we have to move on with the times.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)