The congregational arm of the Conservative movement ran a cumulative budget deficit of more than $5 million over the past two years, JTA has learned, renewing longstanding concerns for the future of one of the movement’s key institutional pillars.
According to a financial audit obtained by JTA, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism reported back-to-back losses of $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million the previous year. Over the same period, the organization, which is celebrating its centennial this year and counts hundreds of congregations as members, has seen a more than 10 percent drop in its overall assets, from $45.2 million $40.1 million.
United Synagogue’s chief executive officer, Rabbi Steven Wernick, told JTA that the negative cash flows were due mostly to a handful of one-off events. Not counting those expenses, the operational deficit in 2012 is only about a third as large, at $1.1 million.
“We hope to reduce it to $600,000 next year and balance the budget the year after that,” Wernick said.
Still, the numbers are bad news for an organization that unveiled a much-heralded strategic plan two years ago that aimed to reverse years of flagging membership and declining revenues.
United Synagogue leaders are “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” said a senior executive at one of the movement’s largest synagogues who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Operating that far in the red is a big red flag,” the executive said. “I think it’s important for them to get their financial standing in order. I think they wouldn’t advise their synagogues that way.”
Once the largest Jewish religious stream in the United States, the Conservative movement has suffered through years of decline brought on in part by an aging and shrinking membership, some bruising philosophical battles and most recently a string of financial losses. The movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, went through two rounds of layoffs in the past four years to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
United Synagogue has seen a 14 percent drop in its membership rolls over the past decade. In 2008, three Canadian synagogues quit United Synagogue to form their own partnership, claiming the burden of paying fees to the umbrella group outweighed the benefits.