Conservative Jews on West Coast battle national headquarters

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles-area Conservative leaders are reacting with outrage following the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's efforts last month to dismiss the officers of the regional board, freeze the region's bank accounts and close its Encino offices.

"I am shocked at the lack of spiritual dialogue about which we talk and preach a great deal. It should not have come to these kind of threats," Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino said last week. "It's a pity that these things become high on the agenda of Jewish life, when there are so many more important things that we can do constructively."

Both sides characterize the situation as an administrative dispute over policy, procedure and money — $85,000 to be exact. The problem is based primarily on different ideas of the role of national headquarters in relation to the Pacific Southwest region.

Both agree the dispute is not related to any substantive theological or philosophical debates in Conservative Judaism.

United Synagogue, the national umbrella group for Conservative congregations, offers assistance to synagogues on a range of programming and administrative topics. Its most prominent program is United Synagogue Youth, a social and educational movement for teenagers.

"All of these activities are planned and run by lay leaders, coordinated by our lay committees and staff. And if there isn't lay control and coordination, then the programs won't come to a screeching halt but they will be adversely affected," said Allan Teplinsky, the region's vice president and chairman of the committee appointed to deal with this problem.

The dispute revolves around the national headquarter's demand that the Pacific Southwest region change its system of collecting and allocating fees from its 59 member synagogues to conform with the rest of the nation.

For most of United Synagogue's 19 regions, the national headquarters directly assesses each congregation and then allocates funds to the regional offices based on requests for programming, staff and overhead.

In the Pacific Southwest region, which includes Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii and parts of Nevada, congregations pay their dues to the region. The region determines its own budget and sends a percentage to the national headquarters.

According to regional representatives, the national headquarters reconfigured the region's budget in June and determined that it owed an extra $85,000. The national headquarters also demanded that the region conform to the procedures of every other region.

"We attempted to negotiate," Teplinsky said, but the national headquarter's "position is very rigid: 'We want the money this year.'"

Negotiations reached an impasse in December, and in early January about 25 regional officers received letters suspending them.

On the same day, Teplinskysaid, two national representatives showed up at the regional offices in Encino. They demanded files and tried to change the locks and have the furniture put in storage. They demanded that the paid staff, including regional director Rabbi Marvin Labinger, agree to take orders from the national headquarters.

The national headquarters hired lawyers to try to get the bank accounts frozen. But in mid-January, a judge dismissed their request for a temporary restraining order, saying the organization's bylaws indicated that Wolnek had neither authority to take that action nor to suspend the regional officers.

Many question how the dispute escalated to such a point.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue's national executive vice president, said much of the conflict is due to miscommunication.

"I am convinced that there were probably, in the heat of passion, mistakes made on everyone's side," he said.

For now, resolution seems a long way off as both sides become more firmly entrenched in their positions. But Epstein said he is determined to find a resolution both sides can accept.

"I believe damage has been done and my responsibility is to bring healing. I'm committed to making sure that happens."