Shul no longer a card-carrying Conservative: Netivot Shalom, USCJ part ways over dues standoff

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Congregation Netivot Shalom remains as much a Conservative synagogue today as it was in 1989, when opened its doors. However, it can no longer call itself a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Berkeley shul had its membership pulled in late December because USCJ would no longer accept the cut-rate dues Netivot Shalom had been paying to the Conservative movement’s New York–based umbrella organization, according to Michael Tarle, Netivot Shalom’s president.

Michael Tarle

Tarle said the synagogue has struggled financially, and for the last several years had been paying its annual USCJ dues at a reduced rate of $2,000.

Had the synagogue been paying its full dues all these years, payments would have averaged around $24,000 a year, according to Tarle.

“United Synagogue said they are no longer going to accept our reduced dues,” he said, “and that we need to either pay more or [they would] suspend our membership. We said we couldn’t afford to pay more right now. So they suspended membership.”

The suspension came after a period of negotiation between the synagogue and USCJ. Starting in September, Tarle spoke with several of the organization’s executives, but to no avail. The suspension letter arrived Dec. 31.

“They characterize [it] as us choosing to discontinue the membership,” he added. “This could not be further from the truth. We made no decision to discontinue. Although we cannot afford to pay as much as they would like, it was United Synagogue who decided to discontinue.”

In 2012, USCJ ran a deficit of $3 million. To help increase revenue, USCJ raised dues marginally for synagogues that had been paying in full and began to ask for more from synagogues that were paying at reduced rates. Netivot Shalom was asked to pay four or five times what it had been paying.

In response to an interview request, USCJ emailed J. a written statement that read in part, “We are sorry that Netivot Shalom will no longer be part of United Synagogue’s network of congregations. We stand ready and willing to partner with them again in the future.”

The statement also said the USCJ does not “think it’s appropriate to discuss specific financial details relating to any of our congregations. However, we can say without hesitance that we do everything we possibly can to make sure that any synagogue dealing with financial hardship can remain a member of United Synagogue. Indeed, last year we awarded roughly $1.3 million in dues abatements.”

Regarding Netivot Shalom’s financial challenges, Tarle noted that the synagogue hopes to refinance a mortgage that has it paying $25,000 a month, with a balloon payment due at the end of next year.

“We’re a strong kehilla [community] of almost 400 families, but very few pay full dues,” he said. “So we rely heavily on fundraising and donations to sustain us. I told United Synagogue we’re in this tough situation. We don’t want to leave but our hands are tied. They decided we’re not paying enough.”

Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley

Tarle noted that aside from a webinar training seminar for lay leadership, Netivot Shalom didn’t take advantage of many USCJ membership benefits, anyway.

Other Conservative synagogues, however, do take advantage of benefits that include participation in the Conservative movement’s youth organization, USY (United Synagogue Youth), and having access to USCJ consultants on issues such as Jewish education and leadership training for lay leaders.

For example, Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said his congregation has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with USCJ. The synagogue sent 10 people to a lay leadership conference in New York last year and a has thriving USY chapter, which Booth says “is integral to Kol Emeth.”

“It’s incredible what we’re getting now,” he said. “[USCJ] is creatively exploring how they can use their platform as convener of the movement for leadership.”

Netivot Shalom’s split from USCJ echoes past disenchantment with the organization by a number of Conservative synagogues.

In 2008, three Canadian synagogues quit the USCJ because of high dues. A year later, more than 30 North American shuls threatened to withdraw from the organization because they felt it did not meet their needs.

In 2011, a group of Conservative synagogues, collectively known as the Hayom Coalition, called USCJ “insular, unresponsive and of diminishing value to its member congregations” according to the Jewish Daily Forward.

United Synagogue claims more than 600 member congregations, a 14 percent drop over the previous decade according to a 2011 study.

Netivot Shalom isn’t the only synagogue to be suspended over dues. Last month, a similar thing happened to Tree of Life Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh.

“The value of being a member of the USCJ is kind of hard to pinpoint,” Michael Eisenberg, president of the congregation, told Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle. “Our congregants don’t really seem to care [about membership in the USCJ], but the money it asks for in dues is phenomenal.”

Although his synagogue has roots with the Conservative movement that date back to 1886, he told the paper “it has had an up and down relationship with USCJ.”

At Netivot Shalom, reaction to the suspension has been mixed among congregants, Tarle noted.

He said some are upset, but most understand that “our hands are tied. There is nothing we could do to change the situation. We’re not looking for handouts. The situation would be very different if we were taking advantage of more United Synagogue programs, but we’re not doing that, and because of that, this really hurts.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.