Study: Conservative shuls spend on operations at expense of engagement

(JTA) – Conservative Jewish synagogues are focused more on operations than youth engagement and are more than twice as likely to have a cantor than an associate rabbi, a new survey of synagogue staffing found.

About 50 per cent of Conservative synagogues employ a youth director, but in only about 12 per cent is that a full-time position, according to a survey of Conservative shuls conducted by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). While about 54 per cent of Conservative synagogues have a cantor (37 per cent of them full time), fewer than 25 per cent have assistant or associate rabbis, and only 18 per cent have a full-time associate rabbi.

The most common position in Conservative synagogues is rabbi, at about 93 per cent of synagogues, followed by custodian (70 per cent), administrative assistant (66 per cent), bookkeeper (about 65 per cent), executive director (61 per cent), education director (59 per cent) and cantor (54 per cent), according to the survey.

When only full-time employees are counted, 85 per cent of Conservative synagogues have a rabbi, 56 per cent have an executive director, 46 per cent have an administrative assistant, 43 per cent have a custodian, 38 per cent have an education director, 37 per cent have a cantor, 35 per cent have an early childhood director and about 34 per cent have a bookkeeper.

The survey relied on data provided by 331 of USCJ’s 580 member synagogues in the United States and Canada. The findings were presented at the umbrella organization’s recent conference in Schaumburg, Illinois.

“Staffing tends to lead toward operations, not engagement,” said Ray Goldstein, USCJ’s kehilla relationship team leader (kehilla, Hebrew for “community,” is the organization’s preferred term for synagogue).

“When a synagogue comes into money, they hire an executive director before they hire an assistant rabbi,” Goldstein said. “The data does not support that our kehillot are putting money into hiring youth directors.”

The survey, which was led by Goldstein and Barry Mael, USCJ’s director of kehilla administration and finance, also found that despite much talk in the movement about creating new kinds of positions to address the movement’s changing needs, none of those innovative positions “have taken hold in any meaningful way.”

Not surprisingly, the synagogues least likely to have a rabbi are those that are smallest: Only 23 per cent of those with fewer than 100 members have a full-time rabbi, compared to 80 per cent of those with 100-199 members. Associate rabbis mostly appear in synagogues with more than 450 members, while executive directors show up among synagogues in the 100-199-member category or above.

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