Jewish Journal

Hostile Takeover

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Jan. 27, 2000 at 7:00 pm

Los Angeles Conservative leaders are outraged and dispirited after an administrative dispute led United Synagogue, the umbrella organization for Conservative synagogues, to dismiss the officers of the Pacific Southwest regional board and attempt to 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," says Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "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 problem as one of policy and procedure, based primarily on differing perceptions of the role of national headquarters in relation to the region and the fiscal ramifications of that relationship.

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

It is unlikely the dispute will have an immediate effect on congregants, other than producing a general feeling of anger and sadness.

United Synagogue runs inter-synagogue programming, such as weekend retreats and day-long seminars, and 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," says Allan Teplinsky, vice president of the Pacific Southwest region of United Synagogue, and chairman of the committee appointed to deal with this problem.

The dispute revolves around Central's -- as national headquarters is known -- demand that the Pacific Southwest region change its system of collection and allocation of fees from its 59 member synagogues to conform with the rest of the nation.

For most of United Synagogue's 19 regions, Central 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, and the region determines its own budget and sends a percentage to Central to support the national organization.

According to regional representatives, late last June, just before the start of this fiscal year, Central reconfigured the region's budget and determined that Pacific Southwest owed Central another $85,000. Central also demanded that the region conform to the processes and procedures of every other region.

"We attempted to negotiate," says Teplinsky. "But Central'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, according to Teplinsky, two representatives from Central showed up at the regional offices in Encino, demanded files, tried to change the locks and have the furniture put in storage, and demanded that the paid staff, including regional director Rabbi Marvin Labinger agree to take orders from Central. Labinger declined to comment for this article, and Stephen Wolnek, United Synagogue's national president, refused to comment on the details of the dispute or the actions.

"We went to our office, we didn't go to somebody else's office," he said.

Central 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 no authority to take that action, nor did he have authority 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, suggests 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.

This dispute comes on the heals of the American Jewish Congress disbanding its West Coast regional office last March, citing both philosophical and financial differences. The founding of the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in 1995, a program to ordain Conservative rabbis on the West Coast, also initially led to some conflict with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which historically was the only ordaining institution in the Conservative movement.

While those differences have been resolved, some are asking whether there is another manifestation of a growing rift between East and West Coast organized Judaism.

But local rabbis and leaders dismiss that idea, saying they value the unity of the Jewish community, and of the Conservative movement. The Rabbinic Assembly passed a resolution terming the action immoral and calling on both sides to resolve the issue within three months, with outside mediators if necessary.

For now, resolution seems a long way off as both sides become more firmly entrenched in their positions. But Epstein says 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."

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