Acing the HaYom Challenge: A Conversation with Rabbi Michael Siegel

Rabbi Michael Siegel, spiritual leader of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago was present at the inception of Hayom — a challenge put forward to United Synagogue some three years ago to restructure and reorganize itself in order to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

The chief achievement of the Hayom challenge was the creation of a Strategic Plan — V’asu Li Mikdash, adopted March 11, 2010.

One year into the implementation of the Strategic Plan, I sat down with Rabbi Siegel to find out how United Synagogue is doing. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

SD: Can you describe what led up to the creation of Hayom?

MS: The Hayom process began because of a true sense of urgency that was felt by a whole number of rabbis around the country. There was a sense that United Synagogue was really out of step with the needs of congregations. All of us have been beneficiaries of the labors of United Synagogue and encountered scores of dedicated laypeople over the years, whether in USY or Koach or at United Synagogue conventions.

But the landscape had changed and rabbis and congregations had been feeling for a number of years that United Synagogue needed to be refocused on what we feel are the true needs of synagogues. The Hayom effort, then, was meant to be a challenge to the leadership of United Synagogue that we felt we couldn’t wait until tomorrow. We felt change needed to come now, today, hence the name: Hayom.

SD: Did Hayom have wide support among Conservative rabbis? What was the original ask of Hayom to United Synagogue?

MS: Over a few months we were able to pull together 50 different congregations that supported the Hayom effort. Our goal was always to help United Synagogue help itself through partnership and I believe we have taken strong steps in that directions.

Our demand was simple: We wanted United Synagogue to sit with us and develop a strategic plan. Moreover, we showed our commitment to United Synagogue by shouldering the burden of the strategic plan.

SD: Was the process collaborative?

MS: We wanted to show both a commitment and also a sense of seriousness as well. I believe that together, we created a phenomenal group to create a strategic plan. Through the efforts of Jack Ukeles, Dr. Steven Cohen, representatives of United Synagogue and Hayom, we truly came together as a group and were able to create what I continue to believe is a visionary document.

SD: Were you surprised by the “can-do” spirit of United Synagogue?

MS: Looking back now, I believe that United Synagogue is not given enough credit for its willingness to actualize the document. Consider what we were demanding: a change in board leadership; a change in the use of the word “kehilla” for synagogues, for instance.

The fact is that within a very short period of time, United Synagogue has downsized its staff considerably and made some very key hires of some of the more talented educators, rabbis and synagogue talented people involved in synagogue transformation today.

SD: So, you would call the end of Year One of the Strategic Plan a success?

MS: These are significant accomplishments, made all the more remarkable in that they were implemented in little more than a year. As somebody involved in Hayom from beginning, I take a great deal of pride that United Synagogue has gone the distance that it has. Also, I acknowledge the remarkable ability of Rabbi Steven Wernick and Richard Skolnik to effect these changes.

SD: What now? Does Hayom fold up and go home?

MS: Now is the time for Phase Two of Hayom. Now that United Synagogue has taken the strategic plan so seriously, I think it is time to re-engage Hayom. The place that I see United Synagogue at right now is that it is positioning itself for success.

SD: For Phase Two of Hayom, what are the challenges or obstacles to continued success?

MS: One of the great challenges United Synagogue faces today is its image and credibility within the movement itself. This issue, by the way, is not one that applies to the United Synagogue alone but is a movement-wide problem. Many years ago, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg quipped, “it doesn’t matter which denomination you belong to, as long as you’re ashamed of it.” The Conservative Movement took this as a chiuv (obligation). Damaging, endless self-criticism has become the mantra for the movement. We have a responsibility not only to celebrate what we’re doing right but to build on those successes for the future. United Synagogue MUST be an integral part of this and has the responsibility to not only bolster congregations but serve as the glue that keeps the synagogue infrastructure whole — that’s the challenge of the hour and of the day.

We have to be up to the challenge…United Synagogue can’t do it by itself. This is an effort that will call upon JTS, the Ziegler School, the Rabbinical Assembly and all of the different arms of the movement to come together with a new spirit of cooperation. What I have witnessed in the last year is one of the most impressive good faith efforts that I have ever seen any organization undergo. NOW is the time for rabbis, cantors, educators to stand with United Synagogue and go forward from Hayom.

–Shira Dicker, Communications Consultant

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