The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, is selling its New York office, the most recent move in a strategy to cut expenses, expand philanthropic support and focus on core functions to meet the needs of member congregations.
The organization announced Jan. 21 that it signed a contract last month to sell its two-floor condo in midtown Manhattan for $15.9 million. Proceeds from the sale of the Second Avenue property will go toward paying down its debt, renting new office space and establishing a foundation to fund ongoing programs, United Synagogue said.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, said owning real estate is not essential to the organization’s core mission. He said the “vast majority” of the proceeds will go into a foundation.
“We’ll invest these resources instead in people, in innovation, and in our kehillot, our sacred communities, with whom we are reimagining Judaism for the 21st century,” he said.
“I sense that in all probability that people are going to be supportive,” said Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. “I don’t think this will have a major impact. It’s not like we’re talking about the Western Wall.”
“They’re making a lot of changes and to really change they need more financial capacity,” said Rabbi William Rudolph of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda. “They need a shot of new capital and this is a way to get it.”
Wernick said the proposed “innovation fund” will be used to seed new kehillot, although not necessarily in the traditional bricks and mortar form.
“If one looks at the adult community in their 20s and 30s, that has become a transitional community. Should it be a goal to set down roots or to help them engage Jewishly?” he said.
Proceeds from the sale will also pay down between $2 million and $3 million of the organization’s debt.
The decision is a double-edged sword for the Conservative movement, said Rabbi Steven Rein of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.
“On the one hand I credit Rabbi Wernick for making a bold move. On the other hand, the optic — selling the space for money — doesn’t create a positive headline,” he said. “The next step would be to indicate the positive efforts they now will be able to accomplish without the burden of real estate.”
United Synagogue has taken a financial hit in recent years as Conservative synagogues have shut down, merged with other congregations, or pulled out of the congregational group for practical, financial or ideological reasons.
The group has about 600 member synagogues, down from 630 synagogues in 2013 and 675 in 2009. In 1985, it had about 850 synagogues.
In 2011 and 2012, United Synagogue ran a cumulative budget deficit of $6 million, and for the last two fiscal years the cumulative deficit has amounted to about $2.8 million. This year’s projected budget deficit is $600,000, a spokeswoman said.
In 2013, United Synagogue said it was shutting down its college outreach organization. And not long ago, the Conservative movement’s network of Solomon Schechter schools, which has seen its own ranks shrink over the last decade and a half from 63 schools to about 40, dropped its affiliation with United Synagogue.
A United Synagogue spokeswoman, Andrea Glick, said the organization was planning to rent office space in lower Manhattan. Asked whether United Synagogue considered moving its staff of about 50 to Jewish Theological Seminary, Glick said that United Synagogue explored many alternatives, including the Interfaith Center of New York and sharing space with other Jewish organizations.
“Either space was not available or did not meet our needs,” Glick said.
Under New York state law, the office sale must be approved by a vote of member congregations; that will take place Feb. 20 to March 12, Glick said. If approved, the move likely would take place in August or September.
The announcement comes a year after the Reform movement said it planned to sell half of its New York headquarters, and move its staff to nearby Hebrew Union College. One million dollars from the building sale was to be earmarked for expanding Reform’s youth programs.
“What we’re seeing now is change in the American Jewish community in a rapid fashion,” Weinblatt said. “It’s not surprising that both the Conservative and Reform movements are responding. The changes parallel changes happening in private industry.”
JTA contributed to this story.