Union for Reform Judaism planning changes to cut budget

NEW YORK (JTA) — The congregational umbrella for the Reform movement is planning layoffs and organizational changes to reduce its budget by about 20 percent.

Faced with reduced income due to synagogues being unable to pay their dues, the Union for Reform Judaism is in the process of reducing its budget from $25 million in 2008-09 to $20 million in 2009-10, according to a spokeswoman for the organization, Emily Grotta.

The URJ, which serves more than 900 Reform congregations throughout North America, already has saved $1 million through a hiring freeze in September and 13 layoffs in January, Grotta said. The organization also has made smaller cuts, from reducing its travel budget to asking board members to pay for their own lunches at board meetings.

The Reform union adopts its budget in June, as its fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, but it has called an emergency board meeting for March to adopt a new structure supported by a reduced budget.

The budget cuts became necessary as congregations have had difficulty paying their dues, which comprise the lion’s share of the URJ budget.

The URJ had expected to collect $35.9 million from its member congregations this fiscal year, with about half the money going to the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But the URJ is already $2.7 million behind on its collections, and based on surveys it has taken expects to drop back further as the year progresses and synagogues suffer through the recession.

Such grim forecasts explain the decision to enact $5 million in cuts, including a reduction in URJ’s allocation to the seminary, Grotta said.

“Congregations and synagogues are not immune to what is going on,” Grotta said, adding that during tough economic times demands for services from synagogues actually increase, even as congregations take in less money in their own dues because their members are hurting financially. “Congregations are asking for relief, no question.”

Compounding URJ’s economic problems is the drop in the value of its endowment. The organization usually uses 4 percent of its endowment to covering operating costs, but will only draw 2 percent this year because the fund has been hit hard by the falling stock market.

The URJ has been discussing for months how it could streamline and change its product to better serve its congregations. Many of the cuts and changes it will make in coming months already had been considered, but the economy pushed up the timetable drastically.

“We are now in the process of taking a hard look at our whole structure," Grotta said. "This is something we were already doing for the last decade. We have been studying how we serve our congregations and their members. The economy fell apart and now we have to accelerate the process.”

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