Slimmed-down Reform group opens biennial

TORONTO (JTA) – Leaders of the Union of Reform Judaism stressed the group’s consolidation of services at the start of its biennial conference.

"We have radically changed the way we deliver our services," Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the union’s senior vice president, said Wednesday as he briefly outlined the organization’s cutbacks and slimmer infrastructure, including a consolidation of national regions and a greater reliance on the Internet. "It has been an interesting two years."

The Toronto gathering drew 3,000 attendees, about half the nearly 6,000 who attended two years ago in San Diego.

In his remarks, Union President Rabbi Eric Yoffie declared that the Reform movement’s synagogue arm is entering a "third era" in its 120-year history. From a small organization that mainly supported the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Union by the mid-20th century had built a large infrastructure including camps, the Religious Action Center and 14 regional offices to serve its rapidly growing synagogue membership.

Yoffie said the Union is consolidating now to deliver targeted services Reform congregations really want, including "high level, specialized expertise, better use of technology, and more ways to interact and learn from each other."

Appearing at the conference, Israel’s ambassadors to the United States and Canada both issued strong warnings about Iran’s nuclear potential. Their addresses counterbalanced the biennial’s focus on the need for greater interfaith dialogue and the recognition of the rights of Israel’s Arab minority.

On Thursday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasized the positive role that faith communities can play in the Mideast peace process if they "remain open" to each other’s beliefs.

As founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and the Quartet’s peace envoy to the Middle East, Blair said that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is important first for those two nations, "but also as a powerful example of peace between people’s of different faiths" elsewhere in the world.

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