Reform Umbrella Restructures


The umbrella group serving Reform movement congregations is making organizational changes including firing and hiring in order to bring its structure in line with the priorities of its new leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs assumed the position at the movement’s 2011 Biennial meeting in December, when he also announced a new emphasis on both outreach to those unaffiliated with a synagogue and connection with teens. Within a year of a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, 50 percent of Reform families withdraw from synagogue life, Rabbi Jacobs said then.

In an attempt to more effectively tackle these problems, the Union for Reform Judaism is organizing itself into teams that will serve specific congregational needs, such as those of large congregations or those that need help with a particular issue, like youth engagement, social justice or interfaith outreach, said Mark Pelavin, a senior adviser to Rabbi Jacobs.

“We’re moving away from the hub and spoke to a more highly networked model,” Pelavin said.

Until now, the URJ has communicated with its almost 900 congregations almost exclusively through regional or district offices.

The union will be hiring specialists in Rabbi Jacobs’ priority areas — a total of 24 positions including part-time staffers and consultants — and it just fired 30 employees. The URJ has about 370 employees, most of them in New York. The union’s budget between 2012 and 2013 will stay flat at about $28 million.

This round of restructuring is the URJ’s second since 2008, when 60 staffers were fired due to budget constraints resulting from the recession, which had sharply reduced synagogues’ revenue from membership dues. Those dues fund the URJ.

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of URJ member households declined by 4.8 percent to 300,076; the number of congregations fell to 897 from 909, said spokeswoman Annette Powers.

Drooping synagogue affiliation rates are a problem that crosses the lines of the liberal denominations. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which announced layoffs and structural changes in 2010 amid harsh member criticism, lost 6 percent of its congregations between 2001 and 2010. The number of member households fell 15 percent to 204,200.

The pressures on individual congregations are causing them to question the value of their support organizations with a new intensity, said Dru Greenwood, who directs SYNERGY, UJA-Federation of New York’s synagogue support effort.

“In some cases it hurts to write that check to the URJ, so you want to make sure people are getting from the Union what they need,” said Rabbi Robert Levine of Manhattan’s Rodeph Sholom.

Also in 2008, the URJ cut the number of regional offices from 14 to four, now in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. In the long term, the remaining offices might also close, although they will stay open for now, Pelavin said.

Instead of focusing on brick-and-mortar offices, the URJ will do more to bring its members together, he added.

“We’ll do more convening,” he said. “We’ll pull together the temple presidents in Milwaukee or find a creative way to help the temple treasurers in Southern California get together.”

Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.