Nod to Change as Jacobs Takes URJ Reins

Gospel Choir and African Tallit Symbolize New Path for Reform

Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.
clark jones/urj
Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published June 15, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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A “staggering percentage of our b’nai mitzvah are eyeing the door by the time they reach Ein K’eloheinu,” the closing hymn of Sabbath services, Jacobs said at the biennial.

Cohen, who is also a research professor of Jewish social policy at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that Jacobs’ focus on teens and young adults shows that he “understands the vitality of the movement 20 years from now depends on what we do today with these young people.”

Jacobs has changed the URJ’s institutional focus, taking it from a service organization to a network organization with a core faculty of “thought leaders” and “preferred vendors,” and a role connecting synagogue leaders to each other for advice, Freelander said.

Before Jacobs’ arrival, for example, URJ staffers helped synagogues with leadership development for their boards of directors. “Now we’re outsourcing it,” Freelander said. Similarly, the central office in New York had a staff person who ran programs to train volunteer musicians and worked with congregations on their musical programming. Now the URJ is developing a referral network on the topic.

For URJ’s 2013 fiscal year, which will begin on July 1, the budget is $27.7 million, about $800,000 more than it was in 2010, and close to $5 million more than it was in 2008, the earliest year available on the group’s website. (As a religious organization, the URJ is not required to file publicly available tax reports.) Freelander said the 2013 budget is balanced.

Additional revenue has come from fundraising. But less money is coming from the dues that congregations pay the URJ. And a couple of years ago, the 270 members of the URJ’s board of directors together donated just $1.5 million, an average of about $5,500 each.

“The culture of the board was different” then, Jacobs said. “The new culture is committed to doing the development. We’re going to really need the culture of giving and find new revenue sources.”

Today the board has 250 members. The 90-member executive committee has been changed to a 30-member oversight board.

The organization has also cut payroll. Close to half the staff is working out of their homes around the country, Freelander said, and nearly one-third of the staff works one or two days a week. In 2008 the URJ employed the equivalent of 240 full-time employees. For fiscal year 2013, that number is 188.

The changes have not produced an immediate budget savings, Freelander said, but more of the budget is being spent on technology and less on staffing expenses. “We’re spending our money very differently than we did two years ago,” he said.

Not every part of the denomination is struggling financially. HUC-JIR, which is Reform, has more than doubled its endowment during the past three years, in the midst of a national recession, to $170 million now from $82 million in March 2009, Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR’s president, said in an interview.

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at dnussbaumc@forward.com


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