Reform Rabbis Protest Cuts to Outreach

By Nacha Cattan

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.

An association of 150 Reform rabbis is calling on the Reform movement to reconsider its decision to eliminate the jobs of 13 regional coordinators who provide services for interfaith families.

The job cuts, announced last month by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to help relieve a $2 million budget deficit, would eliminate the part-time professionals who help local temples create programming for interfaith families and encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert to Judaism.

A resolution passed Tuesday by the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis expressed “deep concern regarding both the content and process of the decision to sunset the Regional Outreach Director positions.” The resolution states that the decision “denies our congregations the critical leadership, experience and support our Regional Outreach Directors provide.”

Also protesting the cuts, effective March 31, is the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, Edmund Case, who is trying to enlist congregations to support a resolution calling on the UAHC to find ways to reinstate the positions.

The UAHC’s top professionals and officers, who approved the budget cuts December 15, said that funding was reduced to almost every department and that the cuts in no way reflected a decline in the movement’s strong commitment to outreach. They said that the cuts would not affect the funding of outreach programs in temples around the country, whose costs are absorbed by individual synagogues.

The rabbis’ resolution calls on UAHC to “pursue all appropriate and available means” to continue to provide the services that the outreach directors brought to congregations.

The rabbis’ association is headed by Rabbi Stephen Einstein, co-chair of the UAHC-Central Conference of American Rabbis Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Communities.

In a strongly worded posting last month to a listserv for Reform rabbis, Einstein fretted over the impact such cuts would have and the message they might send. He also railed against the lack of consultation.

“Prior to making the decision to cut the Regional Directors of Outreach and Synagogue Community — an action that will surely have a tremendously negative impact on our Movement — I would have expected a good deal of consultation to have occurred,” Einstein wrote last month, according to a copy of the posting made available to the Forward. “Shockingly, such was not the case.”

Einstein told the Forward that he was initially apprehensive after reading a letter of explanation sent to the UAHC board by the union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and the chairman of its executive committee, Russell Silverman. The letter stated that the regional outreach workers’ goals — which include establishing programs within congregations to welcome and integrate interfaith families — have been “generally achieved.”

Einstein said that the letter could be interpreted as a sign of the movement’s waning commitment to outreach. But after “healthy conversations” with top UAHC leadership, Einstein said he is confident that the UAHC has not lessened such commitment.

Nevertheless, Einstein’s association of rabbis chose to reiterate clearly the movement’s strong support for interfaith outreach in its resolution. “We know there are some people who may have questioned” the movement’s priorities, Einstein told the Forward. “So we want to make it clear.”

The second resolution, proposed by InterfaithFamily.com Network, the new advocacy arm of Case’s Internet publication, urges the UAHC to seek funding alternatives with local federations or private philanthropists.

So far, Case’s resolution has been endorsed by the executive committee of Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., where Case formerly served as president.

Case said he was told by top Reform leaders that the movement remains deeply devoted to outreach. “I would like to take that at face value,” he said. “And an effort to find funding to retain those positions would support those statements.”

But UAHC spokeswoman Emily Grotta told the Forward that the union did seek additional funding. “It’s not as though we didn’t try to go out and raise money,” she said. “UAHC has very aggressively tried to raise money through grants and private sources.”

To erase the $2 million deficit, more than 10% of the organization’s operating budget, the UAHC reduced costs drastically in other areas. Grotta said employees will now have to contribute to their health plan, about 30 professionals will be let go or otherwise affected, and the Department of Adult Jewish Growth will merge with another department at a savings of $270,000. Grotta said that outreach would absorb a reduction of $300,000.

The UAHC chose to approve the widespread cuts quietly rather than consult with each department, Grotta said, because it did not want to foster discontent throughout the movement. UAHC leadership is now in discussion with outreach administrators about the impact of the layoffs.

Grotta noted that the outreach department will not be eliminated, but that three full-time professionals in New York will serve congregations, many of which have their own outreach committees. The same structure exists with other UAHC programs, including synagogue management, religious living, synagogue music and social action.

UAHC officers reached by the Forward expressed their sorrow at having to make such deep cuts to outreach, but all said it was necessary.

But for Dinah McNamara, 52, of South Shore, Mass., whose husband is not Jewish, the elimination of the regional outreach position will be a “terrible loss.” McNamara remembers how essential her synagogue’s interfaith program was when she first joined Temple Beth David in 1990 with her husband and two children. “The connection my husband and I made was very, very important in terms of couples bringing up Jewish children.”

McNamara soon became active in running her temple’s interfaith programs and counted on the regional coordinator for materials and advice. “She would put us in touch with how to fundraise,” McNamara said about the coordinator. “You call up and say nobody is coming to our programming and she would walk you through it.”

According to a 2001 study commissioned by the UAHC on its 20 years of outreach efforts, “It would be difficult to find any Reform congregation in North America that does not count among its leaders, lay or professional, individuals whose path to commitment arose in Outreach.”



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