Reform Rabbis Asking Temples To Fund Outreach Jobs

By Alana Newhouse

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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A showdown over budget cuts is brewing between the congregational arm of the Reform movement and several prominent Reform rabbis, who charge that the nation’s largest liberal Jewish denomination is crippling its outreach to intermarried families.

A number of rabbis have initiated grass-roots fundraising efforts to save the jobs of the movement’s 13 regional outreach directors, which were recently put on the chopping block.

In addition to seeking donations from fellow clergy and Jewish charitable foundations, the rabbis are also asking for gifts from congregations, a move that would be unacceptable to the national leadership of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a union spokeswoman warned.

The conflict began in December, when the UAHC announced the elimination of the outreach positions in an effort to close a $2 million shortfall in its $20.2 million fiscal 2003 budget. Protests began immediately, with some alleging that the elimination of these part-time professionals, who help local temples create programming for interfaith families and encourage non-Jewish spouses to convert to Judaism, signaled a change in the movement’s commitment to interfaith couples and families.

“While there may be intellectual, theoretical, even emotional support, the fact of the matter is that cutting the budget impacts outreach and there’s no way to deny that if outreach was valued by the leadership as much as it is by some of us, it wouldn’t have been cut so much,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., one of the rabbis initiating fundraising efforts.

UAHC officials suggest that the outreach program may actually be a victim of its own success, rather than a victim of the movement’s shifting priorities.

“This is not a question of what’s high on the agenda,” said Emily Grotta, a spokeswoman for the UAHC.

“Twenty-five years ago, when outreach was first introduced,” Grotta said, “there was a tremendous amount of work to be done to introduce it, have congregations change, a whole way of thinking needed to be changed across the movement. Now, it’s universally accepted.”

Grotta acceded that interfaith outreach work needed to be continued, but considering its success and the dire financial budget faced by the UAHC, the positions had to be cut.

And even if grassroots efforts raised enough money to save the positions, the UAHC has already said it would only accept the funds under certain conditions.

“We’ve made it clear that it not be just a year’s worth, but a three-year program, and it can’t be raised from the congregations,” Grotta said. She said it was unfair to ask local congregations to supplement a national movement that has pledged to maintain a balanced budget.

“Congregations are suffering right now also,” she said. “We can’t ask congregations that are hurting on their own to send more money to us. We all have to tighten our belts together.”

But some of the rabbis involved say they simply can’t see the wisdom in ignoring this major source of funding, especially for a cause so central to the movement.

“We respect the request on the part of the national leadership, but if a congregation wants to pledge money from its congregational budget that’s an issue that the national leadership of the UAHC will have to contend with,” Jaffe said.

Jaffe added that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, personally had assured him that the movement remained committed to interfaith outreach. Still, he said, “there’s no question that outreach is not as high on the agenda as it has been in the past.”

Representatives from the UAHC have suggested that local communities apply for grants from independent charitable organizations, but some argue that, given the March 31 deadline for the budget cuts and the long process of applying for foundation money, the suggestion is unrealistic.

“The problem from my experience is that getting grants from foundations takes many months and there’s a looming deadline here,” said Edmund Case, past president of Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., and the publisher of Case said grants would present a more plausible possibility if the UAHC postponed its deadline.

Instead of seeking foundation support, Case raised $6,000 — $2,000 for the each of the next three years — to save the outreach position in his region. The money came from his congregation’s operating budget, as well as the rabbi’s discretionary funds and member donations earmarked for the outreach position.

“If they’re going to say, ‘No, the deadline is March 31,’ then the fastest way to raise pledges is to go to the synagogues,” Case said. “They can certainly act more quickly than foundations do.”

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