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Reform leader: merging national organization with others ‘a very real possibility’

The national leader of American Judaism’s biggest denomination said he is considering the possibility of merging parts of its operations with those of other liberal Jewish movements.

It’s “a very real possibility” despite some religious differences between the denominations, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, which has over 850 congregations, summer camps that host 10,000 children and a biennial conference attended by thousands.

The URJ helps fund the movement’s seminary, trains synagogue presidents, arbitrates disputes between and within communities and hosts, a website with information on Jewish ritual and practice that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a month.

The coronavirus has hurt the URJ’s finances, in large part because the movement decided to cancel its summer camps. It has forced the URJ to lay off 20% of its workforce, and compelling it to evaluate its near and longer-term prospects: how it can continue providing its services at a greatly diminished size and how it can survive years of widespread economic hardship.

But some Reform leaders and rabbis are concerned about preserving the unique identity of the Reform movement, which in recent decades has emphasized its role in social justice work, especially through its lobbying wing, the Religious Action Center.

“The URJ isn’t only an administrative body,” Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, leader of the 1,800-household Temple Rodef Shalom, outside Washington, D.C. “It also houses a progressive ideology and a philosophy that is like no other movement, and a theology that is central for the future of progressive Judaism.”

The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus shutdown has already hit the Jewish world. In addition to the URJ, other national organizations, like the Jewish Federations of North America and the college campus organization Hillel, as well as local day schools, Jewish community centers and synagogues, have announced layoffs and furloughs.

Though the pandemic has forced many pillars of organized Jewish life to downsize extremely quickly, synagogue support organizations like the URJ have been struggling for years. The 2008 financial crisis hit the Reform movement particularly hard. About 20% of its dues-paying synagogue members left, and not all returned, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. Since then, the organization has gone through multiple rounds of downsizing, and has cut programs.

The two main other egalitarian denominations — Conservative and Reconstructing Judaism — have also been forced to adapt to economic crises and what has seemed to be an unstoppable flow of Americans, young and old, migrating away from organized religious life. In 2012, Reconstructing Judaism merged its synagogue union with its seminary. This year, the Conservative movement appointed a joint chief executive for both its synagogue and rabbinical organizations, a move that many observers saw as a prelude to a broader merging of those two bodies.

“The question is not so much will there be a URJ but what is its new purpose and how big does it need to be to achieve its goals?” said Rabbi Lance Jonathan Sussman, a historian of American Judaism and the leader of Congregation Keneseth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park, Penn.

The URJ, Jacobs said, has been providing what have amounted to emergency services to communities to help them respond to the pandemic, training hundreds of synagogues on how to use remote video software and adapting services and classes to Zoom and Facebook Live, as well as helping 200 synagogues apply for Small Business Administration loans. (Jacobs said that most of the applications were successful.)

He didn’t not specify which parts of the organizations might merge. He framed the possibility as a positive development for several movements that overlap in many ways in styles of worship, although barriers of ritual and practice remain, particularly between the Conservative movement on the one hand and the URJ and Reconstructing Judaism on the other. In Conservative Judaism, for example, rabbis are not allowed to officiate interfaith marriages, and Jewish identity is passed on by the mother — restrictions that the other two movements have dropped.

“The language of demise, the language of shrinkage, that’s not the language to describe the reality of Jewish life today,” Jacobs said. “Change is the language. Adapting is the language.”

Steven Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal service at the Reform movement’s seminary in Los Angeles, has argued for years that some kind of merger is necessary for survival. Now, he said, that conversation can no longer be put off.

“Instead of saying, we launched the strategic plan in anticipation of what could happen, the events are defining us,” he said.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, a business consultant who has worked predominantly with Jewish organizations, said there were four things the movements could start doing together first: facilitate synagogues that serve similar populations to merge or pool resources; merge parts of their respective summer camp operations; create a shared system for adult education, which many synagogues conduct on their own; and share accounting, IT and marketing teams.

The goal, he said, should be to focus resources on making as many Jews as possible feel welcome in organized Judaism, and not just in specific movements.

“If more people feel positively about congregations, that’s important for all the movements,” he said.

Jacobs said merging parts of the various organizations’ operations could happen within his tenure as president of the URJ, although it’s not imminent. If it happens, it will be one of the many changes that were underway before the pandemic — such as streaming services — and have now accelerated.

“The global pandemic is a big push in the right direction in some ways, a direction that many people resisted,” he said. “Because the status quo is always really appealing.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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