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Reform Begins to Reform Itself

August 13, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Two months after the Union for Reform Judaism closed its Philadelphia office -- along with 13 others across the country -- it's still far from clear what long-term impact the move will have on the region's congregations.

"This is the beginning of a process and only time will tell how valid it is," said Rabbi Richard Address, who ran the Pennsylvania office from 1978 through 2001 and is now URJ's specialist in caring community/family concerns issues.

In March, URJ's leadership voted to cut its national workforce by 18 percent (roughly 60 people), trim $5 million from the budget, to $20 million, and lower dues synagogues must pay to be members.

As part of the overhaul, URJ opted to do away with a system, created in the 1950s, that divided the country into 14 regions, which included the Pennsylvania Council, an area that stretched from southern New Jersey to West Virginia.

On May 31, all of the regional offices closed their doors for good. In Philadelphia, three staff members lost their jobs, though several others, including director Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, are remaining with URJ in other capacities.

URJ is keeping its headquarters in New York, as well as offices in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The Philadelphia office provided congregations with ways to improve programming and increase membership, and was a place to turn to in times of crisis.

The economic downturn, and its severe impact on the Jewish world, has dictated many of these decisions, according to professionals in the movement. But Reform leaders insist that it is also part of an effort to rethink the movement -- the largest in the country, with more than 900 congregations and 1 million members --and its structure, a discussion that has been taking place for about five years.

Rabbi Stacy Offner, the New York-based vice president of URJ and the top professional charged with implementing the new structure, said the new setup was "derived out of a desire to be more effective and efficient in a new era."

The regional structure, she said, "was created in a time when long-distance phone calls were scary and expensive and computers didn't exist."

Elwell, who ran the office starting in 2001 and is now URJ's worship specialist, echoed those sentiments. "One of the things that we have learned is that zip codes don't matter anymore," said Elwell, now based out of her Center City home.

Under the new system, congregations have been assigned a specific representative at URJ's New York office to contact for support. In essence, the URJ contact would function like a primary care physician and refer congregations to specialists in areas such as worship or education.

Address said that whole departments within URJ have been cut. Two of his own support staff were let go and his job title has been changed from department head to specialist. He said he understood the reasoning behind the closures, but that from his perspective, much has been lost.

Both Address and later Elwell appeared at synagogues as far away as Pittsburgh within hours, or a day, if called about a synagogue crisis, such as an internal dispute over whether or not to renew a rabbi's contract. Address said that he often had to function as a mediator, or peacemaker.

The office also helped foster a sense of regional community, through programs and biannual conferences, several sources said.

URJ's Camp Harlam, in the Poconos, will retain an office here, although it will likely wind up in a new space, said Offner. The youth movement, NFTY, will keep its regional structure. But rather than have offices, advisers will work out of their homes.

Even though the office here has closed, the Pennsylvania Council lay leadership structure remains, with one board that covers Greater Philadelphia and another that encompasses much of the rest of the state.

But several members of the local board, known as the Federation of Reform Synagogues of Greater Philadelphia -- which represents 20 area congregations -- said they were unsure of the body's mission now that it had no professional counterpart. The board was scheduled to meet this week to discuss the new realities.

Richard Molish, the board president, predicted that the lay body would be even more important now and that all its work would be geared toward "helping congregations develop a more meaningful, richer Jewish life for each and every congregant."

Catherine Fisher, a board member who has worked in URJ's regional office and is now membership director for Congregation Rodeph Sholom, said, "We are committed to seeing this through. We know there will be some ups and downs along the way."

As for how well the new system is working, Fisher said she didn't think Rodeph Sholom had yet been in contact with its URJ representative, or even knew the person's name.

For Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, the changes come at an interesting time. The 15-year-old synagogue, which acquired a building three years ago, had just been provisionally accepted as a member of URJ.

Ilene Schafer, Kol Ami's president, said that since the congregation hadn't been involved in the past, members really don't know what to expect, but that it was important to join URJ to support the advancement of Reform Judaism and to gain access to help with planning programs and to affiliate its youth group with NFTY.

Andrea Losben, a regional executive board member who is a longtime member of Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Center, said, "I think people have to be optimistic. What choice do we have? I hope in a couple of years we'll all look back and laugh and say, 'Why were we so concerned about the new structure?' "

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