Reform Umbrella Restructures

In switch to ‘networked’ approach, new head fires 30 employees and announces plans for specialists and consultants.

03/27/12
Staff Writer
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The umbrella group serving Reform movement congregations is making organizational changes including firing and hiring in order to bring its structure in line with the priorities of its new leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs assumed the position at the movement’s 2011 Biennial meeting in December, when he also announced a new emphasis on both outreach to those unaffiliated with a synagogue and connection with teens. Within a year of a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, 50 percent of Reform families withdraw from synagogue life, Rabbi Jacobs said then.

In an attempt to more effectively tackle these problems, the Union for Reform Judaism is organizing itself into teams that will serve specific congregational needs, such as those of large congregations or those that need help with a particular issue, like youth engagement, social justice or interfaith outreach, said Mark Pelavin, a senior adviser to Rabbi Jacobs.

“We’re moving away from the hub and spoke to a more highly networked model,” Pelavin said.

Until now, the URJ has communicated with its almost 900 congregations almost exclusively through regional or district offices.

The union will be hiring specialists in Rabbi Jacobs’ priority areas — a total of 24 positions including part-time staffers and consultants — and it just fired 30 employees. The URJ has about 370 employees, most of them in New York. The union’s budget between 2012 and 2013 will stay flat at about $28 million.

This round of restructuring is the URJ’s second since 2008, when 60 staffers were fired due to budget constraints resulting from the recession, which had sharply reduced synagogues’ revenue from membership dues. Those dues fund the URJ.

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of URJ member households declined by 4.8 percent to 300,076; the number of congregations fell to 897 from 909, said spokeswoman Annette Powers.

Drooping synagogue affiliation rates are a problem that crosses the lines of the liberal denominations. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which announced layoffs and structural changes in 2010 amid harsh member criticism, lost 6 percent of its congregations between 2001 and 2010. The number of member households fell 15 percent to 204,200.

The pressures on individual congregations are causing them to question the value of their support organizations with a new intensity, said Dru Greenwood, who directs SYNERGY, UJA-Federation of New York’s synagogue support effort.

“In some cases it hurts to write that check to the URJ, so you want to make sure people are getting from the Union what they need,” said Rabbi Robert Levine of Manhattan’s Rodeph Sholom.

Also in 2008, the URJ cut the number of regional offices from 14 to four, now in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. In the long term, the remaining offices might also close, although they will stay open for now, Pelavin said.

Instead of focusing on brick-and-mortar offices, the URJ will do more to bring its members together, he added.

“We’ll do more convening,” he said. “We’ll pull together the temple presidents in Milwaukee or find a creative way to help the temple treasurers in Southern California get together.”

Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.

Last Update:

07/25/2012 - 08:44

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Bottom line: the Reform movement itself is withering to begin with, and the URJ is a sinking ship of an organization that until they really started bleeding money never wanted to wake up to the fact that as the governing body of a movement centered around the principle of interpretive, flexible religious living over universal doctrine in a world where technology has rendered information and expertise as no longer an exclusive commodity, they are running out of ways to justify their own existence. Too bad they did this reactively rather than proactively -- might have saved some jobs and shaken up a few less lives.

i was saddened to see the word 'fired' used repeatedly in describing structural changes to the urj. 'firing' implies letting someone go because their job performance has been unacceptable, which i suspect was not the case here. if people lost their positions because of restructuring, through no fault of their own, a more appropriate term would be 'laid off'. it's a small detail, but people draw inferences from them, so we need to be careful in our choice of words. i'm sure no one would want aspersions cast on the quality of these persons' work.

I am also deeply dismayed since the cuts at the URJ are not just the 30 folks laid off, but many others currently on staff who will become part-time at a level set below the minimum to receive benefits.
I am a rabbi in a congregation, and wish I had a "sweet contract with golden parachute" that is referred to in another comment. Most Reform rabbis I know of have taken cuts in salary in recent years, and have received no severance when laid off after many years of service -- because there are "guidelines" recommending severance but congregations do not have to abide by them. They are just suggestions. Lastly, a rabbi's leadership is to provide Jewish learning, guidance and inspiration -- not to be the recruiter for members. If a rabbi does those well, members will come and remain - but only within the demographics. If a community has less and less Jews or if members themselves don't encourage their neighbors to join, a rabbi cannot be a one-person Membership committee.

Jonathan apparently never learned that it is better to be silent and be thought a fool than to articulate and remove all doubt. I don't know which is more stupid, his comment about President Obama's speaking at the Biennial or suggesting that if you really like Magen Tzedek, you are ethically prohibited from firing anybody. No, it's probably the idiocy suggesting that the URJ can downsize the time commitment of congregational clergy.

Less good full time jobs with benefits get exchanged for part time work with little if any benefits. If only the URJ had announced these cuts before President Obama agreed to speak at their biennial convention. Would he have been willing to speak at the biennial if these cuts had been announced just before the convention? I think not. Next time the URJ talks in support of the Magen Tzedek whose mandate is to demand kosher food companies provide good jobs with benefits to their own employees, I will be reminded of the URJ's own "do what we say not what we do" reality. #hypocrisy. The jobs that really should be downsized/become part time are the clergy positions. They get sweet contracts with golden parachutes even when they can't bring enough dues paying members into their temples. Funny how this model never seems to change.

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