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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
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The Union for Reform Judaism was founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It has grown from an initial membership of 34 congregations in 28 cities to more than 900 congregations in the United States, Canada, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It is the largest Jewish movement in North America and represents an estimated 1.5 million Jews. In 2003 the General Assembly approved a new name, Union for Reform Judaism, to better reflect today's reality.

In 1998 on the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Union, Reform Judaism magazine published a 125-year retrospective by Dr. Michael A. Meyer, Adoph S. Ochs professor of Jewish History and HUC-JIR. The article is available online as a PDF.

The Early Years

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, widely known as the founder of Reform Judaism in North America, was a native of Bohemia who came to the United States in 1846. As the rabbi of Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY, he introduced many reforms in worship services, such as the seating of men and women together and choral singing. These changes were not universally welcome, leading to his dismissal on Rosh HaShanah in 1850.

Four years later Rabbi Wise went to Cincinnati’s congregation Kehillah Kedosha B'nai Yeshurun (subsequently know as the Isaac M. Wise Temple), where he was to remain for the rest of his life. It was in Cincinnati that Wise built the Plum Street Temple in 1866, still in use by his congregation, symbolizing his conviction that America was the next Golden Age of Jewish life. From his congregation, Rabbi Wise founded the three major arms of the Reform Movement: an umbrella organization of synagogues, a seminary and a rabbinic conference.

In 1873 representatives of 34 congregations from 13 Midwestern and Southern states gathered in Cincinnati to found the Union of American Hebrew Congregations with one major purpose: establish a seminary where American rabbis could be trained for American congregations.

By 1875 membership in the Union had grown to 72 congregations, including the "radical" congregations from the East Coast as well as moderate ones that would later break off to join the Conservative movement. It was that year that the Hebrew Union College was founded with Rabbi Wise as its first president. To celebrate the ordination of its first graduating class in 1883, the seminary threw a lavish banquet that included, to the horror of traditional Jews in attendance, clams, shrimp and other traif. This shattered Rabbi Wise’s dream that all Jews in the United States would be unite as the "Union of American Hebrew Congregations."

In 1885 Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and adopted the Pittsburgh Platform, which defined the Reform Movement, and four years later the Central Conference of American Rabbis was founded.

By the 1890s, the purpose of the Union had expanded beyond simply supporting the college. It organized the Hebrew Sabbath School Union, which issued teacher-training pamphlets and textbooks, and organized a Department of Synagogue and School Extension that supported the creation of new synagogues. In 1896 women delegates attend the Union’s convention.

When the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was dedicated in 1961, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath presented President John F. Kennedy with a Torah scroll that had belonged to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

The first decades of the 20th century saw a gradual expansion of the areas in which the Union assisted congregations as well as service to affiliate bodies: sisterhoods (WRJ) in 1913; brotherhoods (MRJ) in 1923, and youth (NFTY) in 1939.

The direction of the UAHC began to change in the early 1940s with the appointment in 1943 of Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath as executive secretary, a position he later changed to president. In 1951 Eisendrath moved the Union’s headquarters from Cincinnati to New York, shifting the focus of Reform Jewish life from the Midwest to the Northeast and dramatizing the adoption of a more dynamic program of leadership within the Movement. The Union purchased its first camp in the early 1950s, and the Movement’s emphasis on Social Action began in earnest, culminating with the 1961 founding of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Under Eisendrath the Movement experienced tremendous growth, as congregations were formed in the new suburbs populated by returning GIs. By 1956 there were 536 congregations in the Union, and by 1970 the number reached 706.

In 1973, just hours before Rabbi Eisendrath was to deliver his final biennial sermon, he suffered a fatal coronary. Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler delivered the text of Eisendrath's speech and became president of the Union.

Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler

Under the leadership of Rabbi Schindler the Union again experienced a period of great growth as he brought the Movement in new directions. In a 1978 speech to the UAHC Board of Trustees Schindler called for a program to reach out to affiliated and unaffiliated interfaith couples, giving birth to Outreach. Four years later he again broke ground by calling upon the CCAR to adopt the principle of patrilineal descent.

In June 1996 Rabbi Eric Yoffie succeeded Rabbi Schindler as president of the Union. He emphasized putting Torah at the center of Jewish lives by intensifying Jewish education, particularly among adults. His major initiatives include adult literacy (1997), a worship revolution (1999), a new curriculum for supplemental schools (2001), the use of new technology to reach directly members of congregations with Torah commentary and other information (2003) and Sacred Choices, a program to address destructive teenage sexual behavior (2005).

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

In December 2002 Rabbi Yoffie called on the Union to change its name, something that had been tried unsuccessfully in 1946, 1973 and 1995. On November 7, 2003 delegates at the Minnesota Biennial overwhelmingly approved the new name: Union for Reform Judaism.

In 2007, Rabbi Yoffie was the first leader of a major Jewish organization to speak at the convention of the Islamic Society of North America. Rabbi Yoffie is deeply committed to issues of social justice and community concern. A prominent spokesperson for sensible gun control, he was the only religious leader to speak at the Million Mom March in Washington, DC. He has also worked tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish state and the rights of Reform Jews in Israel, and, during his tenure as president, met frequently with Israel's elected officials. Retired from the Union since June 2012, Rabbi Yoffie blogs regularly for the Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
Rabbi Rick Jacobs
Photo by Ben Fink Shapiro

Rabbi Rick Jacobs succeeded Rabbi Yoffie as the fourth president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Previously Rabbi Jacobs served as a visionary spiritual leader at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, where, during his 20-year tenure, he reshaped communal worship, transformed the congregation into a community of learners, and strengthened WRT’s commitment to inclusion.

Devoted to global social justice, Rabbi Jacobs visited Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake. He also has observed the plight of refugees in the Chad-Darfur border area, and has participated in an annual conference of Muslim and Christian leaders to build understanding between the West and the Muslim world.

In reimagining the URJ for the 21st century, Rabbi Jacobs and his team believe that together, congregations and the Union can fulfill a vision for the future in which individuals can discover meaning in progressive Jewish communities that are:
  • Grounded in the study of Torah
  • Engaged in service to God
  • Committed to Israel and the Jewish people everywhere
  • Leaders in the pursuit of justice for all people.

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