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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Remarks to the Board of Trustees, San Diego Biennial

Robert M. Heller

Can it really be four years since I stood at a similar podium and shared with you my goals and my vision for changing the Union and making it more of a learning organization? The calendar does not lie, but I am still surprised, a bit wistful and, yes, proud of what we have accomplished.

The famous Seussicker Rebbe, better known as Dr. Seuss, captures my feelings when he writes:

“My goodness, how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” He goes on to say “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

I invite you to smile with me for a few moments as we review some of what this board and our professional partners have accomplished together over the last four years. The time is too short for me to thank by name every one of you, volunteers and professionals, responsible for our success, so of necessity the few I name must represent the many I cannot.

In my 2003 presentation to the Special Nominating Committee seeking the nomination to be chair, I described the direction the Union would have to take over the course of the next chair’s term in order to fulfill its mission. These included:

  • Becoming more of a learning organization where learning and collaboration are core values and where training, leadership development, evaluation of what we do and technological proficiency are priorities.
  • Enhancing our camping system.
  • Giving congregations more ways to make tikkun olam part of the fabric of congregational life.
  • Helping our congregations serve the needs of a changed Jewish community.
  • Building our ties with Israel and World Jewry.
  • Strengthening our financial position by making the MUM culture one of service delivery and not simply tax collection, enhancing our fund raising and making the budget reflect our real priorities.
  • Upgrading our legal capacity and becoming state of the art in addressing a changing legal and auditing environment.
  • And this too: I believed that by immersing ourselves in the work of the Union as a learning organization where openness, transparency and mutually respectfully partnerships are the goal and increasingly the norm, we would reweave the fabric of trust that had been badly frayed after the late 2002 budget cuts and rebuild morale at every level even though we were simultaneously embarked upon a process of change that would itself necessarily create uncertainty in a large, inherently conservative organization.

That last point is exactly what we did—all of us in this room. And if that is all we did, we could say “dayenu.” But we have made striking progress in all of these areas over the past four years. No, we did not complete the work, but we surely made important strides.

Building a Learning Organization
Start with the learning organization idea. The premise is that to fulfill its mission, the Union must attract, train, nurture and retain talented people. They are our most important assets. In a sense, we are a professional services organization with a Jewish mission. To be successful, we must create an operating environment characterized by collaboration, sharing of ideas and strategic thinking. We have to have the right expertise and the ability to provide it where and when our congregations need it.

That is why the work of the Task Force on Service Delivery in the 21st Century was so consequential. In approving its recommendations, the Board made training, leadership development, evaluation and achieving technological proficiency priorities for us. As the reports earlier this morning from Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Peter Shapiro demonstrate, we are rapidly implementing those priorities.

The Task Force’s work also led to the regional service delivery pilot programs Steve Sacks and Rabbi Danny Freelander reported on. I have spoken on prior occasions about the dedicated work of Iris Vanek and Dale Glasser who partnered in leading the Task Force and Amy Kaplan and Jean Bowdish, who were also part of the Task Force executive team. I want to add a word here about Steve, Danny, Marc Gertz, Carole Goldberg, Deborah Hirsch and Daryl Messinger, who took the Task Force’s work on the regional structure and have now brought it to the next level. We asked them to get that done in 6 months in order to be able to report to you at this meeting. Surprising even themselves they did it and I applaud them for their persistent effort, thoughtful discussion and remarkable results.

Learning is, of course, a crucial function within any learning organization. We have to learn from what we do, learn and respond to what is going on in the world around us, in our congregations and the communities they serve. At the Union, we also have to be Jewish learners. Leadership through learning has been a consistent theme of our Movement for decades.

Admittedly, not all of us are Jewishly learned, but all of us can be learners. That is one reason we have made learning part of our Board meetings. I am particularly proud that we held our first URJ Leadership Kallah for the Board last year. It was an opportunity for direct, intimate study with some of the leading teachers of Torah in the Reform Movement and the opportunity to learn together, worship together and build community within our Board. It also provided a context for us to lead by example, conveying an important message about the centrality of lifelong learning and community-building in our work and as criteria for leadership in the Movement.

Building a Camping System
We enhanced our camps in many ways, not least by fostering collaboration and a sense of commitment to the system as a whole. We built greater transparency into the budget process, enabled our camp directors and commissions to learn from each other and adopt best practices, developed a marketing campaign and helped build development capacity in the system, generating several million dollars of new investment in our existing camps. Gail Littman, our wonderful NAC Chair, and the NAC members worked effectively with Danny, Paul Reichenbach, Miriam Chilton and our camp directors and camp commissions to achieve those results.

Our most visible accomplishment though was the building and opening this year of Camp Kalsman in the Pacific Northwest. Those of us on the Board who were there for the dedication know what a beautiful facility it is and David Berkman and his team brought it vibrantly to life this summer. We are indebted to Mark and Peachy Levy and their family for the lead gift, to the local fundraising committee, and to Lenny Thal, who seems to be related to or know every Jew in the region and whose persistence and commitment in seeking major gifts from every one of them have enabled us to raise most of the money even as construction costs have forced us to increase our goals.

Our camps also played a crucial role in the Union’s extraordinary response to the hurricanes of 2005. You heard from Jonathan Cohen and Loui Dobin two years ago about the shelter provided at the Jacobs and Greene Family camps. Recall too the tremendous effort by our staff to put together our response to the storm-ravaged New Orleans, Gulf Coast and Florida communities including the Jacobs Ladder program. Some two dozen staff members working without regard to departmental borders met by phone or in person nearly daily for some six weeks to coordinate our response – exactly what a learning organization should do.

Embedding Social Action in Congregational Life
We rolled out the Kehillat Tzedek program, which helps make social action an integral part of congregational life. That fulfilled a quest of mine begun during my term as chair of the Commission on Social Action. Last year we added the Just Congregations program, which has already engaged 95 congregations, under a dynamic director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner. Jane Wishner, who has been a superb, if shy and humorless, Commission Chair, Rabbi Marla Feldman, the talented Director of the Commission, and the Commission’s volunteer and professional leadership deserve thanks for all they are doing to make the pursuit of social justice a core activity for every congregation. The Commission’s work reminds us that no matter how piously we profess our values, if we do not live them, they are not our values.

We can take pride as well in the brilliant work of the Religious Action Center led by two truly outstanding professionals, Rabbi David Saperstein and Mark Pelavin. Powerful advocates, they and their team, including Barbara Weinstein and the legislative assistants work tirelessly to assure that our voice is heard and has resonance on a broad range of issues, not least our resolutions on Iraq, on Darfur, on stem cell research and on civil liberties.

Building Congregational Membership
Congregations that live their values are more likely to be the sort of compelling communities that attract and retain members. Much of the Union’s work is intended, directly or indirectly, to help congregations build their membership in a changing world. Following up on Rabbi Yoffie’s Membership Initiative in 2005, we conducted the Membership Survey, a joint product of the Marketing and Communications and Outreach and Membership groups. It is intended to help us understand why people join our congregations, why they leave, why some never affiliate. You will hear more about it during the Biennial. It will enable congregations and all of us to think more clearly and knowledgeably about the issues and design meaningful programs to attract and retain members.

For now, I just wanted to note the remarkable quality of this survey. That is characteristic of all the survey work the Marketing and Communications Committee has done in recent years. Emily Grotta and Marc Gertz and the other members of that Committee demonstrate the value and creative power of a mutually respectful volunteer-professional partnership. We are especially indebted to Marc for the technical surveying expertise he brings to the table and for the resources he generously makes available to us. And thanks, of course, to Kathy Kahn, Judy Berg and their respective professional and volunteer colleagues for their good work on this as well.

Israel and World Jewry
When it comes to building our ties with Israel and support for progressive Jewish communities around the world we have had several breakthroughs. First, the Board added the World Union for Progressive Judaism to our Reform Jewish Appeal with the goal of increasing awareness among our congregations as well as adding financial support. Second, we created a World Jewry Committee, chaired by Steve Sacks with Carole Sterling as Vice chair, to coordinate our efforts in this area. Third, ARZA took the lead as we once again dominated the voting for the World Zionist Congress, which has major financial implications for our Movement in Israel. We also had a highly successful Board Mission to Israel, brilliantly handled by Rabbi Elliott Kleinman and our other professionals, and finally, we raised over $1.5 million to fund relief efforts, shelter programs and the like for Israelis victimized by the Hezbollah war.

Strengthening Our Financial Position and Legal Capacity
In the financial area, too, we have made major breakthroughs. We have modeled our practices on the standards set by Sarbanes Oxley where that makes sense, even though the statute does not govern not-for-profits. Following the recommendations of a Strategic Financial Committee put in place immediately after the Minneapolis Biennial, we rationalized our debt to stop funding long-term improvements from short-term lines and adopted policies to appropriately control spending on camp capital projects. The Budget and Audit Committees have also undertaken thoughtful reviews of our programs and spending to assure that our budgets align with our priorities and our spending aligns with our budgets.

Alan Belinkoff, our superb Treasurer and Steve Sacks, our irreplaceable General Counsel, have brought their professional expertise to bear on these issues and worked with Michael Kimmel, Les Pitner and now Donna Stein to implement state of the art controls.

When it comes to MUM, the Union’s crucial revenue base, Charlie Rothschild and Carole Goldberg and their colleagues provide another wonderful example of volunteer-professional partnership. They have increased the transparency, fairness and rationality of the process and they have worked to create a culture of service delivery within the MUM system – recognizing that a congregation’s MUM problem is typically a sign of deeper synagogue management problems that we can help with, benefiting the Union and our congregations.

That is a record to be proud of, but there is much more. Think of the remarkable work we are doing in the education area, where, under the leadership of our world class Director, Rabbi Jan Katzew, we have now produced the Chai, Mitkadem Hebrew and Sacred Choices sexual ethics curricula. The valuable partnership between Jan and Marilynn Yentis, our wonderful volunteer chair of the Lifelong Learning Commission, also helped produce the pre Biennial symposium on Gender and Jewish Education in collaboration with HUC-JIR, NATE, WRJ and MRJ., another example of what a learning organization can do. Or think about the work of Jewish Family concerns where Richie Address and Jean Arbabanel have created another model partnership, or the vital work being done by the Commission on Inter religious Affairs under Mark Pelavin and Judy Hertz.

I apologize for drowning you in details. Here is the big picture: First, this Board and our professional leaders have achieved great things over the past four years in many areas crucial to our congregation’s success. We are making the Union even more nimble and proactive, helping our congregations anticipate the challenges of a changed community. Second, there is much yet to do. I will have more to say about that on Friday. Fortunately, the incoming officers and new Board bring talents to match the tasks. In Peter Weidhorn we have a leader who has succeeded in all the important work the Union has asked him to do – selling 838 Fifth Avenue and acquiring 633 Third Avenue and building an endowment in the process, working to bring the NAC system into being, serving as Treasurer and Budget Chair. We are in good hands and I join you in looking forward to his Chairmanship.

In closing, I want to again thank Eric for his vision, leadership and clear thinking but above all for his support and friendship, which have made these four years so productive and satisfying for me. The opportunity to work closely with him has been a gift.

To all of you, thank you for your dedication and passion about our work and for your support of the Union. In the press of the day to day, it is easy to lose sight of the larger purposes we are serving. Together we are building a Movement, helping our congregations create communities of meaning, strengthening the College and the other arms of Reform Judaism, extending the joys of Reform Judaism to the many whose lives would be richer and more fulfilling if they joined us and shaping an even brighter Reform Jewish future. What you do is bringing that future into being.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech Ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’tzorchay tzibbur. We praise you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has commanded us to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community.

All of us are blessed to be entrusted with this privilege. You have honored and humbled me by allowing me to serve as your Chair. I hope I have proven worthy of the great trust you bestowed upon me. It is an experience I will always cherish.

Thank you.

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