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October 23, 2014 | 29th Tishrei 5775

Adapted from Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

URJ Executive Committee Meeting, NYC
March 14, 2011

Peter Weidhorn asked me to review and reflect on the Executive Committee meeting yesterday with four leaders of the Rabbinic Vision Initiative, and to suggest how we might think about the session and how we might move forward.

I would like to make five points.

Point one: I was very pleased that we had this discussion. It was an important discussion. It was a fundamentally constructive discussion, and we need to see it in those terms. We must engage this group of congregational rabbis; they are an essential part of our constituency. We should welcome what happened and see it as an opportunity for the Union. If I have a major message today, that would be it.

Point two: There is nothing surprising about the fact that our Movement is having this discussion now. After all, this is a pivotal time for Reform Judaism. This is what the RVI said in its position paper, and this is what many of you said yesterday during the course of the discussion.

It is a time of far-ranging changes in the Jewish world; we are struggling with issues of Jewish identity, intermarriage, and blurring denominational lines. We won't take the time to run through them, but these problems exist; they are discussed in the RVI paper, we are all aware of them, and we understand their weight and significance.

It is a time of significant transition for the Union. I will be leaving next year after 16 years as president. Starting a year from June, we will have a new president, who in fact will be chosen in the next few days.

It is a time of major reorganization for the Union. This reorganization was initiated in 2009. We are two years down the path, and at a point where we need to be - and are - asking ourselves, "What works and what doesn't work?"

If I were somebody concerned about the Reform Movement, concerned about the Union, and desirous of making an impact and having a say, this is precisely the time at which I would be coming forward and expressing my views. This is what the RVI has done, and appropriately so.

Then, to all of this we should add the impact of the financial crisis that has engulfed North America. It would be a serious mistake to see what is happening in our Movement primarily in financial terms. Nonetheless, financial hard times - both for our congregations and for the Union - do focus our attention on matters that might previously have been put aside.

So, again, for all of these reasons, we should not be surprised by the existence of this discussion and by its intensity. These are the reasons why we should embrace these concerns; they are rooted in the current realities of the Jewish world.

Point three: The RVI's position paper both discusses in broad terms how the Jewish community is evolving and offers a case for change at the Union. I am in substantial agreement with their critique of the Movement including the Union. When they talk about things that the Union has not done and areas where we need to do more work, they are-I believe-substantially correct in what they say.

My primary disappointment with their message and with what we heard last night was their focus only on areas needing improvement, while there was barely any recognition of our many successes.

I appreciate the dynamic of the situation. When you have something important to say and you have relatively little time in which to say it, you zero in on the message. Nonetheless, I felt that it was an inaccurate picture. Making sweeping statements that the Union has failed all congregations, large and small, does not reflect the reality of Reform Jewish life.

We do ongoing research - not as an exercise in self-justification but as part of the consistent process of taking a good hard look at what needs to be done to improve our system. What we have found is quite an extraordinary array of programs that go on day in and day out that are real success stories, well received and deeply appreciated throughout our Movement. Whether we are dealing with our Scheidt Seminar for Temple presidents; our membership work, our new incubator grants; our religious school and Hebrew language curricula; our educational and outreach consulting; our music publishing; our Israel programs; our array of skills training programs for professionals and lay leaders; or the support provided by our Union rabbis and other URJ staff when rabbis or synagogues run into problems, what we have seen is this: hundreds and hundreds of testimonials from congregational leaders throughout North America who have said "thank you for helping our congregation deal with major problems, with ongoing challenges."

I know that many of you were puzzled to hear in the RVI presentations last night that our congregations find the work of the camps, the RAC, and the youth movement and Israel trips to be meaningful, but do not find the work of the Union to be meaningful. Given that these areas are such a significant part of what the Union does, and so much of our resources and staff are devoted to precisely these areas, this is not an easy point for us to understand.

My message to my colleagues on the RVI is simply that you have said a great deal that is helpful and constructive. Therefore, if you would recognize the broadly acknowledged strengths of the Union at the same time that you point out its weaknesses, you would help us to move forward and to establish a productive dialogue based on common shared understandings.

Point four: We must not let ourselves off the hook.

As I have already indicated, we made extraordinary changes two years ago, and now we are evaluating whether the structures that we put in place actually work. It seems to me that in some cases they do, while in others they clearly do not.

Our new governance, programming and staffing configurations resulted from a two-year process of self-reflection, constituent polling, and outside evaluation. Therefore, the only word that I truly objected to in the entire RVI position paper was "peremptory." The paper said that the changes we made two years ago were "peremptory." I thought that this was terribly unfair to the people in this room and to the remarkable work they did. The changes might have been wise or might have been unwise. They might have been effective, helpful or unhelpful. But they were not peremptory.

If I had had to use a word to talk about the changes that we initiated, I probably would have said that they were "decisive" or "courageous." I think the Union should be proud of what it did two years ago. It faced an extraordinarily difficult situation: a financial crisis in our synagogues that created a financial crisis for the Union. The Union could not sustain huge deficits even for a short period, and it would have been irresponsible for us to do so. Faced with this reality, the people in this room made some very difficult choices.

But the fact is that we should absolutely not argue with the RVI about how we characterize what we did two years ago in terms of whether it was overly hasty or not. That is not the issue. The only issue is: Was it effective? Is it strengthening our congregations? Is it promoting a progressive view of Torah? Is it meeting the needs of our new Jewish world?

And, two years into the system, the honest answer is in some cases "no", in some cases "yes," and in some cases "we do not yet know."

We now understand far better than we did two years ago the huge psychological blow that was certain to result from dismantling a system that had existed for more than a half a century and that, in the minds of our membership, was the very essence of what the Union was about. For many people, the perception was that the Union has disappeared.

The regions were the heart of our system. They provided a certain kind of congregational support, but it was support that was very expensive and that we could not possibly maintain. The decision to discontinue the regions was therefore the right one.

But what we have learned is that a Union without the regions appears very different to our constituency. And not only that, replacing that kind of hands-on support with something else turns out to be a lot harder than we had anticipated at the time. We had many conversations about serving Jews with technology and in other ways; these were important, serious conversations in which we were deeply engaged, but they were conducted in the abstract. When we got to the implementation stage, we found out that some of what we had planned just didn't work as we had anticipated. And thus the need to adapt, change, rethink, and improve those programs and services.

And also, this: We were very concerned about temple presidents, lay leaders, and board members who said to us, over the years, "We don't hear from you." So we put in place a system to remedy this by reaching out regularly to our leaders, and, in some measure, we were successful. Interestingly enough, although we didn't take sufficient note at the time, it was not a system focused on reaching out to rabbis. A regional system with 14 regional directors, all of whom are rabbis, relates to rabbis in a very different way than does a system of congregational representatives who are not rabbis. So it is not surprising that our rabbis have a different sense now, based on this changed reality, of what the Union is and what it does.

Another observation: Three weeks ago I was interviewing a senior executive for a position at the Union. He said, "You know, I needed to do my homework for this interview. So I went to the website to learn about the system." He paused and then continued, "It is enormously complicated. I don't understand it." This was a smart individual with management experience who is involved in Jewish life, and yet when he studied our system he could not comprehend it.

Let me ask you: If tomorrow night your Temple board said, "I would like you to lay out for us the Union's new system, how it works in the real world, who does what and how it serves us as a congregation," are you sure that you could do it? We need to accept the fact that although each part may have a compelling justification, when we put it all together the system is complicated, difficult, and in some places overlapping.

What I am saying is this: Facing a crisis, we were courageous and daring two years ago, and parts of our new system work very well.

But we need to be equally courageous and daring now as we now evaluate the system, and consider whether or not it truly meets the needs of a changing, dynamic, and troubled Jewish world. RVI's challenge to us and its case for change are deeply appreciated; so too is the feedback we are seeking and receiving from other rabbis, professionals and lay leaders. And now we must be responsive to their concerns.

My final point is that we owe it to ourselves and to the RVI to ask a difficult but essential question: Where do we go from here? It is difficult because what we heard was more of a critique than a plan; indeed, my rabbinic colleagues clearly said that they did not intend to lay out a plan for us last night.

Also, we heard different messages. To some extent, we heard a desire for a broad, Movement-wide visioning process that would involve both Movement-wide cooperation and careful listening on our part. I agree with that wholeheartedly. In fact, we have spoken repeatedly about the need for working together with all arms of the Movement, but we have never done it a comprehensive way. A vibrant Reform future absolutely requires Movement-wide dreaming, planning, conversation, and ultimately action. And yet we also heard a clear sense of, "Let's get moving, let's start to do." These two things - visioning and doing - are not obviously and immediately consistent with each other.

So that was part of the difficulty that we faced. We also heard an approach to governance that seemed to be at odds with the governance plan that the Union has developed. The RVI representatives made the point that the Union needs a mechanism whereby leaders from the outside - thinkers, philanthropists, experts in communal affairs - can be brought into leadership positions without climbing the usual organizational ladder. And I agree with that. Both the Union and congregations need to be able to pull in people from the outside who bring resources, special talents, or an outsider's point of view to the table. At the same time, the Union, like the Reform synagogue, is a grassroots organization that depends on devoted volunteers who show ongoing commitment to the synagogue structure. Our board and executive committee worked very hard to put a governance system into place that would involve these committed leaders from congregational ranks and from the Union system. Just as our synagogues cannot dispense with these leaders, neither can we.

Given these differences, I am not exactly sure what to propose on governance matters, but I look forward to a conversation.

In other areas, there are places that we can begin. First of all, as I have said, we have to complete our own reorganization. We have to rethink, redo, and build on the courageous approach that we took before. And we also have to address some of the issues that the RVI called on us to address and that we haven't yet addressed. And again, there are places where we can start.

In order to do this, of course, we will need to involve the new president as soon as he is chosen. We do not want a president to assume office a year from June and be confronted with fundamental changes that somehow are inconsistent with his vision of what this organization should be. That makes no sense. The problem is that the new person may still have other responsibilities, even as the Movement will collectively be looking for him to play a critical role immediately in whatever moves us forward. It will be my job and Peter Weidhorn's job to resolve these issues and to make the transition work.

We will also need to prioritize. If we are to get something done, we will need to make some choices. Since the RVI document was more a comprehensive new approach than it was a specific program, there will be a temptation to deal with it by creating innumerable committees and procedures. The result might well be that we will get lost in a bureaucratic maze. We must make very certain that we resist that by setting out clearly what is most important.

One thing that we heard loud and clear was the RVI's sense of urgency, which I think needs to be our sense of urgency. There are issues that need to be addressed, and we don't have years in order to think them through and process them through yet another taskforce. So let us proceed, remembering to communicate along the way our successes and the successes of our partners, the CCAR and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. And above all, let us avoid a sense of despair-a sense that somehow we are lost and don't have the capacity to respond, or that the Movement doesn't have the capacity to respond. That simply is not true. Indeed, the ferment that we are now experiencing reflects Reform Judaism's creative and inventive spirit, which always asserts itself in difficult times.

And as we move ahead, both collectively as a Movement and the Union itself, we need to reach out to rabbis in the RVI and to include them in the process. We need to invite them in. We need to ask them - and others as well - to share with us.

And obviously, obviously, in this organization, lay leaders are going to play a central role. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the importance of communicating with our rabbis, and we must address this need even as our lay leaders step forward and exercise the leadership that they have always exercised.

And, by the way, we have a vehicle to bring us all together in the Reform Jewish Think Tank, a joint project of the CCAR, HUC-JIR and the Union, which should serve as a mechanism for us to do some of that broader visioning that was called for.

So, with this I conclude: Our congregations are in distress. Not everywhere but in many places. Our congregational leadership is worried. Our task is to rethink Reform Judaism and do what we have to do to strengthen our congregations.

The Union has taken some very important steps and made some very important changes, but we have a great deal yet to do.

To the RVI, let us say, "thank you." I repeat: Let us say "thank you." But now, join with us and with our other partners, the Conference and the College. Let's face together these changes that we need to make, let's transform Reform Judaism together. We are, after all, in this together, and that needs to be the spirit in which we move forward. This is the way for Reform Judaism and Reform synagogues to remain strong, forward-looking, and creative-rooted in Torah, committed to God and Israel, and devoted to a Judaism not only of yesterday but also of tomorrow.

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