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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Name Change

Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
UAHC Board of Trustees

December 14, 2002
Phoenix, Arizona

Q & A: Proposal to Change the Union's Name

I am here to propose to you, the leaders of our Union, that the time has come for the UAHC to change its name. I ask you to consider the matter this weekend and to recommend a new name to our Biennial convention in Minneapolis, which will meet in November of next year.

It would be reasonable for you to ask: Why now? Given the many challenges faced by this movement, and by the North American Jewish community as a whole, is such a step really necessary at this moment? Is it worth the time and the effort that we will be required to devote to it?

Let me be the first to say that the most important part of any Jewish organization is not its name but its values and its mission, and the program that it puts in place to make that mission real. Precisely for that reason, I resisted any suggestion that we should consider a name change during the early years of my tenure as President. When I was elected by this board in 1996, it seemed to me that we were at a turning point in our movement's history, and that we needed to direct our full attention to helping our synagogues in those areas that are vital to congregational well-being. In the last 6 years, without abandoning any of our traditional commitments, we have devoted ourselves to strengthening the foundations of congregational life: adult literacy, worship, religious school, and youth grouping. And while there is much more to do in each of these areas and many other tasks for us to undertake, both our Union and our congregations have thrived, and we have every reason to be pleased with our accomplishments.

But now, with our direction firmly set and our mission redefined, we must pay heed to the compelling arguments that have long been made in favor of a name change. The time has come: we need a name that strengthens our Union, enhances our programmatic efforts, sets the course for the future, and furthers our sacred cause.


Attempts to change our name have been made with considerable frequency over the last 60 years. The first serious effort was made in 1946. Rabbi Solomon Freehof, the preeminent Reform rabbi of his day, had been appointed Chairman of the Committee on a New Name, which had spent two years carefully considering this question from every perspective. In his report to the Union Council, as the Union board was then called, Freehof outlined the many reasons why a change of name was necessary. His committee, however, could not agree on a single alternative and presented the Union leadership with 5 options: Jewish Temple Federation of America, Liberal Synagogues of America, Jewish Temple Union, American Synagogue Union, and Hebrew Union Congregations of America. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the recently appointed professional head of the Union, offered a sixth choice: Union of American Synagogues. What followed was a spirited debate that concluded with a decision to table the matter.

Subsequent attempts to change our name were made in 1957, 1973, 1985, and - most recently - in 1995, in response to a plea from Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler. All failed. In some cases the final decision was made by the Biennial Assembly and in some cases by the Union board; in most instances, the decision not to adopt a new name was accompanied by a recommendation to refer the question to a committee for further study.

It is interesting to note that when we review the reasons put forward for supporting a name change over the last 60 years, they are remarkably consistent. Rabbi Freehof in 1946, Rabbi Schindler in 1993, and virtually everyone in between made precisely the same arguments, which are both religious and practical.

The first problem with our current name is that it is anachronistic. When the Union was founded in 1873, the word "Jewish" was disliked, and the word "Hebrew" was considered a genteel substitute that was far more acceptable in Christian society. But such apologetics are unacceptable to us now. We are Jews, and proud of it, and surely our name should proclaim, in the most unmistakable tones, who we are.

In addition, generation after generation of Union leaders have pointed out that while an organization?s name should be euphonious, ours is not; instead, it is awkward, clumsy, and difficult to remember. It has too many words. Union lay leaders and professionals alike have had the experience, again and again, of explaining who they represent, only to be confronted with the question: "What is that name again?" And congregational leaders, rabbis, and even regional and national leaders of our Union are often unable to quote the name correctly. When I speak in one of our movement's congregations, I would estimate that one time out of four the name of the organization of which I am president is stated improperly by the individual introducing me.

But does all of this make a difference? There is good reason to believe that it does. In 1946, Rabbi Eisendrath told the board that he had met with public relations experts about increasing the visibility of the UAHC, and they had told him that the place to begin was a name change. They noted that the Union's awkward name made it difficult for it to become known in wider circles beyond those then affiliated with us, and hence the very complexity of our name had become an impediment to our work. Expert opinion has been sought many times in the last half century, and in every instance it has arrived at the same conclusion. Our current Marketing and Communications committee enlisted marketing experts to do a professional marketing analysis and their conclusions reaffirmed what all previous studies had said: if we expect the Union to be well known and immediately recognized, we must change its name.

Indeed, I would suggest that these considerations are even more urgent today than they were in the past. We live in an age of decentralization. Jews tend to be suspicious of national organizations, Jewish ones included; like all North Americans, they tend to focus on local issues, and are reluctant to send money to meet needs outside of their home communities. The fact that the Union has continued to grow at this time runs counter to the general trend; that we are thriving in this climate is a tribute to our movement's program and leadership, and to the broad vision of our members and congregations. Still, I cannot help but think that we are tempting fate. Surely it would be better in these difficult times if we had a name that would resonate with our members and would identify the broad range of activities in which we engage as being products of our Union. In 1958, in arguing for a name change, Rabbi Jay Kaufman, later UAHC Vice President, said the following: "The problem is not that we do not have a magnificent program. The problem is that we do not get credit for what we do." That, it seems to me, is even more true today than it was in 1958.


And now the obvious question: If everyone agrees that changing our name is such a good idea, why haven't we done it? And the answer is: it is much easier to agree on the need for a new name than it is to agree on what that name should be. It turns out that there is a dizzying array of ideas on what needs to be included in a new name for our congregational body.

In our last attempt at a name change, which was chaired so valiantly by Iris Vanek, we learned that there are five specific elements that are frequently mentioned as being necessary for inclusion in our name. Furthermore, we saw that each of these five elements has its own group of enthusiastic supporters who insist that no name can be acceptable in the absence of this or that particular word or phrase.

The first of these elements is the word "Union." The argument is made that this is the word by which we are most widely known and the word that demonstrates that our new name is a change, but not a break, with our past.

The second element is the word "Jew" or "Judaism" or another word or phrase with definitive Jewish connotations. The argument here is that if we are to replace "Hebrew," we must do so in a way that casts aside the apologetics of an earlier era and plainly asserts our Jewish identity.

The third element is "congregation," or a Jewish equivalent of "congregation," such as "Temple" or "synagogue." The reason, of course, is that our movement, while broad and inclusive, is still primarily an organization of congregations

The fourth element is "Reform," the adjective that, in our time, best describes our unique approach to Jewish tradition.

And the fifth and final element is "North America," the geographic designation that explains where we are located and whom we represent.

The difficulty, I believe, is now clear. No matter how often we throw these five cards in the air, the result is always the same. There is no way that we can include four - let alone five - of these elements in a single name. This means that any name we choose will involve compromise-compromise that, until now at least, we have been unable to achieve.

Whenever we have reached this point in the past, someone invariably says: hire consultants, bring in name change experts to resolve this problem for us. But we have consulted experts many times over the last 60 years and have found that they have no magic solution to give us; they cannot make a decision for us that involves our own values, priorities, and tastes, and that ultimately is ours to make. Indeed, my own view is that we have probably had too many experts and too much process. Last time we spent more than a full year in preparing the name change; we consulted marketing experts, we set up committees, we did surveys and test marketing. But in the end we outsmarted ourselves: in trying to respond to the wishes of various groups in our constituency, we came up with a bad name?a name just as clumsy and awkward as our current name. And it was anything but memorable. In the dozen or so conversations I have had with Reform leaders in preparing these remarks, I have not found a single one who could remember the name that we proposed last time around.

Therefore, I am now suggesting a very different process. I propose that we devote adequate time at this meeting to thoughtful consideration of this issue, and that we conclude by recommending a new name to our next Biennial. I propose that we take into account all that we have learned from our previous attempts at a name change so that we really do reap the benefit of our institutional experience, but that we avoid the temptation to turn to consultants yet again and to study yet one more time what we or our predecessors have studied so many times before. The UAHC board, I believe, is a thoughtful and representative group of Reform Jewish leaders. I am fully confident that after due consideration and debate this weekend, we can choose a name to present to our Biennial, and that our deliberations will be superior to any other process that we might institute. And if it turns out that we are unable to reach a decision, it may just be that coming up with a name that can command broad support is simply not possible. I would deeply regret such a conclusion, but if that were to be so, then we should put this issue aside, and turn to the many other vital matters on our agenda.


And what we have learned from our past experience?

First and foremost, that if we are to have a new name, it must be short, euphonious, and easy to remember. Surely it would make no sense to replace one long and unwieldy name with another.

Second, if there is one word that must appear in our name, it is the word "Union." There has not been unanimous agreement on this point over the years, but the overwhelming majority of our leaders have seen this as desirable. Speaking to our board in 1946, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath put it this way: "One word we must retain: ?Union.? If there is one word that we have put across in the 73 years of our existence, it is the word union, and we are designated throughout this country, by people who can't pronounce our whole name, as the Union. I would very seriously recommend no change of name, rather than relinquish the one word Union, which from a businessman's point of view, is that trade name which is good for a great deal of good will." In every subsequent attempt to change our name, similar sentiments have been expressed; and what was true after 73 years of our existence in 1946 is even more true after 129 years of our existence in 2002.

Third, as I have already stated, given the diversity of our membership and the conflicting views on what a new name should include, we need to acknowledge that we cannot please everyone. A good name - a name that is concise and pleasing to the ear - will inevitably leave something out that someone feels strongly about. No name that we choose will be universally applauded, and we need to be prepared for some negative reaction.

At the same time, in order to maximize movement support and address some of the concerns that will arise, I propose that the name we recommend should include a tagline -a second line that appears below the name and offers additional information. Taglines are a common device in the non-profit world. It is certainly true that the tagline will not be used in verbal communication or in normal conversation, and indeed we would not want it to be. But it will appear in all of our written and visual communication - in our releases, our website, our publications, and our letterhead. In this way, we can complement our name with those elements that would otherwise be omitted but which help to identify us and describe what we do.

With this in mind, I will present to you a name that, I believe, meets the criteria that I have outlined and can serve as a starting point for your discussions. It is, in my view, suitable to carry us through the 21st century.

But first, let me tell you those names that I eliminated from my list and why.

There are, it seems to me, four possible combinations that begin with the word "Union."

The first is "Union of Reform Jewish Congregations." As many of you know, this is the first name that we considered during our last attempt at a name change. We discovered, however, that the initials, URJC, can be interpreted as suggesting a Christological message. As we learned at the time, our members reacted to these initials with varying degrees of astonishment, laughter, and dismay.

The second possibility is "Union of Congregations of Reform Judaism." This is the name that we ultimately proposed in 1995. Since it generated little enthusiasm then and was defeated by the Biennial, I do not recommend returning to it now.

The third is "Union of Reform Congregations." This is unacceptable because it contains no reference that identifies us as Jews.

What remains, and what I am proposing, I believe, deserves serious consideration as the new name of our Union.

It is: "Union for Reform Judaism." Tagline: "Serving Reform congregations in North America."

Before you begin your deliberations, permit me to offer some personal comments on the advantages and disadvantages of this name.

My proposal, "Union for Reform Judaism," proceeds from the premise that we are Reform Jews ? that is how we identify ourselves, and that is how others see us - and therefore "Reform Judaism" should be at the heart of our new name. As a few of you might recall, this was the name that was presented to the 1973 Biennial and was eventually tabled. I was not present at the Biennial, but I have been told that failure to adopt the name had less to do with its merits and more to do with the mishandling of the discussion. A NFTY delegation was to emerge after a vote approving the new name and to march in celebration of the change, but signals were crossed and the kids began their parade at the beginning of the debate rather than at the end. This gave the delegates the feeling that somehow the conclusion was predetermined, and their resentment led to a vote to table. This story has become part of UAHC legend, and I cannot say for sure whether or not it is historically accurate.

But when I checked the record of the Biennial discussion, I found that the major speech opposing the name was given by Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, a rabbi of great distinction who would later serve as President of the CCAR. Rabbi Lelyveld opposed the name "Union for Reform Judaism" because the word "Reform" was included. He argued that we wanted "a Judaism without adjectives," and that to refer to our movement as "Reform" was to separate ourselves from normative Judaism and to betray the vision of Isaac Mayer Wise. Wise, after all, had not used the word "Reform" in the names of any of the three major institutions that he founded ? UAHC, HUC, CCAR. Wise believed that our movement would one day include the great majority of American synagogues and therefore must have an inclusive name that would make synagogues of any persuasion feel welcome. This was precisely the same argument used in 1946 by Rabbis Freehof and Eisendrath; you may recall that none of the six names that they recommended included the word "Reform."

Today, of course, we see things very differently. We are proud Jews, and we are proud Reform Jews. And while we are an integral part of the Jewish people and we embrace the Jewish people wholeheartedly, we are realistic enough to know that there will not be a single movement with which North American synagogues will identify. In our view, the adjective "Reform" defines our distinctive approach to Jewish tradition; therefore the phrase "Reform Judaism" best conveys our very essence and those qualities that have drawn so many North American Jews to our ranks.

If there are objections to the name "Union for Reform Judaism," it seems to me that they will be two-fold. First, some would like the word "congregation" or its equivalent to appear in our name, and second, some may be concerned that this name might seem to diminish the value of our sister organizations in the Reform movement. It is this second concern that led me to propose "Union for Reform Judaism," rather than "Union of Reform Judaism," which was my initial choice. A union "of" might suggest an organization inclusive of all Reform groups, but a union "for" is a different matter; a union "for" is an organization that promotes Reform Judaism, and all of our Reform partners can and do promote Reform Judaism. In addition, of course, both of these concerns are addressed by the tagline, which plainly states that ours is a congregational body.


The decision to recommend a name to the Biennial rests with this Board. Nonetheless, I thought it would be wise to consult with some of our partners in the Reform movement. I spoke with Rabbis Martin Weiner and Paul Menitoff, President and Executive Vice President of the CCAR, with the Board of the CCAR, and with Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the College-Institute. All were helpful and supportive, and I thank them for their input.

Our procedure this morning will be as follows. Immediately following this session, we will divide into groups, where you will discuss whether you favor a name change and if so, what that name should be. Our plenary this evening will then be devoted to a full discussion of such recommendations as may be forthcoming. At the end of the evening, I would anticipate that we would vote whether or not to recommend a name change to the November Biennial.

In making this proposal to you, I am following in the footsteps of my predecessors, Rabbis Eisendrath and Schindler, both of whom understood that names in the Jewish tradition are not casual designations of identity but reflections of our innermost being. They knew that just as Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob become Israel, a change of names becomes necessary when a person or a group undergoes a change in essence ? when its mission and its message are no longer what they had been. The UAHC was founded in 1873, and for three quarters of a century it was a small organization with modest goals, housed in a few rooms in downtown Cincinnati. In the last half century, however, it has become far more than that-a force for change and hope, a beacon of Torah, a voice of vision and leadership. But if this Union, so different from before, is to embrace the future and meet the needs of a growing and dynamic movement, it must have a new name.

But the hard part rests with you. Can we find a name that fits our current reality, that reflects our values and our dreams, and that rings out with clarity of purpose? I hope and believe that we can, and I leave the task in your hands.

Thank you very much. Shabbat Shalom.

Editor?s note: The Union Board of Trustees unanimously voted to bring the name Union for Reform Judaism to the 2003 General Assembly. The Board also adopted a new tagline to be used from this point forward: Serving Reform Congregations in North America.

Q & A: Proposal to Change the Union's Name


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