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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Emily Grotta


MINNEAPOLIS, November 7 -- One hundred and thirty years after it was founded, the Reform Movement's synagogue arm voted to change its name from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to the Union for Reform Judaism: Serving Reform Congregations in North America.

The vote by an overwhelming majority of the delegates attending the Union's Biennial convention in Minneapolis is an acknowledgement that the largest, most liberal, and most vibrant form of Judaism in North America needed a name with which its 1.5 million current adherents could identify.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union, said that many people have asked why this is the time to undertake a name change. "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," he said. "But in Judaism, a change of name takes place when a person or a group undergoes a change in essence."

"In the 130 years since our founding, Reform congregations and the Union that serves them have undergone radical changes, growing into the largest and most dynamic religious movement in North American Jewish life," he said. "The time has come for our name to reflect that."

Reform Judaism, which has its roots in eighteenth century Germany, found rich soil in America when German Jews immigrated to this country in the 1800s. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, an immigrant from Bohemia, founded the UAHC as a union of congregations in the belief that all Jews would come together under a single banner. Orthodox Jews, however, found Wise's efforts to assimilate into American society unacceptable, and refused to be part of an organization that did not adhere to traditions such as strict dietary laws and the separation of men and women in worship.

Reform Judaism grew steadily throughout its first 60 years, but it was after World War II, when returning Jewish GI's moved from inner cities to suburbs, that the Movement exploded. With Reform Judaism's willingness to adapt to changing times -- ordaining women as rabbis and cantors and affording them full equality in synagogue life, recognizing the rights of gays and lesbians, and welcoming interfaith families into the life of the synagogue -- it quickly became the dominant form of Judaism in North America, with some 920 congregations in every state, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In recent years, however, there has been a significant renewal of Jewish tradition within the Movement, evidenced by the increased use of Hebrew prayer, revitalized worship, and a deepening of personal commitment, spirituality, and Jewish knowledge.

Friday's vote to change the name of the Union was the fourth such effort in sixty years, and many delegates who voted for the change attributed the success of this effort to Yoffie, who asked the Union's 270-member Board of Trustees to consider a name change almost a year ago. After a compelling speech as to the reasons why the name should be changed, the board voted unanimously to bring a resolution to the General Assembly -- the highest decision-making body in the Movement.

The recent National Jewish Population Survey, the most comprehensive such study in American Judaism, found that while the overall Jewish population in America is declining, the Reform Movement is growing and is the largest Jewish denomination in North America.

Allison Tatarsky, president of NFTY-the Reform Movement's youth affiliate - urged the delegates to approve the name. "We are the future," she said, "and we need you-our parents' generation - to give us a name that says who we are."


The Union for Reform Judaism is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. URJ services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.


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