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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776
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Three Congregations Join URJ


Congregations in California, Washington, and Indiana were admitted into the Union for Reform Judaism at its recent Board of Trustees meeting in New Orleans.

“Each of these congregations is decidedly unique,” said Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, Vice-President of the Union for Reform Judaism. “One seeks to establish a new model for study and discussion among Reform Jews, and another is located inside a correctional facility. The Reform Movement prides itself on its diversity, and each of new member synagogues will certainly add to the array of beliefs and practices that make up North American Reform Judaism.”

The admission of the congregations in California and Washington reflects the tremendous growth the Reform Movement has experienced in the Western United States. A total of five Western congregations joined the Union in 2004, and two gained membership in 2003. In spite of recent Jewish population surveysindicating a decline in synagogue affiliation and in the American Jewish population as a whole, the Reform Movement continues to grow – a phenomenon the Union attributes to Reform Judaism’s willingness to change, its leadership in issues of social justice, civil liberties, and the full equality of women, and its outreach to interfaith families who wish to explore and embrace the richness of Judaism.

By becoming members of the Union for Reform Judaism, the three congregations – Har El Institute of Palm Desert, CA, Congregation Bet Tikvah Ugeulah of Bunker Hill, IN, and Congregation Kol Ami of Vancouver, WA – will be able to participate in the broad community of North American Reform Judaism. The congregations will have access to the Union’s innovative worship programming and study materials and, with the exception of the prison congregation, their members will be able to attend the Union’s youth camps, adult retreats, and regional and national biennial conventions. .

Har El Institute, Palm Desert, CA,

Established in May of 2004, the Har El Institute for Study and Worship in the Reform Tradition seeks to create what it calls “a new worship and study concept for the 21st Century designed to complement and enhance the lifestyle of the contemporary Jew.”

Rabbi Richard Zionts, the congregation’s spiritual leader, based the idea for a congregation devoted to providing intensive study and discussion for its members on the work of Jewish intellectual Franz Rosenzweig, who founded the Independent House of Jewish Study in Frankfurt, Germany after the First World War. Zionts plans to expand the traditional role of the rabbi as teacher, holding study sessions each week for small groups of interested adults, and a pre-college program that teaches history and philosophy to Jewish high school students.

Congregation Bet Tikvah Ugeulah, Bunker Hill, IN

Congregation Bet Tikvah Ugeulah, located inthe Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, the third Union congregation located within a prison Formed as a sister congregation to Temple Bet Herut, a Reform synagogue at a prison in Michigan City, IN, Bet Tikvah Ugeulah is comprised entirely of adult male inmates, and seeks to give incarcerated Jews a sense of brotherhood and the opportunity to perform mitzvot.

“The men of this congregation are turning to and exploring the concept of t’shuvah [repentance],” wrote Benjamin Baker, the congregation’s vice-president. “We feel that no matter the reason for an individual’s incarceration, we have a responsibility to provide for and uplift each other. No Jew should ever be forgotten or made to feel left out because of past mistakes or by being in a prison environment.”

In August of 2004, Baker and three other inmates participated in the first-ever multiple bar mitzvah service behind prison walls. Guided by Mark Miller, the student rabbi of nearby Temple B’nai Israel of Kokomo, the group began studying Judaism last March, and was tutored in Hebrew by volunteers from B’nai Israel. “I was on a path of destruction,” said Bet Tikvah Ugeulah member Joe Meyers. “And I couldn’t find peace, solitude, love, or anything that could help me. But then I found it in Torah. Since I started studying, I’ve learned how to become a better person.”

Congregation Kol Ami, Vancouver, WA

Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, WA, was first established in 1990, and boasts 85 member families, a men’s club, a women’s club, and a religious school. The synagogue joined the Union in order to make use of the Union’s programs and services – as well as to become a part of the North American Reform community.

“The Union’s vast information and support represent resources that a growing congregation like ours needs,” said Sue Meyer, the congregation’s president. “Though small, Congregation Kol Ami recognizes that it has a responsibility to give back to the community, and being a part of the Union will afford Kol Ami more opportunities to build Judaism.”


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


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