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New York, NY, October 19, 2016 – The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) announced today that the Heller family of Scotch Plains, NJ, has made an endowment gift of $5 million to fund the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel Program, which is being renamed URJ Heller High: Isaac and Helaine Heller EIE High School in Israel. This is the largest gift in EIE history, and the URJ’s largest non-capital gift.
Building on the existing Heller Family Scholarship Fund, which has provided more than 1,000 student scholarships over 40+ years, the gift will provide significant annual scholarship funding for greater program participation with a focus on underserved Jewish communities and those without other sources of scholarship support. To extend the impact of this gift, the URJ is launching a comprehensive scholarship campaign to raise additional funds necessary to meet significant student needs.
The new funds will also provide for continued programmatic excellence, and investment in marketing and recruitment to elevate awareness and understanding of URJ Heller High as a premier personal and educational development opportunity for Jewish youth. The gift celebrates the program’s 55th anniversary and honors the family connection of Helaine and Isaac Heller with EIE, beginning with their daughter Audrey’s transformational experience as a participant.
Isaac Heller, an industrial park developer and philanthropist who cofounded Remco, one of the US’s leading toy manufacturers, died in 2015. Together with his wife Helaine, they were longstanding members of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ, and dedicated supporters of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
URJ Heller High is a fully accredited, intensive academic program for North American high school students in grades 10-12 to spend a semester living and learning in Israel. Established in 1961 by NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement, in honor of past URJ president Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, the program has served more than 3,000 students and counts many current Reform Jewish clergy and leaders as alumni.
“This is my way of honoring my husband, Ike, preserving his memory, and carrying on the love that we’ve both had for this program for 41 years. Since we saw its wonderful impact firsthand when our daughter Audrey came home, we have wanted to help even more students to have this important experience. The program and the URJ have been so meaningful to both of us, and I know Ike would be very pleased,” said Helaine Heller.
“EIE changed my life. It gave me a Jewish identity, widened my perspective, and instilled a strong connection with Israel. It’s thrilling to see my mother get more involved with this program that has so much personal meaning to me, and to continue to deepen the involvement my father started. What’s most gratifying is how many students benefit from the scholarships, particularly those from parts of North America with relatively small Jewish communities where funding sources can be limited. For teens from these regions—including Tallahassee, Florida, where I live—Jewish life simply requires more creativity. It’s so important to broaden the reach and accessibility of opportunities like URJ Heller High to as many young Jews as possible,” said Audrey Heller Romberg, daughter of Isaac and Helaine Heller.
“The Heller family’s extraordinary gift, together with other recent large grants and contributions, demonstrates the power of the URJ’s strategic vision to strengthen communities that transform the way people connect to Jewish life. This important endowment will have a tremendous direct impact; it will also inspire others to support our sacred work. As we make great strides in our continued efforts advocating for a progressive, pluralistic Israel, the Reform Movement is guaranteed to have future leaders passionately committed to Israel because of the continuity and growth of URJ Heller High,” said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
URJ Heller High offers outstanding teens the opportunity to develop a deep sense of personal connection to Israel and the Jewish people while being inspired to explore their own Jewish identity during four challenging and rewarding months. Students return home with heightened self-confidence, individuality, and independence, together with a commitment to Jewish life and the state of Israel. Zoe Dressner, a 2016 participant from East Brunswick High School in NJ, said, “We traversed the country, learning thousands of years of our people’s history in the very same places it occurred. I’ve never felt more connected to my Judaism than I do now, with the abundance of knowledge I have on our struggles and triumphs as a people.”
“The Heller family shares the URJ’s commitment to engaging more teens with authentic Jewish experiences, and to offering an immersive and influential Israel experience at this important period of time in a person’s life. There is no better way to inspire more young Jews to embrace Jewish life as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy,” said URJ Vice President of Youth Miriam Chilton.
“Ike Heller is profoundly missed, but his legacy lives on in the generations of Jewish teens who have and will continue to benefit from the Heller family’s generosity and leadership. URJ Heller High’s evolving and consistently high-quality program is stronger than ever, with soaring registration levels and the recent hire of Rabbi Loren Sykes as Principal. The value of URJ Heller High to individuals, families, congregations, camps, and the Reform Jewish future cannot be overstated. Nor can the Heller family’s unwavering commitment to this excellent and vital program,” said Paul J. Reichenbach, URJ Director of Camping and Israel Programs.
“What a fitting way to honor both this transformative program and the Heller family’s deep involvement, enhancing and elevating it. It truly feels like their support is coming full circle, with Helaine fulfilling Ike’s original vision. This gift represents their big hearts, their dedication to the Jewish community, and their love of Israel and desire to open that opportunity to those who are less privileged,” said Kim Hirsh, a niece of the Hellers and Director of Philanthropic Initiatives for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“URJ Heller High has the potential to shift the direction of the future of progressive Judaism. Ramping up participation in this program can be a game changer for the Jewish world by creating tomorrow’s Jewish leaders who represent the modern Judaism of the Reform Movement. Audrey and I are proud to pledge our support to the fund to continue the expansion of this essential program,” said Rabbi Jack Romberg, a son-in-law of the Hellers and Rabbi of Temple Israel in Tallahassee.
URJ Heller High students are based on Kibbutz Tzuba, located in the Judean Hills approximately fifteen minutes outside of Jerusalem, enjoying small class sizes, an advanced Hebrew language Ulpan, and their regular general studies courses to fulfill the requirements of their home high schools. Among the highlights of the experience is experiential learning. Tiyulim (trips) are taken nearly every school day to bring the lessons from Jewish history classes to life. Numerous week-long trips include studying the Holocaust in Poland, simulated Israeli army training called Gadna, and a hike across the country from sea to sea.
Registration is open for URJ Heller High’s Spring 2017—more than 60 students are registered to date and dozens more are expected—and Fall 2017 sessions. The Fall 2016 semester is well underway with 31 students from 13 states plus Australia, who represent NFTY, ten URJ summer camps, and 28 URJ congregations across North America.
The URJ’s youth engagement initiatives incorporate 60 immersive programs reaching more than 23,000 youth, teens, and young adults every year.
About the Union for Reform Judaism
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) builds community at every level—from the way we collaborate with congregations, organizations, and individuals to how we make connections across North America to advance contemporary and inclusive Jewish life. Providing vision and voice to transform the way people connect to Judaism, we help congregations stay relevant and innovative, motivate more young Jews to embrace Jewish living, agitate for a more progressive society, and foster meaningful connections to Israel.
Founded in 1873, URJ has grown into the largest and most powerful force in North American Jewish life, with nearly 900 member congregations and work that inspires, connects, and educates millions of people. Our legacy, reach, leadership, and vision mean that we can unite thousands of years of tradition with a modern, evolving Judaism to strengthen Jewish communities today and for future generations.
Visit us at www.URJ.org to learn about our social justice initiatives, camps and programs for young Jews, services for congregations and communities, and how you can work with us to create a more just, whole, and compassionate world. Enjoy related content at ReformJudaism.org and connect with URJ on Twitter and Facebook.