Happy New Year! Check Out the URJ's Top 18 Stories of 2016

December 30, 2016Kate Bigam Kaput

What a year it’s been. With 2017 fast-approaching, we’ve rounded up the top 18 Reform Movement stories of 2016, listed below in no particular order. Looking for even more major Jewish moments? Check out ReformJudaism.org's list, too, and let us know what you’d add. Oh… and happy new year!

1. The Reform Movement spoke out on dozens of issues of importance.

As always, the URJ issued statements on noteworthy current events and happenings across the world, from the candidacy and election of Donald Trump to this summer’s mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, from the mikvaot bill is Israel to ongoing developments at the Western Wall, from the United Methodist Church’s BDS vote to this week’s U.N. vote on settlements in Israel. You can read all these statements in our press room and check out more from the RAC.

2. ReformJudaism.org continued to grow and expand.

The popular site, a project of the URJ, hit 6.5 million visitors in 2016 and launched three major new efforts: a podcast, On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, which has topped iTunes’ most-downloaded lists in the category of religion and faith; the publication of modern English Torah translations online for the first time, made available in partnership with the CCAR; and the sharing of Shaboom! educational cartoon videos to teach kids Jewish values, produced by BimBam.

3. URJ Camps expanded in more ways than one.

It was a huge year for Reform Jewish summer camps. In early November, URJ Camp Newman was proud to dedicate its new Koret Conference Center, a critical phase in the major development project completing the Jewish retreat center at URJ Camp Newman. The $4 million grant from the Koret Foundation is the largest single gift URJ Camp Newman has ever received, allowing for the creation of this sacred space for the Northern California Jewish community to enjoy immersive year-round Jewish experiences. Summer 2016 was the inaugural summer for URJ 6 Points Sports Academy California, located on Occidental College’s Los Angeles, CA, campus, and in September came the announcement of the new URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, coming in summer 2018 to the Mid-Atlantic region. Stay tuned to see what we announce next!

4. Reform rabbis held the first egalitarian prayer service at the Western Wall.

In February, as part of the CCAR’s 2016 convention, dozens of rabbis came together for the first official morning prayer service held in the area of the Western Wall designated for non-Orthodox worship. Though plenty of skirmishes at and about the Kotel followed throughout the year, this moment of peaceful prayer and togetherness marked an historic step in our continuing quest to create a more pluralistic and tolerant Israel.

5. We announced the hiring of Rabbi Reuven Greenwald.

Seeking to expand and enrich our Israel programs and activities, the URJ announced the hiring of renowned Israel educator Rabbi Reuven Greenvald as our new director of Israel engagement. Rabbi Greenvald, based in our New York offices, works closely with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the URJ’s Israel-based partners, and our entire staff and leadership to enhance the Reform Movement's Israel education and engagement work and ensure the Movement’s greatest impact on matters of deep importance to North American Jews and to Israel.

6. A new book came out celebrating 40+ years of women in the rabbinate.

In May, CCAR Press published its much-anticipated book The Sacred Calling, a collection of essays that examine the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted on all aspects of Jewish life, including congregational culture, liturgical development, life cycle ritual, the Jewish healing movement, spirituality, theology, and more. Writes contributing essayist Rabbi Laura Geller, “This book is a powerful illustration of the importance of the journey.”

7. The RAC and its allies launched Nitzavim, a massive voting rights campaign.

In the lead-up to the November U.S. presidential election, the RAC partnered with the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the PICO National Network to launch Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation­. The campaign kicked off with a launch event in August (watch videos of that event), but it doesn’t end just because election season is over. Visit rac.org/nitzavim to get involved in 2017.

8. The countdown to Biennial 2017 began.

December 6th is Constitution Day in Spain, and the birthday of Australian soccer star Tim Cahill, but other than that, December it’s had little claim to fame. Until now. This December 6th marked one year until every Reform Jew’s favorite event, the URJ Biennial! Our event chairs outlined a little bit of what you can expect from next year’s event, held December 6-10 in the heart of historic Boston’s vibrant Back Bay neighborhood. Excited? Sign up for Biennial news and program updates.

9. HUC-JIR broke ground on the Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem.

In June, the Taube Family Campus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was named during a groundbreaking ceremony honoring Tad Taube, founder and chairman of Taube Philanthropies. Taube Philanthropies’ $15 million grant, its largest grant ever to a Jewish organization, will enable the Reform Movement’s headquarters in Israel to update, enhance, and beautify its Jerusalem campus as a vibrant academic, cultural, and spiritual center welcoming the larger Israeli community and visitors from around the world.

10. URJ staffers were named to the Jewish Week’s "36 Under 36"list.

Each year, the New York Jewish Week names 36 Jewish leaders under the age of 36 who are changing the face of the Jewish world. This year’s list featured a few faces that were very familiar to those of us here at the URJ… because they work for us! We kvelled over the inclusion of April Baskin, 31, the URJ’s vice president of audacious hospitality, and Evan Traylor, 21, a former NFTY president who this year became the URJ’s first presidential fellow for millennial engagement. Former URJ staffer Pamela Schuller also made the list for her significant work in the field of Jewish disabilities inclusion.

11. NFTY teens took action for gun violence prevention.

Building on their 2015 efforts to curb gun violence across the U.S., teen members of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement, acted to end the scourge of violence that plagues the nation – and their efforts were profiled in Lilith magazine. In February, NFTY’s leaders passed a resolution affirming its commitment to addressing gun violence and started a petition asking President Obama to take action. On June 2nd, teens participated in Gun Violence Awareness Day by wearing orange and lobbying local officials to use “smart gun” technology. Learn more about these ongoing efforts at nfty.org/gvp.

12. The URJ’s Audacious Hospitality team launched the JewV'Nation Fellowship.

This fall, we announced applications for JewV’Nation, a year-long fellowship to support the development and incubation of innovative Jewish outreach initiatives that create community around interfaith and intersectional (“Jewish and…”) identities. Each fellow will receive a micro-grant of up to $3,000 to support his or her project. Though the list of fellows and their project proposals hasn’t yet been announced, it’s coming soon – so stay tuned for some incredible work from them in 2017.

13. PJ Library expanded its reach to serve families across the U.S.

PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program that mails free, high-quality Jewish children’s literature and music to families across North America on a monthly basis. Previously only available through local partnerships, this year PJ Library opened a “U.S. National Community” option to serve families in areas of the U.S. without a local PJ Library community. Thanks to the generosity of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and a group of national funding partners known as the PJ Alliance, more Reform Jewish families than ever can enjoy free, age-appropriate stories that explore Jewish values, holidays, traditions, culture, folktales, and more.

14. The Reform Movement joined in disaster relief efforts across the globe.

Reform Jews from around the world came together to help others in times of need, raising funds for aid after flooding devastated Louisiana in August, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti in October, and fires ravaged Israel in November. Staff from URJ Jacobs Camp even traveled to Baton Rouge to assist with flood relief, with Director Anna Herman serving as interim head of the local federation.

15. A URJ staffer received the Covenant Foundation’s prestigious Pomegranate Prize.

Greg Kellner, director of URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, was one of four other recipients recognized for their tremendous promise, focused leadership, and willingness to take risks in their burgeoning careers. Launching in 2017 under Kellner’s leadership will be the first-ever Sci-Tech Israel trip, as part of the NFTY in Israel family of summer programs, for North American Jewish teens to explore Judaism and science in Israel. In an interview, Kellner reflected on his work as the founding director of a Jewish science and technology camp and what he hopes to do as a result of the prize.

16. We launched even more opportunities for Reform Jewish teens to put their values into action.

In November, we announced that our Mitzvah Corps program would expand to include five new sites for Jewish teens: Chicago, Cuba, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Italy, and Tanzania. November also saw the first gathering of the Northeast Teen Collective, powered by URJ Eisner and Crane Lake Camps in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The Collective is an ambitious initiative to substantially increase the number of teens engaged in Jewish life throughout New York, New Jersey, and New England. Learn more about the first Northeast Leadership Summit.

17. Our 2016 Scheidt Seminar was the largest in its history.

Since 1998, the URJ Scheidt Seminar for Presidents and Presidents-Elect has engaged more than 1,500 congregational presidents, bringing them together to learn, network, build relationships, and enhance leadership skills. The 2016 Scheidt Seminar served 110 congregational presidents – more than ever before in a single year. To accommodate growing interest, we’ll host two opportunities to attend the seminar in 2017. Registration is open now.

18. NFTY-EIE became Heller High, thanks to a generous gift.

A transformative $5 million gift turned the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program into the new URJ Heller High, named in honor of donor Helaine Heller and her late husband Ike. Their gift will allow more Jewish teens than ever to participate in this life-changing, 55-year-old program dedicated to progressive Jewish principles. Read more from the Hellers’ daughter and son-in-law, themselves visionary philanthropists.

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