Envisioning a Center for North American Reform Judaism

Some of you may know that the URJ, HUC-JIR and the CCAR have been exploring the idea of creating a Reform Jewish Center in New York bringing together all three institutions as well as other constituents of the Reform Movement under one roof. Plans are moving forward to determine the feasibility of creating this Center – evaluating where it could be located, how it would function, and how the three institutions can integrate administratively and programatically to take advantage of their collective strengths. At a recent meeting of the URJ Board, an extensive presentation on the proposed Center was presented to the Board members. As part of our ongoing commitment to keep you informed of important developments affecting HUC-JIR and the Reform Movement the post below provides you with a summary of the presentations of the lay and professional leaders at the meeting.

–Jay Geller and Jean Rosensaft

Professional and lay leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) convened for a presentation on a proposed Center for North American Reform Judaism (Center) on June 11th at a plenary session of the meeting of the URJ Board of Trustees  in Brooklyn, New York. Their advocacy and concept for this Center as a single physical facility that would house these three arms of the Reform Movement was enthusiastically received by the URJ Trustees.

Peter Weidhorn, URJ Chairman, opened the discussion, saying “the partnership of leaders is needed to accomplish the Reform Movement’s goals.”

Rabbi Aaron Panken, HUC-JIR Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, provided an overview of the Center, noting “We have to think beyond where we are now to envision the future.”  He described the participation of URJ and HUC-JIR lay and professional leaders in the planning of this project, focusing initially on space utilization for each entity, and the designation of Newmark Knight & Frank as real estate brokers to explore the needs of the Center and the current New York real estate market. Stressing that the Center must make financial sense to each institution, he stressed that HUC-JIR and URJ would have to sell their current properties and find or build a new shared facility that would be cost-effective for all three institutions with sufficient funds remaining from the sale and purchase to meet the needs of each institution (the CCAR does not own the offices that it currently occupies and would presumably contribute to the financial well-being of the Center by paying rent for the space that it will occupy). He pointed out the uncertainties of the New York real estate market and noted that no one can project where the market will be in the six months that it might take to evaluate the options for location of the Center. Most importantly, he stated that the Center “must reflect the vision and benefits of such an integrated environment, where, for example, HUC-JIR could work closely with URJ educators, and HUC-JIR students could work with the CCAR, thereby manifesting one movement in a shared headquarters in the spirit of what already exists on HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR President, placed the discussion of the Center within a larger sociological context, stating “All denominations are challenged to speak in a more meaningful fashion to the issues that confront Jews in contemporary life – the search for significance and purpose in life, access to what it means to be part of a Jewish community, and the search for spirituality in their lives – in a less institutionalized silo fashion than we have now. I am convinced that Reform Judaism can speak in a liberal cadence to Jews today in their search for meaning. Our vision of the values that animate our Tradition can help people find meaning in their lives both as individuals and as part of the Jewish people. HUC-JIR’s campuses – Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York – must become centers of synergy for the Reform Movement to address these issues of meaning.”  Pointing to the financial advantages and strengthened programming implicit in collaborating on this project, he advocated for “less division and more efficiency” in advancing our Movement’s larger vision and mission for the 21st century, saying “I hope to see this vision realized beyond financial advantages that must and will occur.”

Rabbi Steven Fox, Executive Vice President of the CCAR, agreed, saying “This is about a conversation about Jewish life in America in a period of transition from the organizational and institutional structures of the 20th century. The way to address the future is through the collective wisdom of HUC-JIR and its faculty, the URJ, the CCAR, and professionals in the field.”  When conceiving of the three institutions being housed together, he stressed “looking at the contents, not the vessel, with three institutions working together and strengthening one another.” He posed the harder question of “what do we mean by partnership if we live together,” and stressed that we need to share the same definition of partnership and success, eliminating barriers and boundaries and promoting transparency, open communication and shared priorities. Invoking the highest aspirations of Reform Judaism, he proposed the need to practice the values of kavod (honor and respect) and tzimtzum (contraction), in “building a home together and creating a sense of family before moving into a building.” He stressed the interrelationship of each partner institution’s mission in sustaining Jewish life: the CCAR fostering leadership, the URJ fostering congregations and lay leadership, and HUC-JIR training the professionals who will lead the Reform Movement in the 21st century.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, URJ President, said, “I have a dream. Every spring I meet with the HUC-JIR ordination class to explain the URJ’s mission and programs. My dream is not to have to do that anymore. When we at the URJ talk about where our young people are, and the activities of NFTY, our summer camps, college kids, and the disengaged 20s-30s’ generation, we’ll have HUC-JIR students involved in our work. The CCAR will be more intrinsically involved, and the HUC-JIR faculty will be readily accessible to teach at the URJ’s Commissions and Committees meetings. With HUC-JIR’s faculty and students close at hand, we’ll have the opportunity to teach Torah in depth in a way we do not have now. We will have the best of our Movement available to address any topic at hand, and to work and study together. Such a dream does not require a Center and will not guarantee that anything happens – we can maintain the silos that we already have — but if we are self-conscious and purposeful, share a joint sense of empowerment, and see Reform Judaism through a wider lens, the Center will do great things.”

Rabbi Dan Freelander, URJ Vice-President, added that the Center would enable all of the affiliates of the Reform Movement, including the Women of Reform Judaism, Men of Reform Judaism, ARZA, and National Association of Temple Educators, to be in one place.  Invoking the history of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of North American Reform Judaism, he noted that “back in 1875 the goal was to create American Judaism, not separate institutions.  We are now the mainstream of North American Jewry, need to speak with one voice and in one space about Reform Judaism, and act like a coherent, forward thinking, forward looking American Jewish Movement.” 

Irwin Engelman, Chairman of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, acknowledged that the challenge is to not only make this project work, but for it to be meaningful as well.  He advocated that the partner institutions need to work well together, in advance, and to build momentum toward the Center.  He stated, “By the time there is a facility we have to be a unified community — that should be our goal.”

Peter Weidhorn concluded that the Center will take time and that this discussion was “not about financial benefits and bricks and mortar, but about communication, learning, and acting now.”  He noted that all of the institutions of Reform Judaism are committed to the concept of three North American Reform Jewish centers (New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati) and one in Israel as the means to unite the Reform Movement, and pointed to the planned June 2011 joint meeting of the Boards of the CCAR, URJ, and HUC-JIR as an opportunity to “talk with each other, not at each other, and to reach joint understandings.”  He expressed his determination as Chairman of the URJ Board to dedicate URJ staff and lay leadership to achieve, and communicate, these goals across North America.  

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5 Responses to “Envisioning a Center for North American Reform Judaism”

  1. avatar

    This is a concept that can benefit all in a “win
    win” outcome. It will put the entire Reform
    movement in a leadership position for
    the 21st. Century !

  2. avatar

    over 25 years ago we discussed these issues at meetings of the
    long term planning ct. of the union
    go for it
    good luck
    myrna jacobs-rubin

  3. avatar
    Rabbi Jamie Korngold Reply June 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Wonderful concept! May it come to fruition.

  4. avatar

    A wonderful and timely concept There should be adequate oportunity for Congregatiomal involement in planning.

  5. avatar

    While it will take time to bring this to fufillment,it is my fond hope this endeavor will be blessed with success! Would love to see the ACC included — knowing full well they don’t have their own offices but our cantors are an integral part of our Refoirm Jewish life! Also –while I think of it – most Union staff, HUC-JIR students and clergy are not aware of the fabulous research materials available to them via Union Minutes, CCAR and HUC-JIR Directories, Movement Resolutions, etc. These and similar pertinent records should be designated as Historical Reference Material in the new library which I trust will bring together all of the present NYC libraries.

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