A New Year, A New Vision



by Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Director, Presidential Transition, URJ
Founding Director, Just Congregations, URJ

Rabbi Jonah Pesner

As I write this update on the status of the URJ Presidential Transition, the summer is nearing its end.  Our incredible Reform Movement camps have ended their successful seasons, our young people have returned from NFTY in Israel, and our high school leaders are gathering at summer kallot and institutes.  Seeing our children engaged in Torah, prayer and deeds is a constant reminder of the importance of our shared, sacred task.

The Presidential Transition Team met for a day-long retreat this past summer.  The role of the team is to provide feedback to Rabbi Jacobs and the URJ senior leadership to craft a vision for the URJ going forward.  In addition, the team will solicit feedback from various stakeholders across the Movement.  Though the team does not represent every constituency imaginable, the members understand they represent a greater whole.  Over the months ahead leading up to Rabbi Jacobs installation, we will solicit more and more input from diverse constituencies of Reform Jewish life.

One week after the transition team meeting, the URJ Vaad also conducted a retreat.  The Vaad (committee in Hebrew, often referring to a leadership group) is comprised of more than 20 members of the URJ senior staff who help the president shape policy.  In the past, Rabbi Yoffie has gathered the Vaad for an annual retreat for visioning about the year ahead.  This year, Rabbi Yoffie graciously invited Rabbi Jacobs to convene the Vaad in order to enlist them in working on his vision.

At both day long retreats, the teams engaged in discussions around several challenging topics.  First, they conducted a robust debate about the current mission statement of the Union for Reform Judaism.  In an exercise we hope to replicate more widely, team members read the mission statement in small groups and asked the questions: What inspires you? What is missing? What should our mission be?  As Rabbi Jacobs crafts a shared vision for the next chapter of the URJ, it will be critical for our Movement to clarify the URJ’s mission and purpose, as well as its role alongside the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the other constituencies of Reform Judaism.

In addition, the transition team and the Vaad both discussed several possible themes of a renewed URJ vision.  These included: The critical Campaign for Youth Engagement, launched under Rabbi Yoffie but that will continue with Rabbi Jacobs’ full support; he best ways for the URJ to support congregations to become ever more successful as the primary building blocks of a dynamic Jewish community; and new approaches to leadership development to build the Reform Movement and our congregations, among other themes.

The team and the Vaad also discussed overarching principles of the future vision, including a commitment to excellence, operating in partnership with our various affiliates, listening carefully to the needs of our congregations and communities, and moving to the cutting edge of technology.

In the weeks ahead, I will be conducting webinars with each of the four URJ district leadership teams in order to keep our lay leadership up-to-date on the transition.  In addition, the URJ Executive Committee will spend an entire morning working on the emerging vision as well.

As always, we welcome your feedback as we move forward into the future with collective purpose.  As we begin our personal and local preparations for the New Year, we invite your help in the renewal of the URJ as well.

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Senior Vice President of the URJ. Rabbi Pesner is also the founding Director of Just Congregations. He works with synagogues pursuing social justice across the country and teaches on all three campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He has led efforts to engage thousands of members of congregations to join together in successful campaigns for health care access, affordable housing, public education and other social action initiatives.

3 Responses to “A New Year, A New Vision”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Thank you for the invitation to comment on the current mission statement of the Union for Reform Judaism. Looking at this 1995 document with 2011 eyes, it seems very institutionally focused – on Reform Judaism and on the institutions of Reform Judaism, both the macro (e.g., Hebrew Union College, World Union for Progressive Judaism) and the relatively micro (our 900 congregations).
    Today we have an opportunity to look beyond Reform Judaism. Where we used to look at the Jewish world in terms of three dominant religious streams, today it’s more realistic to think about two Jewish worlds, the separatist or right-wing Orthodox, and the integrationist, non-Orthodox (but extending to those modern Orthodox who are willing to sit at the same tables we do). Any new mission statement should look towards more collaboration, less duplication, fewer denominational silos. Maybe in our looking forward, we can look backward – and take the vanguard role in giving life to a new vision of Minhag America.
    Meanwhile, most of the discussion I have seen, heard, and read of the horizons opened by technology seems to center on the Union helping congregations harness the Internet, social media, etc., to better serve and recruit congregants. Our new mission should include greater focus on providing seekers with Reform Jewish on-line resources (as distinct from resources on Reform Judaism), with the aim of guiding them first to Judaism and then to Reform congregations.
    Within the framework of doing better at the things we already do, you have already alluded to new business models to replace our current dues-centered formats. We have heard about the Youth Initiative, which centers around the pre-college years; and we have heard about twenties and thirties programming, for the post-college years. Let’s not lose sight of the college population, where our best and our brightest feel abandoned, and our rank-and-file feel disadvantaged and unprepared. Rabbi Jacobs has alluded to having been asked to “bring back the regions.” Whether by bringing back the regions or some other way, we have to do a better job at making our Jews feel like part of a Movement, not just members of a congregation – and that includes equipping them as Reform Jewish leaders beyond the walls of their own synagogues.
    Finally, I have no doubt that our new mission and vision will be appropriately Israel-centric – but we also need to remember and relate to the Jewish communities outside of North America and Israel, including strengthening our support for the community-building activities of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

  2. avatar

    “…today it’s more realistic to think about two Jewish worlds, the separatist or right-wing Orthodox, and the integrationist, non-Orthodox (but extending to those modern Orthodox who are willing to sit at the same tables we do).”
    If you ask any of the ‘modern’ Orthodox leaders who “sit at the same tables we do”, they will usually add the disclaimer that their presence at “the table” (of any Jewish communal organization) is not an endorsement of the theologies expressed by the other members.
    Do not delude yourself into thinking that their participation is in any way an endorsement of the liberal movements.
    While we must love and respect each other as fellow Jews, non-halachic practice can never be condoned by halachic leaders.
    Furthermore, since those who keep halacha follow the original Judaism, you might want to re-think whom you label as the “separatists”.

  3. avatar

    I am all for co-operation across denominational lines. Particularly the non-Orthodox movements have many shared values, and differ mainly in matters of style. There is no reason that we should not consider ourselves part of a semi-unified non-Orthodox Jewish community. There can be problems with denominational labels, and barriers can be built where there need not be any.
    On the flip side, I think that the emergence of a totally non-denominational non-Orthodox Judaism would be unfortunate. The present institutional structures exist because each sub-community has distinctive features which ought to be preserved in order to better serve various constituencies. The right wing of the Reform Movement could easily merge with the Conservative Movement, with little harm done. The humanistic stream within Reform Judaism could easily merge with the Reconstructionist Movement, and Renewal people can probably just fit in anywhere. Liberal and Neo-Classical Reform are distinctive enough to necessitate forming their own group if there were a merger between non-Orthodox movements. There is nothing wrong with using denominational labels to affirm what you stand for, as long as you accept the validity of other streams.
    With regard to Former Reform Jew’s comment, I am reminded of an article by Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner in which he reminisces about “when Reform Judaism was Judaism”. By this he means that early on, the Reformers believed that Reform Judaism was the ONLY Judaism, that it was the natural and logical progression of Orthodoxy. They viewed themselves as the sole observers of the custom of changing with the times, which is a positive-historical process, supported by Rabbinic Judaism. By allowing the creative, dynamic, continual adaptation of Judaism that had always occurred to continue to occur (rather than remain static), the Reformers believed that they were keeping the “original” Judaism, and the Orthodox were actually the separatist aberration because they wished to freeze the continual process of change where it was in the 18th century. The arrogant assertion that Reform Judaism was the ONLY valid Judaism was perhaps a bit harsh and triumphalist, but I admire that they knew what they stood for and did not feel the need to imitate Orthodoxy.

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