A transition concludes, transformation begins…



We are in the midst of the Jacob stories in our Torah readings. Jacob’s life is marked by a series of transitions: birth, taking of the birthright and blessing from Esau, the journey to live with Laban, marriage to Leah and Rachel, and finally the return to his homeland. Each one of these transitions is in service of the wider transformation of Jacob into Israel as he becomes the leader capable of taking his place in the covenant with God. The transitions are marked simultaneously with painful moments and blessings.So it is with us. As I wrote in my first blog post about the Union for Reform Judaism’s presidential transition, it is bittersweet. We look backward in celebration of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s legacy. And we look forward with joy and anticipation to the transformation of the Union under Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ new leadership. As there are many blessings to highlight, we also wrestle with difficult truths as we go forward.When we launched the transition last June, we articulated three goals:

  • Develop and refine a vision for the next phase of the URJ
  • Evaluate the current programs of the URJ
  • Develop a financial plan so that we ensure our work going forward is sustainable

Over the last five months we have made significant progress on all three goals.  The transition teamhelped Rick develop a series of themes, priorities, and overarchingimperatives to inform the new vision.  Rick and members of the teamconvened hundreds of conversations through in-person meetings andwebinars engaging Reform Jewish leadership across North America in theunfolding vision. Lay leaders of the URJ and HUC-JIR, clergy,congregational presidents, and Union staff were all included – nearlyone thousand people in all.  Just two weeks from now, at whatpromises to be a wonderful and historic Biennial convention,thousands more will have a chance to hear Rick, our incoming boardchair Steve Sacks, and other members of the transition team discuss thevision. Highlights will include a visioning breakfast on Friday aspart of the wider Reform Think Tank, Rick and Steve’s plenary sessionon Sunday morning, and smaller group conversations with congregationalpresidents and clergy.The first two priorities of the new administration are already being discussed widely across our Movement: the Campaign for Youth Engagement and the fiscal sustainability study.  The former effort seeks to mobilize the breadth of our Movementto engage more teens more deeply after bar and bat mitzvah; the latterchallenges us to re-imagine the way the Reform Movement (the URJ andHUC-JIR specifically) fund our vital work. In addition to the Task Force on Funding Our Future (TF-FOF), which will take an honest look atcongregational dues, the URJ is committed to a comprehensive audit ofour development work. Over the next few months, the Union (incoordination with HUC-JIR) will seek to revamp and significantly expandour capacity to raise revenue through a variety of philanthropicchannels.Some other key themes and priorities that Rick will discuss at theBiennial include leadership development, congregational change,engaging the next generation, widening the tent of Reform Judaism andsharpening our “brand”, and strengthening the relationship betweenNorth America and Israel, among others.  He will also commit to a URJthat operates with an expectation of excellence, in clear communicationwith our member congregations (marked by listening closely), and truecollaboration with our Movement partners.The evaluation and financial review are proceeding as well. Volunteer consultants and leaders are analyzing surveys of a diversegroup of congregations’ experiences of the URJ as well as other data inorder to make recommendations about staff, program, budget andstructure going forward.  The staff has provided critical insight aswell about how their work advances the URJ mission, and where change isneeded. After Biennial, Rick and the transition team will begin tosynthesize the findings of the evaluation and to explore ways toalign the vision with an effective structure going forward.I conclude with words of blessing and praise. Just as Jacob had towrestle to become Israel, many leaders of our Union and Movement havebeen wrestling during the last few months to begin the transformationtoward a URJ that can meet to the challenges of the moment.  In theface of continuing economic and demographic pressure, we seek to growReform congregations as compelling centers of worship, study, andaction; we want to engage the next generation in Jewish life; and weare called to have an impact on Israel and the world.  Many members ofthe URJ staff and leadership, as well as leaders of the Movement morebroadly have supported Rick and the transition team as we haveattempted to lay the foundation for the new URJ in service of thissacred vision. Thank you all. May we go together from strength tostrength. RabbiJonah Pesner is the Director of the Presidential Transition and asenior memberof the URJ professional staff.  In his new role, he is helpingpresident-elect Rabbi Rick Jacobs prepare to take office as he develops arenewed vision for the Union. Rabbi Pesner is also the founding DirectorofJust Congregations. He works with synagogues pursuing social justiceacross thecountry and teaches on all three campuses of the Hebrew UnionCollege-JewishInstitute of Religion.  He has led efforts to engage thousands ofmembersof congregations to join together in successful campaigns for healthcareaccess, affordable housing, public education and other social actioninitiatives.

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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.

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