Chairman’s Address to the URJ Biennial

by Stephen Sacks

Thank you Eric and thank you all for the great honor you have bestowed on me.

I stand here today as a member of three different Reform congregations in North America.  Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, Maryland, Temple Sinai of Washington, D.C., and our third congregation — the one i want to tell you about because it says so much about ab0ut our Reform Jewish future.

Frederick, Maryland is a community about 45 minutes outside Washington.  For many years it had one Conservadox synagogue.  Eight years ago, six families brought up in the Reform Movement got together because the local synagogue was unacceptable to them. As my daughter Jamie, one of the group, put it, she did not want her daughter — my granddaughter Sara I might add — to grow up in a religious environment where she could not participate fully and equally in all aspects of congregational life.  The group set out to establish a Reform congregation in Frederick.

The group of families in Frederick then put in countless hours to start a congregation.  And as they did, our Movement sprang into action to help them:

  • URJ representatives were there on an ongoing and frequent basis to provide advice and support as to how to get organized and work through the numerous issues that developed along the way;
  • local rabbis came to Frederick to lead services;
  •  a congregation in the area lent the group a Torah; other congregations lent prayer books;
  • educational curricula were provided by the URJ to aid the group in developing a religious school;
  • HUC-JIR  provided the group with a student rabbi who subsequently became the congregation’s permanent rabbi.

What do we have today: Congregation Kol Ami, a URJ member congregation with over 150 families and growing.  My wife Helene and I are proud to be members.

Congregation Kol Ami can teach us so many things about why all of us are here and work as hard as we all do to support our Movement.  Do we have problems and challenges?  Yes.  The world is changing around us.  The economy is severely stressing everyone.  Congregations must adapt and change.  The Union must adapt and change.  All of us wrestle with those challenges and can become frustrated by the fact that we sometimes disagree on the solutions or, even when we agree on what to do, cannot solve the problems as quickly as we would like.

But if you feel at all frustrated, all you need to do is look around you at the attendance and excitement at this incredible sold-out Biennial, go to one of our camps on Shabbat, visit Hebrew Union College and spend a day with the students as my wife Helene and I did recently, go to our congregations  in Israel or around the world, or engage in so many other activities to recognize, as did those six families that got together in Frederick, Maryland, that Reform Judaism is the voice of the Jewish soul and that a Movement based on equality, innovation, welcoming, social justice and a host of other important values has been and remains the wave of our Jewish future.

Congregation Kol Ami also shows us our Movement at its best.  No matter what problems we face, our Movement is there to support our fellow Jews.  As a result of a partnership between the families in Frederick and our Movement, there is now a vibrant Reform congregation in Frederick where none existed before.

Finally, Congregation Kol Ami teaches us something that we can never lose sight of.  To express their Reform Jewish identity for themselves and their children, the families in Frederick decided that they needed to form a congregation.  They recognized, as do we all, that it is through the congregation that we express our Jewish identity and experience Jewish community.

I was fortunate to see on a first hand basis the incredible role that congregations play in the lives of the Jewish people during the years when my wife Helene served as an Executive Director at Temple Shalom.  Many think of the congregation as a place where there are religious services on Friday night and Saturday and religious school on Sunday.  I know from observing Helene’s work that congregations do countless other things seven days a week.  The congregation is simply not a Jewish supermarket where people come just to buy different services.  It is far more than that.  Whether it is making good times better, easing pain in bad times, showing people that there is a community that supports them in times of need, speaking out on issues confronting the community, engaging in social acton projects, or a host of other things, the congregation is the place for the enhancement of Jewish community and identity in good times and bad.  In other words, the congregation is the rock on which our Judaism stands.

So too with the URJ.  To be sure, what the Union does for congregations it must do with excellence.  But, just as with the congregation, I do not view our Union as the place where congregations come simply to purchase services.  The URJ is and ought to be the organization that enhances our Reform Jewish community and expresses our Reform Jewish identity in North America and throughout the world.

As I see the URJ, our primary goal should be to do things that individual congregations cannot do for themselves  and to act where we can be far more effective when we act collectively.  Whether it be our exciting new campaign for youth engagement, our camps, educational curricula, social action, outreach or a host of other things, the URJ has an important — indeed vital — role to play for our congregations and our Movement.

And that is why every one of us in this room is here:  to be a part of a Union for Reform Judaism that supports and nurtures Reform Judaism and our congregations.  The way the Movement rallied to those six families in Frederick should be replicated in every way that we can to reach out to our young people, 20s and 30s, parents, empty nesters — you name it.  We need to make our congregations and our Movement meaningful in the life of everyJew.

As I assume the position of Chairman, I want to take this opportunity to add my voice to those who have praised Rabbi Eric Yoffie for his service to our Union and our Movement.  I got to work closely with Eric for 8 years as the URJ’s General Counsel.  In my private practice as a lawyer, clients frequently wanted to know what the law required them to do — in other words, what was the minimum they had to do to avoid getting into trouble.  What especially impressed me about Eric was that, even if legal rules might allow us to do something less, Eric’s focus always was on what was the right thing to do.  The same moral strength and courage that we all see from Eric when he speaks or takes public positions on issues is also there when outsiders are not observing his behavior.  What matters is what is right.  It has truly been a privilege to be able to work with and learn from Rabbi Yoffie.

And let me express a word or two more about my predecessor Peter Weidhorn.  Peter is a dear friend.  He was the perfect Chairman for the extraordinary financial challenges our Union confronted and saw us through some very difficult times.  His imagination, drive and love for this Movement made him truly one of our most extraordinary chairmen.  I take great comfort from the fact that Peter has pledged to remain closely involved in the work of our Union as we go forward.

I assume the position of Chairman of the Board of the Union with the goal of doing everything I can to strengthen and support the congregations in our Movement.   Acting in partnership with Hebrew Union College, the CCAR, the Women of Reform Judaism, the Men of Reform Judaism and all of the other participants in our Movement, this must be our primary objective.  And in meeting this objective, I am particularly looking forward to working with the revitalized Conference of Presidents of our congregations.  Close interaction with this group will give our Union an opportunity to connect even better with the leaders of our congregations and to better understand and serve their needs.

I also can take great comfort from the fact that we have a wonderful group of dedicated lay leaders at the URJ.  These lay leaders are all people who rose to positions of leadership within congregations before they came to the URJ.  In other words, our URJ lay leaders understand and appreciate congregations.  They are aware of the pressures and stresses.  And, most importantly, they are as dedicated as I am to working with and supporting our congregations.

I am especially looking forward to sharing the journey that lies ahead with Rabbi Rick Jacobs.  Since the announcement of his appointment, Rabbi Jacobs has focused on deciding what we should be doing in the new URJ of 2011 and thereafter.  In approaching these issues, I have been especially impressed by three things he has done.

First, Rabbi Jacobs recognized the need to have capable people from both within and outside the immediate URJ structure advise him on the issues confronting the transition to a new president.  He appointed a transition committee of both lay and rabbinic leaders to consider these difficult issues with him.  He reached outside the immediate URJ management structure and asked Rabbi Jonah Pesner to serve as Transition Director.  And, since his appointment he has focused on who would best serve with him as the senior professional leadership of the URJ as we move forward.  The result is we now have a superb team with Rabbi Jacobs,  Rabbi Dan Freelander and Rabbi Pesner together with our new Chief Operating Officer, Barbara Saidel. I am comfortable that our URJ is in good professional hands.

Second, Rabbi Jacobs made certain that the new goals and priorities for the URJ were not being decided by a small group sitting in a closed room.  Instead, the transition process has been an open one with participation from many, many people in every corner of our Movement. This reaching out to well over 800 people has assured that the new URJ will reflect the views and needs of our Jewish world.

Third, Rabbi Jacob’s approach to the transition and to his leadership of our Movement was best captured for me at one of our meetings.  Rabbi Jacobs said that in confronting the difficult challenges that lie ahead, some think that we must choose between having our head in the clouds or our feet on the ground.  Rabbi Jacob’s rejected that choice and said that in confronting the issues for our Movement, we needed to do both:  in order to manage and run the URJ and work for our congregations, we obviously needed to have our feet on the ground.  But he was clear that we also always needed our head in the clouds since we should never lose sight of our spiritual purpose and the core values that guide us.  It is this combination of feet on the ground coupled with spiritual purpose that most excites me about what Rabbi Jacobs will bring to our Movement.

So lets get going.  Let me welcome to this podium Rabbi Rick Jacobs.  Rick, I want you to know that I, the lay leaders of our Movement, and every one of us in this room are excited by the promise of your leadership and will be there to support and help you as we move to the new URJ.  My friends, strap on your seat belts.  A new ride is about to start as we reimagine our Union and confront the issues ahead.  It is my great honor to present to you the next President of the Union for Reform Judaism and leader of our Movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

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