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The Reform movement made a public announcement today that it is closing its regional offices and replacing existing program departments in its national office with teams of specialists. Everyone who cares about outreach to interfaith families should be deeply concerned about the implications of these developments on outreach to interfaith families, which the Reform movement pioneered and has led for more than 25 years.
Prior to 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ, the Reform movement) had a national outreach department and a part-time regional outreach director in each of its 14 regions around the country. Then the outreach department was combined with synagogue membership, and in 2003, because of stated budgetary concerns, most of the regional outreach positions were eliminated. At IFF we started a “Save Reform Outreach” campaign at the time, which some people say played a significant role in preserving some of the positions.
At present the URJ has a group of extremely talented professionals: a small national staff led by Kathy Kahn and regional professionals in Los Angeles (Arlene Chernow), Chicago (Julie Webb), the mid-Atlantic area (Ruth Goldberger) and the southeast (Carol Gross). These experienced and dedicated people focus on helping Reform congregations welcome interfaith families. Some people say that Reform synagogues are sufficiently welcoming, but we believe there is much room to do much more and that these professionals play a key role in making that happen. With the closing of the regional offices and the replacement of national program departments, it is not clear what will happen with these professionals and the programming they conduct.
Moreover, in Boston the northeast region of the URJ has several part-time outreach professionals who, with funding from the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, offer a very important, close to comprehensive set of programs for interfaith families who are not necessarily affiliated with synagogues, as well as regular trainings for Jewish organizations and professionals. Paula Brody, Joyce Schwartz and Maria Benet do incredible work, serving more than 1,000 program participants each year; we believe they have had an enormous impact on the climate in Boston, that they have directly contributed to the fact that 60% of interfaith families in Boston are raising their children as Jews, and that their efforts should serve as a model for other communities.
We hope that as its reorganization takes shape the URJ will preserve and continue to utilize the expertise of its national and regional outreach professionals–and in particular, we believe it is critically important that the team in Boston stay together and continue with their very effective work.
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