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Letter to Congregational Rabbis and Presidents

 From Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations

 April 3, 2003
1 Nisan 5763

FROM: Rabbi Eric H. Yoffe
TO: UAHC Congregational Presidents and Rabbis

I want to take this opportunity to update you on what we are doing in the area of Outreach in the wake of the budget cuts that were announced in December. Virtually all areas of the Union were impacted by these cuts, which resulted from lower returns on our endowment and lower than anticipated dues income from congregations. While some programming cutbacks were necessary, we have worked hard to maintain most of the services that we provide to our congregations. As promised, we will continue to inform you of how our reorganization has proceeded and of how you can access the programs and services that are available.

The Union reduced its staff by approximately 10 percent, including the regional directors of Outreach and Synagogue Community. These cuts, like all of our cuts, were made necessary by painful budgetary realities; nevertheless, the Reform Movement remains deeply committed to the value and promotion of Outreach in our congregations, and Outreach work remains a high priority of the UAHC. I have been answering questions about these cuts as I've received them, but, in an effort to be sure that everyone is informed, I ask that you share this material with members of your board at the next scheduled meeting.

Is the Reform Movement still committed to helping its congregations actively welcome the full diversity of Jewish families, including the intermarried and religious seekers?

As I said five years ago at the twentieth anniversary of Reform Jewish Outreach, we should resist any suggestion that our Outreach efforts are no longer necessary. Despite our accomplishments, we cannot take for granted the acceptance and integration of Jews-by-choice and intermarried couples into our synagogues. The changes that we have witnessed are indeed immensely encouraging, but the Outreach revolution is so radically new that it would be a mistake to become complacent. We have many more years of work to do before we can declare victory for our principles of inclusion.

The importance of Outreach and the sacred mitzvot on which it is based are even more necessary and relevant to our congregations in 2003 than they were when Outreach began in 1978. Indeed, the demographic realities of interfaith marriage, revolving door affiliation, and increasing variety and diversity in our families and synagogue memberships insure the relevance and importance of Outreach in our congregations. The new UAHC-CCAR Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community, built on the outstanding record of the Commissions on Reform Jewish Outreach and Synagogue Affiliation, was created last year expressly to meet the challenges of these realities. Its work has just begun.

Congregations are the place that Outreach and sacred community happen, and we all recognize the essential importance of volunteer, as well as professional leadership in fulfilling our goals in each Reform temple. At this time, I am pleased to inform you that the Union is now able to supplement the support offered by the North American headquarters staff with professional support in some regions. Rabbis and individuals in the Northeast and Pacific Southwest regions have generously funded the current Outreach and Synagogue Community positions for a number of years and they are committed to work together with us to establish endowments for the future. In addition, some budgetary restructuring will allow us to pilot a new position, the UAHC Program Field Consultant, who will serve two regions--the Great Lakes Council and the Northeast Lakes Council--through training, development and networking of volunteers focused on community building. We also have enthusiastically supported grants to extend our work in a number of other regions. New York staff members will be able to devote more time to serving the needs of the remaining regions. None of these positions will require additional expenditure from the Union budget. They do, however, provide several alternative models that can help us sustain and even build our efforts.

We must continue to embrace diversity in our congregations and provide education, support and a clear path to Judaism for anyone who feels distanced from God, Torah and Israel.

What support, programs and resources will now be available through our North American and regional offices?

The UAHC wishes to underscore the importance of congregational welcoming programs such as our pioneering "Taste of Judaism" classes, the training of group facilitators and mentors for those in the process of conversion through the Outreach Fellows Certification Program, and honoring and sharing successful Outreach and Synagogue Community programs through the biannual Belin Awards and Idea Book publication.

The New York staff is working closely with the Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community and with each regional director to insure that important programs and resources will continue to be available. While each region will follow a slightly different pattern, we have taken steps to make certain that:
* Introduction to Judaism courses, where they are offered, will continue with the support of the Union.
* Each regional office has assigned a staff contact who will be responsible for Outreach and Synagogue Community congregational needs and national connection and who will answer calls from individuals seeking guidance and resources.
* The North American staff--Dru Greenwood, Kathy Kahn and Naomi Gewirtz--will coordinate services and resources to the regions, and continue to train Outreach Fellows, support Taste of Judaism courses and manage the Belin Awards programs.
* Facilitator training of lay leaders for board workshops on membership will continue and be expanded where possible to insure that Outreach and Synagogue Community programming will continue.
* A national listserv for all congregational leaders and committee members involved with Outreach and Synagogue Community will be established that will combine all existing regional listservs and provide an open forum for listserv members to share programming ideas and discuss outreach, membership and diversity issues.
* Outreach and Synagogue Community publications, brochures and training materials will continue to be made available to congregations through the regional offices and the UAHC Press.

The nature of the covenant between God and the Jewish people forbids the exclusion of any Jew from our people's collective destiny. We must commit ourselves to reclaiming the estranged in our midst. And our welcoming philosophy of outreach to interfaith families, rooted in our respect for others and our desire to offer progressive Judaism to all who might find meaning in its message, remains fundamental to Reform practice and belief. We look forward to strengthening the partnership between our synagogues and the Union in carrying out this essential work.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Eric Yoffe

Rabbi Eric Yoffe is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

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