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Reform Rabbis Launch Campaign to Restore Cut Outreach Positions

 By Joe Berkofsky

NEW YORK, Feb. 19, 2003 (JTA) -- Reform rabbis and activists are waging a last-ditch campaign to save the jobs of specialists who conduct outreach to interfaith families.

These rabbis and activists say they are raising money from rabbis, congregations and Jewish charitable foundations to ensure that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, does not eliminate the outreach professionals.

"This is not a political statement, but an effort to see that these positions are not lost," said Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass.

Dropping these professionals would damage outreach to the intermarried, which is one of the movement's signature programs, activists in the campaign say.

However, it remains unclear how the UAHC would respond if the campaign finds the money to restore the positions of the outreach staffers, who counsel interfaith couples and create programs for temples.

"We won't respond until they have a specific proposal and the cash in hand," said UAHC spokeswoman Emily Grotta.

The grass-roots fund-raising effort began after the movement's congregational union announced in December that it was cutting 13 regional outreach coordinators to help close a $2 million shortfall in its $20.2 million fiscal 2003 budget.

By eliminating each regional director of outreach and synagogue community, the movement would save just over $300,000 annually, Grotta said.

The outreach cutbacks, due to take effect March 31, sparked immediate protest.

The West Coast's Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis voiced "deep concern" about the cutbacks.

Others questioned whether the movement was weakening its commitment to support interfaith couples and its attempts to encourage them to raise their children as Jews.

Several rabbis, synagogue members and activists then launched an effort on their own to find the money to keep the outreach professionals on board.

In the Northeast, for example, Jaffe said a dozen rabbis told him they would ask their synagogue boards to pledge money for the outreach work.

Others said they would dig into their discretionary funds, or get congregational members to make pledges, he said.

Jaffe aims to raise up to $90,000 to pay three years' worth of salary for an outreach coordinator in his region. He said he has received half of that in pledges already.

"We want to demonstrate the value of outreach as perceived by congregations and the leaders of a large number of congregations," he said.

Jaffe and others said the coordinators are doing work that is having a real impact.

Two weeks ago, he said, 200 people attended a role-playing seminar at his temple on interfaith dating that had been organized by a regional coordinator "with the insight" into such issues.

In Orange County, Calif., Rabbi Stephen Einstein of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, who is leading the effort to save the coordinators' positions in the movement's Pacific Southwest region, is also reporting fund-raising success.

Einstein, who co-chairs the movement's National Committee on Outreach and Synagogue Community, is taking a slightly different tack, going directly to his pulpit colleagues for financial support.

He aims to raise $50,000 to pay two years' worth of outreach, and has taken in pledges for half that so far, he said.

Both Einstein and Jaffe said they believed they had the go-ahead from the New York headquarters to embark on such fund raising.

"It is our expectation that if the money is raised, the positions will be restored," Jaffe said, adding he had gotten indications from the movement's leadership to that effect.

But Grotta said the movement's New York headquarters preferred that its members not reach into their pockets to save the outreach staffers.

"We have a contract with the congregations, a dues-paying system, and we can't go to them every time we need more money," she said.

Instead, the movement's leadership is encouraging its members to apply for grants from independent charitable organizations, she said. UAHC officials would be "happy" to see such support.

That is what seems to be happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is part of the Reform movement's Pacific Central West region.

Paul Cohen, past president of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, said he and other outreach activists decided at a UAHC regional biennial in Santa Clara, Calif., two weeks ago to seek grants for outreach from as-yet specified local philanthropies.

Such a grant would hopefully fund more than a short-term, part-time staffer, he said, but would win ``significantly more" money for a ``larger, more distinctive program."

But not everyone believes grants are the way to go.

Ed Case, the publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which has led protests against the cutbacks, said he believes it is "not realistic" that activists could apply for and win grants for the positions in such a short time.

"If the UAHC leadership could postpone this decision for several months, then maybe there would be time to get these grants," he said.

Like other outreach proponents, Case said the loss of the coordinators would mark a major setback in the movement's efforts to reach out to non-Jewish partners of Jews and convince them to raise Jewish families.

"I have heard from many people that these coordinators have brought thousands of people into Jewish life," Case said.

Case, who is a past president of Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., said synagogue members have already pledged $6,000 to save the outreach staffer in his region.

He believes the movement should raise the money from rabbis and congregations to stave off the layoffs, and examine longer-term strategies afterwards.

Meanwhile, Dawn Kepler, who leads outreach to interfaith families at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay of San Francisco, said she, like other outreach activists, was worried the layoffs reflected a retreat from the movement's longtime commitments.

Many wondered, she said, "was this the result of budgetary concerns, or policy change?" she said.

But Grotta, the UAHC's spokeswoman, said the cuts did not just pertain to outreach efforts, but affected the entire budget.

Other measures to close the $2 million deficit included subletting a quarter of the UAHC's Third Avenue headquarters, a gain of $500,000; disbanding its Department of Adult Jewish Growth, to be absorbed into other sections, saving $270,000; restructuring the Department of Synagogue Management, saving $120,000; increasing employee health-care contributions, saving $100,000; and the elimination or reduction of 34 staff positions that included the outreach coordinators.

She added that some funds would be left for each of the movement's 14 regional offices to help synagogues conduct outreach work, but she could not say exactly how much.

The savings will help the movement recoup a drop in revenue, due to such factors as lower-than-expected congregation dues payments, which account for 80 percent of the UAHC's income; fewer donations; a dip in summer camp enrollment; and a decline in the group's endowment income.

The cutbacks "hit everyone," she said.

"When you're cutting that much from a budget, you're cutting into some areas you wish you didn't have to cut.''

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." 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.
Joe Berkofsky

Joe Berkofsky, a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers education, Jewish identity issues, philanthropy and the religious movements. He has been a reporter for the technology network TechTV in San Francisco, daily newspapers in the greater Boston area, and a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Report, The San Jose Mercury News, B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly and other publications. He was also an editor at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and at other weekly newspapers.

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