Faced with a member dropout problem and internal dissent from prominent leaders, the Union of Reform Judaism is undergoing another round of restructuring, its second since 2008.
The country’s largest Jewish denomination, the URJ is both hiring and firing staff in order to bring its structure more in line with the priorities of its new leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who assumed the position at the movement’s 2011 Biennial meeting.
At the meeting, Jacobs announced a new emphasis on youth engagement – 50 percent of members leave their congregations within a year of their child’s bar or bat mitzvah – and outreach to the disengaged. To further these objectives, said Mark Pelavin, a senior advisor to Jacobs, the URJ is going to change the way it communicates with its member congregations.
Until now, the URJ has communicated with its almost 900 congregations almost exclusively through four district offices in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. In the near term, those offices will stay open, Pelavin said, but the URJ is also reshuffling itself into new teams.
“We’re moving away from the hub and spoke to a more highly networked model,” Pelavin said.
The teams are supposed to support that is more tailored to individual congregations. One team, for example, will assist the largest congregations; another will help those particularly focused on specific issues, like youth outreach.
In 2008, the URJ had to make major cuts to staffing and programming as a result of the recession. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of URJ member households declined by 4.8 percent to 300,076; the number of congregations fell to 897 from 909.
Also, a group of 17 senior rabbis led by Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Peter Rubinstein began agitating for increased coordination among the URJ, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Hebrew Union College.
In this reorganization, the URJ’s budget of about $28 million (the number excludes its camps) will not change, Pelavin said, but the organization is letting about 30 people go. It is doing some hiring as well. Total headcount will decrease slightly.
Pelavin declined to describe the jobs the URJ is cutting, but said they are adding 10 positions related to youth and 14 dedicated to outreach to those Jacobs calls “the uninspired.”
“It usually gets referred to as the challenge of the unaffiliated,” Pelavin said. “It’s not their fault they’re uninspired; it’s the congregation’s fault. That’s the project of working with individuals wherever they are.”
The URJ is not the only denomination grappling with these challenges. In 2011, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced organizational changes in response to criticism from both lay leaders and clergy.