In the latest sign of the faltering economy’s impact on religious life, America’s largest Jewish denomination is gearing up for a major restructuring of its professional leadership that will result in some 60 layoffs across the country in a bid to slash spending by 20 percent.
The board of trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism, which has 900 congregations in North America serving 1.5 million members, is to vote on Sunday on a plan that would close 14 regional offices in major cities and replace them with smaller congregational support centers in only four cities: New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. In addition, instead of program departments working out of URJ’s New York headquarters, teams of specialists in different areas will offer their expertise. The projected savings is about $5 million.
“This is a system designed to make congregations feel more connected to the movement and give them the ability to access all our program and resources more effectively,” said Rabbi Stacy Offner, the vice president in charge of implementing the new structure. “Having 14 offices across North America is fiscally imprudent. We want to invest in people, not in real estate.”
In a statement, URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said the cuts were a painful necessity.
“[This is] a moment to put into place a structure that better meets the needs of our congregations while also positioning us to lead a healthy, vibrant Reform movement in the years and decades ahead,” said Rabbi Yoffie. “It is also a time filled with pain as we are forced to let go of some of our valued staff who are, in a very real sense, family.”
Before the economic crisis hit late last year, the URJ had already begun restructuring, forming a task force on the delivery of services in the 21st century. But the scope of the plan increased in recent months. “The structure we have been operating with is essentially decades old, and we wanted to move to an organizational system that would be more flexible, more nimble, more responsive to harness today’s technologies,” said Rabbi Offner.
She cited declining revenues from member congregations as the primary source of economic stress on the URJ.
“The system that we have developed is a system that if someone handed us $20 million today [we] would continue to embrace,” said Rabbi Offner. “The difference, frankly, is we are in an economic downturn and our congregations all over North America are suffering. The [members] have less than they once had so our congregations have less and so we have less than we once had.
“This new system is not going to be staffed as generously as it would be in a different economic climate.”
Because the board has not yet approved the plan, Rabbi Offner said it would be premature to announce some of the people who would be available as program specialists to replace the New York-based program departments. Those currently include adult study and adult bar-bat mitzvah initiatives, political activism, music study, an outreach fellowship and missions to Israel, according to the URJ’s Web site.
While the restructuring does not directly call for the closing of congregations, Rabbi Offner noted that “some congregations are struggling and even in the midst of our struggle we are there to support them. For some congregations, supporting them means helping them share resources, and for some it may mean consolidation.”
One local example is on Long Island, where the struggling Temple Israel of Lawrence recently announced a merger with nearby Temple Emanu-el in Lynbrook.
But Rabbi Offner said that in other parts of the country new Reform congregations were sprouting, such as one in the Pacific Northwest. “This is a time of growth in Jewish life,” said the rabbi.
The Reform downsizing comes as Jewish federations across the country are adapting to lower budgets and Yeshiva University and Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, have each announced significant layoffs, the latter two having been stung by the Bernard Madoff scandal on top of declining fundraising.
As Jewish families grapple with shriveling budgets, the impact on Jewish life is likely to be felt across the board. But the impact on Reform may be more keenly felt than elsewhere, suggests Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“Historically, the Reform movement has seen more volatility than, say, Orthodoxy where belonging [to a synagogue] is seen as more essential,” said Sarna. “There will be some people for whom synagogue dues are seen as extravagance rather than as a basic necessity and they will cut back, and that has a ripple effect in the Union. During the Great Depression there was a tremendous decline in Reform synagogue memberships, and they had to adjust. Even [New York’s] mighty Temple Emanuel saw a great decline.
“Reform has been a bellwether of the larger community and so they are leading somewhat by example” with the downsizing, Sarna added. “There is a sense that the Union can now communicate more easily through the Internet and other means and doesn’t have quite the same need to have a visible presence through offices in so many areas.
“It would not surprise me if we heard more about cutbacks from the other movements.”
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the URJ, said in a statement that the process of eliminating staff positions was “extremely difficult. … We have put into place a number of support resources and programs for staff members and will continue to treat our people with dignity, care and respect.”