A year after a study found the Reform movement was doing a good job of reaching out to interfaith families, the movement (North America’s largest Jewish stream) is dramatically cutting its more than 20-year-old outreach program.
The cuts come as the movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, blaming the recession, is slashing its total operating budget of about $20 million by 10 percent, or $2 million.
Outreach, long considered one of the movement’s flagship programs, and adult education have been hit the hardest, but virtually every department is being affected to some extent. The UAHC is also scaling back employee benefits and subletting 25 percent of the office space in its Manhattan headquarters.
Arguing that the $300,000 in cuts to outreach will make it harder to draw in the intermarried, who affiliate at far lower rates than families with two Jewish partners, some temples and advocates for interfaith families are protesting the move, in particular the planned dismissal of all 13 regional outreach coordinators.
Edmund Case, president of Interfaithfamily.com Inc., a Web publisher and advocacy group "working to encourage Jewish choices by interfaith families, as well as an increased acceptance of interfaith families by the Jewish community" not surprisingly is one of the more outspoken critics of the cuts.
Case said the UAHC’s regional outreach professionals, who coordinate and publicize a range of classes for the unaffiliated as well as advising synagogue outreach committees on various matters, "have led countless thousands of people into more involvement in Jewish life."
"There is no way" the UAHC’s plan to have national staff and volunteers take over their duties "can remotely compare" to the work of the regional staff, Case said.
"Outreach is the crowning achievement of the Reform movement in the last 20 years, and it feels like it’s being dismantled at a time when it’s more important than ever, especially if the Jewish population is declining and synagogues are worried about affiliation," Case said.
"It’s like a business in financial difficulty firing its sales force. Who’s going to bring in new customers?"
Case’s synagogue, Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., has drafted a resolution urging the UAHC to reconsider the cuts; the temple is urging other congregations to follow suit.
Case said the cuts could be avoided if the UAHC seeks outside sources of funding for outreach, such as from individuals or Jewish federations. The outreach program is endowed by donors, and in Boston, the Jewish federation helps subsidize operations.
Outreach accounts for 15 percent of the total cuts the UAHC is making.
Emily Grotta, the UAHC’s director of marketing and communications, defended the cuts, saying the organization faces a 10 percent deficit and that with three national staff members, outreach still draws more resources than many UAHC programs. Most of these programs have never had regional staff, she noted.
In addition, Grotta expressed confidence that the Reform movement would continue to do a good job of reaching interfaith families.
"When outreach began there was hardly a congregation in the country that knew how to reach out to interfaith families," Grotta said. "There’s not a congregation left that doesn’t know how to do this. It’s so ingrained in the fabric of our congregations. There’s no concern that suddenly because there’s no outreach person, congregations are going to stop being welcoming. It’s part and parcel of who we are."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the UAHC president, was not available for comment.
Reform’s belt-tightening comes at a time when many Jewish organizations, like most nonprofits, are being hurt by the weak economy. In particular, the UAHC blames the downturn for its poor endowment returns, decline in contributions and surge of member congregations unable to pay their dues. Congregational dues comprise 80 percent of Reform’s revenues.
But the other three major streams of Judaism, which are smaller than Reform and less dependent on congregational dues and endowments, are so far avoiding the need for cuts, even as donations are falling. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the smallest and youngest movement, is even anticipating a 6 percent increase to its operating budget, largely to fund a new summer camp and youth movement.
Reform’s financial woes do not stem from a lack of membership. With more than 900 congregations and an estimated 320,000 households as members of Reform temples, Reform recently surpassed Conservative as the dominant Jewish stream in North America. The Reform movement’s most recent biennial convention, in Boston last winter, attracted a record of nearly 6,000 participants despite concerns that people would not want to travel so soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some observers have credited Reform’s growth with the rise in intermarriage and the fact that Reform congregations are widely perceived as more accepting of interfaith families than the Conservative Movement. Almost half of Reform rabbis officiate at intermarriages, whereas Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to do so.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, expressed disappointment in the UAHC cuts overall, not just to outreach, but was less concerned than Interfaithfamily.com’s Case.
"I don’t think outreach was singled out," Rabbi Olitzky said. "I know Rabbi Yoffie had to make difficult decisions and I don’t envy those decisions.
"The need for outreach is still apparent and continuing to grow, and we hope to be able to be responsive to some of the program gaps left by the changes in staffing at the UAHC," he added.
Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of the Larchmont Temple in Westchester said the cuts to outreach mean that "every congregation has to now take responsibility to create its own resources and reach beyond itself and to have that ongoing exchange."
Larchmont Temple, described by Rabbi Olitzky as one of the metropolitan-area Reform congregations at the forefront of outreach efforts, relied on the regional outreach coordinator as it was trying "to figure out how to integrate outreach into the fabric of congregational life," Rabbi Sirkman said.
"It’s a loss, it really is a loss, but it’s not insurmountable," Rabbi Sirkman said of the cuts.
Rabbi Jonathan Stein of Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side said he is disappointed by the outreach cuts because outreach programs have "affected such an extraordinary number of people in the Jewish community and has become one of the signature programs of the Reform movement."
Before coming to Shaaray Tefila in 2001, Rabbi Stein led congregations in Indianapolis and San Diego with "extremely active and vibrant outreach committees," and he describes himself as "a big supporter of the effort." However, he said the cuts are not "cause for panic."
"The materials have been created, the models have been created, the programs have already been tried and implemented successfully in many congregations," he said. "It’s entirely possible that, even without the same level of staff support that we had in the past, that congregations can continue to do a fine job in this area."
Last year’s UAHC study on outreach, based on interviews with rabbis and members of six East Coast synagogues considered representative of the broader movement, reported that Reform congregations do well in making interfaith families feel welcome but are less effective at encouraging these families to "move along in their Jewish journey."
Among the study’s other findings were that rabbis play a critical role in determining whether interfaith families feel welcome, that many synagogues continue to struggle with what ritual and leadership roles non-Jewish members can play, and that synagogue members often view non-Jewish partners and Jews by choice as a positive influence on the synagogue.