The Union for Reform Judaism, the synagogue organization for the Reform movement, has adopted a major restructuring plan that will lead to temporary dues relief for member congregations and a new model for providing services.
It also means significant cutbacks at the URJ, with 60 staff members expected to lose their jobs and all 14 regional offices slated for shutdown.
“This is a time of opportunity for the Union, 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,” URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie said in a prepared statement. “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.”
The changes were adopted Sunday at a URJ board meeting in Jersey City, N.J. by “lopsided” votes, one participant said.
What impact, if any, this restructuring will have on Reform congregations in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is still not clear, though the president of the Pennsylvania Region for the URJ thinks they will result in better service for members.
The URJ attributed the layoffs to the new service structure being implemented and to the recession that is gripping the country.
The restructuring plan has three components: financial relief for congregations, a new service-delivering model that assigns each congregation its own URJ representative and budget cuts designed to control costs.
“Our congregations are hurting,” said URJ Vice President Rabbi Stacy Offner. “We can’t be spending like we have unlimited resources; we don’t. …We are downsizing right now because of the economy.”
The financial relief component will reduce dues paid by congregations over a three-year period — 5 percent in the current year, 20 percent in fiscal year 2010 and 10 percent in fiscal year 2011. The dues are expected to return to their old rates after that period, according to the plan.
To provide services, the URJ will close its 14 regional offices by June 1. In their place, each congregation will be assigned a representative to be their first contact with any problem, question or need.
The congregational representatives will be based at four support centers in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. The URJ will also keep an office in Canada.
“We envision right now having a dozen congregational representatives across North America,” Offner said. “Each would have a relationship with approximately 60 congregations.”
The Pennsylvania Region, which includes the Pittsburgh area, currently oversees 50 congregations.
“The caseload of these specialists is going to be almost identical to the number of congregations in the Pennsylvania Region,” said Pennsylvania Region President Alan Lesgold of Pittsburgh.
Who these representatives will be still isn’t clear, but Lesgold, a former president of Rodef Shalom Congregation, speculated they would hold masters degrees in social work, have experience in dealing with organizations, with modern client-management tools.
“We believe this plan will build strong relationships between and among the Union and congregations,” Peter Weidhorn, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said in a prepared statement. “We will aggressively work with congregations to lengthen the “affiliation life span” of synagogue members and build lifelong engagement with Reform Jewish values and
The lay structures of the 14 regions will continue for now, Lesgold said, though their status is also under review.
He said the new service model and been under study for years and was probably going to replace the regional system anyway, but the recession and the economic troubles in which congregations find themselves accelerated its implementation.
“It would have taken a year or two longer, but it would have happened,” he said. “We would have loved to have an extra year to implement it, but the budget problem is now; the cost of delay would have been deeper cuts.”
Returning to the cutbacks Lesgold noted they go beyond the layoffs, saying salaries and benefits are being adjusted throughout the URJ.
“To some extent everyone is taking a hit,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)