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Reform Judaism: Union of Reform Judaism

The Union of Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is an association of the more than 900 Reform and Liberal congregations of the U.S. and Canada, representing some 1.5 million Jews, with headquarters in New York. Founded in 1873 as the first nationwide cooperative organization of Jewish congregations – after 32 years of unsuccessful efforts to establish a semblance of unity among U.S. Jewish communities – the UAHC's first goal was to coordinate support for the establishment of a seminary for the training of rabbis. Two years after the first meeting of the UAHC, its leaders announced the founding of the Hebrew Union College , with Isaac Mayer Wise , the prime mover in the creation of the UAHC, as its president. Wise had hoped that the UAHC would be an "umbrella" organization which would include traditional as well as progressive congregations. This hope was doomed to defeat, however, and a number of Conservative rabbis, who at first cooperated in the program of the Hebrew Union College, withdrew and established the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1876 the UAHC succeeded in reconciling the disparate aims of the eastern and Midwestern Reform leaders, and absorbed the Board of Delegates of American Israelites , which had been founded in 1859 under the impact of the Mortara case in Italy. The UAHC gradually developed an extensive program of administrative activity, including such fields as religious education (1886), congregational organization (1903), sisterhoods (1913), brotherhoods (1923), youth work (1939), synagogue administration (1941), and social action (1949). For many years its greatest contribution was a broad range of religious school textbooks which were utilized in Orthodox and Conservative as well as Reform congregations. For much of the period prior to World War II the UAHC was the weakest partner in the trio of agencies of the Reform movement; its lay leaders regarded it simply as a service organization, rather than one which would stimulate and lead its congregations and their members. The Reform Movement was the first to establish the tri-partite system of organization – a seminary, a rabbinic body, and a union of congregations.

The direction of the UAHC's activity was changed beginning in 1941, however, with the appointment first of Rabbi Edward Israel and then of Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath as executive secretary. In 1951 the UAHC moved its offices from its former Midwestern stronghold in Cincinnati to New York City, thereby dramatizing the adoption of an active, dynamic program of leadership within the Reform Movement and in U.S. Jewish life generally and moving out of the shadow of Hebrew Union College. The change of location to the center of U.S. Jewish affairs and the assumption of prerogatives of national leadership were both preceded and followed by conflicts between those who favored emphasis on the local autonomy of the individual congregation and those who supported the concept of national action. Generally, the proponents of national assertiveness won out, and the UAHC took strong stands on such issues as civil rights for blacks and the Vietnam War. And the leader of the Union became not only the titular head of Reform Judaism but its actual leader. In Conservative Judaism by contrast, the chancellor of the Seminary was the titular head of the movement. The leadership of the UAHC attempted in such matters to present a Jewish view that would match that of newly vocal forces within the Catholic and Protestant churches. From an ideological and theological point of view, however, this trend was part of the search by the entire U.S. Jewish community, during the post-World War II period, for a definition of Jewish distinctiveness and identity.

The governance of the Union is different than its counterparts. The Union's policy-making body is the General Assembly, which meets every other year at the Biennial, in accordance with the Union of Reform Judaism's Constitution and Bylaws. The General Assembly is composed of delegates who are members of and selected by Union congregations in proportion to the size of their synagogue.

The Union's Board of Trustees meets twice each year and is responsible to the General Assembly. Its more than 242 board members come from all parts of the United States and Canada. Fifty percent of the board is elected directly by the Union's regions, while the remaining membership is made up of at-large members elected by the General Assembly and ex officio members.

The 90-member Union for Reform Judaism's Executive Committee also meets twice each year.

The UAHC has had two strong and dynamic leaders since 1973, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, who became president of the UAHC in 1973, and his successor Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who assumed office in 1976. Schindler gained renown for his assertive support of the social action agenda of the Reform Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, including civil rights, world peace, nuclear disarmament, a "Marshall Plan" for the poor, feminism, and gay rights, as well as his opposition to the death penalty. He was the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization and as such the titular leader of American Jewry when Menachem Begin became prime minister of Israel, and although they disagreed, strongly and directly with each other, they got along famously and Schindler paved the way for Begin's acceptance by American Jewry shocked by the transition from Labor leadership. He strengthened the ties of the Reform Movement to Israel and also got along quite well with the leaders of Orthodox Jewry, including Moshe Sherer of the Agudah, who also were his intense ideological opponents. Within the Reform Movement, Schindler is associated with a period of growth, which overtook Conservative Judaism as the largest denomination of American Jews. During his presidency, the UAHC grew from 400 congregations in 1973 to about 875 in 1995. He was an advocate of outreach to intermarried couples and of patrilineal descent. His efforts at outreach broke the taboo against dealing with the subject of intermarriage except to condemn it. He called upon the Reform Movement to reach out to the non-Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages and also to unchurched Americans. His second initiative was even more controversial. During his tenure the Reform Movement adopted the patrilineal descent resolution, which stated that the child of one Jewish partner is "under the presumption of Jewish descent." Traditionally, only the child of a Jewish mother was considered Jewish. As Schindler advocated, the UAHC approved a resolution that said that the child of a Jewish father (and a non-Jewish mother) would be regarded as Jewish, provided that the child was raised as a Jew. The Conservative and Orthodox movements and the statutes of the State of Israel did not agree with this position, so that there are now two operative standards for being considered Jewish. During Schindler's presidency, the Reform Movement allowed women to assume a more central role in the synagogue, a direct consequence of the feminist movement that influenced every aspect of American life. He also was associated with the move to welcome gays and lesbians – and their congregations into the movement as well as into the rabbinate. And rare in Jewish life, he was the mentor to his successor and retired gracefully to make way for Eric Yoffie.

Under Yoffie's leadership the name of the organization was changed to better reflect its task. Since 2003 it has been called the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). He moved the organization from its Fifth Avenue headquarters and used the bully pulpit to change the direction of the Union, including congregational worship, adult and religious school education, and Jewish camping. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. – headed by David Saperstein – which has long been a feature of the movement, sought to translate its prophetic mandate into practical political action; lobbying and working with other coalition groups generally on liberal issues and for the state of Israel.

Yoffie himself, and by extension the URJ, has been a strong critic of President George W. Bush on the domestic agenda and an equally strong critic of the war in Iraq. He has been critical of the Israeli government, but supportive of the disengagement from Gaza and the peace process and within the President's Conference, a strong advocate of the peace camp much to the chagrin of right-wing and some Orthodox religious forces. Like the Union – and like Schindler before him – he is a force to be reckoned with.

Yoffie has expanded the Union's work to strengthen Progressive Judaism in Israel, and has been a strong advocate of Jewish religious pluralism in the Jewish state. Reflecting on the work of the URJ, Yoffie has stated: "We are a union of Jews committed to a particular vision of Jewish life: to spirituality, Torah, and social justice – the highest ideals of Reform Judaism."

Yoffie is leading the restructuring and revitalization of the Reform Movement with new approaches to study, worship, and ritual practice. He proposed a plan to reform Reform. "I propose, therefore, that at this biennial assembly we proclaim a new Reform revolution. Like the original Reform revolution, it will be rooted in the conviction that Judaism is a tradition of rebellion, revival, and redefinition; and like the original too, this new initiative will make synagogue worship our Movement's foremost concern." Yoffie urged that this "worship revolution" be built on a partnership among rabbis, cantors, and lay people. He stressed music as a central element of worship, a reintensification of the commitment to study Torah, a return to mitzvot. He has moved to strengthen Reform youth programs and to expand its camps and its trips to Israel. During the height of the Intifada, he was roundly criticized for canceling a series of trips to Israel, but with the diminution of tension and the increase in safety, Reform Judaism has redoubled its efforts to get its youth involved.

In the past years, Reform Judaism has at once been more traditional and less so; more willing to return to the practices that classical Reform left behind such as the kippah, the tallit, forms of kashrut; more engaged in Torah study, but also more confident in its own unique synthesis of a Judaism at home in tradition and at home in the liberal wing of American life.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

J.G. Heller, Isaac M. Wise (1965), index; W.G. Plaut, The Growth of Reform Judaism (1965).