Some members, but not all, know that their congregation is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). But what does that mean and why does that matter?
The URJ is the umbrella organization for the North American Reform Movement, having almost 850 member congregations representing 1.5 million people! It provides access to outstanding resources, support, and learning opportunities, all of which can enrich and strengthen member congregations. This is the largest Jewish denomination in the world.
Whether one is the sole Jewish congregation in a rural area or a large congregation in an urban centre, congregations are just a few clicks away from being able to connect with other congregations only too willing to share programming, experiences, knowledge and wisdom. Having 850 congregations at one’s finger tips is certainly an advantage.
Many congregations have availed URJ’s services in many ways. Camp George, the summer camp that many of our youth attend in the summers and dream of returning to, is one of 18 camps owned and operated by the URJ. Its investment in our youth, the future of congregations, is without parallel. Our own youth group is affiliated with the National Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY, is the Reform Youth Movement that has 8,000 6th to 12th graders participating in programs that teach compassion, fight injustice, engage with Israel and build communities.
One of NFTY’s top programs is Heller High, a URJ run school overlooking the lush Judean hills. Imagine being a teen, sharing a transformational experience with other North American peers, being immersed in the richness of the land, culture, people and history of Israel, all while earning high school credit. Each year, some of our congregation’s teens attend and at least two of our teens will be taking advantage of this program come January. My own children went to both Camp George and Heller High, experiences that forged Jewish and Israeli connections, independence and strong foundations for their futures.
Our lay leadership has participated in leadership training programs and made use of the congregational benchmarking survey to review levels of engagement, to see how we compare with other congregations and consider strategies for strengthening our kehillah. Some of our committees use the URJ’s social network platform, known as The Tent, to connect with other committees as well as the Knowledge Network, a group of URJ staff that respond to any questions we may have. One can pose a question and receive several answers and resource documents within hours.
Every two years, URJ holds its flagship conference, the URJ Biennial, for Reform Jews to totally immerse themselves in Judaism, taking time to explore synagogue life and gather new ideas; study with scholars and celebrate with friends. The next Biennial will be held this December in Chicago, from the 11th to 15th.
URJ is also active with other Reform affiliates in promoting democracy and pluralism in Israel. URJ President Rick Jacobs is well known within the Knesset and visits regularly to advocate for progressive Judaism.
There’s more! For more than 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity south of the border. They have helped activate the Jewish community in the key debates and mobilizations of each generation since their founding, from the civil rights movement to contemporary fights over LGBT equality. In Canada, on a smaller scale, our national social action group has advocated for justice for the homeless, for refugees and our indigenous peoples.
Speaking of Canada, we are fortunate to have the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism (CCRJ), representing the 25 URJ congregations from Victoria to Montreal. The CCRJ seeks to strengthen and grow the Canadian Reform Movement by supporting and providing leadership to, promoting collaboration among, and facilitating the expression of Jewish values of its key Canadian stakeholders – Reform congregations, partners and affiliates. The CCRJ acts as a point of contact for connecting congregations to URJ or other resources and convening stakeholders to encourage collaboration. The CCRJ works very closely with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in strengthening the North American Reform Movement, amplifying the impact of the 30,000 Canadian Reform Jews in the broader movement.
The CCRJ is in many respects an extension of the URJ into Canada, providing the organizational support and leadership to assist our Canadian congregations. At the same time, we have recognized that the Reform Jewish experience in Canada is unique. As Canadians we are less assimilated, far more connected to Israel and Reform Jews are the smallest denomination in Canada. CCRJ is undergoing a new strategic plan to set priorities to accomplish its ambitious goals and we are all the better for it. Although CCRJ is a considerably smaller organization, it is developing ambitious plans and has engaged with many stakeholders across Canada to do so.
Our financial contribution to all this, the Reform Movement Annual Commitment, is collected by the CCRJ, and goes toward supporting the Canadian operations, the services we receive from the URJ and supporting Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) the main seminary for training rabbis, cantors, educators and communal workers in Reform Judaism, ensuring we have professionals with the requisite knowledge to lead us in the future.
The word ‘movement’ is deliberate. It implies action, not stagnation, and as society continues to evolve, the URJ and CCRJ will continue to work with congregations and Reform affiliates to help bring about a whole, just and compassionate world.
In addition to being on THZ’s Executive, Len is a trustee on URJ’s North American Board and is CCRJ Vice President.