The calendar does not lie. Still, can it really be four years since I was elected chairman of the Union Board?
Yes. My four years as chairman are just about completed—an occasion for some personal reflections.
Looking back, we all can take pride in the progress we have made. Today, the Union is more of a learning organization, encouraging creative cross-departmental collaboration as well as innovative thinking among professionals and lay leaders. We’re now implementing Board-adopted priorities based on an intensive 21⁄2-year study by the Task Force on the Delivery of Union Services in the 21st Century, focusing on training and leadership development, expanding our affinity group programming, requiring that we evaluate what we do and how well we do it, and enhancing our use of technology—all in the commitment to create a more proactive, cost-effective service delivery structure to better serve you, our congregations and members.
We have also responded effectively to humanitarian crises at home and abroad. After Hurricane Katrina, we raised millions of dollars to help victims, stocked and staffed a warehouse in Mississippi to provide the newly homeless with essentials, opened two of our summer camps for housing, and gave our congregations spiritual and financial support. During the war with Hezbollah, we stood with the Israeli people, opening an Emergency Relief Fund which helped our Progressive Movement there assist those in harm’s way, building shelters and providing necessities and social services. We have sponsored trips to Israel, including a Board mission, and built up our Israel youth travel and study programs. And we have strengthened our support for world Jewry by creating a new World Jewry Committee to coordinate our work and adding the World Union for Progressive Judaism to the Reform Jewish Appeal.
We continue to be an effective advocate for our values in the public square, working to end the genocide in Darfur and speaking out on the war in Iraq.
On the programming front, we have flourished in almost every area. A couple of examples: Education—we rolled out the Chai and Mitkadem Hebrew curriculums. Social Action—we initiated the Kehilat Tzedek and Just Congregations programs, which enable our congregations to make social action an integral part of what they do and how they build community. Camping—we added Camp Kalsman in Arlington, Washington as our newest crown jewel in a camping system which now serves 9,000+ campers and some 25,000 teens and adults for retreats, conferences, and study weekends.
Still, we face multiple challenges. One looms especially large in my mind: meeting the needs of our young people from the time they go to college or enter the workforce to the time, we hope, they join a congregation. While this is not a new issue for us—I attended a Biennial workshop in the 1980s called “College to Kindergarten, the Vanished Years”—the challenges this age group presents in 2008 are greater than before. The traditional pattern has changed: they tend to stay single longer and, in our increasingly global world, they may reside almost anywhere. Many of them relate that congregational life does not address their needs or yearning for connection. “Religion,” they say, turns them off; yet they are as eager as their predecessors for spiritual moments in their lives. We need to show them that our synagogue doors are open to them, and that connectedness and community can be found inside. And if they are searching for meaning and transcendence outside our doors, we must bring the synagogue to them.
To do so, we need to start early. In 2006 and 2007, RJ’s Insider’s Guides to College reached tens of thousands of Jewish college students, as well as those who support them—a good first step. But we also need to stay in personal touch while our students are in college. Whenever possible, their home congregations and/or congregations in the local college community can reach out to them and keep them connected to the Movement. We can partner with others, as we have with Hillel, to create meaningful Reform college experiences on campus. We can also help our congregations reach out to those who have participated in a a Taglit – birthright israel: KESHER Israel Connection trip under the auspices of KESHER (our college group).This trip (email KesherIsraeltrip@urj.org or call 212-650-4070) builds a sense of connection to Israel; synagogues can amplify the impact by drawing those who’ve now returned home into congregational life.
I have been privileged to be your Chair and to work with the many wonderful people who serve our Movement at every level. I am grateful to all of them.
Finally, a far too brief public word of thanks to my wife Amy for being my partner on what has been a wonderful journey for us both.
Robert M. Heller, Chairman
Union for Reform Judaism
Board of Trustees