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Loving a Good Challenge
an interview with URJ Board Chairman-Designate Stephen M. Sacks

At the URJ Biennial this December 14-18, Stephen M. Sacks is expected to become the next chairman of the URJ Board. He has served as the Union’s volunteer general counsel over the last eight years as well as on a variety of URJ Board committees. A senior partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP, he specializes in the defense of complex securities fraud litigations and related investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He also enjoys singing with The Washington Chorus, which performs with the National Symphony Orchestra and has its own subscription series at the Kennedy Center. He and his wife Helene have a son, Jon; a daughter, Jamie; a son-in-law, Nima Hendi; and two grandchildren, Sara and Josh Hendi. He was interviewed by the
Reform Judaism editors.

How did you first get involved with Reform Judaism?

Helene and I were raised as Conservative Jews in New York, but we decided to join Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland in order to provide our children with the best Jewish education we could. Both of us were immediately taken with Reform Judaism’s emphasis on equality and its egalitarian liturgy. Soon I became Temple Shalom’s attorney and got involved in all aspects of synagogue life. Helene was also an active volunteer and board member and then for 13 years served as the temple’s executive director. Helene’s position gave me a unique opportunity to see congregational life from a lay leader’s and an insider’s perspective.

What did you see?

I saw what congregations do for congregants every day: helping people in times of crisis, taking joyful experiences and making them even more joyful through ritual celebrations, engaging in social action to help the needy, representing the Reform Jewish presence in the community…the list is endless. We were blessed to have a wonderful rabbi, Bruce Kahn, for most of those years, and much of what I learned as a Reform Jew came from watching and interacting with him. When I think of “rabbi,” I think of Bruce, a person of strong moral fiber, absolutely committed to Reform Judaism and to the principles of social justice. He approached every issue from the vantage point of what was in the best interest of the congregation and Reform Judaism. He remains a wonderful model of what our Movement can and should be.

Why do you want to be chairman?

The URJ deserves to be recognized and appreciated for what we do for congregations and Reform Jews, and I’m determined to let the world know why and how we matter. Let me give you one example: Eight years ago, my daughter, together with five other families, established a congregation in Frederick, Maryland so their children could grow up in a Reform Jewish environment. They called the URJ, and experts advised them on how to form and build a congregation. Reform temples in surrounding areas loaned them prayer books, a Torah, and their rabbis. When they were ready to start a school, the URJ furnished the educational curricula. HUC-JIR provided a student rabbi who later became the congregation’s full-time rabbi. I could go on and on and on… This was the URJ at its best. Now, eight years later, Congregation Kol Ami has grown to 145 families. I want to keep this spirit alive.

How do you view your role as chairman?

The Union is in a major transition period—a new president in 2012, a potentially new governance structure, and continuing external and internal challenges. As I see it, my first job as the next chair is to support Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the new URJ president. Both Rabbi Jacobs and I are committed to close collaborations between lay leaders and the professional staff. All of our lay leaders have had experience in congregational life, and many have served as temple presidents. They also have unique talents, skills, and expertise in a variety of areas that impact directly on the URJ, and bringing them into full partnership with the professional staff will better serve the Union and its congregations.

As chairman, I would plan to use the same process I’ve long used as a senior partner in a large law firm. When I have a difficult problem, I assemble my smartest people, share and discuss all of the necessary information, and strive together to reach the best possible outcome. In most cases this process leads to a much better result and has everyone buying into the final decision, whether they agreed or not, because they were brought into the process as partners.

How do you plan to enlist lay leaders in serving the Union?

For some time, the URJ has utilized lay leaders to assist congregations in such areas as business, finance, law, insurance, and technology. Going forward, working with the revitalized Conference of Presidents (a venue for all URJ congregational presidents to provide direct input to the Union’s leadership as well as network and exchange ideas), we plan to expand such assistance, first by identifying areas of particular need and then by organizing response teams of knowledgeable, trained volunteer lay leaders. Already, based on the Conference’s input we have assembled a group of volunteer lawyers to assist temple leaders with rabbinic contracts; the scope may eventually broaden to business-related issues.

From your perspective, what are the major challenges the URJ faces?

North American Jews are making choices more selectively. They aren’t reflexively joining congregations, even when they want a Jewish education for their children. The problem is exacerbated by tough economic times. Just like in a family or a business, when money gets short, as it has within the Reform Movement, tensions can rise. And when external pressures combine with internal ones, it creates major challenges on every front. Such times require an organization to step back and take a fresh look at itself. The good news is that Rabbi Jacobs and the Union’s transition team are doing just that—examining what we are doing and what we should be doing to serve our congregations and our Movement better. Formulating this fresh approach is exciting, albeit daunting.

What might this fresh approach entail?

I would concentrate on four principles. One: Make sure we are asking the right questions. Continuing to do business as usual is not an option. Everything we now do needs to be on the table for questioning, analysis, and review. How else will we be able to adapt to the new demographic, financial, and other realities? Two: Assemble our best and brightest—both lay and professional—and tackle these issues together. This effort should not exclude those currently on the periphery of the Movement; many of these people—especially the young people—will be able to offer us insights about the pros and cons of the status quo as well as fresh ideas about how we might better serve them in the future. Three: Act quickly. The world is changing very fast and will not wait for us if we linger. Four: Experiment. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but we must not fear failure. This is not a time to be safe; it is a time to be bold.

What areas require attention?

I would focus on budget and finance, enhancing lay leader involvement, strengthening communications with congregations, developing programs aimed at young adults, and supporting our Movement globally.

Let’s start with budget and finance.

I anticipate that the URJ and our congregations will face significant budget issues in the years ahead. At our Religious Action Center’s recent Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC, speakers talked about how we need to view the federal budget as a statement of values and principles, not just a collection of numbers. I think the same applies to the URJ’s budget. Before we decide what should be “cut,” we need to identify the programs and resources the Union provides that congregations cannot do for themselves, what the Union does collectively on behalf of our congregations, and what our congregations most need and want from the Union.

Once we’ve identified our priorities, the next step is to fund them. We’ll need to develop new strategies for funding and sustaining the Union, much like our camps have done in raising more than $40 million for specific projects, buildings, and scholarships.

Your second priority: Strengthening lay leadership.

Yes. In addition to involving more lay experts in the Union’s operations, we plan—that is, assuming the Biennial delegates approve the new by-laws,—to streamline the Union’s governance structure. A new Oversight Committee comprised of fewer than 30 leaders—among them the Union’s president and senior vice president, board chairman, treasurer, general counsel, district chairs, immediate past chair, and honorary chairs—will have the power to handle almost all routine governance decisions, expediting the decision-making process. Special board meetings will still be convened when major issues arise.

Your third priority: Better communicate the Union’s importance.

Yes. From my experience, temple lay leaders and their members do not necessarily associate the URJ with the wonderful work we do through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), Union summer camps, North American Federation of Temple Youth, Reform Judaism magazine, lifelong learning, our affiliates, and much more. We simply must do a better job of communicating what the Union does so people will know why we matter.

I plan to do this by stressing person-to-person contact, which I find is frequently the best way not only to get a message out, but to get it accepted. We know, for example, that bringing congregational presidents together in person at our Scheit seminars creates lasting bonds among the presidents and with the Union. The same is true at our Biennials, the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience, District meetings, and other conferences. Most importantly, Union lay leaders, including myself, must join our professionals in hitting the road, visiting congregations throughout North America to inform the people how the Union has been supporting them and to ask how our Movement can best do so in the future.

A fourth priority is outreach to young adults. Why this group in particular?

Twenty and thirty-something Jews are proving difficult to reach. As one rabbi I know puts it, these young Jews are consumers in a busy Jewish marketplace, shopping for experiences, teachers, rabbis, organizations, and groups in order to construct and nurture a personalized Jewish identity. For example, a Washington, DC paper reported that a group of young Jewish professional women gather every Friday night to light Shabbat candles, enjoy dinner together, and talk—and to them, the lighting of candles expresses their Jewish identity; they don’t see the need to join a larger group or pay dues to an institution in order to “practice” as Jews. This story and countless others like it tell us that we must carefully consider all the different ways young adults are engaging together as Jews and determine how the Union can partner with congregations to play a role in the process. We will need to develop ideas and programs that resonate with this generation. Even if some younger people are resistant to entering a temple, they might be drawn to free congregational programs of particular interest to them. Once we get young adults in the synagogue door, we can experiment and discover the most effective ways to move them toward long-term participation in congregational life.

You also wish to raise awareness about Reform Judaism worldwide.

Yes. As general counsel of the World Union for Progressive Judaism I learned a lot about our Movement’s activities in many parts of the world. When Helene and I joined a URJ mission to Poland, Hungary and Germany, we discovered a growing Progressive Movement in three nations that had been devastated by the Holocaust. In Israel, our Movement is thriving, even as it faces serious obstacles from the Orthodox establishment. We now have some 30 congregations, many of them formed in the last few years and led by Israeli-born rabbis ordained in Jerusalem by our Reform seminary HUC-JIR. We need to be building on this success. Working in collaboration with ARZA, the Union can bolster Diaspora support for Israel and develop more effective fundraising mechanisms to ensure that our Israel Movement continues to grow.

Are you optimistic about our future?

I am confident that better times lie ahead. North American Jews have not rejected their religious identity; on the contrary, they are looking for ways to express it. Our Movement has always offered a unique, modern form of Judaism. Its openness to new ideas and willingness to adapt are the reasons why we are the largest Jewish denomination in North America. Today our Union of congregations is better positioned to remain relevant and viable than any other Jewish groups in the U.S. and Canada, bolstered by the innovation, vitality, imagination, and leadership that the URJ brings to our Movement.

You seem eager to tackle the problems that beset us today.

I’ve always loved a good challenge—whether it’s coming up with an imaginative yet ethical and responsible legal defense strategy, or being able to sing a complex choral piece that was once frightening to look at on the printed page. Also, I am not embarking on this process alone, but with Rabbi Jacobs, a wonderful professional staff, and a skilled and dedicated group of lay leaders. In addition, we are not starting anew; both my predecessors as chair, Bob Heller and Peter Weidhorn, in partnership with our president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, saw the need for change and acted to set the wheels in motion. Their vision and accomplishments have made it possible for the Union’s new leadership to expedite the transition process and move us toward a hopeful future.


Union for Reform Judaism.