Union for Reform Judaism

Union for Reform Judaism
Abbreviation URJ
Theology Reform Judaism
President Rabbi Richard Jacobs
CCAR President Rabbi Denise Eger
Associations World Union for Progressive Judaism
Region United States and Canada
Headquarters 633 Third Avenue, New York City
Founder Isaac Mayer Wise
Origin July 8, 1873
Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio
Congregations 873
Members ~880,000 affiliates
600,000–1,150,000 identifying
Official website www.urj.org

The Union for Reform Judaism (until 2003: Union of American Hebrew Congregations), is the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in North America, founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. It is served by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The current president is Rabbi Richard Jacobs. The URJ has an estimated constituency of some 880,000 registered adults in 873 congregations. It claims to represent 2.2 million, as over a third of adult U.S. Jews, including many who are not synagogue members, state affinity with Reform, making it the largest denomination among them. The UAHC was a founding member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, of which the URJ is the largest constituent by far.

Belief and practice

The URJ is the most populous organization in the world to espouse Reform Judaism (also known as Liberal or Progressive). Like the other regional variants, it shares several basic tenets: a belief in a theistic, personal God; continuous revelation, under the influence of which all scripture were written by divinely inspired humans through the ages and all the People Israel may form their own, new religious insights today, not necessarily in conformity with those gained in the past; a distinction between the moral and ethical heart of Judaism in contrast with the instrumental ritual and practice, which serve to express the former and may be altered or renewed to better fulfill this function, though they still occupy an important role in religious life; universal mission of the Jews to spread God's message among all peoples, and a future coming of a Messianic Age of peace, but without a personal Messiah or restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem; and rejection of bodily Resurrection of the Dead while affirming, at most, an Immortality of the Soul. The movement also upholds the autonomy of the individual as the final arbiter on matters of his own religiosity, yet while this notion endures a growing stress is laid on participation in communal life and observance, especially since the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement of Principles.

In the past, during its "Classical" era, roughly between the Civil War and the 1930s, American Reform was defined by rejection of virtually all ceremonial aspects of Judaism and the authority of traditional jurisprudence (halakha) in favour of a rationalistic, universalist and sterile religious life. "New Reform", from the 1937 Columbus Declaration of Principles and onwards, sought to reincorporate such elements and emphasize Jewish particularism, though still subject to personal autonomy. Concurrently, the denomination prioritized inclusiveness at the expense of clear principle. Both these trends, retraditionalization and diversification, became especially pronounced after the adoption of "Big Tent Judaism" policy in the 1970s. Old ritual items became fashionable again, as were ceremonies such as ablution; the liturgy, once abridged and containing much English, had more Hebrew and traditional formulae restored, though not due to theological concerns – in contrast with "Classical", "New Reform" abandoned the drive to equate religious expression with one's actual belief. Confirmation ceremonies in which the young were examined to prove knowledge in the faith, once ubiquitous, were mostly replaced by Bar and Bat Mitzvah, yet many adolescents still undergo confirmation (often at the Feast of Weeks) between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. A unique aspect of Reform was its interpretation to the old rabbinic concept of Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World); it became a rallying cry for participation in various initiatives pursuing social justice and other progressive agendas, like the Civil Rights Movement.

Another key aspect of American Reform, which it shares with sister movements in the WUPJ, is its approach to Jewish identity. Interfaith marriage, once a taboo – the CCAR penalized any involvement by its clergy in such ceremonies by ordinances passed in 1909, 1947 and 1962 – were becoming more prevalent toward the end of the 20th Century. In 1979, the URJ adopted a policy of embracing the intermarried and their spouses, in the hope the latter would convert. In 1983 it recognized Judaism based on patrilineal descent, affirming that offspring of a single Jewish parent (whether father or mother) would be accepted as inheriting his status if they would demonstrate affinity to the faith. Children of a Jewish mother who will not commit to Judaism were not to be considered Jewish. These measures made Reform the most hospitable to non-Jewish family members among major American denominations: in 2006, 17% of synagogue-member households had a converted spouse, and 26% and unconverted one. These policies also raised great tensions with the more traditional movements. Orthodox and Conservatives rejected the validity of Reform conversions already before that, though among the latter, the greater proclivity of CCAR rabbis to perform the process under halakhic standards allowed for many such to be approved. Patrilineal descent caused a growing percentage of Reform constituency to be regarded as non-Jewish by the two other denominations.

Organizational structure

The URJ, which was named the "Union of American Hebrew Congregations" until 7 November 2003, incorporates 846 congregations in the United States and 27 in Canada. The union consists of four administrative districts, West, East, South and North, covering respectively the western half of the United States, the northeast, the southern half and the midwest. The districts in turn are divided into a total of 35 regional communities, comprising groups of local congregations; 34 are in the United States and one, the URJ Canada Community in the North District, represents all those affiliated with the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism.

The union is led by a board of trustees, consisting 253 lay members, which is in turn overseen by the 5,000-member General Assembly, which convenes biennially. It was first assembled in Cleveland on 14 July 1874, and the 2015 biennial was held in Orlando on 4 November. The board directs the Senior Leadership Team, headed by the URJ President. Spiritual guidance is provided by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which numbers some 2,300 clergy who convene annually. CCAR personnel are mostly trained in Hebrew Union College, Reform's flagship institution. The conference appoints various departments to regulate religious life, such as the Responsa, Ritual and Prayerbook committees. Synagogue prayers are conducted mainly by members of the American Conference of Cantors. The political and legislative outreach of the URJ is performed by the Religious Action Center. The RAC advocates policy positions based upon religious values, and is associated with political progressivism, as part of the vision for Tikkun Olam. The denomination is also supported by the Women of Reform Judaism (formerly, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods).

The URJ has an estimated constituency of 850,000 in the United States, 760,000 Jews and further 90,000 non-converted gentile spouses. A greater number identifies with Reform Judaism without affiliating with a synagogue. The 2013 Pew survey assessed that 35% of Jews in the United States consider themselves Reform (the 2001 AJC poll cited 38%); based on these figures, Steven M. Cohen estimated there were 1,154,000 identifying non-member adults in addition to those registered, not including children.[1] There are further 30,000 affiliated congregants in Canada. Citing those findings, the URJ claims to represent a total of 2.2 million individuals.[2]

Youth wing

A photo of the entrance sign for Camp Swig in Saratoga, California.
Entrance sign for Camp Swig in Saratoga, California.

The North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) is the Reform Jewish youth movement and exists to supplement and support Reform youth groups at the synagogue level. About 750 local youth groups affiliate themselves with the organization, comprising over 8,500 youth members.[3] PARDeS, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, is the day school affiliate of the URJ. As of 2014, it had 14 Jewish day school members with two in Canada, one in Israel and the rest in the United States.[4]

The URJ Camp & Israel Programs is the largest Jewish camping system in the world,[5] comprising 13 summer camps across North America, including a sports specialty camp,[6] teen leadership institute[7] and programs for youth with special needs.[8] Many of the camps have long provided the opportunity for high school pupils to travel to Israel during the summer. The Union offers various Israel programs for seminarians and students.


Reform-like ideas in the United States were first expressed by the Reformed Society of Israelites, founded on 21 November 1824 and led by Isaac Harby, Abraham Moise and David Nunes Carvalho. They represented the younger, Americanized and religiously lax generation in their community, in opposition an establishment formed from English-born immigrants. They were mainly concerned with decorum – demanding English-language sermons, synagogue affairs handled in English rather than Middle Spanish (as was prevalent among Western Sephardim) and so forth – and the stringency of the wardens, but soon arrived at more principled issues. On their first anniversary, Harby delivered an oratory in which he declared Rabbinic Judaism a demented faith, no longer relevant, and that America was "the Promised Land of Scripture." They fully seceded by their second anniversary, after continuing rebuffs on the part of the wardens, forming their own prayer group. The three leaders authored a prayerbook which they completely excised any mention of the Messiah, restoration of sacrifices and return to Zion. It was published in 1830. Far more moderate alterations along these lines, in the first liturgy considered Reformed, caused an uproar at Hamburg in 1818.

The Society, numbering several dozens, dissipated and merged back into Beth Elohim during 1833. But they did not cease being a factor. In 1836, the unified congregation hired Gustavus Poznanski as cantor. He spent time in Hamburg and knew the rite of the Hamburg Temple. Traditional at first, Poznanski soon turned to a different course. In 1843 he attempted to abolish the Second Day of Festivals and later published his own version of the Maimonedes' Creed, which lacked reference to Resurrection of the Dead and the Messiah. He also instituted various ritual reforms. Supported by many of the former secessionists, he eventually resigned in 1847.

A year before that, Isaac Mayer Wise arrived from Europe. In a country where Jewish immigrants lacked an organized and established religious leadership, Wise quickly rose to prominence. While far from traditional belief, he was disinterested in offering a comprehensive new approach, focusing on pragmatic compromises. Wise introduced family pews for the first time in known synagogue history (by random, when his congregation bought a church) in Albany on Shabbat Shuvah, 3 October 1851. His attempts to forge a single American Judaism motivated him to seek agreement with the conservative Isaac Leeser. Relations between them, wrought with suspicion from the beginning, were terminated after Wise agreed to Leeser's demands in the 1855 Cleveland Synod and then retracted when the latter left. Wise was soon outflanked by the radical Reform rabbi David Einhorn, who espoused a dogmatic, rigid line demanding conformity with the principles of Reform Judaism then formulated in Germany. Many other German rabbis crossed the ocean to the land where their religious outlook, free from state intervention or communal pressures, could be expressed purely.

Einhorn gradually gained the upper hand, though the conflict-laden synergy between him and Wise would lay the foundation of American Reform. The Philadelphia Conference of 3–6 November 1869 saw the radicals' victory, and the adoption of a platform which summarized the theory concocted in Germany in the previous decades. Priestly privileges were abolished as the rebuilding of the Temple was no longer anticipated, belief in Messiah and Resurrection denied. Michael Meyer regarded the document as the denominational "declaration of independence." The need for religious divorce (get) was also annulled, and civil one confirmed as sufficient, one of the first steps towards abandonment of most ritual. While American Jews, even the nominally Orthodox, were scarcely observant, Reform began to officially dispose of practices still upheld. Its doctrine was well received by the immigrants and especially their assimilated children. Of 200 synagogues in the United States in 1860, there were a handful of Reform ones. Twenty years later, only few of the existing 275 were not part of the movement. On 8 July 1873, representatives from 34 congregations met in Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio and formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) under Wise's auspices. The name reflected his hope to unite all Jews under a single roof.[9] In 1875, Wise also founded Hebrew Union College. Yet his attempts to maintain a moderate facade failed. On 11 July 1883, during the banquet celebrating the first graduation from HUC, non-kosher dishes such as shrimps and crabs were served. The trefa banquet, while apparently the decision of the Jewish caterer and not of Wise himself (who observed dietary laws), prompted protests from the few American traditionalists, like Sabato Morais, who remained outside the UAHC. Several conservative members later claimed to have exited the room with repulsion, though little is factually known about the incident.

It was the arrival of Rabbi Alexander Kohut in 1885 which forced an unambiguous stance. Kohut attacked the UAHC for abandoning traditional Judaism. A series of heated exchanges between him and Reform's chief ideologue, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, encouraged the latter to convene an assembly which accepted the Pittsburgh Platform on 19 November. Embodying the spirit of "Classical Reform", it added virtually nothing to the theoretical foundation of the movement but elucidated it clearly and unambiguously. It was declared that to-day we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives. A small group of conservatives withdrew from the UAHC in protest, joining Kohut, Morais and their supporters in founding the Jewish Theological Seminary. At first unifying almost all non-Reform currents, it developed into the center of Conservative Judaism. In 1889, Wise founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

"Classical Reform" soon faced a more pressing challenge. The massive immigration from Eastern Europe, bringing over two million Jews who had strong traditional sentiments in matters of religion even when personally lax, dwarfed the UAHC constituency within a generation. In the 1910s and 1920s, the CCAR rabbis gradually reintroduced many elements once discarded in an effort to appeal to the newcomers. The influx, and the growth of interwar antisemitism, also brought a renewed stress on Jewish particularism and peoplehood, ritual and tradition. In contrast with the coolness toward Zionism expressed by Classicists – emanating both from their rejection of old Messianic belief, involving a restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem, and commitment to emancipation – many new clergymen, like Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, were enthusiastic and influential Zionists. These tendencies were codified in the 1937 Columbus Declaration of Principles, influenced by rabbis Samuel S. Cohon, Solomon Freehof and others from Eastern Europe. Anti-Zionist Reform rabbis broke away during WWII to found the American Council for Judaism,[10] which declined in activity following the Six Day War.

In 1950, Hebrew Union College college merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform rabbinical college founded in 1922 by Rabbi Stephen Wise. The selective "return to tradition" encouraged many Americanized Eastern-European-descended Jews to flock to the UAHC in the postwar years, rapidly swelling its ranks. The transition from a parochial denomination with a relatively clear outlook to a populous "Big Tent Judaism" through the latter half of the century was marked both by growing pluralism and an embrace of Jewish heritage.


  1. Steven M. Cohen, Members and Motives: Who Joins American Jewish Congregations and Why Archived December 22, 2015, at the Wayback Machine., S3K Report, Fall 2006; As Reform Jews Gather, Some Good News in the Numbers, Jewish Daily Forward, 5 November 2015.
  2. "Nearly 2.2 million Americans and Canadians identify as Reform Jews": The Reform Movement, urj.org.
  3. "About NFTY". Retrieved January 9, 2012.
  4. PARDeS Member Schools
  5. "URJ Camp & Israel Programs".
  6. "URJ 6 Points Sports Academy". Retrieved January 9, 2012.
  7. "Kutz: NFTY's Campus for Reform Jewish Teens". Retrieved January 9, 2012.
  8. "URJ Camp & Israel Programs Special Needs Programs". Retrieved January 9, 2012.
  9. "Reform Judaism Group Decides to Update Name:". The Washington Post. November 8, 2003. p. B8.
  10. Wertheimer, J. "What Does Reform Judaism Stand For?", Commentary Magazine, June 2008 Archived August 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., (accessed February 2, 2009)
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