URJ 2021 Annual Report
A Year of Renewal
A Message from the URJ President and the URJ North American Board Chair
It seems both recently and long ago that we reflected on the infinite ways the pandemic turned our world upside down. Our tradition teaches, “For everything, there is a season... a time to plant and a time to harvest.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) We planted seeds in 2020 that we hoped would bloom in 2021 — and bloom they have. Looking back at the last year, we are enormously proud of our growth and the ways we were able to pivot toward greater engagement, justice, leadership, accountability, and accessibility.
Our understanding of the cycle of life also comes, in part, from the wisdom of our Jewish holidays. Take Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees: on the 15th of Sh’vat — in the midst of the bitter, cold winter, when most vegetation is withered — we’re reminded that renewal is just around the corner. Impossible though it may seem in the moment, we know that frigid rains will always give way to new growth, new life, and new hope.
Like the trees, so too do we, both individually and collectively, go through seasons. If 2020 was our winter season, where we remained resilient and adapted, 2021 was our spring, where the buds of our creativity blossomed.
In 2021, we grew toward greater engagement.
Our URJ camps and Israel programs welcomed 11,000 children, teens, and young adults, offering a true breath of fresh air after the loss of in-person programming the year before. Summer 2021 was a season of healing for so many young people as our youth returned to immersive Jewish living, learning, and laughing, free to be themselves and share their dreams in a loving and supportive environment.
We also grew our RJ on the Go (RJOTG) platform which focused on providing low-barrier, meaningful experiences to 3,500 new users. RJOTG helped bring children, parents, grandparents, and young adults together through a wide variety of interactive experiences including science, art, cooking, and more while making sure that everyone stayed safe and healthy.
We brought back NFTY in Israel trips so that teen groups could access top-tier Israel experiences while deepening bonds with their home community and the greater Reform Jewish community. Such immersive traveling experiences with Jewish peers creates meaningful, lifelong relationships and tangible points of engagement with Israel in which teens can connect to Israel in their own way, whether through culture, politics, entrepreneurship, tikkun olam, nature, history, ritual, spirituality, or food.
February’s NFTY Convention 2021 was an extraordinary event, even amid continued social distancing. Teens told us they felt a new connection to NFTY, with many of them calling it the best virtual experience they’d had — as close as it could possibly get to providing the immeasurable joy of being together in person.
In 2021, we grew toward greater justice.
On the heels of our robust 2020 Civic Engagement Campaign, we launched the Reform Movement’s 2021 Racial Justice Campaign, mobilizing support for voting rights through advocacy opportunities, marches, rallies, partnerships with other local and national organizations such as the Poor People’s Campaign, state projects, and reparations discussions. Much to our distress, a staggering number of bills are still wending their way through state legislatures across the U.S., all with the sinister purpose of suppressing voting. We must not lose sight of our critical role and responsibility in working to create a society firmly rooted in the principles of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion (REDI). The Reform Jewish Community of Canada (RJCC) likewise worked to further a more just world by bearing witness to and focusing on issues specifically faced by Canadian indigenous people.
In order to create communities of belonging for campers, camp families, and staff from underrepresented and targeted backgrounds and identities, all URJ camp staff members participated in the blessing of camp trainings focused on REDI. The URJ’s REDI/Audacious Hospitality team, along with camp leaders and consultants, created a two-part training addressing the core concepts of REDI work and took a deep, honest look at forms of oppression, like racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, antisemitism, and other forms of marginalization. This training puts an emphasis on understanding microaggressions, including how to prevent them, identify them, and address them the moment they occur. We believe that our communities are not whole until everyone experiences a sense of belonging. When we embrace and fully incorporate the diversity that is the reality of modern Jewish life, we are a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community.
In 2021, we grew more accountable.
We retained Debevoise & Plimpton, a leading law firm, to lead an ethics investigation, which ultimately uncovered serious and credible reports of sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct, including sexual assault, at URJ workplaces, camps, and youth programs. Prioritizing the highest levels of dignity, safety, and protection for every single individual in our community requires an ongoing commitment to a culture of ethical accountability, and our work continues into 2022 and beyond as we implement the recommendations from the study. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who came forward to share their experiences, and we honor their courage through our deep and abiding commitment to creating and upholding a safe, equitable, and affirming environment in all URJ settings.
In 2021, we grew more accessible.
In Reform congregations across North America, teams of clergy, staff, educators, and lay people worked together to develop innovative ways to reopen, reenter, and reimagine Jewish communal life. From high-quality digital family programming to holiday content curated to enhance virtual observance, we remained steadfast in our commitment to helping congregations adapt Jewish communal traditions to current realities. We worked with congregations and movement partners to design multi-access opportunities for all those who want to engage with our communities, from asynchronous Shabbat prayer and community experiences to the creation of variable access points for Jewish education. In fact, the flexibility and creativity we embraced in 2021 may very well be what moves us into a richer connection to each other and to our vision for the future.
In 2021, we grew toward more inspired leadership.
Our clergy and other Jewish leaders play a critical role in responding to acts of hate in their communities and beyond. Amid an alarming rise in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, the URJ joined with the Anti-Defamation League, the world’s leading anti-hate organization, to develop “Responding to Antisemitic Incidents: A New Resource for URJ Communities.” This toolkit was designed to help Jewish leaders prepare for and respond to antisemitic incidents and other acts of hate that are tragically growing in North America and beyond. The only way we can tackle such widespread hate is through widespread, inspired leadership.
In 2021, we expanded our social justice academy for teens, which was originally launched as a 2020-2021 school year program. This virtual program allowed us to grow teen participation despite being unable to hold our annual L'Taken Social Justice Seminars.
The year 2021 was a formidable catalyst for thoughtful shifts in the ways we carry out our holy work. What we accomplished in 2021 was nothing short of extraordinary — and it simply would not have been possible without the ingenuity, perseverance, and adaptability of our North American Board and congregational leaders, as well as our youth, donors, and social justice advocates. We remain in awe of the ways they continue to innovate and secure a Jewish future that is at once timely and timeless.
May our Jewish communities across North America continue to blossom into the next year, in continuation of the URJ’s vision of a whole, just, and compassionate world.
Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman (she/her)
Chair, North American Board
Rabbi Rick Jacobs (he/him)