Reflecting on URJ’s Biennial: Where Is Encouraging Philanthropy?

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

The largest Jewish gathering in America – the Biennial of the Reform Movement – took place last week near Washington, D.C., attracting more than 5,000 committed Jews affiliated with 500 Reform congregations across the United States and Canada. Without any doubt, this was a memorable, electrifying event that will be talked about for weeks, months … or maybe even years ahead.

With President Barack Obama headlining a major session, the Biennial excited and re-charged so many congregational leaders and set a hopeful and confident tone for the Reform Movement. Rabbi Rick Jacobs received a warm embrace as the incoming president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), succeeding Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who has held the post for the past 16 years.

Reflecting on the Biennial from a perspective of philanthropy, we walked away with several observations and recommendations relevant to those who attended the broad spectrum of interesting and inspiring menu of programs and seminars throughout the conference and to those would plan the next Biennial to be held in San Diego in December 2013. Here are five thoughts and suggestions:

  1. Giving doesn’t happen, it needs to be designed, planned, and implemented so don’t be afraid to talk about it! We counted only three hands-on sessions dealing directly with giving out of almost 200 offerings. While a committee of lay leaders was charged with selecting programs, we found that this year’s Biennial had the leanest number of programs relating to the art and science of giving in more than 20 years. The three programs tackled important topics (asking for mega gifts, Planned Giving and Solicitor Training), took place in packed rooms and provoked much discussion, but reflected the rather sparse attention to one of the most critical areas of institutional growth and vitality. Our feeling: philanthropy is outside of the comfort level of many leaders so creating so many other topics took center stage; as a result addressing charitable giving received lip service. Recommendation: There is demand from congregations to deal with fundraising so place it prominently and offer more workshops.
  2. URJ has historically been somewhat bashful about fundraising but this Biennial did showcase a handful of important gifts and initiatives. Several important, transformative gifts were announced during the Biennial, including one from Honey and Rudi Scheidt, of Memphis, to strengthen a longstanding program they funded initially years ago to foster volunteer leadership. A long-overdue opportunity to feature committed donors who are passionate about the Reform Movement!
  3. The presence of younger Reform Jews, including hundreds of NFTY members from across North America, added a dimension to the meetings that was truly exciting to older attendees. But where were discussions about utilizing social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to promote giving and to focus attention on their ultimately supporting congregations as investors in the future? We see and hear so much about how Millenials (those 35 years of age and younger) have intentions to create community and to take advantage of Facebook and Twitter to create and further relationships, but seldom did this technology seem apparent, other than a few of us who did comment on-line periodically. Even with so many younger attendees, the up-to-date technological tools to promote connectivity were missing. A daily electronic newsletter was sent out to those attendees who registered with an email address but this was not an especially “green” and technologically-oriented gathering.
  4. The power of women as donors was definitely showcased, especially through efforts by Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ). WRJ’s concurrent Assembly tackled numerous topics and excited and involved almost 1,000 women. (Our next follow-up commentary will showcase WRJ’s Centennial Campaign as well as the Campaign for Youth Engagement, two important initiatives which will strengthen the Movement.)
  5. The Reform Movement – along with every other nonprofit that depends on philanthropic support – is in a transitional phase that requires innovation in promoting charitable giving as a fundamental part of everyday operation. In our discussion with Rabbi Jacobs, we sensed a new commitment to this philosophy. We applaud the leadership of the Movement for embracing this approach; dynamic programs that are making impact will certainly attract donors at all levels and will strengthen URJ for decades to come. Future Biennials should highlight these (and other) initiatives and should serve as opportunities to highlight generous “investors” in the future of the Movement.

As one of the pre-eminent Jewish events, the URJ Biennial attracts widespread attention, and this year’s gathering will be remembered as one that engendered passion, offering innovation in programs and services, and “pushing the envelope,” even if just a little. Rabbi Jacobs’ charge to attendees about considering new ways to pay for synagogue finances – other than with dues and fees – reflects creative solutions that lie ahead. Perhaps the largest Jewish movement in North America will see a new day that teaches its members to be strong donors and to be generous by supporting the country’s basic Jewish institutions.

Overall: the Biennial was an electrifying gathering of committed Jews who collectively make an impact on the future of Jewish life, but who need to direction, motivation and leadership to be more pro-active when it comes to giving and securing support from others.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp