Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. His job puts him at the center of the changes surrounding the retirement of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who left the URJ’s top spot at the end of last year, and the brave new world of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Yoffie’s successor. He is also deeply involved in the restructuring of the URJ, a reorganization of the synagogue arm and de facto voice of the Reform movement in North America.
The URJ was rearranged in 2009, a process also referred to as a restructuring. During that round of changes, Kesher, the Reform movement’s campus arm was discontinued for lack of funds.
Its planners, including Pesner, hope the new restructure will save money and streamline the movement for life in the 21st century. One big change is the new Campaign for Youth Engagement, which Pesner announced at the URJ biennial in December.
David A.M. Wilensky: Is this because the last restructure didn’t take?
Rabbi Jonah Pesner: The last restructure happened in the context of the worst economic collapse of my lifetime and certainly your lifetime. There had been a bunch of task forces and strategic pans about what the URJ could look like in a less geographical and more technological era. In a rush to deal with the economy, the URJ moved too quickly to put pieces of all of those into place.
Three years later Eric Yoffie retires and Jonah Pesner and Rick Jacobs come in from outside. We’re a new management team that says the era calls for something radically different from what we have.
A lot of people look at this and say, “This is yet more proof that Reform Judaism’s inevitable demise is here.” What do you say to that?
I tend to be an incredibly optimistic, joyful Jew. I don’t think in terms of failed experiments. I think in terms of opportunities for radical transformation. It’s completely imperfect and needs lots of reenergizing and we could lay out lots of issues with denominationalism, but the Reform movement is the single biggest delivery system for Judaism to the Jewish people. I’ll say that again: The Reform movement is the single biggest delivery system for Judaism to the Jewish people.
How do you define biggest?
If you think about an organized delivery system – and it doesn’t always feel organized every day – but if you add up all those parts – the URJ, NFTY [North American Federation of Temple Youth], the [Reform summer] camps – it’s the biggest.
What are the specific differences between this restructuring and the last one?
We want to be respectful of the past — what happened before made sense in its context. It made sense for the URJ to be a big fortress on Third Avenue [in Manhattan]. We’re in a highly networked universe, whether it’s local relationships that you have or international relations that you have or the ability to access knowledge and information from the internet. So then you ask, “Why do we have to pay dues to a central organization? Not because they’re failing, but because the environment has changed.”
We’re gonna launch in the new URJ what’s called the Knowledge Network, not named out of hubris, but we’re getting together a group of leaders of the Reform movement, which will be both a people and Internet platform that does not assume that we’ll have at 633 Third Avenue all the experts to respond to everything need a member has.
This is like the online support forum model, as opposed the central customer support call center model.
Exactly. It’s to create that kind of platform, but that’s just a part of it because customer service isn’t the Jewish future. That’s a just a tactic. The Knowledge Network will also create a vast network of human capital, people that we train to be in contact with our congregations, whether we contract with them or they’re just volunteers.
The analog is that you don’t just get, for example, articles about what you’re looking for about food justice, but several rabbis in your area that have all done work on what you’re asking about and several congregations that are also involved in that area. We’re also going to get groups of congregations together to work together on things that they’re all interested in.
You delivered a speech at the URJ Biennial in December on the subject of the Campaign for Youth Engagement. Here is how you identified one of the challenges the campaign will address: “By the time our 12th graders graduate college 80% have left our congregations and communities and we may not see them again until they have children of their own, or at all. There’s one in five left. Do we want to bring them back? Do you want to bring them back?” Kesher, the old Reform college program, was axed in the previous restructure. So far, nothing publicly available about the campaign indicates what the URJ plans to do for college students. What is the campaign going to do to bring college students back?
The data shows us that when the kids are still with us, 80 percent have dropped out by 12th grade, so what we’re talking about is how to retain kids during high school. But you’re asking a great question: So we’re gonna do stuff around these kids, but what about college?
In the speech, you go on to speak about NFTY and about camp, arguably the American Reform movement’s two greatest successes. But the URJ hasn’t had anything for college students in a while now. What’s the plan for them?
The day before I gave that biennial speech we did the Forum for Youth Engagement, a 1,000-person assembly of leaders committed to working on CYE. Wayne Firestone [the president of Hillel International] came and did 10 minutes out of a longer program, and that was intentional. We don’t have the resources to do quality programming for college students. We brought Wayne and his team there to say that we can’t do this by ourselves and we’re working closely with Wayne and his team to build out a footprint for Reform Judaism on campus without having to raise a big bunch of money and do something that we can’t do right now.
It is not acceptable the Reform movement’s presence on campus is like an abyss. But right now we’re just not gonna do it well. So that’s why we didn’t push college as a key strategy at this moment in time.
CORRECTION, 5/14/12: Pesner was originally identified as the director of the presidential transition, a position he held prior to his current position as senior vice president of the URJ.