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Open Letter to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Board of Governors

An Open Letter to the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Dear Member of the Board of Governors:

I share this with you, hoping you recognize that whatever you decide, I honor your wisdom, thoughtfulness, and deep caring about Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion…

[On Monday, after two years of sustained work on a strategic planning process, the Board of Governors will vote on a plan designed best to fulfill HUC-JIR’s mission for the future. The recommendations are: (a) Restructure the Rabbinical School with residential programs in Los Angeles and New York; (b) Reimagine the Cincinnati campus as a center for research and educational engagement, including strengthening the impact of the Klau Library, Skirball Museum, and American Jewish Archives (AJA), and creating new opportunities for rabbinic students, graduate students, visiting scholars and Reform movement partners to study on our historic campus; and (c) Explore the development of a new academically rigorous, low-residency clergy program.]

Thank you for your service to our Reform Jewish movement. And thank you for your service on the board of HUC-JIR. And thank you, I hope, for your continued courageous leadership as it is needed most.

As you ponder the plan placed before you and prepare to vote on a proposal that will have significant consequences for the future of HUC-JIR, I invite you to consider the Blockbuster gift card I carry around in my wallet.

Once worth $50 in a time when a Blockbuster store on every corner ensured the inevitability of an evening filled with VHS cassettes or DVDs, this Blockbuster card now carries little currency in our world. Why?

Because that once mighty company has only one remaining Blockbuster store. The gift card regularly reminds me of what happens when organizations fail to focus on the changing future and instead get locked in the past.

Perhaps this Blockbuster gift card will inspire you – committed stewards of the Jewish future – to model yourselves after the visionaries who repeatedly transformed another company in the same marketplace – Netflix – as it transformed from a snail-mail DVD outfit into a responsive and exceedingly relevant leader in its marketplace.

Perhaps it will remind you that institutions which are unafraid to innovate and reinvent themselves – even their core businesses – will survive and will thrive through multiple marketplace disruptions. Such institutions will assume a newly made mantle of robust and relevant leadership in the constantly changing future.

The story of this Blockbuster gift card led our Congregation Or Ami synagogue leadership – and the leaders of so many other institutions – to make multiple decisions that others ranked as too risky or too poorly planned or too unnecessarily impulsive. As detailed in a viral article, Disruptive Judaism: Will You Become Beit Blockbuster or Kehillat Netflix?, we see that organizations can thrive again when courageous leaders address the disruption in our own marketplaces and take actions – often painful, sometimes even involving closing beloved legacy programs – that have the potential to engender possibility instead of hailing historical significances that inevitably will hold us back.

Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of HUC-JIR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was an innovator, standing up to ridicule and rancor, to birth a robust Jewish future in this new land.

Now the landscape HUC-JIR faces is new and so we turn to you – HUC-JIR board members – to follow in our founder’s footsteps and innovate once again.

I urge you to vote in favor of this proposed plan. Decide that HUC-JIR will be Kehillat Netflix instead of Beit Blockbuster. Lead us forward into a future of bright possibility.

And I pledge my voice, my mamon (financial support), and my community connections to help make it thrive.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazek.
May we go from (imagined) strength to (long-lasting) strength, as we innovate and strengthen our beloved HUC-JIR.

With appreciation,

Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Congregation Or Ami
Calabasas, CA

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