The origins of the URJ began with the founding of the UAHC by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1873, based at Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time it consisted of 34 congregations. In 1950, the UAHC relocated its headquarters to New York City. In 2003, the UAHC was officially renamed the Union for Reform Judaism by the General Assembly at the organization's Biennial Convention. The former name was dropped because it reflected Wise's unrealized expectation that the whole of American Jewry would eventually affiliate with the Reform movement, and also because it failed to acknowledge the Reform-affiliated congregations outside the United States. Today, the organization is often referred to simply as "the Union." As of 2005, some 900 synagogues were affiliated with it.
In 1875, the Union created Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, the Reform movement seminary to train rabbis and later cantors and other Jewish professionals. In 1950, the college merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform rabbinical college founded in 1922 by Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, and located in New York City. Rabbis in URJ member temples are members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).
The URJ Youth Division funds and organizes two youth wings, NFTY and KESHER, for High School and College students, respectively. The Youth Division also runs international travel programs to Israel and Europe and administers the URJ camping system.
The political and legislative outreach of the URJ is performed by the Religious Action Center (RAC), operated in conjunction with CCAR. The RAC advocates policy positions based upon religious values, and is generally associated with political progressivism.
The URJ owns and operates 12 summer camps throughout North America. Camp Kalsman, as the most recent addition to the URJ's camping program, had its inaugural summer in 2007 in Washington State. An additional four are operated by URJ-affiliated synagogues. When not in use as camps, some of these facilities are often used by other community groups, including NFTY national and regional events. Many of the camps have long provided the opportunity for high school aged campers to travel to Israel during a summer. The 12 summer camps are: URJ Kutz Camp, URJ Joseph Eisner Camp, URJ Camp George, URJ Camp Harlam, URJ Camp Coleman, URJ Crane Lake Camp, URJ Camp Newman/Swig, URJ Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), URJ Myron S. Goldman Union Camp-Institute (GUCI), URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, URJ Greene Family Camp, URJ Camp Kalsman.
URJ Camp Swig/Newman was formerly split into two camps: Camp Swig and Camp Newman (Swig located in Saratoga, California; Newman located in Santa Rosa, California). Camp Swig was officially closed this year, 2008.
Hava Nashira is an annual Jewish songleading workshop held every spring at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute camp. The workshop is open to URJ camp songleaders as well as to temple music specialists and all those with a serious interest In Jewish songleading and music. Hava Nashira draws the best of modern Jewish musicians, including Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman, and Dan Nichols to lead specialty tracks. Examples of creative tracks offered in previous years: "URJ Camp Songleading" by Dan Nichols and Rosalie Will Boxt, "Repertoire Renewal" by Debbie Friedman, and "Music for Young Children and Families" by Peter and Ellen Allard.