Religion & Jewish Life

At Reform biennial, changes at the top, but focus on the grass roots

NEW YORK (JTA) — When more than 5,500 people gather at a massive hotel just outside Washington next week for what is slated to be the biggest-ever biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, they will be taking part in a transformative moment for the organization.

The longtime head of the largest denomination of American Jewry, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, will be ceding the helm to Rabbi Richard Jacobs, a congregational rabbi from the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Along with the Reform rabbis, congregational leaders and movement activists on hand will be a star-studded cast of speakers that will include the president of the United States, the House majority leader and the Israeli defense minister. Their attendance at the biennial is a sign of the strength and influence of Reform Jewry’s leaders.

But the real question facing Reform Judaism as Jacobs inaugurates the new era isn’t so much what happens at the top of the movement but what happens at the grass roots.

Can the movement’s more than 900 synagogues survive tough economic times and attract new members? Can parents be convinced to keep their children in Hebrew school beyond the bar/bat mitzvah? Can young, unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s be engaged in Jewish life? Can this largely suburban, shul-based movement figure out a way to appeal to younger, urban Jews who aren’t interested in synagogue life?

“The big opportunity is to think about the challenges in Jewish life today, strategically and clearly,” said Jacobs, who takes over officially in January. “We’re also going to tell the truth about what’s not working.”

Jacobs sees the biggest challenge as engaging young people who aren’t coming to the synagogue from the moment of their bar/bat mitzvah until their mid-30s or later, if they come at all. He says his first act as president will be to launch a campaign for youth engagement.

“If we don’t start thinking differently about youth, it’s certainly not a bright and rosy future,” Jacobs told JTA. “We’re going to rethink everything we do for youth. This is a tremendous area of experimentation and new creative thinking. How do we tie together camps, Israel trips and what happens in youth groups, and engage those students who became b’nai mitzvah?”

Outside the movement, Jacobs faces some challenges, too.

After he was picked last March to be Yoffie’s successor, critics zeroed in on his affiliations with J Street and the New Israel Fund to question his pro-Israel credentials. A group calling itself Reform Jews Against Divisive Leadership took out an ad in Jewish newspapers declaring that Jacobs “does not represent the pro-Israel policies cherished by Reform Jews” and therefore “does not represent us.” Three dozen members of American Reform congregations signed the ad, but much of the opposition to Jacobs appeared to come from outside the movement.

The attacks prompted Reform leaders and the heads of some of the major mainstream Jewish organizations to line up behind Jacobs, and the controversy quickly died down. The Union for Reform Judaism also made clear that as its president, Jacobs would be resigning his positions at J Street, which he served as a member of its Rabbinic Cabinet, and the New Israel Fund, where he was a board member.

For his part, Jacobs says North American Jews must stand up for Israel even when they have disagreements with it, but the Reform movement also needs to fight for progressive values in Israel.

“We want to make sure that Israel affirms our values of inclusivity and tolerance and democracy,” he said. “I have young people who make aliyah and they say, ‘Will I be able to live my Jewish life in the way I have become accustomed?’ We want to do a much better job of creating pluralism in Israel.”

In many ways, Jacobs and his predecessor are a study in contrasts. Jacobs, 56, is a towering figure with Hollywood good looks who used to be a dancer and regularly practices yoga. He wears a kipah in interviews and made a name for himself as the charismatic pulpit rabbi of a large suburban congregation.

Yoffie, 64, is a diminutive man with thinning hair known for speaking his mind even when he knows it may alienate many of his constituents. In his 16-year tenure as head of the movement, he spoke frequently about Palestinian recalcitrance as the reason for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and he urged Reform Jews to embrace Shabbat, mitzvot, Jewish dietary observance of some kind and Torah study.

“When I came in, my first biennial I talked about Torah at the center,” Yoffie said. “That was less of a programmatic initiative than it was a theological and cultural assertion that we had to proceed with a consciousness of Torah being fundamental to all we do. It was an important cultural change.”

Despite their differing styles, both say they’re on the same page when it comes to the movement’s priorities: a commitment to Torah but without the restrictions of halachah, or Jewish law; social justice; and openness to Jews of all backgrounds.

Jacobs calls it the “big tent” movement.

“A lot of people don’t know what Reform is,” he said. “We offer a spiritual and religious practice that’s all about finding a deeper meaning and a larger purpose that resonates with people. We’re going to get those tent flaps wide open. We’re going to be the movement of welcome and inclusivity.”

As for Yoffie, he isn’t sure yet about his next step. He will continue to blog for The Huffington Post and The Jerusalem Post, and he’s toying with the idea of writing a book, possibly on Israel, possibly on Chabad, about which he has written admiringly.

“I’m exploring. There’s a lot to do in the Jewish world, even outside of the Jewish world,” he said.

Looking back at his time at the union, Yoffie says he has a lot of pride, and some regrets. Regrets, he says, are good.

“Jews are a dissatisfied people; we cry out all the time. Jewish leaders have to be more dissatisfied than anyone else,” Yoffie said.

“Are all Reform Jewish studying Torah? Celebrating Shabbat? Performing mitzvot?” he asked. “Until such a time that that’s happening, we need to ask why not and what more could we have done.”