The Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish “denomination” in the U.S. — opened its big Biennial conference today in Washington, D.C.
6,000 delegates. Five days. President Obama to speak. Big stuff.
To top it off, Rabbi Eric Yoffie will end his 16-year tenure as president. He will be replaced by none other than Rabbi Rick Jacobs (that’s him), the longtime spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.
The Reform movement is, of course, Judaism’s liberal wing. The URJ represents something like 900 congregations and over 300,000 households, but there has long been concern over how “connected” to Judaism many of those households are. A lot of teens basically drop out after their bar and bat mitzvahs and many of the interfaith families that belong to Reform congregations are not terribly active in Jewish life.
Yoffie will be remembered for pushing tradition in a Reform context. He was big on Torah study and Jewish education and on the need for Reform Jews to stay connected to Israel.
Jacobs — well known in these parts as an energetic and personable leader — has been talking a lot about change and transformation and making new connections with Jews on the fringes. These are big, broad issues so it will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs suggests for the Reform future.
The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt has a typically thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what the URJ conference is facing. He writes:
Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs, a tall, ruggedly handsome man of 56, says the future of Reform Jewry is “all about transformation,” invoking the mantra of Billy Beane, the baseball executive portrayed in the film “Moneyball”: “adapt or die.” The rabbi wants to see Reform Jewry seek out “the unaffiliated and the uninspired,” beyond the walls of the synagogue.
Despite economic woes, he says this is not the time to “scale back” but to reach out more aggressively. Congregations can no longer “sit back and wait” for young adults who drifted away from Jewish life come back and join as young parents, as happened in the past.
This generation is distrustful of denominations and institutions, the rabbi said, and will respond to relationships more than programming. The job of Reform leaders is to reach young people where they are and connect them to the values of the movement, emphasizing ritual and observance, community, social action and moving tradition into modernity, Rabbi Jacobs says, all “rooted in serious Jewish learning at the core.”