A new chapter for Reform Judaism (starring Scarsdale’s Rick Jacobs)

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.”

 

Can vegetarianism be the Reform Kosher?

Passover, which begins at sundown Monday, comes with plenty of dietary rules. No bagels, for instance.

Well, a new book published by the Reform movement takes a fresh look at Jewish eating in general. It’s called “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”

The Reform movement has traditionally rejected Kosher laws — or at least made them very optional. But the book (published by the Reform Rabbis association) explores the meaning of Kosher (or Kashrut) for liberal Jews in the modern world.

A press release says: “Does Kashrut represent a facade of religiosity, hiding immorality and abuse, or is it, in its purest form, a summons to raise the ethical standards of food production?  How does Kashrut enrich spiritual practice by teaching intentionality and gratitude?  Can paying attention to our own eating practices raise our awareness of the hungry?  Can Kashrut inspire us to eat healthfully?  Can these laws draw us around the same table, thus creating community?”

One essay in the book is by Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue (which is a non-denominational congregation). Sameth is a vegetarian and suggests that the Reform movement adopt vegetarianism as a formal dietary standard.

He writes: “Over one billion people on the planet are either starving or are chronically undernourished. Animal agriculture is inefficient in the extreme… You’ve got to invest eight to twelve pounds of grain for every one pound of edible beef you get back. Unbelievably inefficient. If we gave up our meat-based diets, simply stopped raising animals for food, all of those crops we are now raising to feed those animals would be sufficient to feed every starving man, woman, and child on the planet.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a nice feature about whether the book and other rumblings suggest that the Reform world is considering/suggesting/mulling over some sort of more formal kosher observance.

The article includes this:

*****

Some Reform leaders, including the book’s editor, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

“The Sacred Table” opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws — a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore.

It also includes chapters on each of the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the traditional definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tzaar baalei chayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy and lay leaders are keeping kosher, partially or entirely. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice, which may or may not include kashrut.

Scarsdale’s Rabbi Jacobs to move to the national stage

Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the well-known and well-liked leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, has been named the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

As soon as I saw the announcement a few minutes ago, I thought “Well, this makes sense.”

Jacobs is an impressive guy, erudite and yet approachable. Many people have told me over the years how much he has inspired them.

Let’s face it: Running Westchester Reform for close to 20 years requires a special guy. It is a very large and influential congregation that is home to many successful, influential and vocal people.

Hey, it might be easier to head the URJ!

The URJ has about 900 member congregations, including a couple of dozen in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Jacobs’ nomination has to be approved by the URJ’s trustees in June. Then he’ll take over for retiring Rabbi Eric Yoffie, one of American Judaism’s most interesting and outspoken leaders, in 2012.

Reform Judaism is doing pretty well these days. It will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs has to say and where he tries to take the movement.

Jacobs would become only the movement’s fourth president in the last 68 years. Until a few years ago, the URJ was known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Will religious leaders speak out on immigration?

President Obama’s intention to press forward with immigration reform is certain to present serious challenges for religious leaders.

Most major religious denominations — especially those with a presence in New York — are all in favor of reform, including some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. But they find themselves at odds with many citizens, including many in their pews, who have little patience with illegals.

Especially at a time of high unemployment, selling immigration reform could make the health-care reform mess look easy.

So here’s the question: How willing will religious leaders be to try to sell a controversial policy shift that many people do not want?

Just about every major mainline Protestant denomination favors immigration reform. Most major Jewish groups (including the Reform and Conservative movements) favor reform. And mostly importantly, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest and most influential religious community in many regions with high numbers of immigrants, is all-out, hog-wild in favor of reform.

Still, as I’ve written before, the Catholic Church is extremely active and vocal in Washington. But the message on immigration is rarely shared by bishops to their dioceses. And the word hardly makes it to the parish level.

An official with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference told me last year that this disconnect was a real problem.

Will this change if the immigration debate becomes nasty, as it promises to do? How many priests and ministers and rabbis will want to promote reform from their pulpits if people might grumble or hiss or leave?

Over the past few years, religious leaders in New York met to talk about crafting a pro-immigrant statement they could release jointly. But it never came to pass. Which tells you something.

When I interviewed Archbishop Dolan soon after he came to New York, he told me that he wanted to take the lead on immigration in New York. The Catholic Church should be leading pro-immigrant rallies New York, he said, not smaller Pentecostal churches.

We’ll see.

Here in LoHudland, nothing riles people up like immigration issues. The idea of amnesty for illegal immigrants makes people go nuts. Will Dolan and other religious leaders — Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran bishops, Reform and Conservative rabbis — speak up?

We shall see.

The Latino Pastoral Action Center in the Bronx is hosting a pro-reform rally for clergy on Monday. The announced speakers are all Hispanic, so far.

MFA-logo-blueADD: I didn’t mention that a large rally for immigration reform will be held in Washington on Wednesday, March 21. Organizers say that tens of thousands will attend.

The rally is being organized and supported by dozens of religious groups.

Interestingly, the slogan for the “March for America” is “Change takes courage and faith.”