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.”


Armonk temple shares abundant harvest

Social action is a lynchpin of Reform Judaism.

So the Irving J. Fain Award for Outstanding Synagogue Social Action Programming, presented by the Union for Reform Judaism, is a big deal.

One of the 20 congregations to win this year is Temple B’nai Yisrael in Armonk. The congregation won for participating in the Roxbury Farm Partnership, “which recruits members of the wider Armonk community to purchase farm shares and to identify community partners with whom to share the abundant harvest.”

Said Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism: “The congregations that win Fain Awards exemplify the passion for social justice that is at the very foundation of Reform Judaism. These outstanding congregations bring hope and healing to their communities through their efforts to fulfill the Jewish mandate ‘l’taken et haolam’ – ‘to repair our broken world.’ “

One of five runners-up was Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, which “hosted public officials from federal, state and local levels as guest speakers to educate attendees about how to effectively advocate for environmental justice.”

Calls ring for a new Muslim/Jewish era

Might we be seeing the first sign of a thaw in Muslim/Jewish relations?

Just an itty-bitty sign?

Last year, 138 Muslim scholars from dozens of countries called for a new era in Muslim/Christian relations. Their open letterA Common Word Between Us and You — was well received by many Christian leaders, and the Vatican plans to host several of the signatories for a conversation.

jewish_star.pngNow the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations in the UK has issued an open letter to the international Jewish community, calling for the end of “stereotypes and prejudices” that divide the Muslim and Jewish worlds.

The letter says, in part:

This Letter is important for non-Muslims and Muslims because it illustrates that the Muslim world has diversity of opinion and that Muslims are willing to engage in a conversation with Jews, a conversation that is not wholly dominated by the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Although many Muslims and non-Muslims only know of Muslim-Jewish relations through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there needs to be an awareness of other positive encounters at different stages of our history as well as the pioneering work of inter-religious dialogue being undertaken by contemporary Muslims and Jews outside of the Middle East.

starmoon_yellow.gifThree significant American Jewish leaders — of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist worlds — have issued a joint response (which I received by press release and can’t find on the Web):

We deeply appreciate the hand extended in a letter from Muslim scholars at The Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, and we clasp that hand willingly. That we have much to learn from and about each other is clear – sometimes painfully clear. We look forward to the shared work of thoughtful dialogue.

We appreciate in particular the letter’s assertion, regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, that “The loss of every single life is a loss to humanity and a bloody stain on the tapestry of history. We call for a peaceful resolution that will assure mutual respect, prosperity and security to both Palestinians and Israelis, while allowing the Palestinian people their rights to self-determination�. We whole-heartedly share that perspective, and hope that our exploration of the troubling issues will enable us to understand each other’s narratives and to come together in explicit and stern denunciation of terrorism.

Clearly, the time for a respectful consideration of the issues that unite us and also of the issues that divide us has come; indeed, it has been too long postponed.

The response is from: Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Dr. Carl Sheingold, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation; and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Additionally, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations — which often represents Judaism in talks with other faiths — has issued a call for a new dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

It says, in part:

As believers in the One Creator and Guide of the Universe, referred to in both our Traditions as the Merciful One, who demands mercy and compassion of us all, it is essential to recapture and develop the spirit of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and mutual respect. True love of God demands this dialogue, not only to uphold the aforementioned sublime teachings and to recapture the historical memory of mutual cooperation, but in order to facilitate genuine reconciliation among the different faith communities, between Muslims and Jews everywhere, and also for the sake of relations between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world at large.

The language in the latter letter brings to mind the language in the Muslim letter to Christians…

What does this all mean? Many will throw water on these efforts, no doubt. But you have to start somewhere…