Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie to the URJ Executive Committee on March 15, 2010
Last week a Reform Movement breakfast was held at the CCAR Convention in San Francisco, cosponsored by the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and the URJ. I was asked to speak about the institutional future of the Reform Movement and about my broad vision of the Jewish future–and to do this in six minutes.
What I said was this: I am optimistic about the future of our Movement and its institutions. No institution, of course, is inherently valuable. The Union, the College, the Conference, and the synagogue itself are not important as organizations; they are important only as vehicles to promote the modern, progressive Judaism that is the key to our Jewish wellbeing. And right now, we need the Reform movement more than ever. Because the future does not lie with the charedim and the fundamentalists of the Jewish world; and it certainly does not lie with Chabad, which may do some good things, but which sells itself to our members as cut-rate, minimalist Judaism.
The future, I believe, lies with us. Yes, we have our issues, and our Movement will look different from what it was before the economic crisis. But it needs to be here, and it needs to be strong.
So this not a time for counsels of despair. Our friends in the Conservative movement are struggling with major issues of institutional decline; and let’s not misread the reality in the Orthodox world, either. Two weeks ago I rode home on the train with a Rosh Yeshiva; we studied a little gemara, spoke some Hebrew, and then he said: “You know, we lose a lot of our young people too.” Most North American Jews who make a choice still choose us. Despite the challenges, the Union, the College, and Reform congregations remain reasonably stable and healthy; we are better positioned than ever before to lead North American Jewry in the years ahead.
But what do we have to offer? Is there something distinctive about being Reform? My answer is “yes.” We do not have a common theology, and that’s a good thing. But we can talk about the defining characteristics of Reform Judaism.
We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the intermarried, non-Jewish spouses and all who bind their fate to that of the Jewish people.
We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
We see tikkun olam as an essential element of our Reform identity – in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.
This particular mix of practice and belief exists nowhere else in the Jewish world. Some say that Reform Judaism has disappeared in an undifferentiated mass of non-Orthodox Jews. Nonsense. Our rabbis and lay leaders know who we are and what we have to offer.
And every week I hear from these leaders new ideas that are daring, exciting and stunningly creative. Let’s acknowledge our problems, but no gloom and doom, please. Our congregations at their best are doing things we would not have imagined possible ten years ago.
There is also much that our institutions are doing that is hopeful and positive.
When disaster struck in Haiti, Reform Jews provided relief at a level that no other movement could even dream of. This is what we always do: look at New Orleans, where we extended our hand to the broader community while assuring the survival of our own congregations. And if the time comes, God forbid, that others need our help, we will be there to keep them alive as well.
Despite the recession, virtually every bed in our camping system was filled last summer. For the coming summer, camp registration is stronger than ever, and our Israel registration is at its highest level in ten years.
And this too: At a time when all Jewish institutions must be nimble, lean and adaptive, the Union and the College have become just that, restraining spending and quickly restructuring. And our congregations have done exactly the same thing, as they address their own fiscal realities.
There is much else that could be mentioned. The work of the RAC. Our curricula and Torah texts. The unified Center for Reform Judaism that we will establish in New York. None of this would exist without a Movement. And the vital protections that we provide for our congregations and clergy, such as placement and pensions, work best when our Movement is strong.
I have no illusions, of course. Funding our congregations is very difficult, and funding our Movement is more difficult still. And there are many things that we do not do well enough. For the Union, NFTY needs to be far stronger, young adult outreach far better and our congregations need more help with marketing, fundraising and technology. We have to do more in these areas, and we will.
But in the final analysis, the key is not budgets or programs, but values.
The great majority of North American Jews will not choose a Judaism that is halakhically-based; they will not choose a narrow, ritually-obsessed Judaism; they will not choose an ethically-limited Judaism; and they will certainly not choose a fundamentalist, ghetto Judaism. The great majority will choose the modern, liberal, Torah-inspired Judaism that is Reform. And this will require College, Conference, Union and congregations working together to build a strong movement.
There is nothing easy about this task, but we Reform Jews always surprise the world with our resilience. We know that if you address the future through a filter of despair, pessimism and hopelessness, you will create a future of despair, pessimism and hopelessness. And therefore now–as this breakfast shows, as this whole convention shows–we will cast aside the bondage of habit, speak to the deepest needs of our members and inject our Movement with new energy, identity and purpose. We will address the future with optimism and hope. And Reform Judaism–our Judaism–will emerge stronger than it is has ever been.
Thank you for what you do.