Rabbi Yoffie’s Report to the Union’s Board of Trustees


Welcome to our board meeting.  This meeting, as you can seefrom the schedule, is radically different from any board meeting that we haveever held.  We are breaking out of our old patterns and doing things as a boardin different ways.  We are moving ahead on the reorganization of the Union.  Weare spending some time thinking and dreaming about the future of Jewish life. And we are taking on some of the great and troubling issues that we all face, inthe Reform Movement, in Israel, and in the broader community.
With this in mind, I have done some thinking ahead of myown.  My work as president of the Union has been extraordinarily fulfilling,endlessly challenging, and a great joy in every way.  There is no moresatisfying way to serve the Jewish people.  Still, I am aware that in June of2012, two years from now, I will be 65 years old, and I will have completed 16years as president of the Union–the equivalent of 4 terms of an AmericanPresident.  It is, therefore, my intention to retire as president of the Unionat that time.       

I do so for a number of reasons.  My energy and enthusiasmremain undiminished, but I see 65 as an age when I should be taking into accountthe simple fact that there are burdens to this job and they cannot be borneforever.  Even more important, I recognize the value of making way for newthinking in our future-oriented Movement; leadership is an act of renewal andre-creation, and at a certain point, it is best to encourage others to try theirhand at these tasks.  And this too:  while I don’t know if I believe in lifeafter death, I do believe in life before death. There are a number of things inthe professional realm outside of my Union responsibilities that I hope toaccomplish, and there are personal things as well that Amy and I hope todo.

I inform you now because I have always pledged to give two yearsnotice to our leadership.  This will allow ample time for a search for mysuccessor, and it will provide for a transition that will be stable and orderlyand that will enable us to continue our work without disruption.

I have,of course, discussed all of these matters with our chairman, who has beengracious and helpful in every way.

I want to stress that I have notstructured these remarks as a formal farewell for the obvious reason that I amnot leaving now.  I will remain as president for two full years.  There will beoccasions, including at the Biennial in Maryland, when I will have theopportunity to address the Movement prior to my departure about the issues thatI see as important to us as Reform Jews.  And there will be occasions as wellfor others to say goodbye to me.  So let’s agree that we will avoid two years ofinterminable goodbyes so that we can focus on the challenges ahead.

Andlet’s agree on something else as well.

We have a great deal to do in thenext two years.  Decisions of a monumental nature will appropriately be left tothe new president, but our agenda is nonetheless long:  there are plans that wehave announced that we must implement, there are projects that we have startedthat we must finish, and there are concerns about our Movement that we mustaddress.  At a time when our synagogues are in economic distress, and when ourinstitutions are therefore under intense scrutiny, we do not have the luxury ofremaining idle, even for a moment. 

What, then, are the tasks that wemust focus on? Many of them are on the agenda of this meeting.

We mustbegin the work of rebuilding our youth movement.  In a few minutes, you willhear from Rabbis Michael White and Paul Yedwab.  They will tell you about aRabbinic Think Tank convened by the Union in April, and about a report preparedby a lay/rabbinic task force to consider the condition of NFTY.  I will leavethe details to them, but the heart of the matter is this:  We have seen thedecline of our youth activities to dangerously low levels, and we are not nowproviding our kids with the staff and the resources that they desperately need. Without question, this is a difficult time for every area of the Union’s work,and every budget cut that we have made is terribly painful; but the youthmovement has always been a fundamental area of Union responsibility, and it isessential that we reverse this decline.  There is no quick solution, and apartnership with our rabbis and our congregations will be essential; but thetask force is right that the work of rebuilding NFTY must be given priority, andwe must begin to address this problem now.

A related area of equalimportance is the work initiated by the Commission on Lifelong Jewish Learningto help our synagogues promote teen engagement following bar and bat Mitzvah. We know that if current trends continue, approximately 80% of the children whohave a bar/bat Mitzvah in our congregations will have no connection of any kindto their synagogue by the time they reach 12th grade.  This is a disaster forour young people and for our congregations as well.  We also know that a smallnumber of our synagogues, of all sizes and in all geographic areas, have turnedthese numbers around and retain 80% of their kids, whether in the school, theyouth group, or in other temple activities.  If 80%, or even 60%, were to becomethe norm in our Movement, our kids would have dramatically higher levels ofJewish commitment; as a side benefit, it should be mentioned, many of themembership problems that our congregations face would be resolved.  I applaudthe Commission for its initial work on this topic, which will continue at itsmeeting here and which will involve almost every arm of our Movement.  This isan ambitious project that will take time and require our vigorous support, andhere too, we do not have the luxury of waiting before we move ahead.

Athird area is the creation of the Reform Movement Center in New York that willinitially house the Union, the College-Institute, the CCAR, and the RPB.  Thisissue is on our agenda tomorrow, but the key is this:  we and our partners areunited in our desire to see this Center come into being, and we all understandits potential to galvanize Reform Judaism.  Our task in the next two years willbe to push ahead.  Given the size and complexity of the project, there are ahundred different obstacles that we could confront; and, of course, we mustoperate in a cautious and fiscally responsible manner.  Still, our mission is torecognize that this is an historic, one-time opportunity to reshape ourMovement, both conceptually and physically, and we must build on the momentumthat already exists to move this effort to fruition.

Finally, let mesuggest that we must use the next two years to create broad areas of Movementcooperation without waiting for the completion of the Center.  We do not need tobe under one roof to work together in training congregational leaders, educatingyouth workers, reaching out to young adults, and envisioning new approaches toJewish study and Jewish living.  An excellent example of what we might do is theReform Think Tank that the Union, College, and Conference are organizing for thecoming year.  It will involve three sessions at each of the College’s campuses,making use of distinguished Jewish authorities from outside and inside of ourMovement.  It will be available for simultaneous transmission to our synagoguesthat wish to build programs around these sessions; it will be available as wellover the internet.  Synagogue leaders and members will be asked to transmitquestions to our speakers and their reactions to the presentations.  This inputwill be shared with the rabbis, lay leaders, and professors who will serve onthe Think Tank and who will jointly craft some new directions for ReformJudaism.  In short, this will be an exercise in grassroots organizing, reversingthe usual top-down direction of our thinking; it will be a Movement-wide,interactive discussion for our synagogues, the first of its kind; and it will bea serious effort to think creatively and collaboratively about the issues ofReform Jewish life. 

And I have not even mentioned all that must be doneto finish the reorganization of our own board, governance system, and districtsystem. 

And so, even as we begin a search for a new president, we donot lack for challenges.  But we will respond to these challenges and preparefor the next generation of leadership by remembering who we are: a Union thatbelieves in Reform Judaism as a genuine endowment from God.  And rememberingthis, we will bring into being a stronger Union and a more dynamic Union–a Unionthat is rooted in Jewish learning and doing, and that feels hopeful andconfident of the future. 

Of course, transitions are hard; this willrequire of us the best of our energies and skills, and a deep measure of faith,vision, and commitment to Torah.  But in my 14 years as president of the Union,I have never seen this board give anything less, and it will not happen now. And despite the trying times in which we find ourselves, this is our moment inJewish history, when we prepare for the future and the promise that it bringswith the inventiveness and excitement that these times require.  I look forwardto the work that we will do together, and I thank you all for your devotion toour mutual sacred cause.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

4 Responses to “Rabbi Yoffie’s Report to the Union’s Board of Trustees”

  1. avatar

    Most progressive faith movements (Jewish and Christian alike) are hemorrhaging youth. The problem lies, I think, with a theology that, while justly centered on social justice issues, leaves little room for thought and time for our theology and reflection upon tradition.
    I believe that our tradition needs to be given more importance; and to do so is through better education.
    The emphasis on autonomy has led, in my opinion, to an unintended lack of education and an underemphasis placed on Jewish heritage and critical thought/respect towards halakha. It is in this manner that I respect the Reconstructionist movement and their ideas regarding the preservation of community.
    The well-known mantra of “the past has a vote but not a veto” is advice that could serve the Reform movement’s youth very well.

  2. avatar

    I think that another area of outreach that must be addressed is reaching and connecting those of us who live outside of areas with Reform communities. I was raised in a Reform congregation in California, but now live in the Praries of Canada. We have some Conservative congregations, but there is no Reform. I know that there must be others like me in other locations. I would love a way to connect with other Reform Jews who are in similar situations or even with those who are part of thriving communities.

  3. avatar

    For most of a generation, Reform Judaism has been in a headlong retreat toward Hebraized liturgy and halakhic promotion. These developments have apparently not proven religiously engaging to the majority of the movement’s adolescents. Neither has the equation of social justice with relentlessly leftist secular politics.
    Questions and concepts regarding God, theodicy, and spirituality (perhaps even mysticism) might engage young (and old) Reform Jewish minds if given a more prominent place in their educational opportunities. Judaism certainly provides plenty of meat for discussions of these topics, but I don’t know how much of it is put on the plates of our temples’ younger members.

  4. avatar

    I remember you from the year you spent in Jerusalem at HUC in ’72. We have a picture of you at our wedding. I knew that you were going places but I didn’t know that you were the leader of the Reform movement. Since then Risa and I spent 20 years on a moshav shitufi in the Golan. For the past 15 years where I have been learning in a kollel and teaching in Yeshivat Hadarom. I wish you well on wherever you go from here.
    David Tzohar

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