New Leader of Reform Jewry Seeks `education, Worship’ Focus

When Rabbi Eric Yoffie takes over the leadership of the Reform movement’s flagship organization next summer, his primary challenge will be to refocus the mandate and philosophical direction of the Union Of American Hebrew Congregations.

The union’s Board of Trustees unanimously elected the 47-year-old Yoffie to be its next president during a Saturday night meeting in Philadelphia.

Yoffie will assume the post in June 1996, when Rabbi Alexander Schindler retires.

Yoffie’s goals contrast with those of Schindler, who over the past two decades has concentrated on opening the doors of the Reform movement to intermarried couples and their children.

About 25 percent of new members of Reform temples are non-Jews, according to recent Reform movement study.

Although the movement under Schindler has sometimes been described as having a theology of social action, Yoffie is looking in a more traditional direction.

He said he intends to focus the resources of the union on developing the “Judaism” in Reform Judaism.

Reform movement members want different things than they did a decade ago, Yoffie said in an interview in his New York office a few days before his election.

“The baby boomer leadership of our synagogues is looking for a religious experience of Judaism,” he said.

“They don’t feel the pull of ethnicity the way their parents did, but have personal religious concerns,” said Yoffie.

“They want a religious expression that speaks to their heart and soul and kishkes. We have to reignite the flame of Sinai in their hearts,” said Yoffie, sounding more like the leader of a Chasidic sect than the director of the movement’s Commission on Social Action, a role he currently fills.

The ascension of someone who has long been identified as a social issues activist within the movement had been challenged by a high-level lay leader in the movement.

Attorney David Belin of Des Moines had spearheaded an effort to derail Yoffie’s nomination by widely distributing a letter several weeks ago protesting what he defined as the choice between social action and God.

The effort apparently did not have much impact, given the unanimous endorsement of Yoffie by the 175 of the union’s 220 trustee who attended the meeting. Belin, an honorary vice chairman of the union, apparently did not attend.

A graduate of Brandeis University who was ordained in 1974, Yoffie served as executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America for nine years. He has also served as executive editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

When Yoffie takes over next summer, he will be heading an organization with serious financial and constituent-relations problems.

The union has been facing a recent cash crunch and has been cutting departmental budgets and staff. Budgets have been cut between 15 percent and 20 percent across the board for the next two years, said a source within the organization.

Some of the union’s 858 congregations have been withholding dues and a few, including a prominent and large California congregation, Stephen S. Wise Of Bel Air, have dropped their membership in the union.

“We have to do better than we’ve done in basic synagogue services,” Yoffie said.

“We haven’t done near enough and our congregations are looking to us for help getting on-line, raising money, collecting dues and creating endowments,” he said.

Already in the works is a move to overhaul the union’s dues structure.

Congregation’s dues have been reduced by 8 percent each year for the next two years while a new structure is researched, according to Yoffie, who said a new system would be proposed at the 1997 biennial convention.

Also on the horizon are “significant personnel changes,” he said, refusing to provide details about the shifts.

Yoffie’s election appears to signal significant changes between the role that the union has played in the past and what it hopes to accomplish in the future.

Differences between Schindler and Yoffie go far deeper than the fact that Schindler is the product of an Orthodox European upbringing and Yoffie is a true product of the American Reform movement.

While Schindler waxes eloquently philosophical and dresses with as much flair as he speaks, Yoffie is straightforward in outlining his plans and fond of short-sleeved button-down shirts and polyester striped ties.

While Schindler has been, at times, radically ideological, Yoffie seems more pragmatic.

Schindler has defined his presidency by leading his constituents with ideas and policies that were, in some cases, not always greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm.

For example, Schindler’s calls, first in the early 1980s and then again at the last union biennial convention in November 1993, to actively proselytize unchurched non-Jews and to give greater ritual roles in the synagogue to non- Jewish members, were greeted with more silence than accolades.

Despite their different approaches, Schindler enthusiastically endorsed his successor, calling him one of the “finest young rabbis our religious community has produced.”

In the interview, Yoffie said he plans to define his presidency by responding to his constituents.

“Our lay leadership is asking that I be clear in my religious direction and in my response to the needs of our congregations,” said Yoffie.

“It is surely true that we need a union with a clear emphasis, one which functions with great efficiency and responds quickly to the congregations’ needs.”

Yoffie said he supports “the principle of reaching out to the unchurched, but at this moment given our other needs, it’s not something we have the resources to address in a systematic way.”

He said he would be refocusing the union’s resources on “education and worship.”

“We need to break through this Bar Mitzvah model of Jewish education,” he said.

“Our learning after Bar Mitzvah is wholly inadequate,” the rabbi said. “We need to create a congregation of learners, not just children who learn. We need congregations with Torah at the center.”

Commenting on the worship experience in Reform temples, he said, “We want it to be more than `stand up, sit down, read responsively.’

“We want it to not just be mumbled words but fire, mystery, a transcending personal drama,” he said.

Yoffie said he was not yet ready to divulge details of his plan to emphasize these areas.

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