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Reform Jews at Crossroads on Eve of Biennial Convention

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Some 4,000 Reform Jews will gather next week in Atlanta for the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, where they will did farewell to their old leaders, welcome the new and witness the marriage of two Israeli Jews prohibited from marrying in their native land.

Several issues that promise to have far-reaching impact on the Reform movement will be debated. They include revising the movement’s mission statement to emphasize Jewish education and worship.

Another proposal would in effect bar children of intermarried couples from attending Reform religious schools if they also are getting non-Jewish supplementary education.

Vice President Al Gore is expected to address the Reform movement delegates at the start of their convention.

The biennial will be, in part, a send-off for Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who has run the UAHC as its president since 1973. He will deliver his last address as president, which is being described as his “ethical will,” during Saturday worship services, though he does not formally retire until June 30.

The UAHC’s volunteer choir of 180 voices will sing a poem written by Schindler’s father, who was a Yiddish poet in Germany, set to music.

Folk singer Peter Yarrow and opera singer Roberta Peters, will also perform in his honor.

Also handing over the reigns will be Mel Merians, the union’s chairman, who will be succeeded by Swampscott, Mass., attorney Jerome Somers.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s incoming president, will deliver the biennial’s closing address, during which he is expected to lay out his vision for the movement’s future.

That vision, he said in a recent interview, will be focused on Torah, or Jewish learning and literacy.

Rabbi Lennard Thal, director of the movement’s Pacific-Southwest region, is assuming Yoffie’s former position as the union’s vice president.

The proposal to alter the union’s mission statement, which now emphasizes liberal Jewish goals and values, calls for new language that, if adopted, would emphasize “the vibrancy of Reform Judaism through Torah (lifelong Jewish education), Avodah (worship of God through prayer and observance) and G’milut Chasidim (the pursuit of justice, peace and deeds of loving-kindness.)”

The traditional language differs greatly from any that could have been found in a central Reform movement document even a few years ago.

Two resolutions that promise to be vigorously debated and to have significant impact on the movement also will be considered. One proposes that the organization change its name to the Union of Congregations for Reform Judaism, a shift movement leaders say is necessary because the current name is archaic.

The other proposal declares that any child being educated in another faith cannot be enrolled in a Reform religions school. If passed, this resolution would be a watershed decision for the Reform movement.

Even before passing the patrilineal descent resolution in 1983, which means that the Reform movement recognizes as Jewish a child born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, if he or she is raised and educated as a Jew, the movement opened its doors wide to welcome intermarried couples and their children.

As a result, Reform congregations often grapple with decisions about the rights, responsibilities and honors that should be given to the non-Jews in their midst.

Every other segment of the Jewish community recognizes as Jews people born to a Jewish mother or one converted into Judaism.

The proposed resolution, if adopted, would for the first time articulate a standard that would exclude some children who are attending Christian supplementary schools, as well as Reform Hebrew schools.

“It’s a very small percentage” of children in Reform Hebrew schools who are being educated both as Jews and as Christians, said the union’s director of outreach, Dru Greenwood.

“We’ve been making the assumption that temple members are educating their children only in Judaism and we’ve found that is not always the case.”

An unusual wedding will take place at the gathering; Yair Cohen, 31, and Ruti Florsheim, 26, both from Israel’s Kibbutz Yakum, will be married by Rabbis Schindler and Yoffie.

They cannot marry in Israel because Cohen, as his name indicates, is descended from the priests who served in Jerusalem’s holy temples, and Florsheim is divorced. Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law forbids marriage between a member of the priestly class and a divorcee or a convert.

When the couple went to register with the rabbinate, as all Jewish couples who wish to marry in Israel must, they were told to look for other mates.

“They told me to find another bride,” Cohen said.

Instead the couple made contact with the Reform movement, which took up their cause and is financing their wedding in Atlanta.

The Reform movement is trying to get legislation passed in Israel’s Knesset that would permit non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at religious and civil marriages in Israel.

Since the founding of the state, the only marriages performed in Israel that conform with Orthodox requirements have been recognized by the state.

The couple already celebrated their impending marriage with a reception – held in the Knesset, and hosted by two Meretz members of the parliament, on Monday.

Although the bride’s parents will attend their Atlanta wedding, the couple was wistful about the fact that the party, with all of their family members and kibbutz friends, was not the actual wedding.

“It just makes us said that we cannot be married in Israel,” Cohen said. “They are denying us this sweet moment.”

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