When Rabbi Alexander Schindler stepped up to the podium to deliver his farewell presidential address here last Shabbat, the more than 4,000 Reform Jews packed into Atlanta’s civic center knew that they would hear exquisite imagery and oratory.
Many also expected that in the speech he referred to as his “Jewish ethical will,” the outgoing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations would discuss some controversial new policies, as he has routinely done in the past.
At the last biennial convention, for example, Schindler proposed that the Reform movement proselytize Judaism to non-Jews, and that congregations allow the non-Jewish parents of B’nai Mitzvah to be accorded the fullest possible honors connected to the Torah.
This year, however, Schindler exhorted his fellow Reform Jews to follow a more traditional path.
“I feared and still do that we Reform Jews are entirely too lax in our observances,” said Schindler, who has led the movement for 22 years and will officially retire in June.
“Having asserted our autonomy, insisting on our right to choose, too many among us choose nothing at all, or, choosing something, we observe it only haphazardly.”
Schindler’s farewell was addressed to delegates to the UAHC’s five-day biennial and the parallel Women of Reform Judaism and National Federation of Temple Youth conventions.
Participants attended dozens of workshops and panel discussions, most of them devoted to the themes of education, observance and social action.
At a plenary session, a vote to change the name of the organization to something more contemporary and reflective of its mandate fell a few votes shy of the two-thirds necessary to alter the organization’s constitution.
The group also adopted a new policy to permit only children who are not being educated in another religion to be enrolled in the movement’s religious schools.
Resolutions supporting American military involvement in Bosnia and one applauding a deal struck between the movement’s youth group and Habitat for Humanity for Reform teens to construct houses for the poor and homeless passed easily.
And in a show of support for religious pluralism in Israel, two Israeli natives, unable to marry in their homeland because he is a Kohen and she is divorced, were married in front of the delegates and the bride’s beaming parents.
The message from the top of the movement, however, was focused on religious observance of Jewish rituals in an almost traditional mode.
“The covenant is a two-way street, my friends, and in this, my parting message and my ethical will, I urge our fellow Reform Jews to abandon the noncommittal stance that too many have about temple life,” said Schindler in his remarks.
“So inbound are we in our lives from community, so accustomed to our individualism, that we often carry a kind of consumerist prove-it-to-me attitude that is impossible for even the best rabbi and the liveliest congregation to fulfill.
“Let us overcome the arrogance that blocks our perception of divinity. Let us overcome the fear that constrains us to flee from the synagogue and from spiritual commitment,” he said.
He defined his movement’s central mission as one of teaching “our children Torah, not just to know Torah, nor even to teach Torah, but to be Torah.”
Still, Schindler did not neglect the things that make Reform Judaism unique. He emphasized the value of outreach to non-Jews married to Jews, social action and a paradim that questions all orthodoxies.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who will fully take over as president of the UAHC when Schindler retires, closed the biennial convention Sunday by amplifying the themes articulated by his predecessor.
Yoffie made it clear that the movement’s leadership is catching up with its constituency, which for the last few years has been evincing a hunger for greater Jewish literacy and religious connection.
“The urgent need of the hour is a spiritual intensification of major proportions,” said Yoffie.
“My goal is to build a movement of Reform Jews for whom Torah is at the center of their lives.
“My goal is a movement which does not speak of `identity’ or `continuity,’ the fuzzy and feeble generalizations that are so popular today, but which speaks instead the language of brit, mitzvah and God.
“Reform Jews are coming home,” he said. “We are coming home to God, because God called us into being, sent us on our way, chose us and thrust distinctiveness upon us.”
“We are coming home to Torah, because it is the very essence of our being, and because we see our first duty and greatest joy the teaching of those sacred texts that bind us to a shared faith and a shared way of life,” he said.
Sabbath worship on Friday night and Saturday morning was spirited. More yarmulkes were in evidence than ever before at a Reform movement biennial, and even a few tallitot were draped on the shoulders of worshipers.
Vendors at the Judaica exhibition at the convention reported sell-out business in ritual items, reflecting, perhaps, the sparks of greater interest in living more observantly.
Four prayer services were offered each morning: one in the traditional Reform style, one based on feminist liturgy, a service of healing and one devoted to worship in the Sephardi style. Each attracted a least a few dozen people, and the Sephardi service was packed.
The ascent to greater observance among Reform Jews was far from consistent, however.
On Friday night there were about a dozen Shabbat dinners offered to delegates, who were supposed to attend the one for their region.
But many well-heeled couples from the biennial were seen at the concierge desk of the Marriott Marquis hotel here, making reservations for dinner that night at seafood and other local restaurants.
At the same time, the Judaica exhibit closed late Friday afternoon but re- opened at 3:30 Saturday afternoon, hours before the end of the Sabbath.
As soon as it re-opened it was packed – with convention participants as crowded into the hall as New Yorkers are into subway cars at the end of a workday.
When asked about these seeming inconsistencies, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the recently elected president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary system of four campuses, said: “The convention is the definition of where we want to be rather than necessarily where we are.”
He had complained to the UAHC leadership about the early opening of the Judaica exhibit on Shabbat, he said, believing that it sent the wrong message to Reform Jews.
“The movement is struggling in its own self-identity,” the rabbi said. “This is a movement still in process that has not yet gotten where it’s going.”