NEW YORK (Nov. 9)
A year ago Rabbi Eric Yoffie, addressing some 4,000 Reform movement leaders gathered at their biennial conference, called for a new code of ethics to be developed and taught to children.
He said in his first address as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that the Reform movement was failing to communicate clear moral guidance to its youth.
Hotels in downtown Toronto had been refusing to book Bar and Bat Mitzvah receptions unless the parents hired private security guards, he pointed out. The reason? Kids attending these Reform celebrations were destroying the premises.
The situation has not changed much, but the Reform movement has begun to respond to Yoffie’s call.
“There’s an ethical crisis in our society. Jews are an integral part of that society and we have not escaped all of those difficult ethical issues,” Yoffie said in a recent interview. “It is a particularly difficult situation for many of our kids.
“Jewish tradition has strong things to say about what’s ethically right and wrong,” he said. “We have a firm obligation through our camps, Israel programs, youth groups and religious schools to provide guidance for studying what Judaism has to say and to make appropriate ethical decisions.”
Soon after last year’s conference, Yoffie called together the three UAHC professionals who head the youth group, education and programming departments, asking that they compose a curriculum about Jewish ethics to be implemented in the movement’s camps and teen groups.
They decided to expand the project by creating a task force on Jewish ethics – - and someone pointed out that without involving parents, trying to teach ethics to kids won’t get very far.
A pair of teens was caught engaging in oral sex at one of the Reform movement’s 10 overnight camps last summer, said Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the department of education, by way of example.
The teens, echoing President Clinton, said oral sex didn’t count as sex. And some of their parents agreed, Katzew said. The children were expelled from the camp nonetheless.
With its mandate broadened, members of the task force — 85 young adult leaders of high school and college youth groups, Reform educators, rabbis and lay people — gathered in the UAHC’s offices on Monday for the first of three full- day meetings.
The kickoff examined the theoretical foundations of moral philosophy. The other meetings — one in January and one in March — will be devoted to the bases of moral psychology and moral education.
At each symposium two scholars will present a paper; four working groups will then break off to develop plans of action. Each working group is devoted to dealing with a different age group, from early childhood to adulthood.
The reality, particularly in settings like camps and youth groups, is that the people most directly supervising participants are often older teen-agers themselves, Yoffie said.
“We have a lot of people making decisions for which they’re not at all prepared,” said Katzew. “We have to think not just about [lessons from Jewish] text, but about the context we’re working in.”
It has to begin with “identifying what constitutes a moral dilemma. There’s not even universal agreement on that,” he said.
The task force expects to develop programs for teacher and counselor training, and programs for use with kids and adults themselves, by the summer of 2000, Katzew said.
The task force has a formidable challenge before it, he said. “We have a long way to go.”
The Reform movement has 875 congregations with about 1.5 million members.