NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (JTA) — First came the call to learn. Now, from the most prominent leader of Reform Judaism, will come the call to worship.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the synagogue branch of the Reform movement, will introduce a major new initiative focusing on prayer at his group’s convention next week, according to sources within the organization.
The upcoming convention, titled “Realizing God’s Promise: Reform Judaism in the 21st Century,” will be the first biennial to offer a pre-assembly kallah, or retreat, in which the UAHC’s national leadership will engage in an intensive, if short, Hebrew-language course.
Yoffie said in an interview this week that in his presidential address, slated toward the end of the Dec. 15- 19 conference in Orlando, Fla., he will “suggest particular kinds of approaches to personal observance.” He refused to divulge specifics.
Whatever the details of his plan, it is clear that this initiative will be a logical next step for Yoffie and the Reform movement, which has lately been engaged in a major shift in focus.
Just a few years ago, it was a movement whose theology was described as based on social action. Today, under Yoffie’s stewardship and a major push by the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, many constituents and congregations have engaged in a process of religious soul-searching.
The search for rooted spiritual coherence has been complicated by the fact that Reform Jews often view personal autonomy as the First Commandment, which has led to resistance from some Reform quarters to anything that can be interpreted as a religious requirement.
The shift from emphasizing external political and social concerns to focusing more on internal spirituality began, perhaps, with Yoffie’s Jewish literacy initiative, made in his first address as president of the UAHC at the last convention in 1997.
Yoffie demanded then that his constituents rise up from what he described as their “crippling ignorance.”
He put in place several programs to help them do so. He urged Reform Jews to read and discuss at least four serious Jewish books each year and called on them to learn how to chant the Torah, which has historically been the rabbi’s role in Reform congregations.
Another program he initiated encouraged local synagogue committees to begin their meetings with the study of religious texts.
While Reform movement leaders welcomed the programs, actual implementation on the grass-roots level has been “mixed,” Yoffie said in the interview.
“We have many congregations that began the programs, and in some cases we hear glowing reports of how it has changed the nature of the business they do. In other congregations, it’s done in a desultory and erratic way, without the consistent commitment I was looking for.”
Evidence of deep ambivalence about the conflict between theological coherence and personal autonomy was also apparent during the spring in the flap among Reform rabbis and congregants over the “Statement of Principles” promulgated by members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The two-page attempt to elucidate the core values of Reform Judaism created upheaval and brought to light deep dissension over what, exactly, those values are. After two years of heated debate, six drafts and more than 30 amendments, the controversial document was adopted by the CCAR in Pittsburgh in May.
The statement’s opening lines belie the movement’s ambivalence: “We affirm the reality and oneness of God, even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence. We affirm that the Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal brit, covenant, as reflected in our various understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption.”
Among Reform congregants, “there are some people who are concerned about the direction” of the movement, Yoffie said. “But basically they’re stimulated, they’re curious, they’re very anxious to learn.”
But the real roots of the shift may lie in the hunger of some Reform Jews — particular those at the end of the baby-boomer generation — for more than what they have been getting out of their religious lives.
At Temple Israel in Omaha, for example, the impetus for a major change in worship styles and for more intensive and sophisticated, adult Jewish learning over the last five years has been the desire of “younger people who were looking for something a lot more meaningful than a cold worship experience,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel.
The spiritual search among Reform Jews is apparent in the choices hundreds made when pre-registering for workshops at the upcoming convention.
The most popular session, by far — with 539 people registered to attend, one-quarter of the total who preregistered for any of the 27 workshops during that convention period — is the one titled “Theology: What Can We Believe?”
Another 300 people preregistered for the session on “Reform Worship: Imagining Possibilities, Innovating Change,” during another workshop period and 240 people preregistered for the session titled “A Love Affair with God,” said Emily Grotta, a UAHC spokeswoman.
In contrast, just 62 people signed up for a session on “America’s Crucial Economic Justice Issues.”
Yoffie said that at those popular workshops, “there may be quite stormy sessions of intensive theological debate,” which would be a new experience for the current generation of Reform Jews.
“Focusing on fundamental values is not something we tend to do,” he said.
“We’re talking about a major shift in culture here, and it’s going to take some time. We have a lot more to do. We’re going to be very persistent.”