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Focus on Issues: Reform Movement Looks Ahead to New Directions, New Leaders

February 13, 1995
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As the 21st century looms on the horizon, the Reform movement is reconsidering its mandate, its mission and its structure.

The nomination of Rabbi Eric Yoffie to be the next president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the movement’s congregational arm, is viewed by Reform insiders as the promotion of someone who can take the movement in the new directions its baby-boomer constituents are demanding.

At the same time, Yoffie is said, in the words of one, to be “cut from the same cloth” ideologically as his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who is slated to retire in June 1996.

Schindler, who has been president since 1973, has led the union to adopt several controversial positions that break with traditional Jewish practice.

Yoffie, who was nominated last week, will lead the agency, the philosophical fountainhead of North American Judaism’s largest movement.

Among Yoffie’s key challenges, Reform movement leaders say, will be to confront the organization’s financial problems and make the union more responsive to its estimated 1.3 million constituents in 858 congregations.

The task will also fall to him to articulate a new vision of Reform Judaism that many are seeking to replace the theology of social action which has long guided the movement.

At the same time that the movement is looking to new leadership, a UAHC committee is already in the process of examining its future.

In the works for the past 18 months, a committee known as Project 2000 is scheduled to present a series of recommendations to the union’s board at a meeting in May.

Among the recommendations is one suggesting a redesign of the union’s regional structure, personnel and delivery of services, said Jerome Somers, a Boston lay leader of the UAHC. He also is chairman of the Project 2000 and the union’s treasurer.

At that meeting, the board also is expected to ratify Yoffie’s nomination.

Yoffie now is one of two UAHC vice presidents and director of its Commission on Social Action. He previously worked as a regional director of UAHC and as executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

He declined to be interviewed.

His nomination comes as the union grapples with a Jewishly uneducated leadership, longtime movement leaders say.

“We need to have leadership standards so we know that Reform leaders have a minimum core of knowledge before they’re in a leadership position”, said Albert Vorspan, who was the union’s senior vice president until has retirement in 1993.

“Those standards have not been demanded in the name of autonomy and freedom, and we’ve been too lax. To be a movement in the 21st century you have to ruffle feathers, and the Reform movement has to ruffle feathers within the movement”, Vorspan said.

In addition to the steady increase in the number of synagogues affiliated with the movement — up from 773 in 1985 — the congregations’ members are more diverse than they used to be.

Half of all new members of Reform temples have never been previously affiliated with the Reform movement, and one-quarter of new members are not Jewish, said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the union’s national director of programs.

The organization’s bylaws mandate a balanced budget, so that even though the union has not been running a deficit, it has cut back substantially on nearly all of its programs in order to be able to meet its $13 million operating budget for 1995, said Somers.

“There’s not a department that hasn’t been impacted, where the belts haven’t been tightened”, said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of the union’s interreligious affairs department and associate director of its social action commission.

“We’re confronted with a generation of Jews who don’t know how to give, who are not economically able to give the way our grandparents did, and that has made a tremendous impact on the synagogues and, ultimately, on the way we have to be business”, he said.

Yoffe will step in against this backdrop.

Although as invested in social action and politics as Schindler, Yoffie is viewed as more cautions about the implications of policy recommendations.

Schindler, a noted orator, has been described by many within the movements as “a prophet” and “a visionary”.

At the same time, Schindler has promoted many policies that were initially regarded as radical within the union, as well as divisive by leaders of other Jewish groups.

Among the most controversial of Schindler’s legacies is the movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent. In 1983, the Reform movement broke from Jewish tradition by recognizing as Jewish someone born to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, but who is raised as a Jew.

Judaism’s other movements, with the exception of the Reconstructionists, hold to Judaism’s traditional practice of defining a child’s religion by his mother’s.

Schindler also led the Reform movement to be the first to engage in active outreach to non-Jews married to Jews, and more recently has proposed that the non-Jewish parent be permitted significant ritual honors on the bimah during his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah.

Yoffie, in contrast, is “a studied” man for whom “nothing is off the cuff and there are no snap judgements”, said Bretton-Granatoor.

“The movement desperately needs that kind of stuff right now. For many years we’ve had a lot of shooting from the hip, which served the movement well. But we sometimes shot first and aimed later”, he said.

The next major item of a political nature on the Reform movement’s agenda, say insiders, is to win official recognition by the State of Israel, where non- Orthodox rabbis are not permitted to perform marriages or conversions.

On issues such as this, Yoffie is “cut from the same cloth” as his predecessor, Vorspan said.

The effort to promote religious pluralism in Israel has prompted criticism from various Orthodox groups.

Reform representative have advocated that umbrella organizations such as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the American Zionist Movement adopt resolutions favoring religious pluralism in Israel. The effort has already prompted Orthodox groups to threaten pulling out.

According to the head of a major Jewish organization who asked not be identified, Yoffie “will finish the split between the Reform and Orthodox forever by pushing the envelope on religious pluralism in Israel”.

“If they push it at every table they will completely cut off every last vestige of discussion between the streams”, this leader said.

Of Yoffie, this leader said: “I don’t think he’s out to unify the Jewish community, but is someone who will stand very strongly by the principles of Reform Judaism as he sees them”.

American-born and raised Reform Jew, Yoffie, 47, is also described by some as a person who understands better than his German-born and Orthodox-raised predecessor the need among Reform Jews today for spiritual education.

Because Yoffie “is a product of this generation, he responds more viscerally to issues and will therefore perhaps he more attuned to what’s needed now”, said Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, director of the union’s Commission on Religious Living.

The movement has traditionally focused on social action as the central expression of Jewish spirituality. Recently, its constituents have been looking for more religion and less social action.

“We lost sight of finding the religious mandate in what it was we’ve been doing”, said Bretton-Granatoor. “In the ’80s we supported any major liberal political proposition and then would search through the Bible for a tagline we could glue onto it to make it look like a Jewish cause.

“Now we realize we’re in the business of religious action, not social action”, he said.

Even Vorspan, who was known as the movement’s social action guru, agreed.

“Social action did eclipse many areas”, he said. “The challenge of the next generation is to relate it to the rest of religious living”.

For their part, the movement’s constituents are clearly hungering for a change.

The union’s most popular programs have become its five-day summer programs called “kallot”, which are billed as retreats for spiritual renewal and text study, and its separate rabbinic aide program, which is an intensive summer study and liturgy program for congregants. The movement has planned a second rabbinic aide program this year because the first one, in January, had a waiting list.

There will also be a third kallah this summer because the two held in past years were oversubscribed.

At the union’s last biennial, held in San Francisco in 1993, Reform Jews jammed into overcrowded conference rooms to hear rabbis instruct them how to solidify their spiritual yearnings Jewishly and how to integrate that into their everyday lives.

One of the most popular sessions was addressed by Rabbi Peter Knobel, a congregational rabbi in Evanston, III., who suggested the most traditional of Jewish practices, such as dating letters according to the Hebrew calendar as well as the Gregorian.

Knobel, who is also leading a major project to develop new liturgy for the movement, was Yoffie’s main competitor in the bid for the union’s presidency.

“The real question for Reform Jews a generation or two ago was how could we become American and be Jewish. The question now is, now that we have become American, how can we be Jewish?” said Knobel.

Knobel said he was “disappointed” not to be nominated to the union’s presidency.

There were four candidates on the short list being seriously considered by the 30 member search committee, according to UAHC officials.

Rabbis Daniel Syme, a UAHC vice president, and Lawrence Hoffman, a professor and liturgist at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, withdrew their names in mid-January.

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