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Yoffie Calls for Greater Links Among Reform Jews

November 12, 2003
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Reform Jews cannot go it alone.

That was the message at the Reform movement’s 67th biennial here last week.

Despite numerically dominating the North American Jewish landscape, Reform Jews must reach out to other Reform Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe, and fight anti-Semitism by forging closer ties to Christians, said the movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

“There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism,” Yoffie said at the convention of the newly named Union for Reform Judaism, delivering the keynote address to a Shabbat morning service of 4,500 delegates.

The address marked less of a philosophical sea change for Reform Judaism than Yoffie solidifying an agenda he has promoted since ascending to the top of the largest American stream of Judaism in 1996.

Since that time, Yoffie has spearheaded calls both to infuse the movement with more tradition and to invigorate ritual through participation. On Shabbat, he underscored his points with a distinctively progressive twist.

Since God made the covenant at Mount Sinai with the Jewish people, he said, “every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of klal Yisrael,” the people of Israel.

First, Yoffie said, the movement would invigorate its support for Reform congregations in Israel in addition to Reform Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yoffie urged members specifically to raise money to help build two new Reform synagogues in Modi’in and in Mevasseret Zion, both led by women rabbis, while also helping train Reform Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to launch new communities.

He also urged the movement to support Israeli students at the Jerusalem branch of the movement’s seminary, the New York-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with two-year scholarships and two years of post-ordination salary.

To raise such funding, Yoffie asked each of the movement’s 920 congregations to ask each member to donate $18 annually — “about the cost of two movie tickets.”

Seeking inspiration for this work, Yoffie looked no further than the fervently Orthodox Chabad- Lubavitch Chasidic movement, which has built outposts throughout the world.

“It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad,” Yoffie said. “I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress.”

A Chabad spokesman, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, declined to comment on Yoffie’s remarks.

Yoffie also called on Reform Jews to rebuild the bridges they have forged with non-Jews as a path to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Middle East peace.

While Reform Jews led interfaith efforts for decades, those ties have declined recently, and in “many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model Seders,” he said.

Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to invite neighboring churches to join in studying a seven-session course on biblical texts and the religious and political issues surrounding Israel.

Whether synagogues can forge those ties remains to be seen, but his call came with joint endorsements by the major Protestant group, the National Council of Churches of Christ; the Presbyterian Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church; the United Methodist Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism,” Yoffie said.

Yoffie also urged Reform Jews to look inward. He called on members to study Torah for 10 minutes daily, saying those who complete 100 hours of study using a “Ten Minutes of Torah” Web site will be honored at the group’s 2005 biennial in Houston.

Aiming for the youth market, Yoffie also unveiled a “Packing for College” kit for 11th and 12th graders, a nine-session, two-year course about choosing a college and drafting a “personal Jewish action plan.”

In the political realm, Yoffie underscored the movement’s longtime support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and called for dismantling new settlement outposts.

Yoffie said he is raising the issue because of what he called “the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s sovereign survival.”

With the number of Jewish settlers doubling from 115,000 to 230,000 in one decade, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are becoming so “intertwined” that separation will soon prove “impossible,” he said.

After three years’ of intensified violence, “there is a sense of desperation” about how the right-wing Likud government of Ariel Sharon is handling the situation, he told JTA.

“I don’t understand, where are they moving?” he said. “The settlers are turning Israel over to the Arabs.”

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