After sixteen years as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie has decided to retire this year. In the following Reform Judaism interview, he reflects on his legacy and on some of the key lessons learned from the experience.
In your inaugural address (June 8, 1996), you stated, “At this critical juncture in history, it is the study of Torah, prayer, and encouraging the mitzvot of home and family life that come before anything else.” Your emphasizing these goals suggests that you see a direct correlation between the vitality of the synagogue and serious religious commitment.
Yes. I believe today, as I did then, that for our congregations to be truly strong, their members—individual Reform Jews—need to be committed to the study of Torah, the practice of mitzvot, and faith in the God of Israel. These are not slogans or gimmicks, but the essential building blocks of Jewish identity. Synagogues create community and caring, but the pillars of these communities are Torah and religious faith. When individual Reform Jews commit themselves to a holy way of life, our synagogues flourish.
In the 1996 RJ magazine interview introducing you as president, you stated that the North American Jewish community was experiencing a “religious resurgence.” How have you and the Union worked to advance Jewish spirituality? Which of your worship initiatives have been most successful? And what is still needed?
The religious resurgence among North American Jews continues to this day. A growing number of Reform Jews—young and old—yearn for the holy, the transcendent. They understand that ritual opens us to the sacred, and they believe, as I do, that if ritual dies, Judaism dies.
I saw it as my task to give voice to these spiritual stirrings of our rabbis, cantors, and members, and to help our synagogues restore energy and vibrancy to Reform communal prayer. The impact of the URJ’s worship initiatives has, I believe, been most evident in relationship to Erev Shabbat prayer. Hardly a synagogue in our Movement has not changed its Friday night worship practices in a major way over the last decade. Music is now central in all of our congregations; it is heartfelt, participatory, and community building. Sermons are shorter and less formal. There is more Hebrew and more liturgical creativity. When we witness the transformation of Shabbat evening prayer, we see Reform Judaism at its best.
Change to Shabbat morning worship has been slower in coming. Our congregational leaders are sympathetic to the need for new thinking, and interesting things are developing, but bar and bat mitzvah observances still impose constraints on what synagogues can do.
In addition, I have encouraged Shabbat observance among individual Reform Jews. It is hard to gauge the precise impact of this initiative, but I continue to believe that even for those who deny or doubt the existence of God, there is something about Shabbat that can make our spirits soar. We are beginning to observe Shabbat because we need Shabbat. We need the time to talk to our children about their hopes and their dreams. We need to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.
Early in your term as president, you broadened the traditional emphasis of Reform Jewish education to encompass not only children but people of all ages. Why? And which of your educational initiatives do you believe have been most effective?
On an airplane we are instructed that if oxygen masks are lowered, you must first fasten your own mask before securing the mask of your child. Similarly, we must educate ourselves as adults if we are to have any chance of passing on our Jewish heritage to our children.
Here I believe that our “Ten Minutes of Torah” initiative has been especially significant. More than 30,000 Reform Jews, many of them congregational leaders, study Torah online as they begin their day—an important development not only because of the knowledge they acquire, but because of the message it sends to all Reform Jews that the study of Torah is our first duty and our greatest joy.
Camping is a uniquely effective vehicle for deepening Jewish commitment and identity among the young—we know, as just one amazing example, that approximately three quarters of the rabbinic, cantorial, and education students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion are URJ camp alumni. I’ve worked to substantially increase the capacity of our camping system. During my presidency the Union added five new camps (Newman, George, Crane Lake, Six Points Sports Academy, and Kalsman) and significantly expanded our existing camps. Today we serve 10,500 young people in our camp and Israel programs, as compared to 5,500 fifteen years ago.
Right now our most important educational challenge is to engage a greater number of Jewish teenagers in synagogue life. The majority of our teens drift away following their bar/bat mitzvahs. I have devoted the last two years of my presidency to reversing this trend, working closely with the Union’s educational staff and congregational leaders on a Youth Engagement Initiative. My successor, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, has intensified the initiative by assembling a Movement-wide coalition devoted to teen engagement. There is no magic bullet, no single program that will produce instant results. Instead, we are encouraging a culture of change in which each congregation will focus, with laser-like intensity, on teens, and forge a temple-wide strategy to this purpose. If we offer our young people a Judaism of morality and meaning, they will, I believe, respond favorably and take their place as the future leaders of our Movement.
At the 2005 Biennial you called for an “Inviting Conversion” initiative, saying, “It is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice.” What has been its impact, and do you believe we should intensify our outreach to individuals seeking spiritual meaning in their lives, especially today when people are crossing religious boundaries as never before?
Outreach has never been as important as it is now. A great many non-Jewish spouses of members who were born Jewish would be eager to embrace Judaism through conversion if we would only approach them and invite them to do so. While not every non-Jewish spouse would welcome our invitation, many would—and indeed, many already have.
The simple fact is that gay Jews, non-Jewish spouses, and Jews with disabilities do not feel fully welcome in most North American synagogues outside of the Reform Movement, and Jewish young adults are astounded by this. Our young people hate the narrowness and exclusivism of so much of the Jewish world. At the same time, they see us as the Jewish address with open doors, and they are right. We need to open those doors even wider. The fearless openness of Reform Judaism is our greatest asset.
In 2005, in another Biennial initiative, you introduced the Sacred Choices curriculum to teach sexual ethics to teens in camps and congregations. Sexuality, you emphasized, should emerge from the sacredness of human relationships. How have these lessons been received? Do you believe they have had a positive influence on Reform teens and families?
One of the great surprises of my presidency was the discovery that Reform Judaism, which has always been a bold Judaism, is remarkably tongue-tied when it comes to discussing sexual ethics with young people. This is as true in Reform camps as it is in the Reform youth movement and in synagogues. Following the example of a small number of innovative rabbis, I encouraged the creation of a curriculum that would make this discussion easier in Reform settings. It is being used, although not yet as widely as I would like.
At the 2009 URJ Biennial, you called on Reform Jews to reduce their meat consumption to 10% of their diet. What prompted your call to action, and what has been the response to your initiative?
My primary intent was to promote sacred eating—a Jewish way of eating that brings sanctity into our day-to-day existence and that is right for both our bodies and our souls. Ecological concerns also played a role in my thinking. It would be fair to say that my words generated a lot of interest among a small number of people, but did not resonate broadly in the Movement. Even as Reform Jews are becoming more open to Jewish ritual, many remain reluctant to embrace Jewish traditions that would restrict what they eat. I expect this, too, will change in time.
As president you have taken some controversial steps: becoming the first Jew to address the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; speaking frankly to students at Evangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a bastion of the religious right; becoming the first leader of a major Jewish organization to address 30,000 delegates at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention; inviting ISNA’s president to address URJ Biennial delegates; and joining an interfaith coalition of religious leaders in supporting the creation of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero. What informs your thinking about cultivating relations among different religious faiths? What more needs to be done?
Sadly, much of the interfaith dialogue that happens in North America is not very productive. In fact, often it is tiresome, trite, and irrelevant. We tend to manufacture consensus, mouth platitudes, and avoid engaging in the real, thoughtful discussions that might enable us to deal honestly with the issues that divide us.
To foster meaningful interfaith dialogue, we first need to take stock of our own level of commitment. Many in the Jewish community do not participate in interfaith work, or assume—wrongly—that dialogue is little more than a platform for Jews to lecture non-Jews on Israel. They fail to understand that we can best make Israel’s case when we have built relationships of trust and understanding—and that requires a willingness not just to talk, but to listen.
You’ve also taken a strong position on church/state separation as it concerns federal funding for synagogue programs, declaring that “Religion can only be prophetic if it is free and independent, and not bellying up to the public trough to be fed and leashed like a house pet.” What is the basis of your opposition?
The historical experience of the Jewish people has shown that governmental support of religious institutions is far more likely to undermine those institutions than to strengthen them. The usual outcome—true in Europe, in the modern State of Israel, and everywhere else—is to bring organized religion into disrepute. This is why Reform Jews in America have always been fierce advocates of church/state separation.
Within the U.S., the constitutional picture on these issues has gotten rather murky, and the Supreme Court has not provided much in the way of clarity. In specific areas, such as temple-run preschools, the law appears to make room for some governmental support of non-religious activities within the synagogue without violating the principle of church/state separation, although this is a complicated matter and we have issued guidelines to help our congregations deal with it.
You have repeatedly insisted: “The synagogue is the central institution of Jewish life.” Why do you believe this so adamantly?
The synagogue is the only place in the Jewish world that can be counted on to care about the individual Jew, and where everyone, no matter how rich or poor, is valued as having been created in the image of God. It is the place that attends to the pain of its members, celebrates their successes, and provides the loving embrace of community. It is the only Jewish institution that is truly democratic and takes pride in its grassroots character. And it is a place of prayer and study for Jews of every age. No other Jewish institution does these things, and none will.
You’ve been a strong proponent for strengthening the Movement. What have you said to those who argue that Jewish denominationalism has outlived its usefulness?
I have no doubt that our Reform Movement remains essential, for two primary reasons:
First, Reform Judaism stands for a certain complex of values that can be found nowhere else. We begin with God, Torah, and Israel, and to this we add a belief in an evolving, growing, adapting Jewish tradition; in absolute equality for men and women and for gays and lesbians; in social justice as a foundational Jewish concern; in a Judaism that draws boundaries, but does so more to include than to exclude; and in a true partnership between rabbis, Jewish professionals, and volunteer leaders. We respect those who embrace halachah, but we are committed to autonomy and say plainly that we are not a halachic movement.We also proclaim that whatever is unethical is not Jewish. Without our Reform Movement, the values we champion would be lost as a living force.
Second, these values require institutions and programs that make them real and relevant. The Reform Movement has created these institutions, providing the foundation that sustains Jewish life. Our seminary trains Reform rabbis, cantors, and educators; our Religious Action Center leads us in the work of social justice; our rabbinical organization publishes prayer books for Reform worship; our camps and Israel travel programs excite Reform youth about being Jewish; our press publishes textbooks and curricula for Reform religious schools; our magazine links more than 300,000 Reform households throughout North America and beyond; and more. Without a Movement, none of these would exist.
You rarely gave a speech to the Reform leadership without commenting on events in Israel and the Middle East. Why is that?
I strongly believe that we are blessed to be living at a time when we can set foot on the soil of a Jewish state and speak the language of the Bible. Israel is the one place in the world where the Jewish people controls its own destiny, and where Jewish tradition and culture are the norm. Nowhere else is Hebrew the language of the everyday. Only in Israel do Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the daily Jewish calendar and do Jewish values inform every aspect of life.
Facing a hostile political climate and dangerous neighbors, Israel needs Diaspora Jews now as never before. And we need Israel as much as Israel needs us—because it inspires us and pumps the dynamism of Jewish life through our veins. Reform Jews in particular need to be concerned about what happens in Israel, because our Movement there, though growing, is not yet firmly established on Israeli soil, and faces strong opposition from an entrenched Orthodox establishment.
I find it bizarre and ironic that some Reform Jews choose to turn away from Israel because they disagree with Israel’s leaders on certain political and religious policies. Though I may, in some cases, share their disagreement, at this critical moment in Jewish history—when a struggle over peace, settlements, social welfare, religious monopoly, and a whole range of other issues is being waged on the national stage of the Jewish people—how can we, the Jewish religious movement that is the most committed to social justice and tikkun olam, absent ourselves from the battle? To my mind, retreat is unthinkable.
During your presidency, what has most surprised you, astonished you, angered you, energized you, or inspired you?
I have been inspired by the capacity of our synagogues to change—belying the common belief that synagogues are resistant to new ideas. I see our congregations changing constantly: opening themselves dramatically to intermarried Jews, initiating serious adult study, experimenting with chavurot and other small group Jewish experiences, inviting their members to think for the first time about spiritual seeking…wave after wave of change.
I am also inspired by the leaders of our small congregations, who are often more self-reliant and deeply involved than those of larger congregations. In small congregations, professionals do not serve as surrogate Jews— every member is a rabbi, a cantor, a teacher of Judaism. These are the unsung heroes of Jewish life today.
What has astonished me? That even a tiny percentage of our constituency would howl in protest when we announced that President Barack Obama would be the first sitting U.S. president to address a Union/WRJ Biennial. Certainly there are those among us who dislike President Obama or oppose his policies, and that’s fine; our Movement is comprised of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. But the idea that our Movement should not welcome the elected leader of the American people as a speaker at our Biennial convention left me shocked.
Is there anything about your presidency that you wish you had done differently?
Many things. I am not one who, like the singer Edith Piaf, has “no regrets.” I regret that I didn’t do more to connect Reform Jews to Israel. I regret that I began the very exciting Youth Engagement Campaign at the end of my tenure rather than at the very beginning. I regret that not every Reform Jew is studying Torah, working to repair the world, approaching Shabbat as a sacred day, and engaging in heartfelt prayer on a regular basis in synagogue—and I wonder what I might have done differently to have brought about such a transformation.
Judaism survives through perpetual dissatisfaction, and Jewish leaders must be more dissatisfied than anyone else.
Which of your accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction, and why?
The dramatic growth of the Reform Jewish camping system, “Torah at the center” as a new Reform Jewish mindset, and restoring the revolutionary fire of Reform Jewish prayer. None of these are my accomplishments alone, but they happened during my tenure, and I view them with great satisfaction.
What are your post-retirement plans? What do you hope to achieve in this next stage of your life?
As a general rule, rabbis do not retire. The very word suggests the abandonment of an active life. I will continue as a regular blogger for the Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post, and have other writing projects in mind. Beyond that, I am planning to spend the summer biking, lying on the beach, and considering various possibilities. After all, there is a great deal to do in the Jewish world.
Learn More about Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
The Union for Reform Judaism has published a Tribute Book entitled God, Torah, and Israel: A Legacy of Jewish Life and Leadership in honor of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie as he ends his 16-year tenure as URJ president. Organized around the three pillars of Judaism that guided his presidency—God, Torah, and Israel—the volume includes more of Rabbi Yoffie’s reflections and a timeline of significant events. Its nearly 100 pages of advertisements (which appear in the back) are helping to fund Rabbi Yoffie’s last major initiative: The Campaign for Youth Engagement.