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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Rabbi Yoffie's Remarks to the URJ Executive Committee March 2010

URJ Executive Committee
New York, March 15, 2010
Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, URJ
Last week a Reform Movement breakfast was held at the CCAR Convention in San Francisco, cosponsored by the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and the URJ. I was asked to speak about the institutional future of the Reform Movement and about my broad vision of the Jewish future—and to do this in six minutes.


What I said was this: I am optimistic about the future of our Movement and its institutions. No institution, of course, is inherently valuable. The Union, the College, the Conference, and the synagogue itself are not important as organizations; they are important only as vehicles to promote the modern, progressive Judaism that is the key to our Jewish wellbeing.  And right now, we need the Reform movement more than ever. Because the future does not lie with the charedim and the fundamentalists of the Jewish world; and it certainly does not lie with Chabad, which may do some good things, but which sells itself to our members as cut-rate, minimalist Judaism.


The future, I believe, lies with us. Yes, we have our issues, and our Movement will look different from what it was before the economic crisis. But it needs to be here, and it needs to be strong.


So this not a time for counsels of despair. Our friends in the Conservative movement are struggling with major issues of institutional decline; and let’s not misread the reality in the Orthodox world, either. Two weeks ago I rode home on the train with a Rosh Yeshiva; we studied a little gemara, spoke some Hebrew, and then he said: “You know, we lose a lot of our young people too.” Most North American Jews who make a choice still choose us. Despite the challenges, the Union, the College, and Reform congregations remain reasonably stable and healthy; we are better positioned than ever before to lead North American Jewry in the years ahead.


But what do we have to offer? Is there something distinctive about being Reform? My answer is “yes.” We do not have a common theology, and that’s a good thing. But we can talk about the defining characteristics of Reform Judaism.


We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.


We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.


We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the intermarried, non-Jewish spouses and all who bind their fate to that of the Jewish people.


We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.


We see tikkun olam as an essential element of our Reform identity – in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.


And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.


This particular mix of practice and belief exists nowhere else in the Jewish world. Some say that Reform Judaism has disappeared in an undifferentiated mass of non-Orthodox Jews. Nonsense. Our rabbis and lay leaders know who we are and what we have to offer.


And every week I hear from these leaders new ideas that are daring, exciting and stunningly creative. Let’s acknowledge our problems, but no gloom and doom, please. Our congregations at their best are doing things we would not have imagined possible ten years ago.


There is also much that our institutions are doing that is hopeful and positive.


When disaster struck in Haiti, Reform Jews provided relief at a level that no other movement could even dream of. This is what we always do: look at New Orleans, where we extended our hand to the broader community while assuring the survival of our own congregations. And if the time comes, God forbid, that others need our help, we will be there to keep them alive as well.


Despite the recession, virtually every bed in our camping system was filled last summer. For the coming summer, camp registration is stronger than ever, and our Israel registration is at its highest level in ten years.


And this too: At a time when all Jewish institutions must be nimble, lean and adaptive, the Union and the College have become just that, restraining spending and quickly restructuring. And our congregations have done exactly the same thing, as they address their own fiscal realities.


There is much else that could be mentioned. The work of the RAC. Our curricula and Torah texts. The unified Center for Reform Judaism that we will establish in New York. None of this would exist without a Movement. And the vital protections that we provide for our congregations and clergy, such as placement and pensions, work best when our Movement is strong.


I have no illusions, of course. Funding our congregations is very difficult, and funding our Movement is more difficult still. And there are many things that we do not do well enough. For the Union, NFTY needs to be far stronger, young adult outreach far better and our congregations need more help with marketing, fundraising and technology. We have to do more in these areas, and we will.


But in the final analysis, the key is not budgets or programs, but values.


The great majority of North American Jews will not choose a Judaism that is halakhically-based; they will not choose a narrow, ritually-obsessed Judaism; they will not choose an ethically-limited Judaism; and they will certainly not choose a fundamentalist, ghetto Judaism. The great majority will choose the modern, liberal, Torah-inspired Judaism that is Reform. And this will require College, Conference, Union and congregations working together to build a strong movement.


There is nothing easy about this task, but we Reform Jews always surprise the world with our resilience. We know that if you address the future through a filter of despair, pessimism and hopelessness, you will create a future of despair, pessimism and hopelessness. And therefore now—as this breakfast shows, as this whole convention shows—we will cast aside the bondage of habit, speak to the deepest needs of our members and inject our Movement with new energy, identity and purpose. We will address the future with optimism and hope. And Reform Judaism—our Judaism—will emerge stronger than it is has ever been.


Thank you for what you do. 


Ken Gordon

March 23, 2010
12:47 PM

URJ Trustee

Great! Tells it like it is.


Karen Humphrey

March 23, 2010
01:42 PM

URJ Congregant

I enjoyed reading this. It was very well said, and very to the point. This is a challenging time, and it's good that the challenges are seen for what they are and that a wider perspective is also maintained. As a young adult, I most strongly resonated with this part: "For the Union, NFTY needs to be far stronger, young adult outreach far better and our congregations need more help with marketing, fundraising and technology. We have to do more in these areas, and we will."



March 26, 2010
10:50 PM

Well put on all pluses of Reform Judiasm. But. Many of us have the problem of social action, being liberal or progressive action. It makes us merely Democrats with holidays. Leave it to politicians. Religion should not be an overlap into politics to all religions in our great country. You said tikkun olam is critical. I had to look it up and realized your emphasis.


URJ member

April 7, 2010
12:56 AM

Is it our way to be pessimistic?

"and it certainly does not lie with Chabad" What's with always making particular statements about orthodox and certainly Chabad? Your article would have relayed the same message without mentioning this. Some of us have family members in orthodox movement or Chabad.


Gerald Coles/Kolsky

April 13, 2010
08:22 PM

Reform Congregant

While there is much to praise about Reform Judaism, I & many other Reform members I know feel it is, to use Rabbi Yoffie's phrase, profoundly "ethically-limited," on issues re. Israel. The most recent example is Rabbi Yoffie's statement that he believes "housing units constructed in Jerusalem by Israel are not settlements and they are not illegal." This extraordinary and, in my view, immoral judgment contradicts all international law, such as the Hague Regulation of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention and surely makes the Reform movement "ethically challenged," to put it mildly. To make matters worse, there is virtually no open debate about issues re. Israel that are allowed by the Reform leadership, a matter that surely affects Reform growth. I and other Reform members I know not only have found this very discouraging, we've also found that the Reform view and constraints on open discussion re. Israel has adversely affected our ability to attract younger Jews to our Reform congregation. Surely as much as any other issue, this one is damaging the future of Reform Judaism and certainly making current members, such as myself, wonder how long our moral conscience will allow us to remain in the Reform movement. Is the Reform leadership aware of this discontent? Surely if they are, they must care. Yet, I'm sorry to say, they act as though they do not know or if they do know, they do not care. I hope this damaging problem will be candidly and morally addressed. Otherwise, Rabbi Yoffie's concerns about the growth of Reform Judaism will become all-too-real.



April 18, 2010
01:09 AM

From my perspective, which is that of a committed 80 year old who grew up using the Union Prayer Books in a family that had been Reform or Liberal for generations -- Reform has been moving in the wrong direction. The rate of this wrong-way change has increased in recent years. The many Reform Congregations where I have been a member have moved more toward Conservative rather than toward the liberal. It has significantly added to the amount of Hebrew used in services which few of us can really understand, reduced the English, added traditional prayers and services, and increased the stress on Israel rather than on living as Jews in the U.S. which is what we need more. We have become a way station for those who grew up in more traditional families who are on a stairway down and out of Judaism.



April 22, 2010
06:29 PM

Yoffie accuses of chabad of 'minimalist judaism', how ironic, considering reform is the movement that minimizes judaism to political correctness and 'tikkun olam' but nothing much else....... the future clearly is not within reform judaism, it will die out as all other movements that rejected halacha and the divine nature of the torah died out, it had its run, served its purpose, but the future clearly is within the orthodox world either the modern orthodox or haredi, take your pick...


Tom Solomon

May 28, 2010
09:58 AM

The Reform movement strives to be so inclusive and broad, that it ends up standing for nothing.



October 10, 2010
02:17 AM

I converted to (Reform) Judaism because of sentiments like these

Thank you, Rabbi Yoffie, for this speech. It was a great reminder of what Judaism means to many of us.


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