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August 23, 2014 | 27th Av 5774

Opening Remarks: Reform Jewish Think Tank

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
November 21, 2010
Los Angeles, CA

My name is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and I am the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. 
We welcome all of you throughout North America who are joining us—whether in congregational watching groups or on personal computers—for this initial session of our Reform Think Tank.

Why a Reform Jewish Think Tank?  Because North American Reform Judaism is in a period of turmoil and transition.

The modern Reform Movement came into being after World War II.  In the last 60 years, it went from being a movement of approximately 300 congregations to one of 900 congregations.  During that period, the basic structure of both our synagogues and our North American institutions came into existence.  It was over that time that we became what we are now:  a primarily suburban, primarily family-oriented synagogue movement.

But a lot has happened in those 60 years:  assimilation, a much higher intermarriage rate, radically different family patterns, and radically different living patterns for young adults.  We have made some adjustments along the way, but throughout it all, our structure has remained essentially the same.

What we are doing now is asking if we have to reconsider the whole structure.  We are looking at the fundamental question of what we need to do differently today to promote and strengthen Reform Judaism throughout North America. 

The financial crisis in which we find ourselves is a factor in our current situation, but it is not a primary issue.  The financial crisis did not create the situation that we are in, but it does highlight and add urgency to the problems that we face. 

The Think Tank will be the vehicle by which we conduct this review of our structure and our values.  In doing the work of the Think Tank, we are starting with certain assumptions:

We need to do this together:  rabbis, academics, congregational leaders, North American movement leaders, synagogue professionals. 

We need to turn to top experts outside of our movement who will offer insights that otherwise we might not consider.

We do not want and cannot accept a top-down process, in which “the word goes out” from New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, or anywhere else.  We recognize the wisdom that exists in all areas of our movement, and particularly in our congregations, and we are soliciting and counting on the involvement and participation of active members of our synagogues.

Our purpose is not to provide quick fixes.  At the same time, it is not simply to ask questions.  A lot of people are capable of asking good questions.  But ultimately, what we hope to do is provide answers – or at least, some clear recommendations and suggested directions for the future.  And it is our intention to say what we have to say not in the organizational doublespeak that we so often use in Jewish life, but in language that is clear, direct, and—hopefully—inspirational and Torah-based.

Let me conclude with a word of advice, and a word of hope:

I recently participated in a think tank project under the auspices of the New York Jewish Week, with Jewish leaders from all streams of Judaism, various communal organizations, and a lot of young people.  I was one of the oldest people in this group, and by virtue of my age and title, I was the symbol of establishment, synagogue Judaism.

In discussion after discussion, I listened as the young people—those in their 20s and 30s—came at me with their long list of complaints about the inadequacies of North American synagogues. 

My first reaction in every case—at least mentally, and in some cases more than that—was:  “Stop whining.”  My second reaction was:  “You don’t understand all of the things that we in the synagogue world do for you.”  

Only when I stopped doing that, when I got control of myself and really focused on what they were saying, was the conversation able really to begin.

My advice, therefore, whether we are Think Tank members in this room or are local synagogue activists, is that we need to jump ahead to the listening stage.  We need to really hear what our young people—and all of our critics—are saying.  We need to open our ears and stop responding in a defensive posture.

And finally, a word of hope:

After I listened to my young interlocutors, I asked them what they were doing in their Jewish lives.  After they told me, I said:  “In other words, you have created your own synagogues.”    They protested immediately.  “No,” they said, “we haven’t.”

But my response was:  “Of course you have.  You have created religiously-based communities that revolve around prayer, study, and tikkun olam (repair of the world).  That is what a synagogue is.”

My point was, and is, that nothing has happened to call into question Isaac Mayer Wise’s assumption that in America (and now in North America as well), the synagogue will be the grassroots institution of Jewish life.  For further evidence, I suggest that you look at American Grace, the recently published study of American religious life by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  Putnam and Campbell demonstrate convincingly that the dynamism of American religious life emerges from its congregations.

I suggest to you that our congregations are strong, but—and it is a very important but—the particular form they take may require radical change.

Are we capable of such change?  Can we carry it out in a thoughtful way? 

I am optimistic that we can.  This is a time of great challenge, but time and again we Jews have responded to crisis with stunning bursts of creativity.   At each phase of our long history, we have looked within and discovered new modes of spirituality, and that is what we will do now.

I thank you all for participating, whether you are with us here or in your congregation or at home. 

I now turn the program over to my colleague, the president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson.

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