Excerpts from A Presentation to the UAHC Executive Committee by President-Elect Rabbi Eric Yoffie September 11, 1995
We live in a time of religious revival. We live in a time when the sparks of renewal are all around us, and a surprising number of American Jews are intent on searching for God, celebrating community, and finding meaning in ancient rituals and traditions. We live in a time when Jewish lives are being touched by Torah and when a hunger for the values and spiritual nourishment of Reform Judaism is everywhere apparent.
We must beware of triumphalism or apologetics; but it is also important that we approach the task of setting priorities out of a sense of realit, and not from a sense of desperation or despair. The reality is that the predominant number of Jews under fifty in this country identify with us; the reality is that if we listen very closely to our congregations, very rarely do we hear them saying: Help us because our members just don t care. Far more often what we hear is: Help us because we are overwhelmed by the escalating demands of our membership. The pressure on our synagogues, and on our Union, comes most often from an explosion of Jewish demands that we have not yet learned how to meet.
For proof, we need only look to our congregations at their best; or, we can look at this summer's UAHC Kallot. The people at those Kallot were in some cases Jewish leaders, but in most cases they were simply Jews Reform Jews searching for an intensity of Jewish experience and a way to reclaim Torah as their own. In recent years, almost two thousand of these Jews have come to us, and we have responded with a Jewish experience of such power that, in many cases, their lives have been transformed. Their commitment and their hunger for spiritual community are indicative of the state of our Jewish world.
Therefore, what is the Union's task? To articulate this burgeoning religious energy, to give it shape and form through education and programs, and to stimulate religious sparks in those congregations where it has not yet taken root.
How do we do this? Through partnership with our congregations. Covenant is the central religious metaphor of our tradition, and in the same way, covenantal partnership between Union and synagogues should be the central message of our Movement. If our congregations do not feel that by joining the Union they are entering a partnership, then we have failed.
Our congregations do not exist to help us balance our budget; we exist to serve them through education and inspiration, through the creation of a life-enhancing partnership, through listening ever- so-carefully to their needs, and through responding to their concerns.
Creating warm, embracing, supportive congregations filled with spirituality, Torah, and social justice is what this Union is all about. We have other responsibilities, too: to the general community, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people throughout the world. Still, none of these responsibilities can be met unless we have vibrant, welcoming, and learning congregations. It is from this that everything else flows. Vibrant, welcoming, and learning congregations will attract the unaffiliated, will impact on the intermarriage rate, will retain members and draw in young adults; they will also strengthen our voice in the general and Jewish communities.
But we are not going to build such congregations by providing one more piece of paper or one more program; we will do it by projecting a serious religious vision that will stimulate and inspire; and we will do it by encouraging congregations to think in new ways about how to channel this newly emerging religious energy. We cannot afford business as usual. The Jewish world has changed; our congregants have changed. We will not attract the unaffiliated young adult, or the barely affiliated parents of a bar mitzvah boy, by doing what we have always done. Rabbi Michael Matuson of our staff tells the story of his friend in Louisiana, a black minister who used to say to his congregation: If you always do what you ve always done, you ll always get what you ve always got. We need fresh and dramatic new approaches trans-formational thinking, to use the current terminology if we are truly to make a difference.
Some New Initiatives
I would now like to suggest three major initiatives that will move us in this direction.
First, we must move to revitalize the spiritual life of Reform Jews and, in particular, Reform Jewish worship. We must invest the sanctuary, the heart of the synagogue, with a sense of excitement and aliveness and make our communal prayer a nurturing, and satisfying, and magical experience. Yes, there are Reform synagogues where the prayers are heartfelt, the music uplifting, the participation enthusiastic, and the message religiously compelling. Yet far too often, the worship is sterile and the prayers rote. Our people want to pray; they want worship that is experiential, innovative, touching, and culturally current. And certainly, they want not to be bored. But Reform Judaism, the most creative of the religious movements, has in this instance lost its creative instinct.
I propose that we charge the Commission on Religious Living with the task of reenergizing Reform Jewish worship and that we give it the means to do so by joining with Dr. Lawrence Hoffman and the Hebrew Union College in a significant new venture. Dr. Hoffman has obtained a major grant that provides for training teams that will be sent into synagogues for the purpose of reviving the religious dimension of congregational life; we are now working with Dr. Hoffman on a plan to make this a joint endeavor between the Union and College, with the active involvement of the CCAR. The focus of the effort will be to encourage meaningful and heartfelt worship, but the agenda will actually be more ambitious: the creation of a spiritual curriculum to promote spiritual values in all areas of synagogue life, combined with a plan for implementation by teams of trained professionals. We have in mind a high profile national campaign, intended to raise and clarify the spiritual expectations that we have of our membership.
I attach special importance to this effort because it represents the kind of Movement-wide cooperation that I consider to be essential for our future; and also because it moves the Commission on Religious Living from the peripheries to the forefront of our Movement's agenda. If we are to be architects of kedushah, then we must empower those arms of our Union that we have called upon to be nourishers of the Jewish soul.
My second proposed initiative has a similar goal: It too is intended to make room in Reform Jewish lives for a vibrant discussion of the spiritual life and to offer serious, adult reflection on the issues that engage us as Jews. But the means of proceeding in this instance will be to offer education, inspiration, and training to synagogue members and leaders outside the walls of the congregation and then to send them back to their temples imbued with Torah and text and with a new vision of what is possible in Jewish life.
As I have already indicated, our Kallot are enormously successful, but in any given year they reach a tiny fraction of our constituency. I now propose that we organize a national network of Kallot, study programs, and spirituality retreats. Some will focus on texts; some on outreach themes; some on social action themes. Some will be geared to young adults, a critical and neglected population; some to families and family education; some to older adults. But we will reach thousands of our members yearly, who will return home as specialists of the spirit, with a sense of authenticity and deep- rootedness in tradition.
This should be accomplished, I propose, by creating the position of director of Adult Jewish Growth, an office that will work with all of our existing departments, and with our regions, in creating a program that offers covenantal continuity and hope.
This office will have one additional task: to create, together with our regions, a national program of synagogue leadership training. We have been remiss in this area. We have done little systematic training of leadership, and when we have done it, we have too often focused only on the technical issues management, finance, and fund-raising. These areas are critical, of course, but they are at best only one element of what synagogue leaders need to know; the religious dimension of leadership the need to inspire and empower Jews and to be a model of committed Jewish living has been neglected.
We must aspire to create a national training program for synagogue leaders, and I believe that an office of Adult Religious Growth is the appropriate vehicle to bring this program into being.
Such an office will cost money, and while I am confident that our Union's resources will grow, I am, of course, aware of the constraints of the moment. I am, therefore, proposing that we pay for it by another change that I believe necessary at this time: that we reduce the number of national vice presidents from two to one, beginning next July, and then make use of the savings to fund this new position.
The third initiative that I am proposing calls for us to build on the single most successful educational program of this Union in its l25-year history: our network of UAHC camps. I doubt that I need to convince you of the value of our camping program. Approximately eight thousand young people took advantage of our programs this summer alone, and in recent years our camps have been the vehicle that has taught tens of thousands of our children to see themselves as part of our people and its memories. Camps create a sustainable and transmissible Jewish identity in ways that few other programs can match; I myself am a product of Union camps, and I have watched with pride and satisfaction the impact that Camp Harlam has had on my son.
But precisely because our camps have succeeded in giving Jewish life compelling power, we need more ambitious goals and a far grander vision. This is one of the few Jewish ships on which our kids love to travel, so let's be certain that we have enough ships. The time has come for the Reform Movement to say to parents in our congregations: If you want your children to live, know, and understand our Jewish heritage, camps are an absolutely essential part of their experience. And this requires of us that we make a place available to every child who wants one, that scholarships are provided for every child who needs one, and that we are ready to move into those areas of camping such as day camping that will advance our educational mission but in which we have yet to establish ourselves.
I am not prepared, quite yet, to offer you a specific plan, but we will present it during the course of the year.
The Building Blocks of Synagogue Life
I would now like to say a few words about two existing departments of the Union where I feel that special effort is required: the first is the Department of Education.
In a sense, of course, everything that we do at the Union is education. But the Department of Education has a task of special importance: assisting congregations with the formal education of children within the synagogue. This was one of the specific purposes for which the Union was created a century and a quarter ago and an area in which our leadership was long unchallenged.
The time has come to reassert our leadership because there is so much that congregations require and that we can best provide, including teacher-training programs, education materials for the home, curricular materials, and family education modules.
And more than just materials are required. We need to raise the profile of Jewish education and help congregations understand that religious school education never stands alone: truly successful schools are part of a mutually reinforcing network of synagogue educational programs.
We are in the process of dramatically reorganizing our educational department, and we are doing this in consultation with the leadership of the Hebrew Union College, which has provided superb leadership in this area. Let us not forget: For better or worse, the single most important reason Jews join congregations is still to educate their children in the religious school and prepare them for bar and bat mitzvah. Our congregations will forgive us many things, but they will not forgive us if we are not there to help them with those schools and to teach their children about the drama of Jewish history, the grandeur of Jewish ethics, and the majesty of Jewish faith.
The second department that requires our urgent attention is that of Synagogue Management. Our accomplishments are impressive in this realm, but here, too, we must recognize that the world has changed. Our Union is a Union of synagogues, and the business of running a synagogue has become, in a very short time, a much more complicated affair than it ever was before. Our synagogues are clamoring for assistance in areas that, a few ago, were not even part of our agenda. They want help with computerization; with fundraising and endowment planning; with creative financing; and with personnel practices. On the one hand, much of what they are asking for is highly technical; on the other hand, and this is absolutely essential, they want to know how a temple can institute the soundest business practices without abandoning the religious and ethical focus that is the heart of synagogue life.
I believe that we must move quickly in this area and call on the cooperation of others. NATA's role will be critical, of course, and we look to our temple administrators as full partners in this endeavor; the involvement of the rabbinate and the College is also essential.
Effective synagogue management is the foundation on which a congregation's religious program is built; it is itself religious work no less than any other work that the synagogue does the critical enabling factor that makes everything else possible. Our congregations are appealing for help here, and we must provide it.
There are many things I have not shared with you: my plans for outreach and the unaffiliated, for NFTY and college youth, for social action, Israel, and world Jewry. All are important and require our attention; and, of course, all would be impacted by the initiatives and the programs that I have just described. But I have chosen here to focus on those areas where, in my view, we need the most dramatic and the most immediate change.
A discussion of priorities would be incomplete without some mention of personnel. It is important for us all to understand the extent to which this Union is changing. Ours is a superb and dedicated staff -- this we all know; but a large number of normal retirements, plus additional changes that I have made, mean that we are experiencing the largest staff turnover in two decades. This year we have one new regional director; next year we will have five more and two more the year after that. Also, there will be significant changes in most although not all of our program and administrative departments. In a certain sense, getting the very best people for these positions will be my highest priority for the coming year; I repeat the very best people, which means people who are administratively competent but also religiously competent; people who are expert in organization but also expert in imagination and intellect; people who are effective and efficient but also spiritually alive.
I would like to conclude with a few words about the need for a cooperative and collective vision of Reform Judaism. Generally speaking, both in our Movement and at the Union, we are prone to a fiefdom approach; we tend to be committed to our own fiefdom, but not always concerned about what happens elsewhere. But surely that must change. College, Conference, and Union will have to work together as we never have before, sacrificing some of our prerogatives for the greater good. So, too, will the committees and commissions of this Union have to join together to advance our sacred cause. There is virtually no task that this Union faces whether educating adults, organizing retreats, or training leaders that does not require a cooperative effort on the part of our committees and departments. Can you do outreach without education? Can you do education without youth work? Can you do youth work without social action?
The obstacles to cooperative efforts and joint endeavors are many, but I am optimistic that we can overcome them, and I am intent on doing so. The exigencies of the Jewish situation require more of us; we will never be transformers of the Jewish world and inflamers of the Jewish soul if we are prisoners to the institutional divisiveness and outdated organizational structures that have characterized the past. But this need not be. Surely we have the vision and energy to take a fresh look at who we are and to convert creative ideas into practice.
I would like to conclude now by recalling the words that I spoke to you last May in Philadelphia: We Jews are a covenantal people. It was the covenant at Sinai that brought us into being that married a people to God and God to a people. And our Judaism, Reform Judaism, is the fruit of that covenant God's gift to us to preserve our people.
As we begin our deliberations, may we find the wisdom and strength to be worthy of our inheritance. And may we find the creative ideas and the fresh voices to raise the sights and the morale of our people and to reignite in Jewish hearts a long term flame of Jewish commitment.