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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775
Installation Sermon

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations

The Synagogue Arm of the Reform Movement

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Temple Shaarey Tefila
June 8, l996


It is fitting in every way that my first task as President of the Union should be to receive the Scroll of the Law from my mentor Alex Schindler.

Because the President of the Union is primarily a teacher of Torah to this Movement, interpreting the words of the Covenant to our fragmented and bewildered world.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Alex has taught us brilliantly. If Isaac Mayer Wise was the architect of the Union, and Maurice Eisendrath was its master-builder, then Alex Schindler has been Reform Judaism's visionary and dreamer. Alex has taught me most of what I know, but above all he has taught me optimism and hope - a hope that reaches forward to distant days, to a future as bright as any the human mind might conceive. His advice and counsel have been and will be a source of comfort and support, just as his attainments will be a spur to me and all future presidents of this great Union.

This is for me an awesome moment. You have passed along to me a holy trust, and I confess to you both my pride and my trepidation. I cannot help but feel that this is a decisive time, a watershed in our history. Reform Judaism has become the pre-eminent synagogue movement in the world's largest Jewish community, and with primacy of position comes an awe-inspiring accountability to the future of our people. And recent Jewish history has been extraordinarily dynamic; everything in our Jewish world seems now to be in flux and change.

My burden, therefore, is heavy, but you have passed it along to me, and I am determined to carry it as best I can. And if I am confident of success, this is only because I do not bear it alone.

There are so many who stand at my side: first and foremost, a rabbinate of distinction and devotion, and a seminary which assures our future with inspired teaching and estimable scholarship.

To the leaders of the College-Institute and the Conference I say again that it is my intention to join you in partnership; we are of one mind in our desire to end the institutional narcissism which has too often plagued us. No major initiative in our Movement will be the work of one individual; we will have no soloists, only members of the choir. And we have already begun the work of building the trust we will need if we are to sing together unto God.

I know too that the men and women of the Union stand with me: Jerome Somers, our past chairmen, the presidents of our affiliates, and the members of this board. I have often said that this is your Union more than it is mine, and that is manifestly so; you have built it, you sustain it, and your work and commitment ease my burden and lift my spirits.

And then there is our Union's extraordinary staff, led now by Lennard Thal, Monika Hamburger, and Dan Freelander. The members of this staff are remarkable for their talent and devotion; they are expert in organization, but expert too in matters of the spirit and intellect. It is on them that I rely most directly, and I know that they can be counted on to do those things that I will be unable to do.

And finally there is the place from which I draw my greatest strength: the home in which I find happiness, a refuge, and unfailing support. My children are a delight, my wife a constant source of inspiration, and of love. It is they who join with me in Jewish observance and study, and give meaning to my Jewish life.

And so I have been blessed in every way. Bolstered by the efforts of so many, I find my soul surging forward; and praying for God's help, I undertake this daring adventure with buoyancy and hope.


During the l2 months since this board elected me as President, I have travelled throughout this continent, visiting our congregations and Jews of every type. And what did I find?

That the dry bones of North American Judaism are stirring; that sparks are visible to the naked eye, ready to leap into flame; that what is happening is nothing less than a revolution, smoldering from below rather than ignited from above; and that, if carefully tended, these flickering sparks might yet become a roaring fire that will warm our institutions and light our way.

The explanation for this stirring is not readily apparent. It may be related to the end-of-millennium religious frenzies that are building in the general society. But there is something more important, I believe. Young Jews - and older ones - as well are reacting to the boredom, the emptiness, and the lack of meaning in their lives.

They are tired of the cult of novelty and the caprices of transient fashion.

They are tired of a world in which the heroes for their children are Bart Simpson and Madonna.

They are overwhelmed by an avalanche of images and specialized information so dizzying that it stuns the brain.

And they can't help but feel that whenever they find a moment to themselves, somebody turns up the speed on the treadmill of their lives.

And so what do they want? They are searching for the poetry of faith, because the need for transcendental meaning is as present as an open sore. This is a generation that wants to believe; that is seeking a modicum of decency; that is yearning for the sacred.

The modern Jew - so successful and sophisticated, so cynical and skeptical - is yearning, knowingly or not, for God.

But the tragedy, of course, is that they have no idea how to proceed. They have no reservoir of Jewish memory, no enduring ethnic ties. Their religious desires are fraught with contradictions: they want to be open to mystical modes of perception, without surrendering rational thinking; they want both a world of meditation, and a world of e-mail. And most significant of all, too many of them are frightfully ignorant of all things Jewish; they know nothing whatever of the mystery and romance of Jewish history, of the power and profundity of Jewish faith.

But I am not dismayed. On the contrary, I am encouraged by the tenacity of their Jewish identity. And I deeply believe that it is Reform Judaism - a doing, dreaming, and choosing Judaism - that is most likely and best able to draw them in.

As to their ignorance, we have seen such things before. In the 7th century B.C.E., in the reign of King Josiah, the Torah had been forgotten. The King ordered the cleaning of the Temple, and inadvertently discovered the book of the law. Although this occurred not terribly long after the revelation at Sinai, the people of Israel had somehow forgotten the whole thing. An entire people had simply forgotten God! And so we must now do what Josiah did in his day, and undertake a massive campaign of restoration to bring Torah back to our midst. And we can be heartened to know that ours will be an easier task, because Torah has not been wholly forgotten in our day; so many in our Movement have remained faithful to its teaching, and can help to show us the way.


How shall we begin? We know how not to begin. We must avoid the paralysis of never-ending analysis. We do not need yet another blue-ribbon commission to define the problem; we do not need a demographic study and a lengthy debate about the meaning of the statistics. To those who would rely on behavioral scientists we say: The Jewish people is not an assembly of sociologists. We are mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh - a kingdom of priests and a holy people. We do not take trends to be inevitable, and we do not mistake facts for commandments. Whatever your numbers, we can reverse the decline.

What we do need is to declare a spiritual state of emergency, and to pledge ourselves, Josiah-like, to a Movement-wide effort of renewal and change. What we need is a genuine effort to create mass Jewish education on this continent. What we need is no less than a Marshall plan, pulling together programs and human resources and material resources to advance what has always been the Jewish people's first and highest goal: the transmission of Torah across the generations.

From our earliest days, the central, burning, incandescent passion of the Jew has been study. From our earliest days, the teaching of Torah has been our first duty and greatest joy. From our earliest days, to be a self- affirming Jew is to devote yourself to Jewish literacy and life-long learning.

Therefore, our message will be: Torah. And our program will be: educate, educate, educate.


In matters of education, as in all things, we Reform Jews are fundamentally optimistic.

We affirm what many deny: the democratic character of Jewish education. For too many on this continent, the Jewish community is like a great publishing house that is turning out maps for the expert to read, but that leaves the uninitiated emotionally lost in the mountainous terrain of life. But our view is otherwise; while we honor the scholar, the talmid chakham, we are guided by that teaching in the Talmud (Ber 25b) which tells us that the Torah was not "given to the ministering angels"; and so we insist on Torah for all - on the dignity and integrity of the Jewish people as a whole.

And more important, we affirm that the focus of Jewish education can be and must be the adult. For thousands of years Judaism has been a religion for adults who feel themselves bound by the values of Torah and the joys of sacred time. We know that the best way to educate children is to provide them with a model of committed Jewish living; that to be a father or a mother is a religious vocation; and that parents must learn, because they must teach their children the awe and wonder of Jewish life.

Reform Jews are proud advocates of autonomy and pluralism. We know that there are many kinds of authentic Jews less traditional and more traditional, activist and contemplative, believing and unbelieving. But this too we know: that whatever kind of Jews we are, we must all be competent Jews, and we must do the work that competence requires.

We have no way of telling if our children will ultimately join us in the grand adventure of Jewish learning and Jewish life; but surely we must give them the keys to the mansion, whether or not they choose to enter.


Of course, "education" is a problematic term; it conjures up images of desks and classrooms. But Torah study is far more than that. If properly done, it is a matter of engaged debate, an act of intimacy and redemption, a communion with the sacred.

We have always known that a Judaism that emanates solely from the mind will be sterile, formal, and cold. And for that reason, Jewish education also means giving expression to the deepest feelings of the Jew. It means recognizing that we have not only a knowledge deficit, but also an ecstasy deficit. It means conveying something of the sheer joy of being Jewish.

Education requires that we teach more than the mechanics of prayer; it means conveying to Reform Jews that prayer can be a mystical experience, a fire, a sacrifice of self. It means teaching that fervent prayer in a Reform synagogue should not be seen as eccentric or embarrassing.

Education means proclaiming in unmistakable tones: I am a Jew because I fell in love with the dream of Moses, who said: "You shall be a holy people." It means learning not only beliefs and principles, but a language of the soul - experiencing the explosive enthusiasm, the passionate thought, and - in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel - "the ineffable delight of being a Jew."

Of course, we will not lack for doubters. "Jewish education has always been a boring, dismal failure," they will say, " and it will be for you as well." But those who prefer the chambers of pessimism will be wrong. Because serious Jewish education has not failed in North America; it has simply never been tried.

Time is insufficient for a full-scale presentation of the specifics of my program; the first part of my plan I will present to the board tomorrow. But there is nothing complicated about what I am proposing. We know very well what works best: Jewish camps, residential retreats, family education, day schools, Israel experiences, outreach programs.

The problem has never been finding the way, but creating the will. The problem has not been lack of money, but the absence of a genuine conviction that Jewishness and Judaism matter. I have always believed that when we are ready to put God, Torah, and the Jewish people at the center of our lives, we will have no trouble discovering how to pass on Judaism to the next generation.

And that time has come. Throughout this continent, members of our Movement are seeing Judaism in a new way. No longer is it a series of political problems to be solved or fundraising goals to be met; it is, rather, a tradition to celebrate a series of opportunities for deeper living, fuller community, and higher consciousness. Reform Jews are embracing the reality of God and God's immanence in Torah, and they are ready to educate their children and themselves in a serious and sustained way.

I have one caveat to offer: we should not expect others to do our work for us. Yes, the Jewish people is tied together in a single garment of destiny, and it would be a blessing if communal structures were to join us in partnership. But we need be realistic. Honesty requires us to state that the "Jewish Continuity" movement, with a few exceptions, has mostly been a matter of gestures and symbolism. And we cannot afford to wait and see what happens, while the tide of events sweeps over us. Reform Judaism, the most creative and dynamic Jewish movement on the North American scene, needs to muster its life energies in common resolve, and not look to others to supply the solution. We are the solution. If we are not, then there is no solution.


And how will our synagogues react to a national campaign a partnership between Union and congregation - to promote mass Jewish education?

They will welcome it. Our synagogue leadership at its best is extraordinary rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders who come to synagogue to learn about mystery and timelessness. In fact, in many cases our congregations are far ahead of us, and our challenge at the Union is to keep up with their escalating demands for serious educational resources.

But I acknowledge the difficulties. We are still influenced by what Professor Larry Hoffman has called the "corporate culture" of synagogue life. There are those among us who, with the best of intentions, want to be practical; who yearn, with every bone in their body, to raise more money, devise a new marketing plan, restructure the committees, and add a new program. These are the voices of reason that want to justify activities by "outcomes" and "productivity." But the trouble, of course, is that Torah study is not very productive, and neither is the synagogue itself for that matter.

To these voices we need to say: at this critical juncture in Jewish history, it is study of Torah, and prayer, and encouraging the mitzvot of home and family life that come before anything else. Not instead of other things, but before them.

Of course we must be efficient, and practical, and programmatically productive. But it is these activities - study, prayer, and home mitzvot - that will do most to restore the synagogue, and to make our Temples places for genuine God-encounter.


Our vision, of course, extends far beyond the confines of our own synagogues. Alex Schindler's most distinctive contribution to this Movement was reaching out to the margins of our community - to the alienated, the unaffiliated, the intermarried. Alex taught us that it is morally and theologically offensive to write off those on the periphery. There are three and a half million unaffiliated Jews on this continent, and the Jewish community seems to be choosing up sides on what type of action to take: some say those Jews can be salvaged, some say "let them sink." We are firmly in the camp of those committed to salvage operations, and for nearly 20 years, we have been busy building pathways to their hearts.

It goes without saying that this work will continue. I am committed in fact to doing it even more aggressively; in my view, we have not done nearly enough.

If today we were to do a survey of Jewish leaders, and if we were to ask them: Which religious movement takes the greatest interest in the spiritual life of the unaffiliated? Who finds them on campus, or in out-of-the way places? Who instructs them in the lighting of Shabbat candles and in all manner of Jewish rituals? Who reaches out to them with classes and audiotapes and satellite TV? If we were to ask these questions today, would the answer be: Reform Jews do this, and it is Reform Judaism which cares more than anyone else for the Jew on the margins. In some cases that would be the answer, but in most cases, it would not.

So our work of outreach is just beginning; and it is my intention that we will argue for every Jewish soul, persuade every Jewish mind, cajole and entice every Jewish heart.

And how will we do this? The first step is not to create another program. Rather, the single most important thing that we need do is to establish a clear sense of who we are, and a clear boundary between Reform Judaism and the society around us. After 20 years, this we know: you do not draw people in by erasing boundaries and eliminating distinctions. If there are no clearly-defined differences between the values of Torah and the values of the world around us, then what reason would serious people - Jews or non-Jews - have to cast their fate with ours?

To be a Reform Jew is to be a member of the people of the covenant; it is to see Torah as our constitution, and mitzvot as religious obligations which, as autonomous individuals, we impose upon ourselves; it is to identify with the State of Israel, and with the collective destiny of the Jewish people; and it is to embrace the values of egalitarianism, pluralism, and social justice which constitute the heart of Reform identity.

This is who we are, and if we are confused about who we are or what our community stands for, we will be powerless to reach out to others or to change the world.

And so let me suggest that our task in the years ahead is precisely this: to remind ourselves and others that we are an am segulah, a nation of special destiny that has survived for one reason alone - because a force greater than ourselves has brought us here, and because God needs us to offer a taste of goodness and compassion to a despairing humanity.

Only by seeing ourselves in this way do we cease to be what we would otherwise be - a tiny and insignificant people; only by seeing ourselves in this way can we rally the spirits and the hopes of Jews everywhere; and only in this way can we draw to our banner those who yearn - out of religious fervor and abiding faith - to share the destiny of the people Israel.


My emphasis has been on talmud torah and tefillah - on Torah study and prayer, and this is appropriate in every way; these are the urgent needs of the hour. But our task does not end there; as Reform Jews, we know that tsedakah - righteous doing - is also essential to restore our world to wholeness, and never more so than now.

These are confusing times for the Jews of America and Canada. We are more secure and influential than we have ever been, and yet we suffer from a vague unease. Something most assuredly is not right. We live in an age when the breakdown of moral inhibitions is so widespread that we are no longer capable of experiencing shock. The moral foundations of our society have eroded, and the decay of conscience fills the air with the foulest of odors.

Consider the realities of our public and private life. Families are in a mess, in the upper-middle as well as in the lower classes; in half a century, births out of wedlock have increased by 500 percent. Television assails us with prime-time shows that glorify materialism, demean women, and make a mockery of gentleness. The purveyors of hate dominate our talk shows and the paganism of pornography is everywhere in evidence.

And worse yet is the war against the poor and the voiceless - against the new immigrant, the child who has just had a child, the sick old woman with no home to go to, as if somehow they were the source of our troubles.

The moral fabric of our society is dispirited and adrift, and the consequences for the Jews are distressingly apparent: in l996, a major American political party fielded a presidential candidate who not only belittles women, blacks, and gays, but is an anti-Semite and a holocaust denier. This was a significant event in the history of American Jewry; for the first time in recent memory, it was possible to be a respectable candidate for President and to win a major primary while both hating Jews and detesting Israel. And please note: the anti-Semitic rhetoric of this candidate was essentially unchallenged by the leading politicians of both parties.

This tells us something about the despair and cynicism and diminishing hope of our time. But we will not respond with the orthodoxies of the left or right. We will not be friends of Bill or devotees of Dole. The answers that we will offer will be rooted in Jewish ethics and the values of Torah.

We look first to the Bible, which teaches that feeling the spark of God in someone different from yourself is the very essence of the Jewish message. It teaches too that Pharaoh is the epitome of evil because hardening one's heart is the root of all sin.

So what then is our religious duty? To open our heart, and to protect the weak and the vulnerable and the immigrant and the children of poverty; to reject a morality that attempts to distinguish between our children and other people's children, as if justice were somehow divisible; to denounce the extremists who seek to divide us by race or gender, by income or sexual orientation; and to support political leaders who care more about the next generation than the next election.

And our concern for justice does not stop at the shores of this continent. We are untiring partners in the building of Zion, and just as we congratulate Israel's new Prime Minister and wish him well in his quest for peace, so too do we urge upon him the policies of moderation which this Movement has long advocated. And we urge - no, we demand - that he reject the plotting of those fanatics who would impose their brand of Judaism on Israel's citizens by bureaucratic fiat. They make Torah a mockery rather than a sustaining force, and as lovers of Israel - the people, the land, and the state - we will resist their intentions with every ounce of our being.

But there is much more to our task. Because Torah teaches us that we respond to moral disorientation not only with prophetic values, but with demanding standards of ethical behavior; it teaches that none of us is a victim of circumstance, that the criminal is engaged not in "inappropriate behavior" but in sin, and that poverty and deprivation provide no exemption from one's moral obligations to humanity.

In short, when we wish to rebuild society and revive our spirits the quality of our character matters no less than government policy. When our moral senses have been dulled and our reverence for human life trivialized, Judaism counters the only way it knows how: with an ethic of personal responsibility, and with the stiff moral discipline of Torah.

And where do we start? With ourselves, of course. Here the Torah education that I have called for faces its greatest test. Our challenge is not only to teach, but to transform souls. Our challenge is to use text to convey the importance of Chesed - kindness and compassion - which has been the password of the Jew since the time of Abraham and Sarah. In other words, we must respond to moral crisis with the most important kind of Jewish education - education in mentshlichkeit, which produces Jews who are responsible beings and who pursue kindness and compassion all the days of their lives.

So what will tikkun olam mean for the Reform Jew of the next century? It will mean public activism and repair of the world. But it will also mean tikkun middot, repair of the spirit - the demand for close attention to our private lives, and for the highest standards of personal morality.

This is the way to defeat the politics of selfishness and the threat of embittered fundamentalism. And this is also our hope for the future; because if we wish our children to join us, they must see us engaged in the great moral journey of the Jewish people.


Yes, this is a difficult time for our people. Still, though we can never predict the unfolding course of events, I enter the Presidency of the Union with full confidence that our cause - the cause of Liberal Judaism - will not be permitted to fail.

Support for my optimism I find in this week's portion, chanted so beautifully by my daughter Adina. There we read of the children of Israel, encamped in the desert, weeping, terrified, and calling for rebellion against their leaders. Frightened by their new-found freedom, intimidated by the task ahead, they contemplate a return to the slavery and oppression of Egypt.

This story tells us much about what we were and have since become. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked, and contentious people. We are a people that must regularly be chastised, argued with, and educated. But, despite everything, we are also a people of the covenant, worthy of God's pardon, and guardians of that glimmer of holiness which God has given to humankind.

And in the reply of Moses to his people, I find my charge, and my message to this Movement on this momentous day:

  • that there is no going back to Egypt; our Judaism is a Judaism on the march, rooted in tradition but with its face toward change;
  • that wherever we are, even in the desert, we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of Torah and Jewish peoplehood which are our inheritance;
  • that there is indeed a better place, a promised land; and,
  • that the best way to get there is through the hard work of men and women who throw off the fetters of fatalism, who storm the heavens in search of the Eternal, and who believe with all their heart that to be a Jew is not a fate but a privilege.

I will do my best. I pray for God's help, and for yours.



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