Outreach Anniversary Symposium: Keynote Address April 19, 1999 Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, UAHC
In early l949, shortly after the creation of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion received an urgent telegram from Ehud Avriel, his country's representative in Prague. Mr. Avriel complained bitterly about the hostile attitude of the Orthodox rabbinate in Czechoslovakia to young couples where one of the partners was not Jewish according to Halakhah. In light of the efforts of European Jewry to rehabilitate itself after the Holocaust, Mr. Avriel was incensed that young people wishing to identify as Jews should confront additional obstacles imposed by an unrelenting rabbinate; the rabbis, he wrote, were engaged in "clerical blackmail." This telegram gave rise to a heated debate in the Israeli cabinet, during which Mr. Ben Gurion summarized his own views as follows: "I do not believe in a doctrine of race. If the children of these couples will grow up in a Jewish home, they will be Jews."
A Jewish revolutionary himself, Ben Gurion had a sure grasp of those issues which required revolutionary thinking from the Jewish people; in the tumultuous post-war period, when the conditions of Jewish living were changing dramatically, this l949 Israeli cabinet debate was the first shot fired in what would eventually become a pitched battle over definitions of Jewish identity. But Ben Gurion had other priorities in those days, and this was not the battle that he was prepared to fight. His reaction, in fact, became a pattern; as frequently as these questions would arise in the next 30 years, one Jewish leader after another would find reason to dismiss them, arguing that the time was not yet right for a small and vulnerable people to confront matters so sensitive and potentially divisive.
Then, finally, on December 2, l978, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler stood before the national board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Houston, Texas, and gave an extraordinary speech that shook North American Jewry to its very core. Rabbi Schindler believed that the time for timidity had long since passed; that radically new conditions had come into being among the masses of the Jewish people; and that the Reform movement was obligated to rise to the challenge imposed upon us by this new reality.
We all know the circumstances which constituted the background to that speech. The intermarriage rate was spiraling out of control, and although every segment of North American Jewry was affected, we had no idea how to respond. In our synagogues, converts to Judaism were at best grudgingly accepted; to be a convert in those days meant to carry a stigma, forged from the history and the prejudices of a once-beleaguered people. More often than not, the convert confronted a disapproving family, and a none-too-tolerant Jewish community. And remember: this was the reality in Reform synagogues no less than in Conservative and Orthodox ones. And we are not talking here about the ancient past, but of a condition that prevailed a mere quarter of a century ago.
Intermarried couples were hardly mentioned at all in those days. They too joined our synagogues, but exceedingly rare was the Temple that both acknowledged their presence and openly confronted the issues that their membership entailed.
In the face of this reality, Rabbi Schindler articulated a clear and unequivocal message which has been the watchword of our Outreach program for two decades.
He said that we would not merely accept or tolerate the convert; we would fully and enthusiastically embrace her.
He said that we would not sit shiva for our children who intermarried. This did not mean that we endorsed intermarriage, but it did mean that we refused to reject the intermarried. In our community, we would welcome the intermarried into our synagogues and our families and our homes, draw them near to us and include them in our celebrations and observances. We would do this in the hope that the non-Jewish partners would ultimately convert to Judaism; and if not, that they would commit themselves to raising their children as Jews.
He also said that in an era of full equality of men and women, the time had come to reconsider the principle that Jewish lineage is determined solely by the maternal line; and he referred the matter to the CCAR for its consideration.
These points were important not because they were necessarily new. Their significance lay in the fact that they were presented as a program of action and were proclaimed in a loud voice, for all to hear and understand. Alex understood that a movement which professed to have principles but refused to state them plainly in fact had no principles at all; that caution at a certain point becomes cowardice; and that while we must never surrender to the realities of the world, we must adapt to those realities in a way that is consistent with our most deeply held values. In other words, we could no longer confine our principles to policy statements hidden away in a file or a manual; what was required of us was to delineate them clearly and publicly, and then to bring our actions in line with our convictions.
And so the Houston speech was followed by the establishment of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, a joint effort of the Union and the CCAR, which worked to make real in congregational life those convictions which Alex had so passionately articulated. Permit me to say, on your behalf, that that work has been carried out by an absolutely outstanding staff and by the best lay and rabbinical leadership that our movement has to offer.
We will have opportunities later in the Symposium to thank all of those who have contributed to our Outreach efforts, but I want to say now just a word about Dru Greenwood, our Director of Outreach for the last eight years. In a quiet and unassuming way, but with great strength, tenacity, and vision, Dru has brought our Outreach work to new levels of achievement -directing the staff, inspiring the lay leadership, educating rabbinical students, and in every sense putting Outreach on the Reform Jewish map, permanently and indelibly. We are all forever in her debt.
And so, after 20 years, have we been successful? We have not accomplished all that we should have, and in a few minutes, I will give you my analysis of what is yet to be done. But there is no question that the Outreach work of this movement must be seen as nothing less than a triumph. The easiest way to measure the extent of our impact is to ask: What would have happened if that speech in Houston not been given?
We all know the answer. In the absence of Outreach, tens of thousands of intermarried couples who are now members of our congregations would be forever lost to the Jewish people. In the absence of Outreach, innumerable Jews who marry non-Jews would be denied any but the slimmest hope of a Jewish future. In the absence of Outreach, resentment and the sting of rejection would, much too often, be the lot of those who now find a secure place in our community. In the absence of Outreach, there would be far fewer Jews-by-choice, and they would still be battling the ambivalent and even hostile attitudes to which they have so long been subjected. In the absence of Outreach, ours would be a weaker and more divided movement, denied the surge of energy, religious renewal, and adult learning which is a direct outgrowth of our Outreach efforts.
Of course, if Outreach had not been initiated in l978, it would have come into being on its own. Individual rabbis and lay leaders would have insisted that doors be opened, attitudes changed, and prejudices rejected; indeed, some were already doing so in l978. But the fact that Alex Schindler's speech gave rise to an organized, movement-wide campaign, supported by both Union and Conference, meant that what would have happened piecemeal over four score years happened instead in a mere two decades; it meant that we are able to gather here today as witnesses to one of the most remarkable and thoroughgoing revolutions in the history of Reform Judaism, and indeed, in the history of the Jewish people.
Outreach, as we know, has not been greeted with enthusiasm everywhere. The l978 speech by Rabbi Schindler elicited much disagreement, then and now. Some who attack Outreach focus on the patrilineal decision of the CCAR, which is presented as the primary source of disunity in the Jewish world; others profess to affirm the principles of Outreach but claim that the limited resources of the Jewish community would be better spent elsewhere.
In my own experience, no matter the form these attacks may take, when one probes beneath the surface they can usually be reduced to a single argument: that intermarriage is the scourge of the Jewish world; that Reform Judaism has not done enough to combat this plague; that Outreach, whatever its original intent, has had the effect of encouraging and justifying intermarriage; and that if only we would retreat from the principles of Outreach then the Jewish people might yet be saved from destruction.
There is a certain tired desperation to these claims; that they are still invoked today elicits from us not so much anger as sadness and regret. Intermarriage, of course, is a product of modernity, and not of any religious stream; the only way to stamp it out would be to return the Jews to the medieval ghetto. Furthermore, no religious grouping has found an answer to intermarriage, or has escaped its reach. In the United States, where 90% of the Jews identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism, the intermarriage rate exceeds 50%; in England and France, where 90% of the Jews identify with Orthodox Judaism, the intermarriage rate is higher still. This, then, is the sobering reality: when Reform Judaism is there, intermarriage occurs; and when Reform is not there, intermarriage still occurs, at even higher rates. It is, as Alex Schindler so frequently told us, the sting that comes with the honey of our freedom. And in the real world, Outreach is not a cause of intermarriage but a response to it - one that is necessarily partial but exceedingly effective. And we Reform Jews rightly see it as one of our proudest and most significant achievements.
Nonetheless, as self-evident as this may be, I respond to our critics with great reluctance. And this is because I believe that this anniversary should be more an occasion for celebration than for interdenominational debate; and also because I am convinced that the battle for Outreach is a battle that has already been won. Leaders may carp and complain, but I believe that the grassroots of North American Jewry - Reform and non-Reform - is firmly in our camp; in fact, I am convinced that on no issue is there a greater gap between leadership and membership than on the Outreach question. North American Jews of all stripes want energetic Outreach to intermarried Jews and Jews-by-choice in order to save them for the Jewish people; they want their Jewish community to be doing, vigorously and without apology, what we have already been doing for twenty years.
Therefore, let me say one final time to all those who ask that we change our direction: there will be no retreat in the Reform movement from the principles or the practice of Outreach. Such a retreat would be unthinkable, contrary to the will of our movement and the desire of our community, and contrary as well to our most deeply-held convictions.
And finally this: the Conservative movement has recently taken steps to bar intermarried Jews from positions of lay and professional leadership in their congregations. The leaders of Conservative Judaism are my friends and colleagues, with whom I work closely in many areas; I understand why they have adopted their new policy. But I question its wisdom, and suspect that it will be counterproductive; I fear that those who should be drawn near will instead be driven away. Under the circumstances, it is especially important that we hold firm to our convictions, and that we continue to offer to North American Jews a thoughtful outreach philosophy, firmly rooted in clear standards and serious commitment.
Now that Outreach has been with us for two decades, we are understandably inclined to spend more time discussing its practical dimensions than its theoretical foundations. But it is important for us to review, from time to time, those theological principles upon which our Outreach efforts are based.
We begin with the premise that Judaism is a rejection of tribalism. Yes, there is a biological dimension to Judaism, but it is only one dimension of many; and yes, Judaism speaks the language of fate, but it speaks as well the language of choice. A tribalistic view of Judaism would be one that exalts the prestige of blood and that roots Judaism solely in race; such a view is utterly contrary to our tradition's most basic teachings.
But it would certainly be wrong to conclude that Outreach rests on some vague, love-the-stranger universalism. Judaism is not a universalistic religion; the opening chapters of Genesis specifically reject universal solutions to the human situation. The Tower of Babel, the eternal symbol of a world of "one people with one language," is portrayed as an act of hubris, destined to remain unfinished, no matter how much violence may be committed in its name.
Instead, the starting point for Jewish Outreach, and all Jewish theology, is our unique destiny as a religious people, tied to God in a covenant that we trace back to Abraham and Sarah; for 3500 years, we have been taught to follow Abraham's example, and to "keep the way of the Eternal, doing what is right and just." Developing the nuances of meaning and obligation that flow from this covenant is the ongoing task of the Jews; it guides us in a world that is redeemable but not yet redeemed. We have paid a heavy price for our religious destiny, but we have also been eternally blessed by our conviction that this is the reason for our survival; we know that God has established this covenant with us, and has sustained us that we may offer a taste of goodness and compassion to a despairing humanity.
In short, Outreach begins not with an act of inclusion perse, but rather with an act of self-definition. We begin with an affirmation of our particularism, of our apartness, of our unique destiny. This may seem anomalous, but of course it is not; the first step of Outreach, and the single most important step, is to have a clear sense of who we are, and of the boundary that exists between us as Reform Jews and the society around us.
If we have learned anything at all after 20 years, it is this: you do not draw people in by erasing boundaries and eliminating distinctions. If there are no clearly-defined distinctions between our Jewish values 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?
If we have learned anything at all after 20 years, it is this: intermarried couples are not attracted to us by minimalism or watered-down Judaism. They are attracted by compelling ethical teachings, by ritual experiences rich in meaning, by the mystery of Shabbat, and by the possibility of religious commandment.
If we have learned anything at all after 20 years, it is this: the Jews most successful at the work of Outreach are those who know who they are, who communicate the power and beauty of their heritage, and who model proud and assertive religious behavior. Jews who are confused about who they are and what their movement stands for are utterly incapable of opening for others the door to our Jewish world.
Once we recognize that we are an am segulah, a nation of special destiny that lives in God's presence, the nature of our obligations begins to take form. In the first instance, we know that ever since Sinai all Jews carry within themselves a fragment of the Shechinah, and are linked in a bond of shared responsibility to the Jewish people. It is unthinkable, therefore - absolutely unthinkable - that we would ever turn our backs on the alienated, the unaffiliated, or the intermarried, or anyone else who has drifted to the margins of our community.
And so, for the last 20 years, we have been busy building pathways to their hearts. And our successes have been considerable. At the same time, I surely would not suggest that we can in any way be satisfied. To those who still say that there is too much Outreach, I would respond that that there is not nearly enough.
The problem is not so much what we do within the four walls of our synagogues; here, we have every reason for pride in our accomplishments. The problem is what we do not do outside the walls of the synagogue.
An example: in most major Jewish communities, a call is made each year to every Jewish family, even if it is not affiliated with any Jewish institution, to solicit a contribution to UJA/Federation. Many of us have participated in Super Sunday phon-a-thons, as we should. But tell me: shouldn't a call also be made, every year, to discuss with that family Jewish education for their children? Shouldn't a call be made, every year, to extend an invitation for Shabbat dinner or a holiday celebration? And let's be honest: how many members of our synagogues have hosted even a single unaffiliated or uninvolved individual or family, intermarried or otherwise, for a Shabbat meal during the last year? If we can knock on doors asking for money, we can knock on doors asking for Jewish commitment; if we can show concern for their charitable dollars, we can show concern for their Jewish souls. If it is our intention to rally the spirits of Jews everywhere, and to draw the intermarried and the disaffected to our banner, then we must - through our own religious fervor and abiding faith - demonstrate to them that we truly care.
And again, let's be utterly frank: too often, those least able to carry Judaism's compelling message are those most visible on the front lines of this battle.
In recent weeks, full-page ads placed by a Lubavitch organization have appeared in the New York Times and in other secular and Jewish publications. These ads contain a picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, and imply that he is the Mashiach - the Messiah - and is still alive; it is a dangerous and superstition-filled message, an affront to our most sacred principles, and a true hillul hashem - a desecration of the divine name. How does a movement built on this extraordinary theological presumption maintain such prominence in the Jewish world?
You know the answer, as do I; Chabad compensates for its theological primitivism by an Outreach campaign that, in some respects, puts the rest of the Jewish world to shame. It is Chabad that finds Jews on campus, and in out-of-the-way places; that instructs them in the lighting of Shabbat candles and in all manner of Jewish rituals; that reaches out to them with classes, audiotapes, and satellite TV. Chabad, it seems, is everywhere. Many, many Jews will tell you that a Chabad rabbi was the first one to care, to really care, about their spiritual lives.
The irony, of course, is that ours is a philosophy of Judaism that is uniquely well suited to current realities; that bridges the gap between modernity and tradition; that requires no surrender of critical faculties or ethical sensibilities. Our Judaism, I firmly believe - a doing, dreaming, and choosing Judaism - is the Judaism most likely and best able to draw Jews in.
Yet the passion and deep commitment to spread our message, experienced in full measure by the members of our Outreach commissions, is not yet the possession of our movement at large. Yes, there is broad sympathy for our cause. But the activism that we have generated in our own spiritual homes we have yet to replicate, on a grand scale, in the community at large.
And so I turn to you as our leadership, and ask for your guidance and advice. How can we kindle among the rabbinate as a whole a sense of shelichut'mission--to the Outreach cause? How can we promote among our laity a sense of mesirut nefesh--self-sacrifice and devotion - to the challenges that lie ahead?
It is our intention to take our case to the public square, and to argue for every Jewish soul, persuade every Jewish mind, and entice every Jewish heart. And for that we must widen the ranks of those who share our concern for the transformation and spiritual awakening of each and every Jew.
I would like now to spend a moment on the place of the intermarried couple in the Reform synagogue. I return to this topic because I see our work with the intermarried as our most distinctive achievement; we have been especially aggressive in our efforts to make the intermarried feel at home in our congregations, and we alone in the Jewish world have developed a strategy to envelop them in a network of Jewish learning and support. At the same time, we have not been afraid to acknowledge that some issues remain unresolved.
When a Jew marries a non-Jew, and with our encouragement joins a synagogue, how is the non-Jewish partner to be seen?
In the best of circumstances, the non-Jewish partner will see himself and will be seen by Temple members as having the status of a ger toshav. In the Bible, the ger toshav is the stranger who lives among Jews; he has not adopted the Jewish faith, but he has acquired Jewish customs, values, and friends. He adjusts to his Jewish surroundings, and in some measure even assimilates into them; portrayed in the most positive manner imaginable by the Biblical text, he is granted exceptional privileges and protection by Biblical law. In fact, the ger toshav is someone so special, so deserving of compassion and love, that at a later time the term ger comes to mean a convert to Judaism. This, however, was not its original meaning; the Biblical ger toshav is a stranger, but at the same time as close as one could come to being an Israelite without a formal change of status.
Not every non-Jewish spouse fits this category, of course, but our movement operates on the assumption that this is the situation that either does exist or potentially might exist. We do not assume hostility or resentment or indifference on the part of the non-Jewish partner; on the contrary, we assume that the non-Jew who has married a Jew and then joined a synagogue is positively inclined toward identification with our people and tradition. More often than not this is the case; and by conveying our unequivocal acceptance and our enthusiastic welcome, more often than not the non-Jewish spouse comes to see himself as a gertoshav, sharing the values of Judaism and participating in the rituals and the customs of our community.
But the first problem that arises is: do we urge the non-Jewish spouse to convert to Judaism? And if so, how and when?
In this instance, too, Alex Schindler gave us vitally important guidance and direction. Alex told us: we need to ask. We must not forget to ask.
And Alex was right. Because the synagogue is not a neutral institution; it is unequivocally value-laden. It admits, without apology, its commitment to building a vibrant religious life for the Jewish people. It wants families to function as Jewish families, and while intermarried families can do so in some measure, its welcomes the decision of an intermarried family to become a fully Jewish family, with two adult Jewish partners. To be sure, Judaism does not denigrate those who find religious truth elsewhere; the existence of our covenant does not deny the existence of other covenants or other truths. Still, our synagogues emphasize the beauty and grandeur of the ancient and awe-inspiring faith known as Judaism, and we joyfully extend membership in our covenantal community to all who are prepared to accept the responsibilities that it entails. And by the way: most non-Jews who are part of synagogue life expect that we will ask them to convert; they come from a background where asking for this kind of commitment is natural and normal, and they are more than a little perplexed when we fail to do so.
Special sensitivities are certainly required. We can ask, but should not pressure. We can encourage, but should not insist. If someone expresses unwillingness, we must respect that; and if someone says "I'm not ready," we must listen. If we pursue conversion with a heavy hand, the result could be to generate anger and resentment.
But none of this is a reason for inaction. And the fact is that we usually do not ask. My conversations with both rabbis and lay leaders lead me to believe that in most instances we do not encourage conversion by non-Jewish spouses in our synagogues. Perhaps this bespeaks a natural reluctance to do what we fear will give rise to an awkward or uncomfortable situation. Or perhaps we have been so successful in making non-Jews feel comfortable in our congregations that we have inadvertently sent the message that we neither want nor expect conversion. But whatever the reason, alongside our lengthy list of Outreach successes, this must be counted at least a partial failure.
I would note as an aside that Rabbi Schindler in his Houston speech proposed that we establish an Outreach program specifically aimed at the unchurched - at seekers after truth who were born into other religious traditions and who are not contemplating marriage with a Jew. His call for an openly proselytizing Judaism was enormously courageous, and I felt, then and now, that in principle he was absolutely right. But two decades later, it seems to me that this still remains a program for the future, because the logical place to focus our efforts today is on the tens of thousands of non-Jews who are already members of our synagogues. They are the population most likely to share our aspirations and to consider formal conversion.
In the next few days, I hope that you will give some thought to how we might help them along. What must rabbis do? What must lay leaders do? Are our synagogues sending the right message? Are we offering significant public recognition to non-Jewish spouses who become Jews, as a means of encouraging them and others? Twenty years into the Outreach era, this is one area of our work that cries out for new ways of thinking.
The second major issue that arises from the presence of intermarried couples in our synagogues is the extent to which we must impose limitations on the participation of the non-Jewish spouse in the governance and ritual life of our congregations. Of course, our primary goal is to include and embrace, but we all understand that if the individual concerned has not converted, there are certain rituals that he cannot participate in and certain decisions that she cannot make. How do we determine where these lines are to be drawn?
It is my belief that, by and large, we have dealt with this matter in a forthright and responsible way, despite the inevitable differences of opinion that one would expect in our large and diverse movement.
I would suggest that the approach of Reform Jewish Outreach to the question of standards has been guided by four major principles.
The first is that there must be standards and boundaries, and they must be defined with reasonable clarity and precision.
Healthy individuals define standards for themselves, and as I have already indicated, so do healthy religious traditions. It is by knowing who you are and how you define yourself that you avoid a slide into confusion, minimalism, or syncretism. One of Outreach's most significant accomplishments - one that we must not underestimate - is that it has encouraged us to do what we should be doing anyway: drawing the lines that define our identity our Reform Jews.
The second principle is that in most instances we have wisely left the drawing of lines to the local synagogue. Given Reform Judaism's tradition of autonomy, diversity, and pluralism, we have recognized that ongoing attempts by the Outreach Commission or the national movement to dictate standards would be unwise; to be sure, we have encouraged our synagogues to develop standards, and we have suggested a process for them to follow, but we understand that most decisions on what committee a non-Jew can sit on or what part she can take in a religious service are best made on the community level.
At the same time, we have also recognized that in some instances a national role is appropriate, particularly in those cases where congregational leadership has asked for direction. When Temple educators called for a national policy on the issue of children in religious school who were being educated simultaneously in church schools, the Outreach Commission drafted a resolution strongly discouraging the practice; the resolution was then brought to our National Biennial, where it was discussed and adopted. Such a resolution can only be advisory, of course, but it was nonetheless influential precisely because it carried the authority of the Biennial Assembly. And it demonstrated that when it is important that a line be drawn, the Outreach Commission and the Biennial Assembly are prepared to draw it.
The third principle is that setting standards means that someone will eventually rub up against those standards, and that no matter how careful and sensitive we are in drawing them, there is no escaping a certain measure of unhappiness by those who will be hurt and offended.
This is self-evident, I know, but important to state because some Reform Jews still find it difficult to acknowledge that any limitation is consistent with Reform belief. I travel to congregations throughout North America, and the Outreach questions that I am most frequently asked relate to some standard set by a congregation or a rabbi that the questioner finds to be hurtful or offensive. Mistaking me for a higher ecclesiastical authority, the person involved usually pleads with me to set aside the newly-established boundary.
The best answer, as you know, is that setting standards is the surest way to avoid the confusion and misunderstanding that can alienate and offend. Still, there will always be those who will take exception, and who will claim -without precisely saying so - that our absolute priority must always be maintaining family harmony and avoiding hurt and rejection. But we have always dismissed such claims, because we know that some religious actions and beliefs are simply not consistent with the Judaism that we practice. And a "lowest-common-denominator/no-one-must-ever-be-hurt Judaism" is not and has never been what Outreach is about.
The fourth principle, and the most important, is that as essential as boundaries are, the power of our Outreach work derives from our refusal to be obsessed with them.
What distinguishes us from others and accounts for our success is that we have put forth a new paradigm: we emphatically affirm the necessity of standards but do not spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to define them with microscopic precision. We believe in boundaries but we have faith thatthe average Jew in the average congregation will do a pretty good job of figuring out where they are. We know that lines must be drawn, but we know too that our primary task is to infuse Jewish life with the kind of vibrant Jewish experiences that will create life-long Jewish commitment.
If the need for boundaries is our primary message, and if confronting others with endless demands is the thrust of our program, then we are lost and Judaism is doomed. Instead, we have chosen another path: to expose those on the fringes to synagogues that are genuine centers of learning and holiness; to Jewish homes that are filled with love and joy; to Jewish life rooted in social justice and individual righteousness; to a community, in short, that is so nurturing and appealing that no one will stay away.
Boundaries? Absolutely. But a boundary by definition is a barrier, and as Leonard Fein has reminded us, while barriers have their place, bridges are always more important.
I would like to conclude with a few thoughts on the practical tasks that lie ahead of us.
The Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach and the Commission on Synagogue Affiliation engage in a multiplicity of important programs; most of you are familiar with them, and I will not review them now. Each one is valuable and deserving of our support.
If we confront questions about our practical work, it is a direct result of our successes. Congregational Outreach committees that were created to welcome Jews-by-choice, integrate the intermarried, and set the parameters of non-Jewish participation in the synagogue now often find that there is less urgency to the tasks in which they have long been engaged. And the reason, of course, is that many congregations have already adopted policies and adjusted their cultures in order to respond to the issues that we have raised. More than one rabbi has told me that she woke up one day to discover that she no longer had an Outreach committee - not because of lack of interest, but because the committee members had become so involved in mainstream congregational activities that they felt less need for, and less investment in, Outreach work.
It is also true that the line between Outreach programs and other programs has become hopelessly blurred. "Taste of Judaism," one of the proudest accomplishments of our Outreach Commission, reaches many intermarried couples; but it also reaches non-Jews and unaffiliated Jews in roughly equal proportion. Is it an Outreach program or an Inreach program? Indeed, there is more than a little irony in the fact that those who have decried Outreach because it comes at the expense of Inreach have failed to notice that many of the Jewish community's strongest educational programs are administered by our Outreach network and serve born Jews no less than intermarried Jews. Our own Commission on Synagogue Affiliation, which operates under Outreach auspices, runs superb membership retention programs which defy classification and could easily be claimed under either an Outreach or an Inreach umbrella.
What conclusion do we draw from this somewhat confusing picture? Surely we should resist any suggestion that our Outreach efforts are no longer necessary. Despite our accomplishments, we cannot take for granted the acceptance and integration of Jews-by-Choice and intermarried couples into our synagogues. The changes that we have witnessed are indeed immensely encouraging, but the Outreach revolution is so radically new that it would be a mistake to become complacent. We have many more years of work to do before we can declare victory for our principles of inclusion. At the same time, the fact that Outreach and Inreach efforts so frequently converge should serve to strengthen our claim on community resources and attention.
But we are also in need of some creative thinking and new initiatives. I have already suggested a campaign to encourage non-Jewish spouses in our congregations to formally embrace Judaism. I feel as well that we should build on our experience with "Taste of Judaism" to create courses which target those populations most likely to be in search of Jewish meaning and connection. For example, young couples thinking about having children or already expecting children are very often struggling with religious questions in a serious way for the first time. Using the "Taste" model, we should be offering in major cities throughout North America courses on birth, naming, and child-raising in the Jewish tradition. Such courses, if given at no cost to the participants, would draw large numbers of intermarried and unaffiliated Jews at precisely the time when they are most open to Jewish education and direction.
There are also opportunities currently available to us that we have yet to exploit. Several hundred Reform synagogues currently run nursery school programs. Some have strong Jewish content and some do not; some offer special assistance to intermarried couples and some do not; some promote synagogue membership in a sophisticated way and some do not. Our movement, in the meantime, has nothing to offer these schools; we provide no curricular assistance, no teacher training, no forum for exchange of ideas and problems. Incredibly, we have ignored an institution which in many ways is best positioned to serve the young intermarried and unaffiliated population. I have asked the Union's budget committee to allocate money for staff so that we may begin to remedy the situation, and I hope that it will agree. If it does, we will need our Commissions on Outreach and Synagogue Affiliation to work with us and our congregations to offer the strongest possible Jewish program to this generation of young people.
And finally this: Twenty years is barely a speck in the collective history of the Jewish people, but in our individual lifetimes it is a long time indeed. It is long enough for Outreach to become fully institutionalized and totally respectable, the domain of experts and specialists - in short, the outstanding success that I have described. But special care is required. We must be very careful not to lose the sense of excitement that followed Alex Schindler's speech in l978, and the sense of personal commitment and involvement that so many of us then felt.
Maimonides says that if you love God, then you will want to share that feeling with others. Our obligation as Reform Jews and as servants of God is to reach out to unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews, to intermarried couples, and to all those on the margins, and to communicate to them the power and the beauty of our Jewish heritage. And even though it is often easier to speak out on behalf of a principle than it is to impact the life of a single individual or family, Outreach is still, more than anything else, something that is done by Reform Jews who care and who do this work one-on-one: the work of extending your hands, teaching Torah, and sharing with others a joyous holiday celebration. It is lighting a fire, yourself, under a Jew or a potential Jew, and being energized again and again by the response. As long as we don't lose that passion and personal commitment, Outreach will go from strength to strength.
And so we face the future filled with optimism and determination. Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in a different context that one of the tragic failures of ancient Judaism was the indifference of our people to the Ten Tribes of Israel, which were carried away into exile after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Uncared for, unattended to, overlooked and abandoned, these tribes were consigned to oblivion, and in the end, they vanished. We are here because of our determination -our absolute determination - that we will not be part of another such failure, another dereliction of duty.
Will we attract enormous numbers of intermarried couples and unaffiliated Jews? We cannot tell for certain. But even if we draw in only 20% of those on the periphery, we will have added upwards of half a million Jews to the ranks of the Jewishly committed.
And in any case, our ultimate motivation run deeper, relating not to numbers but to faith: we do the work that we do and bring our message to the community - to the affiliated and unaffiliated alike, to the intermarried and the Jew-by-choice - because we are confident that being a Reform Jew deepens one's love of God, promotes the practice of Torah, and strengthens our shared destiny as a holy people.