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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775
Moses, Too was once a Marginal Jew

Rabbi Eric Yoffie Calls on Jewish Community to Commit Resources to Bring Marginal Jews into the Community

Rejecting the notion that the Jewish community should focus its limited resources on the "faithful few," the president-elect of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is calling for a campaign to bring Jews on the periphery back into Jewish life.

In the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie argues that the Jewish community cannot afford to forsake the unaffiliated, estimated to be more than half of the American Jewish population. Rabbi Yoffie's position is directly opposed to those who propose a kind of "Jewish Darwinism" - the view that the select few will keep Judaism alive - and who therefore argue that the community should concentrate its funding on programs and institutions which serve the deeply committed and motivated, such as day schools and yeshivot. While such programs are worthy of support, he argues, the community must also find ways to rekindle the pintele yid - "the eternal spark of Yiddishkeit that can rekindle in every Jew the spirit of faith and teshuvah - return."

In the magazine's cover story, titled, "Moses, Too Was Once a Marginal Jew", Rabbi Yoffie rejects the elitist notion that unaffiliated Jews "have nothing to offer," citing historical examples such as Theodor Herzl and Solomon Ansky, author of "The Dybbuk."

He also notes that synagogues and other Jewish institutions are "naturally prone to inertia and inclined to fight the problems of today with yesterday's solutions," and therefore must adapt new and innovative perspectives if they are to appeal to the unaffi liated.

"Where better to find such thinking than in those who stand outside our institutional structures and are free of the constraints which insider status imposes?" he says. "Among the alienated are large numbers of creative, intellectual, compassionate, spiritual and energetic individuals who are capable of revitalizing American Judaism."

Still, recognizing that reaching out to the unaffiliated is only the first step, Rabbi Yoffie adds, "ultimately, our synagogues must be so vibrant and joyful that it will never occur to born Jews not to affiliate or ask 'why be Jewish?' The richness of Jewish living, the grandeur of Jewish ethics, and the majesty of Jewish faith will speak for themselves."

Rabbi Yoffie's message is that we should commit ourselves to collective, not selective survival. "Let's urge federations and foundations to invest in the Jewish future by funding worthy programs designed to reach marginal, inactive and unaffiliated Jews."

He also urges each synagogue movement to participate in the effort, and calls on the Reform Movement to launch a major initiative because it is "uniquely suited to respond to the religious needs of this population."

Rabbi Yoffie's article is followed by seven personal stories by people who made the journey from marginal Jew to affiliated and committed.


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