Our Reform Agenda

DECEMBER 9, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Friends, our Reform Movement is most certainly in a reflective mood approaching the largest gathering of the Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism in our history, with close to 6000 participants expected this coming week. We are at a pivotal moment in our history.

The initial upset and turmoil that has assaulted our national movement over the past few years was related to finance. The economic downturn prompted belt tightening by congregations and in turn impacted the funding of our national movement, which refers to both the Union For Reform Judaism (URJ), our congregational body and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), our seminary. But more than dollars, there arose a call for reassessment in the overall direction of our national movement.

What is this in response to? The numbers of affiliated Jews is shrinking for many reasons other than finance. 20s and 30s particularly seem to be seeking alternative paths to Jewish meaning. Interfaith couples either leave Judaism completely or are seeking something different. Jewish men are tending to stay away from synagogue leadership and life. Concepts of lifelong membership in synagogue have been replaced by a “serve us” mentality, as opposed to “service.” Needless to say, the situation is much more complicated than what I describe. Some of this relates to religious life in all of America, while our focus tonight is our specific expression of faith.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs has been selected to lead our URJ to address the new realities, but as he comes into office he and the reconfigured leadership of our Movement are doing a great deal of listening. This includes literally thousands of people engaging in “think tanks,” where we address key questions for our Jewish future. Our Board recently participated in part of the process. Many of you may have already read responses in the recent edition of Reform Judaism Magazine. Decisions that will be made in the coming years will certainly have ramifications for us as a Reform congregation.

For those who may not be clear, let me explain the relationship between our national organizations and us. Gates of Prayer is an autonomous organization, but by affiliation, which means we have a financial obligation, we are members of the URJ. As a member, we receive access to URJ services and programs, which include Chai curriculum material for our religious school, Jacobs Camp for our children in the summer, NFTY Southern for our teens, program resources for social action initiatives, caring committee guidance, worship and music enrichment resources, administrative structures, the template for our web site and much more. We cannot forget all the financial assistance, collected by the URJ and URJ congregations, distributed to us post-Katrina- close to $1,000,000. We also benefit by national advocacy on issues directly relating to synagogue life and the values that we as Reform Jews uphold through the Religious Action Center in Washington.

However, I would suggest that over and above the direct benefits we derive by membership, being connected to a specific religious movement is a statement: We are part of history and an approach to Judaism that is much larger than 4000 West Esplanade. We are linked to thinkers and leaders who spend a great deal of time focused on how to enhance, support and guide what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. We are not required to follow the resolutions and programs suggested, as if it has come down from Sinai.

But I would argue with the advantage of hindsight that our Movement has effectively provided us with direction to respond to the changing realities of our world in the past, such as the role of women, integrating interfaith families and outreach, openness to LGBTQ individuals and families, advocating for social justice, appreciating the State of Israel, re-envisioning worship and much more. And with our input and involvement, we will address our current and future issues.

This evening, I invite you to reflect upon five questions, which have been posed to us by our Movement, questions which will be addressed throughout the country. The answers will not only help inform future direction, but I believe that they will directly impact this congregation. I will share my brief responses this evening and look forward to opportunities for all of us to think together.

  • What is the most valuable aspect of being a Reform Jew?

As Reform Jews we continue to champion autonomy with responsibility. We appreciate that the full menu of Jewish belief and practice is open to us. We enjoy the freedom to use our minds and spirits to draw upon Jewish tradition and teaching to apply to the realities of our everyday life. This intellectual and spiritual foundation principle is our greatest strength, but let me caution that it is also our greatest weakness.

When the focus is all about autonomy without responsibility; when mitzvah is thought of solely as a good deed that one chooses to do, as opposed to (not so much commandment that one has to do) but at least as a sacred obligation, a teaching of our tradition that one should seriously consider in light of history, then we dilute our basic message. When, “I’m Reform, we don’t do….” is our basic mantra; When we do not clearly embrace positive statements about what it means to be a Reform Jew, then our strength becomes our downfall.

  • What future possibility for Jewish life gives you energy?

At times even I can be pessimistic. I read of the 50% intermarriage rate, which 2/3 of the time results in a total disconnect from Judaism and I so appreciate and celebrate those families, such as our Bar Mitzvah’s, who make the choice to stay committed. When I contemplate so many young people who seem disinclined to stay linked to the Judaism of their youth, even among those who were committed as teens, or when I think of the many who were once members, but now have left, it can be disheartening.

Then I recall that every generation has had their fears and concerns and my usual optimism returns. With creativity and openness, grounded in faith and tradition, we have the opportunity to reinvent synagogue life and Jewish life in ways that will touch the heart, mind and behaviors of Jews. I reflect upon the previously unheard of groundbreaking ways that we have found to transcend denominational barriers with the Orthodox community, as we have successfully done on W. Esplanade, while maintaining and respecting different approaches to Judaism. I think of the energy that pervaded our Tot Shabbat experiences earlier this evening, even the fun of Sunday football in the Manheim sponsored by Brotherhood and I am optimistic. This leads to the next question.

  • In what ways would a Reform congregation be so compelling that it would be the center where you seek to explore your Judaism?

This is the question that asks us to dream about a congregation that would be engaging and involving and spiritually fulfilling. I believe the key concept in this is the word “connections,” as in: creating connections to other people in all that we do, being welcoming and embracing in multiple ways. Before we embark on any activity, perhaps we should ask the question: “How are we making connections between Judaism and God and our people?”

While Shabbat attendance is often used as a barometer of a synagogue’s health, it is important to remember that there can be many points of connection for individuals. For some it will be through caring community, others, ritual, learning, social justice or sociability at the Oneg Shabbat. We also need to be presenting the Jewish values and insights that provide direction and meaning to our people on a daily basis, as well as during the critical life cycle moments.

As was pointed out to me in our Board’s discussion of some of these questions, it is important for the rabbi to embody these values, to be open and caring, a facilitator of creating and encouraging connections. At the same time he/she needs to provide the Jewish compass. Through active welcoming, and providing multiple gates for access into Jewish life, a congregation can create a compelling atmosphere for Jewish commitment and fulfillment.

  • How could Reform Judaism transform the Jewish community beyond our synagogue walls?

This question calls upon us to develop a new mindset. With the increasing number of unaffiliated and disconnected Jews in our communities, do we perhaps need to be thinking of a synagogue and a movement reaching people who are not our members, yet, and may never be? This suggests that rabbis and congregations reconsider providing services and programs outside the synagogue. We already do social action and interfaith, but this new concept addresses reaching out and serving the unaffiliated Jews. Perhaps they will one day connect and join our synagogue, or if not ours, at least another, but there are no guarantees. Historically, we know that we have been appropriately insular, serving the people who pay their dues, who commit to the synagogue. This calls upon us to think beyond ourselves.

We are already doing some of this with technology. Right now, in addition to our members, there may be non-dues paying Jews coming to our services weekly, as we have begun live streaming. Once it is out there, it’s for everyone. There are unlimited opportunities for our programs to go beyond our walls through cyber-space. But this is more of a collateral benefit, not specifically targeting others.

I recently heard from a Reform rabbi who has been hired to work on a college campus to solely reach out to liberal Jewish students, who have historically disconnected from more traditionally perceived Hillel. His position has been funded by the Reform congregations of New Jersey. Additionally I am aware of programs, one called Next Dor (as in the next generation) where congregations have funded professionals to never step foot in their buildings, but spend all of their time meeting young people where they are to create Jewish connections.

While we may not embrace the ideologies of the Chabad Jewish movement, we can certainly appreciate, admire and emulate the efforts (personal and financial) they devote to reaching out beyond their walls to wine and dine and meaningfully engage fellow Jews of all ages and stages, regardless of their affiliations or levels of observance.

  • What could the Reform Movement do now to help you and your community?

They are already doing it. By having me and our leaders respond to these kinds of questions, they inspire us to not only think, but hopefully act upon what we consider. I look forward to learning from greater minds than our own, or at least be enriched by the insights and experiences of others, which will provide effective models for congregation and community strengthening.

Since much of this is dreaming, recognizing that all of this has a price tag and that our local resources are limited, it would be wonderful if our national movement could show us the way to additional funds.

My friends, we find ourselves at an important point in the history of our Reform Judaism as the agenda is being set for the future. I can tell you that a key word being tossed around is collaboration among the major organizations of our movement. Saving money is a goal, while unifying more in service to the Jewish people. Our community will benefit by such efforts and already is doing so in some areas. I detect a different attitude emanating from our national leaders, one which is more humble, but no less committed to creating a strong Reform Jewish community for the future. It may look a bit different than it has in the past, but the fundamental values and purposes will remain. It will require the commitment of all of us.


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