Yoffie Led Return to Reform Roots

Retiring Leader of URJ Stressed Torah, Temple and Outreach

Reform Leader: Rabbi Eric Yoffie, center, meets with President Bill Clinton at the White House. He leaves the Union for Reform Judaism after 16 years at the helm.
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Reform Leader: Rabbi Eric Yoffie, center, meets with President Bill Clinton at the White House. He leaves the Union for Reform Judaism after 16 years at the helm.

By Jane Eisner

Published December 14, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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Less so was Yoffie’s call, announced two years ago, at the last biennial, for a commitment to “ethical eating” — he stopped short of saying that Reform Jews should keep kosher — in which he asked rabbis to formulate new guidelines for their communities. Evidently, that was taking tradition too far.

“It would be accurate to say that it created a lot of interest among a small number of people,” was the best spin he could put on it. Why? “It’s almost definitional — to be a Reform Jew is to put kashrut aside. It has a resonance that is hard to understand. I didn’t take this into account sufficiently.”

There have been other initiatives that were also less than successful. His push for more Reform day schools and his plans to increase Hebrew literacy did not yield much fruit.

Yoffie said that the biggest failure of his movement is one that it shares with the Jewish community as a whole: the growing inability to discuss Israel in an open, civil way.

“Some rabbis are afraid to even have a conversation about Israel in their congregations. It’s much harder now that it was 15, 30 years ago,” he said.

What’s changed, I asked him, American Jews or Israel? “Both, both,” he answered.

He’s changed, too. I asked him if he would have officiated at the 2010 marriage of Chelsea Clinton, a non-Jew, to Marc Mezvinsky, a Jew. No, was his answer — but because the ceremony took place on the Sabbath.

What if it had been scheduled for a Sunday? “I may have agreed in certain circumstances. Truth is, I’m not sure,” Yoffie said in a rare moment of ambivalence. He hasn’t been a pulpit rabbi since 1980, and he would not have officiated at an intermarriage then, but he’s clearly wrestling with the issue now.

“Intermarriage is a reality, and you’re not going to deal with it by running from it,” he said. “You have to say that there are boundaries — who wants to belong to a religion with no boundaries? — but you have to draw those lines to include rather than exclude.”

And his last prediction? “The synagogue is going to remain the central institution of Jewish life,” he said. “It’s the only place in the Jewish world that cares about the individual Jew, where you are created in the image of God no matter how much money you have. Nobody else does those things.”

Contact Jane Eisner at eisner@forward.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jane_Eisner


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