Reform Reaches Past Synagogue

Rabbi Rick Jacobs Plans Push in Ranks of Unaffiliated Jews

Changing Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs wants to transform the Reform movement to make it sustainable for the future.
Courtesy of urj
Changing Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs wants to transform the Reform movement to make it sustainable for the future.

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 22, 2011, issue of December 30, 2011.
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The leaders of Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish denomination, aim to staunch their movement’s erosion with a new strategy to reach beyond the synagogue and actively search for Jews living outside the community’s established framework.

The strategy, articulated at the group’s recent biennial national conference, is the brainchild of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the movement’s newly installed leader. In discussions at the conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, activists and officials voiced hope that this strategy will succeed in countering the stagnation in membership numbers that Reform Judaism is experiencing.

“If we stay put and leave things as they are, we would have failed the test of Judaism,” warned Jacobs, in his inaugural speech as URJ president. “The Jewish future of our people depends on transforming our congregations.”

The focus on this strategy, and on the demography behind it, made this meeting of one of American Jewry’s most vibrant, mass-based organizations a spectacle of contrast.

On the one hand, the event manifested the Reform movement’s power and strength, bringing together 6,000 members for five days of a star-studded conference highlighted by speeches from President Obama and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On the other hand, discussions were focused on saving the movement and on the urgent need for change in order to maintain the power of the organized denominational institution.

With its claim of some 1.5 million members who belong to about 900 Reform congregations, Reform Judaism boasts a kind of success that Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other streams of Judaism cannot approach. But nearly half of Jewish adults raised Reform, a new study shows, leave the denomination, most of them in favor of an unaffiliated Jewish life. In recent years, the movement’s growth has stalled, with affiliation holding steady thanks only to new members replacing those who have left.

“Synagogues are not an end for themselves,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, senior vice president of the URJ. “They will always be our anchor.” But, he added, “Jewish engagement can happen anywhere, at a summer camp or around a kitchen table.”

Reaching out beyond the synagogues’ walls is not risk-free, participants at the URJ conference acknowledged. Among other things, the shift could lead to questions about the status of established congregations as the main institution of Reform Jewish life at a time when many synagogues are facing challenges brought about by the economic downturn and, for some, by declines in membership.

“The Reform movement should be busting at the seams because the ideology of the Reform movement is close to the ideology of most U.S. Jews,” researcher Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and of the university’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, told participants at the URJ gathering, which took place outside Washington from December 14 to December 18.

Saxe presented a recent study indicating that only 51% of those raised in the Reform movement now identify as Reform. Most shift to the fastest-growing group in American Jewry, the group known as “just Jewish” or the unaffiliated. Reform Judaism has been able to maintain stability in numbers thanks to Conservative and Orthodox Jews who switched to Reform, but this pool of new members, Saxe warned, is drying up. “This is not a sustainable model for the future,” he said.


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