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.

Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, also concluded that despite its ability to hold its ground, the Reform movement faces a downward trend. “We haven’t recognized that in number of adult Jews, the Reform movement is in decline,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that the belief among many Reform Jews that eventually all non-Orthodox Jews will coalesce around Reform Judaism is mistaken. The growing trend, he said, is that of leaving organized Jewish life altogether.

Jacobs’s December 18 keynote speech ending the biennial meeting exemplified the dynamism he is pressing on the Reform movement. Stepping away from the podium, Jacobs delivered his address while pacing the stage. He sought to interact with audience members, asking them for their comments, shouting out answers to questions they threw at him and waiting for the audience to roar back. It all seemed to reflect a new style, geared more to young Jews than to veteran synagogue-goers.

Jacobs’s message: go beyond the “barrier,” his description of synagogue walls; put aside definitions and limitations in favor of proactive inclusiveness. Mocking traditional Reform school textbooks and speaking about the “scars and emptiness” that many still feel from their Jewish education experience, Jacobs asked, “How many of our URJ congregations worry about Jewish lives outside the walls of our synagogues?”

If successful, the reforms that Jacobs proposes could put him down in the history of the movement, along with his predecessors, who changed the course of Reform Judaism and of American Jewish life: Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who opened up Reform Judaism to intermarried families by recognizing patrilineal descent, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the URJ’s outgoing president, who led the return to tradition.

But the new strategy will require the Reform movement to adopt a new way of thinking that, according to URJ officials, has no roadmap or manual.

When asked to provide specific ideas, Reform leaders spoke of seeking out unaffiliated Jews in venues such as Starbucks in which Reform Jews could engage with them in a casual way. Another example highlighted at the conference was the Riverway Project at Boston’s Temple Israel synagogue. There, the synagogue’s rabbi went out into Jewish neighborhoods to engage young Jews instead of waiting for them to join the congregation. Another program cited, at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, reached out to a group of Saturday runners and got them to add a mitzvah to their weekly exercise.

“We have no end goal in mind other than to engage people for a Jewish future,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the URJ’s worship and spirituality specialist and director of its Congregational Consulting Group. Bringing more members to Reform synagogues, he stressed, “can’t be our goal.”

In adopting this strategy, the movement is setting practically no criteria for participation. Engaging with unaffiliated Jews will not include a requirement that participants adhere to Reform principles (“People are alienated by labels,” Perlmeter explained) and does not use a strict definition of Judaism viewing all those who are interested in Jewish activity as “seekers.” Identity questions, Perlmeter said, are important “only when you get to the ritual context.”

But practical concerns accompany the freewheeling new approach. Jacobs held more than 1,000 conversations with communal leaders before assuming his role as URJ president, and according to his account, all share the same concern: how to fund their operations and national Reform institutions at a time of dwindling financial resources. In his speech at the biennial conference, Jacobs directly recognized this as the Reform community’s leading challenge.

“There is an inevitable tension,” Pesner, the URJ vice president, acknowledged. “On the one hand, you have to keep the lights on in the synagogue, and on the other hand, it’s not about the synagogues.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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