Nod to Change as Jacobs Takes URJ Reins

Gospel Choir and African Tallit Symbolize New Path for Reform

Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.
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Nod to Change: Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointedly used his installation as head of the Union for Reform Judaism to symbolize big changes at the group.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published June 15, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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Even Reform Jews who are affiliated seldom attend services and often quit membership as soon as their youngest child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah.

Studies show that Reform synagogue membership overall is aging and fewer young people are joining. There are nearly three times as many people older than 65 in Reform synagogues as there are young adults, according to a 2010 study by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive and the North American Jewish Data Bank.

In his installation speech, Jacobs acknowledged the magnitude of the problem. “Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that many Jews in their 20s and 30s will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation,” he said.

Jacobs was one of the leading members of the Rabbinic Vision Initiative, a group of Reform rabbis that in 2009 publicly criticized the direction and management of the URJ.

The URJ is now focusing on three areas: engaging youth, trying to get congregations to change to better attract participants and members, and helping congregations with what he calls “extending the circles of our responsibility” between Reform Jews and the rest of the Jewish community, including Israel.

But the Reform movement’s longtime emphasis on personal autonomy when it comes to observance of Jewish traditions and practices may make that an insurmountable challenge, observers said.

“The autonomous chickens have come home to roost,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, an author and the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Columbus, Ga., “and now people have said, ‘Why do I need to be a member of a synagogue at all?’”

According to Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, Reform Judaism’s paradox is that its success has led to its struggles.

“The strength of the Reform movement is that it’s been able to reach out to large numbers of less engaged Jews, including lots of mixed-married Jews. The weakness of the Reform movement is that it has successfully reached out to large numbers of less engaged Jews and mixed-married Jews. It now has the situation in which the least engaged of affiliated Jews make up large numbers of Reform congregants, and understandably bring with them weaker Jewish socialization and weaker commitments to remaining in Reform synagogues after they have bar mitzvahed their youngest child,” Cohen said.

Jacobs is aware of the challenge. “Engagement with synagogues tends to be temporary and tenuous,” he said at the Reform movement’s biennial gathering last December. “Of all the movements, Reform Jews lead the way in leaving once childhood education is over.”

Even among synagogue members, attendance at the main Sabbath service on Friday evenings is sparse. Only 17% of an individual synagogue’s members, on average, attend Friday night services, according to the 2010 study, and on Saturday mornings without bar or bat mitzvahs, hardly any Reform congregants attend.


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