Reform Movement Seeks New Direction Amid Concerns

Conference Aims To Reverse Membership, Engagement Woes

Reform Renewal: A group of women hold hands around the Torah during the Shabbat morning service at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in San Diego.
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Reform Renewal: A group of women hold hands around the Torah during the Shabbat morning service at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in San Diego.

By Uriel Heilman

Published December 17, 2013.
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(JTA) — What do you get when you bring together 5,000 of the Reform movement’s faithful for a conference in sunny San Diego in mid-December?

Four days of singing, learning, schmoozing and worrying at a gathering that seemed equal parts pep rally and intervention session.

For pep, there were the spirited prayer services, the morning-till-night stream of musical performances and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, or URJ, who compared the challenges facing the movement to giant waves, crying “Surf’s up!”

“Big waves require more skill and courage to ride, but if ridden artfully they enable us to go faster and further than ever before,” Jacobs said, a giant screen projecting a swell behind him.

For the intervention, there was session after session devoted to the challenges facing the movement, especially the question of how to engage young adult Jews who, by and large, are steering clear of Reform synagogues.

“I think the Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much we double down on great programming, it might not increase the likelihood that those young people are going to walk in,” Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, a Reform rabbi who is president of the Wexner Foundation, said in a conference session focused on the recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry. “I think that’s really hard for this gathering to keep in mind because we are the people who love what we do, and we just think if we do more of it and do it better and do it more often and do it faster that they’re going to come.”

Though Reform is the largest denomination in American Jewish life, there was palpable concern at the conference that the movement is headed for a diminished future. The fastest-growing group in American Jewry is Jews of no religion, and the denomination doing best at holding its own is Orthodox, according to the Pew survey.

Reform membership is dwindling, synagogues are struggling to secure their bottom lines and, as Jacobs noted at the last biennial, 80 percent of Reform Jews are “out the door” by the end of high school. Many never return: Fewer than half of Reform parents have their children enrolled in some kind of Jewish youth, camp or educational program, the Pew survey showed.

Jacobs has promised to “reboot” the movement, and he is focusing his efforts on young people.

In his Dec. 12 biennial speech, Jacobs pushed for Reform communities to practice “audacious hospitality” by being as welcoming as possible to intermarried families and unengaged Jews; announced that URJ had just sold half of its office space in Manhattan and was investing $1 million from the proceeds to reshape its youth engagement strategies; and detailed the ways the union was making youth engagement a priority, including expanding Reform summer camps and NFTY, the National Federation of Temple Youth.


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