Don’t Cut Outreach

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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The Union of American Hebrew Congregations owes everyone a better explanation than the one it offered for its decision to lay off its corps of regional outreach directors. The Reform union says the elimination of the coordinators, who work with synagogues and individuals to bring interfaith families into Judaism, was just one of many painful cuts absorbed by a number of programs in the face of a gaping budget deficit.

Perhaps so. But the outreach division isn’t just another budget line. It lies at the heart of a vast social experiment in the future of Judaism, one whose stakes go far beyond UAHC headquarters — in fact, beyond the boundaries of Reform Judaism itself. This is everyone’s business.

The outreach division is an outgrowth of a series of Reform movement decisions two decades ago to reframe the Jewish community’s discussions of interfaith marriage. Arguing that rising intermarriage rates were a product of unstoppable social forces, Reform leaders called for efforts to bring interfaith families into Judaism instead of freezing them out, as tradition had mandated for centuries. A crucial step in that new strategy was the movement’s 1983 decision, reversing millennia of tradition, to accept children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews, provided they were given a Jewish upbringing.

The decision proved to be one of the most divisive acts in Jewish life in recent memory. Outraged Orthodox leaders declared that they could no longer let their children socialize with Reform youth, given the uncertainty that the Reform kids were Jewish in traditional terms. Conflicts between Orthodox and Reform intensified on every front, dividing local communities, spilling over into the international sphere, souring relations between Israel and American Jews and bringing down more than one Israeli government.

Reform leaders have frequently acknowledged the sensitivity of their decision, but insisted it was worth the rancor because it could open the way to keeping thousands of Jewish families within the orbit of Judaism. All that was needed, they assured nervous friends and allies, was sufficient investment of sweat and money in the hard work of bringing Judaism to the interfaith families. That work, if it pays off, would prove the rightness of the Reform strategy and effectively justify the bitterness that has followed.

But the jury is still out. A great deal of work remains to be done. Pulling back now is simply not acceptable.

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