Rabbi Eric Yoffie has announced plans to step down from the top organizational post in Reform Judaism, effective in two years.
Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has headed the association of Reform congregations, previously known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, since 1996. In terms of members and synagogues, it is the largest religious stream within American Judaism. Yoffie’s announcement came on June 10 at a meeting of the North American board of the URJ, where he presented a series of long-term initiatives relating to education and movement structure. Yoffie will be 65 in June 2012, when he plans to step down.
The announcement of his planned resignation “came out of a desire at this board meeting to project a vision for the future, some fundamental priorities about where the Union needs to be going at this stage,” Yoffie told the Forward. “I recognized that it really didn’t make sense to call on the Union’s leadership to move in this direction, to make these commitments, without answering the question, ‘Well, what about me?’”
The URJ, an umbrella group which claims to represent 1.5 million Jews and more than 920 congregations, is the largest Jewish religious organization in North America. As the URJ’s leader, Yoffie has been outspoken on the Middle East peace process, threats to Israeli security, gun control and the role of the so-called religious right in American politics, among other issues.
In an interview with the Forward, Yoffie said that his overriding priorities during his years on the job have been to strengthen the prayer and education work of the member congregations.
“Ultimately you need to work with congregations to strengthen what they do in those two areas, and that’s the foundation on which everything else is built,” Yoffie said. “I think I learned how complicated they both were, how much work was to be done.”
Yoffie said the Reform movement’s greatest challenge lies in addressing what he described as the gap between its committed members and its less committed members.
“It’s that bridge between the committed core… and those who are in the other camps, that’s the great challenge,” Yoffie said. “When you look at Reform Judaism, you have reason to be enormously optimistic when you see the depth of commitment, and on the other hand you can be discouraged because there are those… who seem to have only shallow commitments. That’s the great challenge that we have.”
As for the growing impact of intermarriage among American Jews, Yoffie said that his movement is handling the challenge well. He said that the movement has “not an ounce of regret” for its 1983 decision to consider the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish, which represented a break with Jewish tradition.
Regarding studies that have found a lack of affiliation on the part of many children of intermarried couples, Yoffie said, “We’d like to point out that what that means is at a time when there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage, we’re getting a third of these people into synagogues… Imagine if we didn’t have the [patrilineal descent] decision and how many of them would be in any Jewish framework. I suggest it would be far lower.”
In addition to announcing his date of departure at the June URJ board meeting, Yoffie unveiled plans for the establishment of a new Reform movement center in New York, a building that will house Reform movement organizations including the URJ, as well as the movement’s rabbinical association, rabbinical school and pension board.
Yoffie told the Forward that he hadn’t thought much about his post-retirement plans, but said that he hoped to write one or more books. Possible subjects include what he described as “the Israel question,” the “Chabad phenomenon and what it says about North American Jewry,” or a work that would help establish “greater self-definition in the Reform Jewish tradition.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.