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After Yoffie

Leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism have a tall order to fill as they seek a successor to their president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who has announced plans to retire in two years.

Nominally, they’ll be looking for someone to helm a confederation of some 900 synagogues. In practice, the job is much bigger. The URJ’s president is traditionally seen as the leader of the overall Reform movement, with its many institutional arms. To fill this post one must possess the qualities of a scholar, manager, spiritual guide, politician, scold and diplomat par excellence. In effect, the incumbent serves as world leader of liberal Judaism. The hours are 24-7, and the tour of duty is measured in decades.

There is, however, another, less obvious item that the search committee should include in the job description: principal voice of American Jewish liberalism. As distinct from liberal Judaism, which is an approach to ritual and theology, Jewish liberalism describes the social and political leanings of the broad majority of American Jews. Call it the Jewish social gospel; it has been a tenet of American Reform Judaism as far back as its founding platform in 1885. For its first century, the Reform movement was one of many influential liberal voices in the Jewish community, alongside garment unions, Jewish defense agencies and other institutions. Today, most of those voices have either lost their Jewish ties or abandoned progressive advocacy. Reform Judaism now stands astride a much-diminished field.

Yoffie has played the role well. Without claiming a mandate larger than his job title — which is, after all, spokesman for the largest religious stream in organized American Jewry — he has spoken out consistently on issues that Jews care about but that other major Jewish groups mostly dodge: economic justice, the environment, the death penalty and more. Crucially, he has worked to shape and moderate the Jewish communal posture on key flashpoints, such as Israeli settlements. He has also fought for transparency and accountability in one of our leading community-wide representative bodies, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. And Yoffie, a longtime dove, has had the courage to admit error, as he did at the bloody height of the second intifada, when he confessed to having failed to pay sufficient attention to incitement by Palestinian leaders.

If this sounds like a eulogy, it’s not. It’s a call for a worthy successor. When the Union for Reform Judaism chooses its next leader, it chooses for all of us.

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