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Eric Yoffie talks about Reform Judaism, Israel, and pluralism

Former head of URJ is scholar in residence at Temple Sinai this weekend

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For 15 years, Rabbi Eric Yoffie of Westfield was the leading figure of Reform Judaism, serving as head of the Union for Reform Judaism (as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was renamed during his tenure).

Last year, he turned 65 and stepped down. He now writes and teaches, a post-career career that this weekend brings him to Tenafly, where he will be scholar in residence at Temple Sinai of Bergen County.

Yoffie grew up in a committed Reform family that was “very engaged in the synagogue, very engaged in the Jewish community.” His grandmother had founded the Hadassah chapter in Albany, New York, and his mother had been president of Hadassah in Wooster, Mass., when he was growing up.

He became a synagogue youth group leader, which was a formative Jewish experience, and then, between high school and his freshman year in college, he attended an international conference in Europe where, he said, “I met Jews from around the world. I had my first close interactions with Israelis. I went to Germany, which kind of opened my eyes to the Holocaust.”

But it was not until he started college at Stanford University in California that he realized how much Judaism meant to him.

“There was really no Jewish community there,” he said. “I recognized I missed the vibrant Jewish life that had been part of my life earlier.” So he transferred to Brandeis. Though he majored in politics, he took many Jewish studies courses, which “really drew me into the rabbinate.”

Another youthful formative experience: A summer spent in Israel studying Hebrew after his junior year in college. “I was caught up in the drama,” he said of his time in Israel in 1968. “That’s what’s most important — the experience of being there.”

He returned not long after, spending a year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between college and rabbinical school. (This was long before the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College began requiring that its first-year rabbinical students spend a year at its Jerusalem campus.)

After his ordination Yoffie spent six years as a pulpit rabbi before moving to the URJ, where he worked as Midwest regional director for three years. In 1983 he became the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which had been founded five years earlier. After nine years, he led the URJ’s Commission on Social Action, a steppingstone to taking over as president of the URJ in 1996.

Looking back, “There are a few things that were important to me, none of which were attributable to me alone,” he said.

First: “The sense of Torah at the center, that Torah studying and Torah doing are an essential activity, and all of Judaism — and Reform Judaism — is built around it.”

Second: “The worship revolution that has engulfed Reform Judaism in the last two decades,” referring to the switch to more participatory services. “I gave a lot of time to that,” he said.

“And then, a number of social just things. I did a lot of work in making connections to Muslims.”

Does he have any regrets?

“We’re all supposed to be dissatisfied,” he said. “I’ve got lots of regrets.

“There are certain things I got to late. In the last two years of my tenure we started a program in youth engagement, to think about how we reach out to teenagers. In retrospect, I would have done that sooner rather than later.”

Another regret: “Even though Israel was very central to my tenure, and my being, I would have liked us to see us create more connections to Israel, deeper commitment on the part of Reform Jews.”

Yoffie said there’s a measure of contradiction in the Reform movement’s relationship to the Jewish state.

“We love Israel and we embrace Israel,” he said. “At the same time, we’re fully aware of Israel’s deficiencies, particularly in the realm of religious freedom,” meaning Israel’s official recognition of only Orthodox Judaism, to the exclusion of all other streams.

“We’re becoming increasingly emphatic about religious freedom. It means two things. We’re working very hard to build a grassroots movement in Israel that’s working very hard to promote our principles. At the same time, we’re making more emphatic protests — both here and there — about the things that trouble us.”

“We have lots of disagreements about Israel,” he said, “but if you permit the disagreements to distance your ties from the Jewish state, the Jewish state will cease to be the Jewish state.”

Does he see any looming conflict between the Reform movement’s commitment to liberal social justice and the Israeli government’s increasingly rightward direction?

(On Tuesday, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and now number two in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political party, was quoted as saying that “A Jewish state is more important than a democratic state. We’re the only Jewish state so it’s more important to be Jewish.”)

“If the conversation is at what point do we walk away from Israel, that’s not the conversation we want to have,” Yoffie said. “We begin with an embrace of Israel, and talk very emphatically about the values the Jewish state ought to apply in what it does. If it’s the state of the Jewish people, then the Jewish people have the right to express their concern about anything. If it’s just the state of the Israelis, then there’s no connection. But we don’t see it that way and they don’t either.”

Is Yoffie concerned about the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party? “Of course,” he said.

“The central premise with regard to Israel is that Israel needs to be a Jewish and democratic state. I’m not going to comment in particular about Mr. Lieberman. To the extent that he is committed to keeping Israel Jewish and democratic, he deserves the support of world Jewry. If he veers away from that direction he will need to be condemned — by Israelis first and foremost, and by Jews of the world as well.”

But dismay over Lieberman — and the directions he may take Israel — shouldn’t go beyond condemnation to out-and-out rejection.

“When I was director of ARZA, we’d have the latest outrage, and the Israeli reporters would say, are you going to walk away now and withhold your money and so forth?

“The answer was no then, and no now. The dual message of commitment and standing for your values reflect the realities of life and the ambiguities of our existence. We’re not going to walk away from Israel. We’re not going to turn our backs on Israel. In that context, how do you make noise?”

One success is making noise: The arrest of Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, for praying with the Women at the Wall at the Kotel. “She brought the attention of the entire Jewish world to the plight of a handful of women standing at the Wall, trying to pray. That was extraordinary. There were protests to the Israeli ambassador. We created what really was an international Jewish incident. It’s precisely the kind of thing we need to do.”

That said, although Yoffie sees the Women of the Wall as heroes, “it doesn’t constitute our ideal. We believe men and women should be able to pray together, because the Wall belongs to the whole Jewish people. If the rabbi at the Wall were to give in to their demands and permit them once a month to hold a service where they could read the Torah and wear tallitot, I wouldn’t be rejoicing. That’s not enough. We need to be much more demanding.”

Yoffie’s Friday night topic at Temple Sinai is “Why Reform Judaism,” and he plans to spell out “my understanding of what are the foundational principles of Reform Judaism.

“The key is to be positive about who we are,” he said. “The issue is not to talk about what we’re not or what other people are or are not, but what it is that we are.”

What does he see as the contributions of Reform Judaism to the Jewish people?

“We’re the most creative, the most open, branch of Judaism,” he said. “We’re the most emphatic voice of both affirming tradition and integrating into the general society. That’s very important, as is our commitment to social justice. Social justice and inclusion are two elements that you’ll find within Reform Judaism that you don’t always find elsewhere.”

Also: “The notion we need to welcome into our community people who want to identify with our faith.”

What would he say to members of other Jewish streams?

“To them I would say: I respect people who approach the tradition in different ways. That’s fine. I hope that the response would be mutual. We have a positive approach that embraces certain foundational elements, and that’s the key.

“We all need to judge each other by the best and most committed. We have plenty of Reform Jews who are not as committed as we would like them to be. The truth is, so does the Conservative movement, and so does the Orthodox. Let’s understand each other and judge them by their best. Let’s recognize the positive approach we each bring to Jewish tradition,” he said.

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