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entries tagged with: Eric Yoffie


Groups weigh in on flotilla confrontation

NEW YORK – The main U.S. Jewish umbrella organization is defending Israel’s raid of the flotilla heading to Gaza, but several left-wing groups are blaming the incident on officials in Jerusalem and calling for an investigation.

“We regret the loss of life and the injuries. But the responsibility for these tragic events lies primarily with those who organized and carried out this extremist mission and those that aided and abetted them,” said the heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main pro-Israel umbrella group in the United States.

Several members of the Presidents Conference and other pro-Israel groups issued similar statements, including the American Jewish Committee, which accused the pro-Hamas Free Gaza movement and its supporters of deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with the Israeli navy early Monday morning.

But several U.S. Jewish groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu — are pointing the finger at Israel.

Nine activists were killed and several dozen protesters injured aboard a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza during rioting after Israeli naval forces boarded the ships to redirect them to an Israeli port. The flotilla was attempting to break the Israeli navy’s blockade of the strip. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured.

Israel has circulated videos showing that their troops were attacked as they boarded the ships.

J Street and Ameinu called for independent investigations and cautioned observers against making any judgments before all the facts are known. At the same time, both organizations blamed the confrontation on Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza — a policy adopted in order to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Ameinu said that such incidents play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. J Street argued that there are “better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”

In addition to slamming the blockade, Americans for Peace Now also sought to portray the flotilla incident as part of an ongoing Israeli government effort to stifle dissent. It called for “an end to the radicalization of the Israeli government’s language and policy” and endorsed the idea that Israel is increasingly earning “the brutal and violent image it acquired in the last years.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue movement in the country and an organization that has backed robust U.S. peacemaking efforts, issued a statement that defended Israel’s actions and called for stepped-up efforts to “examine” any humanitarian needs in Gaza.

“We note that the Hamas government, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and which has long been responsible for attacks against Israeli forces and civilian centers, cannot expect to have open borders,” said the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “We also note that humanitarian aid sent to Gaza in the past has often been used as a cover for delivering weapons and military supplies.”

Yoffie added that in addition to working to address Jerusalem’s security need, the U.S. government and Israel needed to examine “the plight of those living in Gaza who require additional humanitarian assistance.”

“Recent events underscore the urgent need for real progress in addressing both sets of concerns,” Yoffie said.



Israeli Chief Rabbinate is thwarting religious expression, democratic principles

Published: 13 September 2010

Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Is Reform movement going kosher?

Kosher — it’s the first word in the book. And tackling the “k” word head-on is part of what makes the first Reform guide to Jewish dietary practice so significant.

“The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic,” to be published in February by the Reform rabbinical association, uses an array of essays by Reform rabbis and activists to challenge Reform Jews to develop a conscious dietary practice grounded in Jewish values.

And it’s not shy about suggesting kashrut, both traditional and re-imagined.

“No longer an oxymoron, ‘Reform kashrut’ has entered the Jewish lexicon, although there is no consensus on what this means exactly,” Rabbi Carole Balin, a Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes in the book, which is being published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press.


For a movement whose founding Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 rejected kosher laws along with other traditional Jewish rituals of dress and body as “entirely foreign” to modern sensibilities, the book represents a significant milestone in the development of Reform spirituality and practice.

It also illustrates the increased attention focused on kashrut across the denominational spectrum since the 2008 Agriprocessors scandal, which shuttered the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and spurred a rash of “ethical kosher” initiatives — from small, humane kosher meat operations to the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek project, which certifies kosher food products that meet certain ethical standards.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups, and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution.

Some Reform leaders, including the book’s editor, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

“The Sacred Table” opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws — a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore.

It also includes chapters on each of the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the traditional definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tzaar baalei chayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy, and lay leaders are keeping kosher, partially or entirely. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice, which may or may not include kashrut.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime advocate of bringing more Jewish ritual into Reform practice, says he was pleasantly surprised to see the book’s forthright approach.

In the summer of 2009, while putting together his keynote speech for the movement’s biennial conference, Yoffie said he planned to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice. But after running his speech by key Reform lay leaders, the rabbi told JTA, he heard so much pushback that he dropped the “k” word from the final initiative.

Called “Just Table, Green Table,” the Reform platform for developing consciously Jewish food choices “is not about kashrut,” Yoffie told biennial delegates as he unveiled the project last December.

Yoffie later told JTA that he “wanted people to be open to the idea of Jewish sacred eating, and didn’t want to touch an emotional chord that would prevent them from hearing that message.”

Now, a year later, he says he finds it “fascinating” that the Reform rabbinical leadership has seized the reins.

“Our rabbinical body is coming out and unabashedly embracing the word kashrut, saying this is how we’re framing the discussion and we want people to struggle with it,” Yoffie said.

The thrust of the book clearly favors broadening the definition of kashrut to include related Jewish ethical values, in keeping with longstanding Reform history.

“That is essential,” Yoffie said. “There are those in our movement who will accept kashrut in the traditional sense, but the great majority will take elements of kashrut in a broader sense. They want to relate it to issues of ethics, community, and identity.”

Still, kashrut itself is offered as a recommended practice, however adapted. That does not sit well with some Reform leaders, whose voices also appear in the book, however briefly.

One is Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, who writes that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.

Jewish ethical values about treating workers and animals well, and respecting the environment and one’s own body, are all important to Reform as well as other Jews, he says.

“But we don’t need to graft them onto kashrut,” he said, acknowledging, however, that he is in a shrinking minority among Reform rabbis.

Balin, who teaches a course on food for rabbinic and cantorial students, says she doesn’t know any who adhere to the tenets of Classical Reform.

Jewish dietary practice and the politics and morality of food choices, she said, “are very much on the minds of these future Reform leaders.”

JTA Wire Service


Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, left, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, consults with members of the Reform Think Tank following the group’s online forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Morgan Radmall

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls, and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action, and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team — called the Reform Think Tank — want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions — the synagogue movement, rabbinical association, and seminary — nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched, in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion — we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures, and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Cong. Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents, and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

JTA Wire Service


For Richard Jacobs, new Reform head, big tent movement is the idea

For the man tapped to lead American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, keeping the movement’s 900-plus synagogues welcoming to the unaffiliated, inspiring for members, and a home for disaffected traditional Jews may require a high-wire balancing act.

As a former dancer and choreographer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs may be just the guy.

On Tuesday, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Jacobs, the senior congregational rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., is the choice of the synagogue group’s presidential search committee to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down in 2012. Jacobs’ nomination requires confirmation by the URJ’s board of directors, which meets in June.

Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Scarsdale, N.Y., has been tapped to be the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Union for Reform Judaism

In an interview with JTA a few hours before the announcement was made, the 55-year-old Jacobs said his mission is to make sure the Reform movement is a big tent with its flaps wide open and its Jewish stakes planted deeply in the ground.

“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”

For Jacobs, that means embracing environmentalism, helping in places like Darfur and Haiti, and speaking out in support of the Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He speaks with pride of his synagogue’s green initiatives, noting that its Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, is solar powered. He is chairman of the New Israel Fund’s pluralism grants committee, which promotes religious and social pluralism in Israel. He is a board member of the American Jewish World Service, with which he visited Darfur refugees in Chad in 2005. He wears a green Darfur bracelet on his wrist.

In the synagogue, Jacobs wants to create dynamic and inspiring places for people to encounter Judaism — including non-Jewish seekers.

“The key thing is to have the doorways open,” Jacobs told JTA. “Anyone who wants to be a part, they are welcome.”

Under Yoffie, the Reform movement embraced tradition as never before, marking a stark departure from classical Reform and alienating some old-guard Reformers. Yoffie encouraged Shabbat observance, promoted wider use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy, and supported greater ritual observance.

Jacobs says he supports that direction for the movement.

“I embrace the Jewish tradition; it’s what nurtures the Jewish life,” he said. “What Rabbi Yoffie affirmed is the core affirmation of the Reform movement. I will continue to deepen our connections. We shouldn’t take off the table things that are not relevant to us today but may become relevant tomorrow.”

But Jacobs was one of 17 rabbis who issued a position paper several weeks ago criticizing the direction taken by the URJ during the Yoffie years.

“Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life,” said the position paper, whose 17 signatories called themselves the Rabbinic Vision Initiative.

The group said the URJ’s governance structure is “large and unwieldy,” the URJ underperforms when it comes to fund-raising, and it “is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.”

Though the URJ underwent severe restructuring during the recession, shedding departments and staff, the rabbis’ paper called the reorganization “peremptory and ineffectively executed.”

Now set to lead the Reform synagogue association, Jacobs will bear the burden of putting some of the changes he and his colleagues suggested for the URJ into practice.

Trim and tan, Jacobs still looks the part of the dancer he was as part of the Avodah Dance Ensemble. Now, however, his focus is on the mind rather than the body, though his synagogue does weave yoga and meditation together with text study at some Shabbat services.

Jacobs cites as his mentor David Hartman, the iconoclastic, New York-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Israel and founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational and research institution aimed at promoting new and diverse voices in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at the institute and visits often. He has studied there in the summer for some two decades, and he and his family have an apartment in Jerusalem.

The connection to Israel is a vital part of Jewish life, he says.

Jacobs will be a new face for the Reform movement at a time when financial difficulties, demographic changes, and the new ways that young Jews use social media and relate to communal life present new challenges and opportunities for the movement. Tackling these issues and making Jewish communal life relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s will be one of his main areas of focus, Jacobs says.

As the incoming head of the Reform synagogue organization, Jacobs naturally sees synagogues as the linchpin.

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Jacobs spent most of his career as a congregational leader, first as a rabbi at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in the 1980s and then at the Scarsdale temple in suburban New York. He says his synagogue has been at the forefront of a transformation in worship that he hopes will spread to all of the movement’s synagogues and reinvigorate them.

“I couldn’t imagine I’d become a rabbi of a large, suburban Reform congregation because I grew up in one and it didn’t speak to me,” said Jacobs, a native of New Rochelle, a suburb that borders Scarsdale. But, he said, “I’ve led transformation without disenfranchising those who are resistant to change.”

The plan is to start with a listening tour of Reform congregations throughout North America.

“We are poised,” Jacobs told JTA, “for a great new chapter for the unfolding of our movement.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes told The Jewish Standard, “Rabbi Rick Jacobs is both visionary and humble. His life’s service addresses the critical issues facing our people: the vitality of our congregations, and our obligation to respond to the needy. He will lift us to new heights.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard


Weiner’s downfall a reminder of perils of Jewish pride

NEW YORK – He was supposed to be one of Congress’ rising stars, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn with great ambition and promise.

A truculent Democrat with a penchant for media attention, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was an unabashed liberal on domestic affairs and a hard-liner on foreign policy, particularly Israel. Like his predecessor in his U.S. House of Representatives seat, Sen. Charles Schumer, Weiner had larger ambitions — in his case, mayor of New York City.

But then came his shamefaced news conference Monday, when the 46-year-old congressman, who was married last year, admitted to lying about sending a lewd photo to a woman he met on the Internet.

It was the culmination of a week of dissembling since the conservative blog had posted the photo. In all, Weiner confessed to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with six women. He said he would not get a divorce from his new wife — Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is Muslim — nor would he resign.

In the Jewish community, which long had regarded him with pride, Weiner’s spectacularly public downfall was a reminder of the perils of associating a particular person’s successes or failures with his Jewishness.

Weiner’s perennial prefixes — “Jewish congressman, from New York, staunch supporter of Israel” — clearly identified him in the public mind, said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith.

Just as Italian Americans worry about blanket generalizations with “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather,” Jews sigh reflexively when there is a Jew whose bad judgment and bad behavior are in the spotlight, Weidman Schneider said.

“Only this isn’t fiction,” she said. “There’s a foolishness to Weiner’s attempted cover-up, no pun intended, that’s as embarrassing and cringe-inducing as the acts themselves.”

“When the Son of Sam turns out to be David Berkowitz or the greatest Ponzi scheme ever is perpetrated by Bernie Madoff or a humiliated politician is named Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner,” Democratic political consultant Steve Rabinowitz said, “you can almost hear it as a community: Why did he it have to be our guy?”

Weiner’s political identity has long been intertwined with his Jewishness. He has been celebrated by the pro-settlement Zionist Organization of America for his positions on the west bank, and he routinely introduces a bill that would deny assistance to Saudi Arabia, even though that wealthy country does not receive U.S. assistance beyond a small program that trains Saudi army officers in democracy.

ZOA President Morton Klein said the Weiner scandal represents a “terrible loss for the pro-Israel community.

“As long as Anthony Weiner remains in Congress, his position on Israel will be among the best,” Klein said. “The only issue now is whether his influence will have diminished and whether his credibility will have diminished.”

Robert Wexler, a Democrat and former Jewish congressman from Florida, said regaining voters’ trust will have to be a top priority for Weiner.

“Up until last week, Anthony was an excellent congressman and a fine public servant,” said Wexler, who runs the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “The bottom line is that he’s a good and decent person that made some grave errors.”

With sincere and honest repentance and a reminder of the Jewish value of “seeing the other person in the image of God,” there’s a way for Weiner to put the scandal behind him, said Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg.

Judaism appreciates forgiveness, and Weiner has the chance to atone by making changes to his life and way of thinking, Greenberg told JTA.

“He doesn’t necessarily have to be a condemned man the rest of his life,” she said. “If others are big enough to forgive him, then his life isn’t over.

“He’s not an ax-murderer. He’s a very foolish man in power lacking a sense of appreciation for what he had.”

But whether Weiner can recover to the degree where the American Jewish community will proudly count him again among its ranks is a tougher question.

“He provided a negative example for our children,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We appropriately feel outrage for that.”

JTA Wire Service

JTA Washington Bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.


‘Tikkun olam’ is central to Judaism

Published: 05 August 2011
(tags): eric yoffie

After 16 years at the helm, Reform leader steps down

Uriel HeilmanWorld
Published: 16 December 2011
(tags): eric yoffie

At the end of this year, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), will step down after 16 years at the movement’s helm. Last week, Yoffie sat down with Uriel Heilman, the JTA managing editor, ahead of this week’s Reform biennial, which runs through Sunday just outside Washington. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

Q. What are you proudest about your time leading the movement?

A. My first biennial, I talked about Torah at the center. That was less of a programmatic initiative than it was a theological and cultural assertion. We had to operate with a consciousness of Torah being fundamental to all we do. It was an important cultural change.

Second, there has been an extraordinary worship revolution in the Reform movement of joyful, enthusiastic Jewish worship built around participatory Jewish music. It has dramatically changed the worship experience in the movement, and you really see it everywhere. I certainly didn’t create this, but we saw the sparks of this and then tried to support it, accelerate it. That’s Reform Judaism at its best.

And camps. In the last 15 years, we’ve added five camps and more than doubled our camping population.

Q. Any regrets?

A. I have lots of regrets. I’m not one of those people who say I have no regrets.

Are all Reform Jews studying Torah? Celebrating Shabbat? Performing mitzvot? Until such a time that that’s happening, we need to ask why not and what more could we have done.

Jews are a dissatisfied people; we cry out all the time. Jewish leaders have to be more dissatisfied than anyone else.

Among the elite, we have more observance and commitment than I would have imagined possible, but general levels aren’t what they ought to be.

Two years ago, we started a youth engagement campaign for ages 13 to 18. In retrospect, we should have started that 15 years ago.

While individually I’ve been tremendously engaged and involved in Israel, the reality is that too many people don’t feel the connection they should. I’m sorry I wasn’t more successful in creating those bridges.

Q. The upcoming Reform biennial is slated to be the largest ever, with nearly 6,000 attendees. What’s so special this year?

A. It’s a time of transition. There’s tremendous enthusiasm about Rick [Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the incoming president of the URJ]. People want to come. Most of these people aren’t rabbis, but synagogue lay leaders who come at their own expense. That’s enormously encouraging.

Q. What’s the role of the president of the URJ?

A. It’s a mistake to exaggerate the influence of the president of the URJ, and for that matter most Jewish leaders. The most important Jewish work is done in local Jewish congregations.

We can help shape Jewish consciousness, give priority to important Jewish things, give concrete support, offer legitimacy in cases where there may be some resistance among leaders.

Q. If organizations like yours only have a limited influence on Jewish life, who has a great influence?

A. The critical arena for the Jewish world is the synagogue. It’s the anchor. It’s the only place in the Jewish world where you’re valued as an individual Jew no matter who you are, or how much money you have. It’s a democratic venue. It’s a place where you study Torah and you pray and you educate your children, where you create community, deal with people who are suffering, celebrate successes. Where else does that happen?

Q. Does contemporary Reform have an ideology?

A. Heschel talked about a three-legged stool of God, Torah, and Israel. I would say Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and faith in the God of Israel. [Abraham Joshua Heschel was a major Conservative Jewish thinker who taught at Reform’s Hebrew Union College for five years. — Ed.]

We understand you need a balanced Judaism; focusing on any one leg distorts the others.

Reform Judaism has become more expansive. What is certainly different is the word “mitzvah” [commandment]. That word had really disappeared from the Reform lexicon, even as late as the 1970s. That began to change. I spoke a language of mitzvah. We now have a Reform Judaism that is in a certain sense more traditional. We’re also more radical. We live with the contradiction.

We’re not a halachic movement and we don’t profess to be. In some ways, we clearly have adopted polices that by pre-modern standards are a departure: patrilineal descent, gay and lesbian partnerships.

If it’s not ethical, it’s not Jewish. As much as we embrace tradition, we remain committed to this notion.

Q. Reform Judaism long has struggled to gain a foothold in Israel. Will it ever catch on there?

If we’re not a part of Israel, we move to the margins of Jewish history. The key is Israeli Reform rabbis. When we have 100 Israeli-born-and-educated rabbis, it’s going be a different country and a different movement. Now we have 40-plus rabbis. In 10 years, we’ll have 100.

Q. What’s next for Eric Yoffie?

A. I write for The Huffington Post, I blog for the Jerusalem Post, I have some other writing projects. I’m exploring. There’s a lot to do in the Jewish world, even outside of the Jewish world. I’ve thought of writing about Israel, I’ve thought about writing about Chabad. I’ve always thought about writing children’s books. I enjoy the blogging style. It fits my mentality.

Q. What would you write about Chabad?

A. Their role in the community is fascinating. I see the intense reactions they elicit, both positive and negative, from people outside of the Chabad world both in Reform and non-Reform circles. There are those who feel it’s undermining other institutions in the community and at the same time people who have been touched by a Chabad rabbi or have found a Chabad connection.

There are Reform rabbis who say they [Chabad] specifically target our wealthy members and they [the Reform rabbis] feel that that’s outrageous, and [there are] other Reform rabbis who say [of Chabad that] they’re out there offering Jewish services in the competitive, free market society in which we live, and we have to do what we’re doing and we have to do it better.

JTA Wire Service


Eric Yoffie talks about Reform Judaism, Israel, and pluralism

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

Larry YudelsonLocal | World
Published: 16 November 2012
(tags): eric yoffie

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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