Sessions at the five-day biennial conference of the Union of Reform Judaism covered everything from “Yoga Shalom: The Embodiment of Prayer” to “Is America Abandoning Church-State Separation? Implications for the Jewish Community.”

The conference was a mix of old and new, reflecting some of the changes made by the movement over the last generation, and some it has not made. The weekday prayer services consisted of participatory singing, guitar playing and even storytelling and meditation – part of a revolution in Reform prayer led by the late singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman. The Shabbat morning service, however, was more formal and operatic, sending some congregants – mostly young people, but also gray-haired ones – out of the room and into the hallways to chat and fiddle with their mobile phones.

During his 16-year-tenure, outgoing URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie sought to make Torah a renewed focus of the movement, pushing for more Jewish study, Shabbat observance, the adoption of some kind of Jewish dietary ethos, and the practice of mitzvot. To some degree, the push has taken hold, although not always in step with traditional Jewish practice.

The communal Friday night dinner was kosher style, not kosher; there was a single challah at each table rather than the traditional two; and Shabbat candles were lit after evening services, more than three hours after sunset.

At services, instead of the traditional “Maariv” blessing on Friday night, the congregation chanted a piece of prose written by Anne Frank. On Saturday, aliyot went to groups rather than individuals, and the selection from the weekly Torah portion amounted to just 11 verses – excluding the passage from the weekly portion that President Barack Obama had cited the day before in the d’var Torah he used to open his speech. (See page 20.)

“We’re not a halachic movement and we don’t profess to be,” Yoffie told JTA. “We now have a Reform Judaism that is in a certain sense more traditional. We’re also more radical. We live with the contradiction.”

The question for the Reform movement is not how close or far it can get from halachah, or Jewish law, but whether it can interest the 80 percent of Reform Jews who stay away from the synagogue for two or three decades after their becoming b’nai- and b’not mitzvah.

Incoming URJ President Rabbi Richard Jacobs says that if young people are not going to come to the synagogue, the movement will just have to bring the synagogue to them. How that is to be done is not exactly clear. Jacobs, whose own temple hired a rabbinic intern to work outside the synagogue to engage people in Jewish life, is starting by launching a campaign for youth engagement, and going on a listening tour to learn about innovative and successful models.

“If we don’t start thinking differently about youth, it’s certainly not a bright and rosy future,” Jacobs told JTA.

Other challenges the Reform movement faces include the economic downturn that has left some synagogues unable to make ends meet, to the URJ itself, which is six months away from completing an 18-month assessment to decide the movement’s future.

JTA Wire Service