|After 16 years as leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie handed the reins to Rabbi Richard Jacobs at last weekend’s convention.|
Local leaders of Reform congregations returned from the movement’s biennial convention in a Washington suburb floating on clouds, energized, and determined to meet the challenge – set by the movement’s leadership – of more than doubling synagogue participation by high school seniors by the end of this decade.
“We all came back so charged up,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “It was a fantastic renewal opportunity.”
With more than 6,000 attendees, the biennial was the largest ever, the first to be sold out, and one of the largest indoor gatherings of American Jews ever.
“It was amazing,” said Irene Bolton, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.
“It is the most awesome experience to sit in a space with 6,000 other Jews and to participate in Shabbat services as a group, and to be awed by the feeling of spirituality that permeates a space like that,” she said.
“You have to walk out of the biennial saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s hope for the Jewish people,'” she said.
The president of the Union of Reform Judaism leads the denomination in a way unmatched by his Orthodox or Conservative counterparts. This is a function of the URJ’s centrality within the Reform movement’s constellation of organizations, as well as the fact that, unlike the parallel organizations, the presidency of the URJ is a full-time position. Both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union are nominally headed by lay leaders who hold relatively short tenures.
Biennial pronouncements and initiatives by URJ leaders are subsequently quoted in a way reminiscent of how Chabad-Lubavitch followers quote the teachings of their late leader.
This year, the theme seemed to be reinventing Reform congregations to create “sustainable” communities that can retain the next generation.
The scope of the challenge was highlighted by the farewell sermon of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose 16 years at the URJ’s helm ended at the event. Yoffie noted that neither of his children belong to Reform synagogues.
Yoffie’s son, 28, is not a member of a synagogue, “but feels very much connected to his Jewish identity, and Israel and social justice are big passions for him,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.
“His daughter is married and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue, but still considers herself a Reform Jew. She reads Torah on Shabbat morning,” said Mosbacher.
“Things need to change in how we educate our kids and how we sustain our families. That’s the challenge of the movement, and the opportunity, if we think big and creatively,” said Mosbacher.
With its new “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the URJ is focusing on the statistic that “80 percent of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no connection of any kind to their Jewish community by the time they reach 12th grade,” in the wording on the campaign’s web site.
“We can’t abide that,” said Mosbacher. “We can’t move forward as a movement with those demographics. We have to figure out ways to engage our youth and, by extension, the families that belong to the congregation in a different kind of way.”
“The goal of the campaign is that by 2020, we move that number from 20 percent to 50 percent who will stay involved through high school,” he said.
While the campaign defines a goal, it does not prescribe set programs to achieve it.
This reflects a bottom-up approach that attendees connect to the agenda of the new URJ president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs.
“We’re really moving away from that hierarchical corporate approach to how we do business, to a sense of looking outside of ourselves and saying, who needs us, how do we draw people in, how do we engage Jews in a meaningful way,” said Frishman.
“The youth engagement campaign is about helping the congregations ask intentional, challenging questions about themselves, about whether everything is as excellent as can be,” said Mosbacher. “If it’s not excellent, what are the other methods that are out there that can make the synagogue excellent?
“Rabbi Jacobs said we should not be talking about the unaffiliated; we should talk about uninspiring congregations. We need to look at what’s inspiring people.
“My educator and my cantor and my lay leadership have come back eager to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we ask those hard questions of ourselves, we will necessarily need to come up with new and creative alternatives,” he said.
The changes called for at the biennial are less a U-turn than an acceleration of changes Reform congregations are making to deal with a changing world.
Take the example of Hebrew school – clearly central to engaging teenagers.
“To say that ‘I hated Hebrew school and you my child will hate Hebrew school’ is not a sustainable model. But there are excellent models. We need to see how to use them,” said Mosbacher. “Drop-off Hebrew school is not the most excellent model we can offer,” he said.
Seven years ago, his congregation began a family school, where children and adults study Hebrew and Judaics together. Data show that participating families are more connected to the synagogue – “though whether that’s because they’re self-selected is for the professional demographers to figure out.”
The challenge now: how to make the family school the rule, not the exception.
At Barnert Temple, said Frishman, “we’re involved in an educational self-study looking at how we teach our youth and our adults. We’re looking to completely re-examine our methodology and our outreach, as a way of engaging people meaningfully.”
The study held its initial focus groups two weeks ago, and the plan is for the study to be completed in about a year.
“This work is as much about engaging people in the process, and having the process be determined by participants. By the time we have figured out what we’re doing, we’ll already be doing it. This is all the thinking that goes on behind community organizing, which is at the heart of the leadership that goes on at the URJ,” said Frishman.
The fact that the process is already underway, however, did not diminish the significance of the biennial. “When you’re with all these other synagogues and everybody is hearing this message, It’s a chance to say, ‘it’s not just us, this is the way it’s being done,'” she said.
Similarly, Temple Beth Or is in the initial stages of a major educational change. The congregation has just begun a new program for its post-bar mitzvah students – the focus of the youth engagement initiative – in the wake of the ending of the closure last year of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism.
“As a congregation, we picked up that piece after BARJ. We understood that there was a need to integrate students into Jewish life and learning. We were sad that BARJ was no longer in existence, but you know the expression that God closes a door and opens a window? We were able to open the window.”
“We found we had very few students attending BARJ. Today, we have 25 students in a post-bar mitzvah program who are learning together, who are having fun together, who are building community together, and who are here on the same night as the younger students.
“We can find ways to involve the teens in coming back and reading Torah again, or being present for a minyan if we have a shiva minyan, or helping us with our caring committee,” said Bolton.
Her work as an educator is not just focused on the “classroom environment, but I’m thinking about what kind of programs can we provide, what kind of mentors and role models can we provide, how are we going to work with them on an intergenerational basis so there will be a charismatic adult in their life,” she said.
This shift from classic textbook education to experiential education is something that Bolton said was evident in the way the biennial convention has changed over the years that she has attended.
“This biennial was much more about experiencing, feeling, and participating, whereas when I began in Jewish education over 30 years ago and went to my first biennial, it was much more about what class can we offer, what project can we do, what program will work. Today, it was much more about the big picture, about helping people internalize and find meaning.
“Teaching Torah is what this was all about. Building community, finding ways for us to link together, to connect, to become a more caring community that puts Torah at the center,” said Bolton.
The bottom line, said Frishman, “is understanding how living Jewishly as a Reform Jew is powerful. It gives you a voice in the work of the world. Our mission is not just to light a Chanukah menorah; it’s to light it and think ‘How can the light of Judaism inspire me to light the world and open my arms to everyone? ‘It’s the message of Reform Judaism, part and parcel of who we are as Reform Jews, to know that what I’ve learned as a Jew isn’t for me alone, but for the way I interact with the stranger and help the life of the stranger to improve.”