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Challenges for North American Reform Rabbis

by Rabbi Adam Morris

One of the items I regularly receive in my inbox is called ‘Ravkav’ — it is the listserve for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional organization for Reform Rabbis in North America.  Like many of the listserves that arrive in your own e-mail inboxes, the discussions range from practical and mundane to high-minded idealism and philosophy.  When I actually click open the daily e-mail, I can find discussion chains about idiosyncratic synagogue issues to philosophical issues on the latest happenings in Israel to samplings of what is challenging the North American Reform rabbinate. It is a discussion of the latter which I wish to share with you….

Apparently, a group of Reform rabbis from throughout the country and representing a few of the largest congregations in the movement — (to give you a sense of ‘large,’ Micah has 200 families and these congregations range from 1500 families to 2800 families) — has been meeting, reflecting and cogitating on the state of the Reform movement, its members, its leadership, its present and its future. This group — that calls itself the Rabbinic Vision Initiative (RVI) — plans to open its concerns and vision to the rest of the rabbinic community at the upcoming convention of the CCAR in late March in New Orleans. This coming out — even though this group has made itself known to the leaders of the Reform Movement — has caused quite the stir among my colleagues. Regardless of the propriety of the protocol of this group and its activities, the issues they respond to are ones essential to the movement and the 21st century North American Jewish community.

So, I share their ‘Position Paper’ and its salvos to our movement for your reflection, consideration and reaction:

Urgent Change, Lasting Transformation: A Position Paper of the Rabbinic Vision Initiative (February, 2011)

As Reform Jews we believe that Judaism is, and always has been, a dynamic, ever-changing, constantly-evolving, living tradition. The early Reformers did not simply bring change to Judaism in the 19th Century; they recognized change as an ever-present constant in the 3000 years of our history. So although we refer to ourselves as “a Movement,” it might be more appropriate to say that we believe Judaism itself to be the very embodiment of “movement.” Never has this been the case more than it is today, as the pace of change in our society has increased so dramatically.

Impacted by social changes, the Jewish community is evolving quickly.

  1. Jews do not feel an obligation to be Jewish as previous generations once did. Many contemporary Jews feel less connection to a sense of Jewish kinship and less personal commitment to the Jewish people. The obligation to ensure Jewish survival, once considered a collective sacred duty, is no longer a “given.”
  2. There is no one way to be Jewish today. There are limitless ways to be Jewish and connect to Jewish life beyond the traditional structure of synagogue affiliation. Fewer than a third of American Jews presently belong to synagogues. Synagogues have become pass-throughs of convenience for life-cycle celebration and commemoration.
  3. Denominational differences are blurring. Jews are joining congregations for reasons of worship style, reputation of clergy or religious school, or to be with friends. Loyalty to denominational ideology is less relevant.
  4. Intermarriage has dramatically impacted Jewish life. Though membership units in Reform congregations have remained constant, there are fewer adult Jews in our synagogues than there were 20 years ago. The decline of adult Jews in Reform synagogues has been made up on our membership rolls by an increasing number of non-Jewish spouses who are not converting. On a movement-wide basis almost half of the children being educated in Reform synagogues are growing up in a family in which one parent was not born Jewish.
  5. Our 20 and 30 year olds are changing the rules. This generation has fewer Jewish friends, spouses, neighbors or work colleagues than past generations. They are not joiners and see denominations as divisive or irrelevant.
  6. National organizations can no longer depend on communal support for Israel. Recently some researchers have suggested that younger liberal Jews feel much less attached to Israel than their elders.

Our Mission
The Rabbinic Vision Initiative (RVI) first gathered in December 2009 out of the same passionate commitment to liberal Judaism and our Reform movement which occupies us daily in our life work. We began as 17 senior rabbis of geographically diverse, large congregations and are now being joined by colleagues serving as Reform rabbis throughout North America..

We believe that without informed reflection, bold deliberation, and decisive action our Movement will not be adequately equipped to face the future. These times call for intensified  efforts to examine the mission and structure of our current institutions and to imagine new models that might increase our Movement’s effectiveness in meeting the critical needs that lie ahead. Believing that the Reform movement is defined by its constituent congregations, we look
forward to engaging a diverse array of both clergy and lay voices in formulating a vision that can help lead our movement forward.

The Case for Change at the URJ
After a distinguished career, Rabbi Eric Yoffie has announced that he would be stepping down as President of the URJ. This provides the URJ and other national organizations with a unique and valuable opportunity to take the time to seek input from its constituent congregations and to rethink the vision and basic structures of our Movement which is especially necessary to attract the
best candidates for the URJ presidency. We are grateful to the URJ leadership for actions they have taken, but having studied documents provided by the URJ describing their efforts to address areas of concern described below, we believe that current plans and actions are not adequate to meet the challenges we face. We note that:

  1. Our movement has not responded effectively to the dramatic changes in the wider landscape of Jewish life.
  2. The governance structure of the URJ is large and unwieldy, precluding effective and dynamic response to the changing realities of the Jewish world today.
  3. The operations of our national organizations need to be consolidated in order to eliminate redundancy, reduce costs and ensure a higher degree of accountability.
  4. The URJ has underperformed for the last decade with regard to Fundraising and Development. Vision both requires and inspires financial support. A priority commitment to this area is a prerequisite to our future success.
  5. As congregational rabbis we understand that listening precedes meaningful action. We sense a widespread concern in our movement that the URJ is not productively engaged in the real-life needs and challenges of its member congregations.
  6. The restructuring and downsizing of the URJ staff and delivery of services was peremptory and ineffectively executed without a careful and consensual movement-wide vision for the future.
  7. Many congregations perceive that the URJ has yet to create a culture of excellence, and they lack confidence in the consistent capacity of the Union staff to face current and future challenges. Our congregations are seeking a collaborative and effective approach to management.
  8. With the increased effectiveness of creative, dynamic Jewish organizations (e.g. IJS, JFJ, ECE, Synagogue 3000, JOI), the URJ has been left behind. Instead of being ahead of the curve, the URJ lags behind the cutting edge organizations which are imagining the Jewish future.
  9. While the URJ has taken important strides in core areas like Life-long Jewish Learning, the depth of Reform Jewish living remains a critical challenge. The URJ needs to help congregations tell the truth about our successes and failures, and help revitalize the core areas of learning, spirituality, and social justice.
  10. URJ congregations are struggling mightily to keep pace with technological changes and opportunities in modern culture. The URJ needs to play a leadership role in enabling congregations to harness the power of social media and the internet.

Congregations large and small wrestle between a sense of obligation to our movement and profound concerns about the value received for our contributions. With a compelling vision for Reform Judaism and a stronger sense of the value the URJ delivers, congregations and rabbis can play a vital role in creating a strong financial foundation for the Union. Our movement is fully capable of supporting a vision of excellence for the Reform Jewish future to which we are all dedicated.

Plan of Action
Toward this end the Rabbinic Vision Initiative will expand our conversations to include our rabbinic colleagues in order that together we:

  1. Be the catalyst for an immediate visioning process and meetings for that purpose.
  2. Meet with the leadership of the URJ, HUC-JIR, CCAR, ACC, NATE and NATA to outline our case for change, stress the importance of this process and the movement-wide ramifications of failure.
  3. Contact and engage other clergy colleagues, synagogue professionals and congregational officers and boards who support the purpose of vision and transformation in our movement in order to ensure that a greater number of leaders are given the opportunity to express their opinions about the future of our Movement and to commit themselves to a shared vision.
  4. Convene selected change agents and visionaries, without regard to institutional involvement, to consider the future of Reform/Liberal Judaism, in order to access the expertise of the “best and the brightest” within our midst.
  5. Continue to address with our boards and leadership the challenges of Reform Judaism and 21st century Jewry to further their support of our efforts and to consider congregational efforts and actions to support change in our Movement.

We imagine a movement that will deepen commitment to study, prayer, tikkun olam, medinat yisrael and am yisrael; provide basic services to congregations which require them; provide services that individual congregations may not be able to independently support (camps, Israel trips, RAC); anticipate future trends and challenges; serve as an incubator and help attract funding for transformative congregational programming; engage Reform Jewish youth; establish excellence as the single standard and goal for our national organizations and all programs of our movement, including the caliber and preparation of our professionals; and create a culture of creativity within our congregations, among our congregations, and beyond them.

We reaffirm our claim on the robust and progressive Reform Judaism that nourished us with vision and purpose. We passionately embrace this profound responsibility: to shape a Jewish future in the 21st century, to decisively meet the challenges of societal transformation, and to commit ourselves to the sacred mission of Reform Judaism, the dynamic, ever-changing, constantly-evolving, living tradition of Jewish life. Together, we must engage in an in-depth and all-encompassing process of self-evaluation and reorganization if our Movement is to remain the dynamic force that our forebears set into motion so many years ago. With faith in our future we passionately commit ourselves to the attainment of these goals.

Founding Members of the RVI:
Rabbi Peter Berg
Rabbi Ronne Friedman, Organizing Committee
Rabbi Micah Greenstein
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Rick Jacobs
Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, Organizing Committee
Rabbi William Kuhn
Rabbi Steven Leder
Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig
Rabbi Steven Mason
Rabbi John Moscowitz
Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Organizing Committee
Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Chair
Rabbi David Stern
Rabbi Paul Yedwab
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman

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