Former URJ president is upbeat about future of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who served as president of Union for Reform Judaism from 1996-2012, visited St. Louis recently to deliver the inaugural Rabbi Jeffrey B. Stiffman lecture. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus


 Despite the tone of gloom and doom in many recent studies of American Jewry in general and Reform Judaism in particular, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, is generally upbeat about the future of the movement.

Yoffie was the inaugural speaker presented by the Rabbi Jeffrey B. Stiffman Fund, which Congregation Share Emeth established in May 2015 in honor of Rabbi Emeritus Siffman’s 50th anniversary as rabbi. 

Rabbis Yoffie and Stiffman share a warm friendship and have been colleagues since early in their careers. From 1996 to 2012, Yoffie served as president of URJ, which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues in the United States and Canada. 

Yoffie has been a major force in formulating Jewish attitudes onissues of social justice and community concern, writing frequently on matters of belief and spirituality as they affect Americans of all faiths and of no faith.

He spoke to several hundred members and guests at Congregation Shaare Emeth on March 20 about “Evolution and Revolution in the Reform Synagogue.” The Jewish Light caught up with Yoffie for an interview on his lecture topic and related issues.


What were the most surprising changes you observed during your tenure as president of URJ?

I was surprised by the depth of the spiritual stirrings that I saw in the congregations of our movement, and particularly the hunger for creating new worship practices that would give expression to that hunger.

In less than two decades, Reform worship changed in fundamental ways.Music today is different (more lively and participatory), sermons are different (shorter and less formal), and there is much more Hebrew.When I encouraged Shabbat observance at the Reform Biennial in 2007, I was surprised at the intense interest in thinking about how Reform Jews could embrace Shabbat.

I was surprised by how little was being said about sex in our congregational schools, leading to an initiative to teach sexual ethics from a Jewish perspective. 

This list could go on forever. Reform Jews are always surprising me.


Would you describe the Reform movement as robust today? If so, are there any challenges that could deplete that robustness?

Robust is a good word.My successor [as URJ president], Rabbi Rick Jacobs, has made dramatic changes in the organizational structure of the national movement, and I strongly support his vision and his daring. At the grassroots level, it is difficult to generalize. Our congregations at their best are stronger than they have ever been; at the same time, of course, we have synagogues that are struggling.

The key challenge is that young adults have changed how they live.They are marrying later and remaining in cities rather than moving to the suburbs. Since Reform Judaism remains primarily a suburban movement, we have not yet found the way to connect with the urban singles who, I believe, are open to liberal Judaism but will have to be reached in new ways.That is beginning to happen, but there is much more to do.


The recent Pew Research studies indicate that younger Jews are not attracted to “brick and mortar” synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, but do seek a spiritual and meaningful connection to their Jewishness. How successful have Reform Jewish institutions been in adapting to this new reality?

In a few places, we have done very well.Some of our synagogues that are located in urban areas in major cities where younger Jews live and work have refocused their activities to reach out to this population. In cases where we do not have congregations, we have done less well at creating them from scratch. This will happen, but it will take time. Hopefully, not too much time.


How has Reform Judaism’s relationship with Israel changed during your years as URJ president and president emeritus?Greater presence in Israel?Increasing estrangement between American and Israeli communities?

I don’t accept the estrangement theory.Ties with Israel remain strong, even as the old consensus has broken down.In my experience, if you are an engaged Jew, you are engaged with Israel.It is impossible to be Jewish in a serious way without relating to Israel.

Of course, Israel is no longer a version of “Jewish Disneyland,” a near-perfect place that is filled with pioneers and that everybody loves.We are far more sophisticated about Israel than we were.We recognize her problems, but we are also committed more profoundly. And Birthright, which has sent 500,000 young people to Israel, has helped in a major way.

As an example of what I mean, the involvement of so many American Jews in the Women of the Wall movement shows how we can care about Israel while doing something specific and concrete to promote religious life there. Rather than turning away or turning our backs, American Jews identified with an internal Israeli issue and worked hard to bring about change.All that is good.


What role can Reform Judaism play in reducing the bitter political divisions that have riven our society in recent days? Should rabbis steer clear of political sermons and bulletin articles?

Rabbis should steer clear of partisan politics.We should not support parties or candidates.But we should not steer clear of politics in general because doing that means to steer clear of Judaism.Judaism is about the entirety of life, and this means studying Torah, prayer and observing ritual mitzvoth.

But is also means observing ethical mitzvoth and promoting justice in society.If we were to remove questions of societal justice from our Jewish concerns, we would have to discard much of what Torah is about. 

To take an obvious example, how we treat immigrants is a central question for the rabbis and our sacred texts.You cannot profess to be a serious Jew without relating to the matter of how we, individually and communally, treat immigrants and would-be immigrants. I am not suggesting that there are simple answers, but I am suggesting that if you disregard these issues and you are Jewish, your Judaism is not authentic.