How much reform can even the Reform movement withstand?
Last month, the rabbinic arm of America’s largest Jewish denomination published an essay anthology that seems to call for a return to kashrut.
Now its Reform Think Tank is taking a hard look at where the movement is and where it’s going.
“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA.
Rabbi 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 urj.org/thinktank. 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.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Rabbi Steven Windmueller, director of 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 the movement.
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 Congregation 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.”
Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Rabbi 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?”
Rabbi 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.
“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant,” he said.