National Harbor, Md. — The metaphors abound. To Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism, it’s a gas station. To Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the outgoing president, it’s an anchor. To Stephen Sacks, the incoming chairman of Reform’s board, it’s a supermarket.
They’re all talking about the Reform synagogue, and they all agree on one thing: It’s not a place you can find very many Reform Jews from post-bar/bat mitzvah age through their 30s.
“Most synagogues are not meeting the needs of that demographic,” said Rabbi Elissa Koppel, 39, of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, N.J. “Synagogues need to think differently about how to reach them. I think it’s always been a challenge, but there’s more awareness of it now.”
Reform activists and leaders cite several reasons for the disaffection of young Jews: the difficulty of competing for young people’s attention given the distractions of the modern world; the ethos of individualism in American life; a growing preference for virtual social networks over physical ones; parents who emphasize soccer practice over Jewish tradition; a declining sense of obligation to belong to communal institutions.
And then, of course, there’s the deterrent of Reform synagogues themselves.
“The standard model is not working for the younger generation,” said Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, 39, of Old York Temple Beth Am in Abington, Pa., near Philadelphia. “A lot of programming is based on the 50s and 60s set — one size fits all. But American Jews have become more assimilated and are moving away from organized synagogue life. The movement has to change along with that.”
The Reform movement is facing a host of challenges, from an economic downturn that has left some synagogues unable to make ends meet to the Union for Reform Judaism itself, which is undergoing a transition at the top and is six months away from completing an 18-month assessment to decide the movement’s future. But Reform leaders say their greatest hurdle is figuring out how to engage young Jews, most of whom leave Reform synagogues “with the last hora of the bar/bat mitzvah party,” as Jacobs puts it.
One need look no further than Yoffie’s own children, whom he talked about in his Shabbat sermon at the Reform biennial conference held Dec. 14-18 at a hotel just outside Washington. His daughter, Adina, attends a Modern Orthodox shul, and his son Adam, 28, finds temple boring and doesn’t go much at all, according to Yoffie.
“They agree on what they don’t want,” Yoffie said. “They don’t want their synagogue to be the synagogue of their youth.”
In a time of decreasing affiliation with communal Jewish institutions across the denominational spectrum, concern is growing in the Reform movement that unlike previous generations, the young Jews leaving Reform synagogues now will never return.
“A newer trend indicates that fewer and fewer Jews will even join for their children,” Jacobs said in his biennial address Sunday morning. “Of all the movements, Reform Jews lead the way and — this ain’t a happy one — we lead the way in leaving when childhood education is over.”
In an interview with JTA, Jacobs added, “If we don’t start thinking differently about youth, it’s certainly not a bright and rosy future.”
The bleak prognosis for the movement was belied by a biennial that many participants described as the most energetic they had ever attended.
“I’ve felt inspired by this conference,” said Jonah Kaplan, 25, of Springfield, Mo. “My belief in the movement has been reaffirmed. It’s important to get some Yiddishkeit and Jewish vigor and Jewish identity, and be surrounded by people like me who share the same passion for Judaism that I do.”
Nearly 6,000 people attended the biennial, making it the biggest Reform conference in history and the first to be sold out, and featured speeches by President Obama, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, among others. It also was the last biennial with Yoffie at the helm. Jacobs, who has been the rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., will take over as president in January after 16 years of Yoffie’s leadership.
Sessions at the five-day conference covered everything from “Yoga Shalom: The Embodiment of Prayer” to “Is America Abandoning Church-State Separation? Implications for the Jewish Community.”
For many of the rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and teens from the National Federation of Temple Youth in attendance, the main motive for coming was to reconnect with old friends and be energized by the thousands of fellow Reform faithful.
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. But the Shabbat morning service 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 phones.
Yoffie over the years has tried 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, though 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 Kabbalat Shabbat 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 Obama had cited the day before in the d’var Torah he used to open his speech.
“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 isn’t 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 bar mitzvah.
Jacobs says that if young people aren’t 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.
Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, 51, of Temple Chaverim in Plainview, N.Y., says the movement has to move away from synagogues being bar-mitzvah factories — what Jacobs called a gas station to “fill up the next generation with Jewish gas” and what Sacks called a “supermarket where Reform Jews come to purchase services.”
“We are at fault for creating a model based on ‘You come to synagogue when your kids are in third grade and you’re out in eighth grade,’ " Hecht said, lamenting that kids "see Reform Judaism as something you do at one time in your life, like college."
It’s a question, he said, of resources.
“Are we willing to add more camps, more full-time youth workers?” Hecht asked. “Where are we putting our efforts?”