Orlando, Fla. — In a continued effort to spiritually reinvigorate its 1.5 million adherents and bring young people back into the pews, the Reform movement plans to revolutionize its prayer services, stressing more Hebrew and new American-style music.
The ambitious initiative, announced Saturday by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, comes as North America’s largest Jewish denomination struggles with several crises, including a severe shortage of rabbis, educators and administrators, and surging numbers of intermarried families, many raising their children as Christians (see sidebar).
Nevertheless, speaking at the 65th Biennial Convention before about 5,000 Reform members, Rabbi Yoffie declared that the movement must immediately begin a revolution to transform its synagogues into citadels of song, spirituality and learning.
His remarks came during a 50-minute “State of Reform Judaism” speech in which he blasted the National Rifle Association and Congress on gun control and launched a Reform anti-gun campaign; announced a nightly Jewish bedtime program for children to counteract dangers posed by the Internet; and rejected proposals that would limit Reform rights in Israel.
But the prayer initiative, together with a series of seminars about how to transform synagogues, dominated the five-day convention in the heart of Disney World attended by representatives of Reform’s 875 congregations.
Rabbi Yoffie called on the movement’s cantors and rabbis to stop being stage performers for unschooled congregants, and instead form partnerships with worshipers who are taught Hebrew and participate in vibrant prayer services.
“I propose that … we proclaim a new Reform revolution,” Rabbi Yoffie said, standing in front of a 50-foot-high cloth reproduction of the ark from Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, which was ravaged by fire last year.
“Like the original Reform revolution, it will be rooted in the conviction that Judaism is a tradition of rebellion, revival and redefinition. And like the original, too, this new initiative will make synagogue worship our movement’s foremost concern.”
He noted the irony that Reform Judaism came into being as a liturgical revolt against “the chaos and mechanical mumbling of the then-dominant forms of Jewish prayer,” referring to Orthodoxy.
But Rabbi Yoffie said innovations for Reform prayer are necessary because members sense that “our Judaism has been a bit too cold and domesticated. All of us — rabbis, cantors lay leaders — seem ready to admit that far too often our services are tedious, predictable and dull. Far too often our music is dirge-like and our Torah readings lifeless.”
Rabbi Yoffie’s new prayer initiative comes a year after the movement’s rabbis adopted a historic set of guidelines making all traditional Jewish mitzvot, or sacred obligations, relevant for Reform Jews — a 180-degree change from Reform’s 1885 first set of principles rejecting religious observance.
Change within the movement, Rabbi Yoffie acknowledged, is difficult. He cited the continuing “worship wars” pitting young members who yearn for Jewish ritual like wearing talleisim, against older members who are comfortable with anti-ritual classical Reform practices.
“Older members threaten to vote with their checkbooks if worship is changed,” Rabbi Yoffie said, “while younger members threaten to vote with their feet if it is not.”
But in today’s world, Reform’s Sabbath services now compete against children’s soccer games — a battle the movement is losing.
Citing polls that while 40 percent of Americans attend a communal service every week vs. less than 10 percent for Jews, he said, a major challenge “of our worship revolution is to bring young families and young children back into our sanctuaries.”
He said 27-year-old rabbis often are the youngest people “by decades” at Friday night services. He chided shuls that turn Shabbat morning services into private affairs when there is a bar mitzvah scheduled.
To effect change, Rabbi Yoffie said music “will be the single most important key to the success or failure of our revolution.” He also insisted on increased Hebrew.
“Some view the increased use of Hebrew in prayer as contrary to Reform principle,” he acknowledged, but he called Hebrew “the great democratic tool of Jewish worship.”
“If we fail to learn at least the basics of Hebrew, then we are forcing our rabbis and cantors to serve as priests [who] enjoy sole access to the secret code of Jewish worship.”
In an interview, Rabbi Yoffie conceded that it will be difficult for many rabbis and cantors to relinquish control, and for older congregants to learn Hebrew. But determined to succeed, the movement is distributing detailed instruction manuals for lay leaders to begin the process of prayer reform.
In addition the UAHC announced a multimillion-dollar joint project with Synagogue 2000, the national synagogue transformation enterprise founded by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in which 16 congregations will participate in comprehensive three-year worship renewal program.
Some convention delegates welcomed Rabbi Yoffie’s prayer project but warned that their older congregation members, who adhere to classical Reform customs, will become disaffected.
“Some will just stop coming,” said a delegate in his 70s from Washington, D.C.
“There is no question there will be tension within the congregation,” said Fred Milder, a delegate about 40 years old from Brookline, Mass.
“The question is how do you make everyone still feel comfortable,” said Heather Padzensky, about 30, from Temple Emanuel in San Jose, Calif. “It all comes back to educating.”
Similar to the 1997 biennial, delegates took advantage of an array of early morning prayer services, from more traditional “Orthodox-style” gatherings to “New Age” meditation groups.
Since becoming UAHC’s president four years ago, Rabbi Yoffie has introduced several major programs designed to increase Jewish ritual and observance, including a call to study Torah and read Jewish books.
Rabbi Yoffie said it’s been difficult to gauge how these initiatives are faring.
“We’ve had a measure of success with each one, not necessarily overwhelming with any,” he said. “Do I believe we began to change the culture? Absolutely.”
Participants said this year’s assembly was more serious and businesslike than the more exuberant biennials of ’97 and 1995.
“I noticed people were not as carefree,” said Cherry Hill, N.J., exhibitor Sivia Katz.
Meanwhile, warning of increasing dangers to Jewish children from outside influences like the Internet, Rabbi Yoffie also called for parents to begin a “Jewish Bedtime Stories” project.
Citing the Columbine massacre, he said, “If we are serious about immunizing our children against the influence of violent images to which they are exposed in their PCs and CDs, and on their TVs and VCRs, then a good place to begin is for parents to craft their own Jewish bedtime rituals.”
With the aid of brochures and startup-kits designed for preschool through third grade, he called for a campaign — to include all Jewish denominations — to ensure that “no Jewish child in North America goes to bed without reading a Jewish book, listening to a Jewish tape, watching a Jewish video or playing a Jewish computer game.”
Also invoking the protection of children, Rabbi Yoffie denounced the NRA as the “criminals’ lobby” that practices idolatry of guns as he called for an intense and specific Reform-backed federal gun control campaign.
A resolution approved Sunday by the convention urged every Reform congregation to organize letter-writing campaigns to their congressional representatives in the next nine months demanding that effective gun controls law be passed.
Regarding Israel, Rabbi Yoffie praised the new Syrian peace initiative, but he slammed Israeli politicians for betraying the Reform movement last year with empty promises of religious equality.
“Politicians tempted us with a vision of religious harmony that the [Orthodox] chief rabbis never even considered accepting,” he said. “What began with promise ended with betrayal.”
Regarding a new proposal asking the Reform and Conservative movements to suspend their conversions in Israel, Rabbi Yoffie declared: “We will suspend nothing. Not our conversions, not our struggle, not our principles.”