Admitting that his Reform movement’s controversial 20-year-old outreach program has failed to reach its potential, Rabbi Eric Yoffie has called for new efforts to bring Reform Judaism to tens of thousands of unaffiliated North American Jews and intermarried couples.
"We have not accomplished all that we should have," Rabbi Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), told about 75 Reform officials at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue last Sunday, while addressing a 20th anniversary celebration of the denomination’s outreach program.
But he also made it clear the Reform movement had no intention of backing away from its outreach strategy, including the controversial acceptance of patrilineal descent as an accepted mode of Jewish transmission: which rocked world Jewry in 1979 and whose reverberations continue to fuel the pluralism war.
"Let me say one final time to all those who ask that we change our direction: there will be no retreat in the Reform movement from the principles or the practice of outreach," he declared. "North American Jews of all stripes want energetic outreach to intermarried Jews and Jews by choice in order to save them for the Jewish people."
Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks come amid a debate in the Jewish community over whether to spend limited resources on all unaffiliated Jews or target those most likely to respond.
Rabbi Yoffie called the controversial Reform outreach effort begun 20 years ago by his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a "triumph" because it has attracted "tens of thousands of intermarried couples who are now members of our congregations [who] would be forever lost to the Jewish people.
"But gauging the success of Reform outreach in quantifiable terms is virtually impossible: no hard data or numbers have ever been collected, Reform officials admit, citing issues of privacy.
Dru Greenwood, director of outreach, said 17,000 people have attended the "Taste of Judaism" three-session Reform introduction course since it began in 1994, but that number doesn’t offer information on how many people have converted. The reason there is no data, she said, is because "rabbis don’t want to have a central repository."
Jewish conversion expert Lawrence Epstein said it would be "extremely valuable" to gather and analyze such data "so we can assess the impact on the community."
In his wide-ranging address, Rabbi Yoffie chided Orthodox critics of Reform outreach; cited the success of outreach efforts by the Lubavitch movement, but condemned its theology; and stressed the new demarcation between the Reform approach to outreach and that of the Conservative movement, which recently barred intermarried members from leadership positions.
But he spent most of his time specifying failures or missed opportunities during Reform outreach’s first 20 years:
* Failing to urge non-Jewish spouses of Reform-affiliated intermarried couples to convert. "The fact is we usually do not ask," he said.
* Failing to help Reform synagogue nursery school programs with Jewish content. "We provide no curricular assistance, no teacher training, no forum for exchange of ideas and problems. Incredibly, we have ignored an institution which … is best positioned to serve the young intermarried and unaffiliated population."
* The problem of setting standards for intermarried couples and their participation in their congregations. The issue is controversial in a movement as large and diverse as Reform because "some Reform Jews still find it difficult to acknowledge that any limitation is consistent with Reform belief," Rabbi Yoffie said.
"A lowest-common-denominator/no-one-must-ever-be-hurt Judaism is not and has never been what outreach is about." But he quickly added: "If the need for boundaries is our primary message, and if confronting others with endless demands is the thrust of our program, then we are lost and Judaism is doomed."
Rabbi Yoffie challenged communal organizations, saying there has not been enough outreach outside the synagogue.
"In most major Jewish communities, a call is made each year to every Jewish family, even if it is not affiliated with any Jewish institution, to solicit a contribution to UJA/Federation," he noted. "But tell me: shouldn’t a call also be made, every year, to discuss with that family Jewish education for their children? Shouldn’t a call be made, every year, to extend an invitation for Shabbat dinner?"
Rabbi Yoffie cited the Lubavitch movement for outreach but called Chabad dangerous, noting newspaper ads that imply the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson is the messiah, and is still alive.
Yet with a touch of envy, he said, "Chabad compensates for its theological primitivism by an outreach campaign that, in some respects, puts the rest of the Jewish world to shame," citing its classes, campus offices, audiotapes and satellite TV.
"Chabad, it seems, is everywhere," he said admitting that "the passion and deep commitment to spread our message … is not yet the possession of our movement at large."
Rabbi Yoffie also questioned the Conservative movement’s recent steps to bar intermarried Jews from leadership posts.
"I fear that those who should be drawn near will instead be driven away. Under the circumstances, it is especially important that we hold firm to our convictions."
Rabbi Yoffie argued that intermarriage and assimilation is a problem for all denominations and assailed those who blame Reform for creating disunity, saying that intermarriage is a product of modernity, and not of any religious stream.
"The only way to stamp it out would be to return the Jews to the medieval ghetto. Furthermore, no religious grouping has found an answer to intermarriage, or has escaped its reach. In the United States, where 90 percent of the Jews identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism, the intermarriage rate exceeds 50 percent. In England and France, where 90 percent of the Jews identify with Orthodox Judaism, the intermarriage rate is higher still."
But Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said of Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks,
"What is new, and astoundingly disingenuous, is his crude attempt to imply that the halacha-observant Jewish community suffers from high rates of intermarriage. Needless to say, while pro-forma membership in Orthodox organizations does not ensure that Jews will marry Jews, acceptance of Jewish observance demonstrably does."