26 June 2008

The Future of Reform Judaism?

A few weeks ago, the Reform Rabbi's listserve was abuzz about a new article in Commentary magazine by Dr. Jack Wertheimer. Dr. Wertheimer teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is an expert on modern American Judaism and its communal organization.

The article gave an interesting analysis of Reform Judaism. The first two-thirds of the article were a mostly flattering account of how Reform Judaism is actually living up to its name - that we do "consider Reform a verb" and are constantly re-evaluating and (hopefully) progressing as a Progressive denomination. This part I liked.

The last part of the article was more of a criticism and a challenge. His point was that our Outreach efforts have made us the denomination to join. In contrast to other liberal (in a political sense) American denominations (Jewish or no), we have been able to maintain our membership AND a coherent liberal voice. However, the future remains to be seen.

He makes some points that we Reform Jews must take seriously:
  • Reform Judaism has not really increased in size, but rather maintained absolute numbers while Conservative Judaism has slipped and Orthodoxy (the smallest of the big three) has increased.
  • Much of Reform Judaism's new membership is intermarried families and the long-term Jewish identification of children of such families is still an open inquiry.
  • In the current era, "membership" or "affiliation" is a measure of paying dues, not participation in synagogue activities, Jewish worship, or home observance. Wertheimer also brings out the point that where the "leadership" (either professional or member) of the Reform is, may not be where the bulk of the membership may be.
My responses:
  • To the first point, the numbers game is not so important to me. I am more concerned with whether those who are raised as Reform Jews stay Reform Jews (meaning that we teach them something that is meaningful to them over a lifetime) than if our absolute numbers are staying the same.
  • One aspect of the intermarriage issue has long troubled me. When I was growing up, in a Reform congregation down the road, most of those who joined (who hadn't just chosen the closest congregation) had joined a Reform congregation because they identified with Reform Judaism - either from their upbringing or a choice to affiliate Reform rather than their birth/adolescent affiliation. Today, many intermarried families with a partner from other Jewish backgrounds (notably Orothodox or Conservative) join a Reform temple because it is the only place that they feel their (non-Jewish) spouse will feel at all welcome. This brings up two challenges:
    1. This will only last so long as the other movements ignore outreach to the intermarried - and that era has ended for the Conservative movement and for Chabad, which are both actively finding new ways to reach out.
    2. The Jewish partner does not feel comfortable with the practice of the Reform congregation and, unless they come to adjust their expectations, find themselves worshipping and teaching their children a Judaism that is not their own preferred practice.
  • Here is a challenge that all of us in the Reform movement need to take very seriously. The ideal of Reform Judaism is "informed choice". The hope is that we take the time to learn about Jewish tradition and only THEN decide whether to do, not do, or modify a particular practice or ritual. There are many people who are NOT members of a Reform congregation but call themselves "Reform", when what they really mean is that they do not do what they think they are supposed to do, but still consider themselves religiously Jewish. Reform Judaism is NOT JudaismLite - and that is something that we need to make sure that every member of every Reform congregation understands and believes.
My final criticism of the Wertheimer article should come as no surprise to members of this congregation who are at all aware of the work that our part-time Director of Education does in her off-hours. The Reform movement takes the idea of Jewish education very seriously. It is a mistake to disregard the tremendous intent, work and results of the new Chai curriculum. As at no other period and in no other movement, the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning has created a template so that all congregations - from the smallest to the largest - can bring the children and parents of their congregations to a common base level of understanding of Reform Judaism. Wertheimer does not take any of this self-reflection (or even the ECE program of HUC) and conscious development into account.

So, read the article for yourself and post below what you think...

19 June 2008

Meeting with Sallai Meridor

Yesterday I was in Washington, DC for a meeting of the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we had an interesting guest. Sallai Meridor, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, had heard that we were meeting nearby and asked if he could speak to us. Needless to say, the CCAR President, Rabbi Peter Knobel, was happy to oblige.

After thanking us for the important work that we as Reform Rabbis do and noting the increased importance of the State of Israel in the Reform Movement, Ambassador Meridor's message was simple: Israel's major external threat at this moment in time is Iran, Iran, Iran.

He made the following points:

  • If Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear bomb, they might use it.
  • If Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear bomb, everyone else in the region will want one.
  • If others in the region start to get them, the time lag until a nuclear bomb is in the hands of a terrorist is minimal.
He then said that:
  1. Iran needs to know that the United States is monolithic on preventing Iran's nuclear proliferation.
  2. The rest of the world needs to get on the bandwagon.
  3. Stronger sanctions are needed now. (He mentioned specifically that Iran has little in the way of refineries and actually imports much of its gasoline products. This is a vulnerable point.)
  4. Iran needs to know that "all options are on the table".
Finally, he spoke about Hezbollah and Hamas, but in the context of how they gave Iran two military arms encircling Israel - the first with a large missile battery capable of reaching three-quarters of Israel, and the second with a growing missile battery capable of covering much of the rest.

Of the truce scheduled to begin today with Hamas in Gaza, he said that the choice was escalation and re-occupation or giving Egypt's diplomacy a chance. Of the negotiations with Syria, he said that the current generation - before it puts its grandchildren in the line of fire - needs to try negotiation, if only to separate the Syrian/Iranian axis. Of potential direct negotiations with Lebanon, he said the time had come.


At the end of his talk, Ambassador Meridor also offered options for things that I as a Rabbi can give to my congregants to take action - in addition to the usual informing our governmental representatives and holding them to account:

He told a story of how he looked into his small pension funds and asked his financial advisor if he had any funds in companies that did business in Iran. At first, his advisor said that there were, but there was little he could do with the larger fund. Ambassador Meridor, as a private investor, asked that his funds be taken out of those relevant companies. In response, the fund did some investigation and removed a larger than $1M investment in a Swedish company doing business in Iran and replaced that investment in another company in a similar business, but not in Iran.

Ambassador Meridor challenged us to take a look at our investments, speak to our brokers or investment advisors, and do what we can - not necessarily to start a grassroots campaign - but to begin to say, we don't want to put our money into a country that exports terror; that denies the Holocaust, or that threatens (and has the power) to wipe Israel off the map.


I am going to take a look at my family's investments (small though they may be) and do a moral cheshbon (check-up). It is time to make sure I am not investing in companies that profit the Iranian government. In exchange, I believe it is time to move my money toward investments that promote better use of our finite environmental resources.

If I learn anything of use to you, I will let you know.