Reflections on Rabbi Eric Yoffie Retirement

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement (Union for Reform Judaism), announced on June 10 that he would retire in two years. You can find the text of his prepared remarks on eJewish Philanthropy and articles with more analysis by Josh Nathan-Kazis in The Forward and by Jonathan Sarna also in The Forward.

I have to confess to having very mixed feelings about Rabbi Yoffie. He exercised leadership on many matters that I personally applaud greatly. I personally agree with positions he has taken on Israel, on domestic social policy and justice issues, on interfaith dialogue, on efforts to re-invigorate Reform Jewish worship services, on emphasizing text study, and more.

My problem relates to what I care about most both professionally and personally — engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. I find it somewhat telling that in his prepared remarks — which admittedly are not his final comments, those will come at and after the next URJ biennial in 2011 — that in discussing some of the future challenges facing the Reform movement, and some of the specific work that needs to be done in the next two years — there is no mention of engaging interfaith families.

The Reform movement’s record on outreach to interfaith families under Rabbi Yoffie’s leadership is disappointing. Prior to 2003, the movement had an outreach department with some headquarters staff and a half-time regional outreach director in each of its fourteen regions; all of these people were outstanding dedicated professionals who did amazing work helping congregations welcome interfaith families and attract them to Jewish life. In 2003, the movement eliminated most of the positions, reportedly because of financial pressures. InterfaithFamily.com initiated a campaign that helped to preserve some of the positions.

Then in 2009, the URJ did away with its regions and the remaining regional outreach positions, to be replaced by four outreach specialists who, as talented and dedicated as they are, are stretched awfully thin to serve all 900 Reform congregations. The Reform movement’s outreach department and initiative, once truly a jewel among the movement’s many programs, is in a sadly reduced state.

To be fair, we publicized excerpts from Rabbi Yoffie’s 2005 biennial speech — and those speeches are where the movement’s most important efforts are announced — highlighting two parallel initiatives, which the URJ still supports,  to welcome non-Jewish spouses on the one hand, and to respectfully encourage conversion on the other. But program materials are one thing; staff whose job it is to promote and help with use of the materials is much more significant. I believe that the outreach department was a very “sellable” program – that funding could have been attracted for it – and that the movement’s leadership under Rabbi Yoffie’s direction did not give it the priority it deserved.

The URJ’s leadership may think that the Reform movement doesn’t need to do any thing more to attract interfaith couples and families. In the New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt reported that Rabbi Yoffie said that “his movement is the largest Jewish denomination because it has an “open door, inclusive” policy. ‘We are the place for the intermarried, gay or lesbian, and disabled to explore Judaism.’” I would argue that the Reform movement and Reform synagogues could do a great deal more to attract and welcome people in interfaith relationships – and that if they did, they would see membership increases that would help to alleviate the financial pressures that apparently continue to plague the movement and its synagogues.

Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on his interview with Rabbi Yoffie the following:

As for the growing impact of intermarriage among American Jews, Yoffie said that his movement is handling the challenge well. He said that the movement has “not an ounce of regret” for its 1983 decision to consider the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish, which represented a break with Jewish tradition.

Regarding studies that have found a lack of affiliation on the part of many children of intermarried couples, Yoffie said, “We’d like to point out that what that means is at a time when there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage, we’re getting a third of these people into synagogues… Imagine if we didn’t have the [patrilineal descent] decision and how many of them would be in any Jewish framework. I suggest it would be far lower.”

I’m glad to see Rabbi Yoffie re-affirm the patrilineal descent decision — and want to respectfully suggest that the number of intermarried couples that would be in a Jewish framework would be far, far greater if the Reform movement gave engaging them the priority it deserves.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Rabbi Eric Yoffie Retirement

  1. I think it is entirely unfair to link the painful URJ budget cuts to a lack of interest in interfaith outreach. From everything I see the movement and individual leaders and synagogues in the movement remain as committed as ever.  

  2.  It was only through the Outreach movement that I found my spiritual home in Judaism and became someone who worked hard in her synagogue, local community, the  Northeast region and nationally to make sure others would be welcomed, too, into Judaism, whether they converted or not, were straight or not, white or not, married or not, or whatever.  My work was as a VOLUNTEER, but I needed the support of paid staff members in order to do a good job.  Once the Northeast region disappeared – it was impossible to do my job.  And I’m sure others can say they had the same experience.  I respect Rabbi Yoffie as head of our organization.  But Outreach did not receive the same support and guidance from him as it did from his predecessor, Rabbi Schindler, may his memory be for blessing.  And this was before the budget cuts.

    I wish Rabbi Yoffie a wonderful, well earned retirement, and many blessings in the years to come.  Thank you for your years of service.  You were given a difficult job, during difficult times.

  3. I agree completely with Ed Case’s analysis. I think that in recent years, the Reform movement has failed to follow through on the courageous initiatives it began in the area of recognition and support of interfaith families. My experience has been a lot of smiles and lip service but no real commitment to fully integrate interfaith families into Reform congregational life, beyond the usual “December Dilemma” programs  and similar tired approaches.

    I am particularly disappointed and even offended by Yoffie’s parrallel agenda to encourage conversion of the non-Jewish partner (with a mikveh, no less). This denies the legitimacy of one’s personal history, culture and family identity even if there is a clear commitment to participate in Jewish life and raise one’s children as Jews. There is nothing “respectful” about this “encouragement”.

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