Demographers keep telling us that Judaism is not a growth industry. I disagree, but it would be folly to ignore the facts behind their analysis. Ties that once bound Jews to each other and to our tradition are attenuating. The number of interfaith couples continues to rise, with many still not finding any open doors in Jewish life. Men are less likely to stake out a place within our congregations. While 80 percent of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, their engagement tends to be temporary and tenuous.
No more than 50 percent of American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their 20s and 30s will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation. Hoping is not a strategy; the Jewish world needs new approaches for engaging the future. Together we will shape the strategies that will broaden and deepen our movement.
Everywhere we look, there are dramatic challenges facing our people; yet each is a phenomenal opportunity to revitalize Jewish life. Only very rarely has Jewish history known an era of so much creativity or innovation; no previous generation has possessed our resources and potential.
For two centuries, Reform Judaism has pointed the way forward. For the past 40 years, our religious ingenuity has made us the fastest growing theologically liberal denomination in America. And yet we’ve become bogged down. Too many Jewish leaders seem paralyzed by fear of the future. This moment in Jewish history demands bold thinking with big ideas; this is not a time for staying the course. It’s time to reinvent the architecture of Jewish life. It’s a time to cast a broad net, to explore options rather than to rule things out, and to recreate a movement that will be as meaningful in the future as it has been in the past.
Inclusive religious communities that are serious about learning, spirituality, tikun olam, and community will be attractive to the widest cross section of 21st century Jews and even to seekers of no faith. To be a Jewish spiritual home for “all who are hungry” does not require a minimalist Jewish vision but rather an engaging, demanding, and elevating approach to Jewish life.
We must not try to be everything to everyone, but we can inspire and engage an increasingly wider swath of the Jewish community. We were the pioneers of outreach to the intermarried. It was the URJ that first battled homophobia as welcomed LGBTQ Jews to their rightful place throughout Jewish life. As we clarify our core mission we will not shrink our vision for Jewish life.
A very important part of my leadership as the URJ president will be to help all of our URJ congregations become ohavei Zion — lovers of Zion. But I must admit I was surprised that the questions that have been raised are over whether I am sufficiently committed to Israel — to am Yisrael, to eretz Yisrael, and to medinat Yisrael. Anyone who knows me — and, let me be clear, my critics do not — knows that love and support for Israel is simply in the fiber of who I am. I can no more say that “Israel is important to me” than I can say “my heart is important to me.” Both are deep inside of me, and I cannot imagine living without either.
There will be times during my presidency when we come together to debate what should be the Union’s stance on specific Israel-related issues. This is not that time. For now, I only want to make two points.
First, I stand squarely in the tradition of Rabbis Alexander Schindler and Eric Yoffie that I will never, ever compromise on Israel’s security, never. I will ever lift up our efforts to strengthen it as a Jewish and democratic state, and that I will be proud to work to advance the Israel policies that this Movement has adopted over the past generations.
Second, and just as important, I hope that when the time comes for such a debate, that it will be a machlochet l’shem shamayim — a dispute for the sake of heaven…that we will conduct that debate with passion, to be sure. I hope and pray we will always debate with passion — but with civility and a respect for those who hold differing views.
I hope we will work to learn what others really think, and have really said, rather than relying on rumors, half-truths, and outright lies. I hope that we will talk about real issues, and not find people guilty by association. I hope that anyone who wants to know what I think about something will ask me. As you will learn, I’m not exactly shy.
Aleinu — “it is up to us” — to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old. With Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, ARZA, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, we can be builders and supporters of medinat Yisrael and will continue to do so. Israel is not only a bundle of pressing issues and challenges, but more importantly our dynamic and inspiring Jewish homeland. When Israel gets into our hearts then I know that we will never stop fighting for an Israel that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice, and dwelling in peace.
On June 12, Rabbi Richard Jacobs succeeded Rabbi Eric Yoffie of Westfield as president, the top professional leader, of the Union for Reform Judaism. This article is excerpted from his acceptance speech.