On July 1, 1996, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie succeeded Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of 853 Reform congregations in the United States and Canada.
Read The New UAHC Staff organized by Rabbi Yoffie
In 1983 he was named executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and was instrumental in founding the ARZA-sponsored Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, which leads the battle for Reform rights and religious pluralism in the Jewish state. In 1992 Rabbi Yoffie became vice president of the UAHC and director of the Commission on Social Action. In addition, he served as executive editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Rabbi Yoffie also serves on the boards of many national Jewish organizations. He has written widely on Jewish ethics, the religious right, Jewish education, and Israel. He lives in Westfield, NJ with his wife, Amy Jacobson Yoffie, and their children, Adina and Adam.
In the following interview with RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Rabbi Yoffie recalls his formative experiences growing up in the movement and articulates his ideas about the future directions of the UAHC and Reform synagogue life.
You've characterized yourself as "a child of the Reform movement." Is that
an accurate description?
That is true in every respect. I grew up in a tightly knit and active Jewish community in Worcester, MA. I was a youth group leader at Temple Emanuel, and ultimately became president of the New England Federation of Temple Youth (NEFTY) and vice president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). My experiences in religious school and particularly in youth group were instrumental in developing my Jewish consciousness.
Were you also involved with UAHC camps?
In 1965, I chaired the first National Youth Leadership Institute, held at UAHC Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. For the first time I found myself part of a very close, intensely Jewish community of my peers. The experience opened up religious vistas that had not been apparent to me in my synagogue life or in religious school. Then in 1966 I represented NFTY at an international Jewish youth conference in Germany. It was the first time I had direct exposure to European and Israeli Reform Jews. There, the idea was born in me that the destiny of the Jewish people is indivisible, that we are all implicated in one another's fate. I realized that Reform Judaism was not only about youth group but was also an instrument for immersing yourself in the concerns of k'lal Yisrael, of the collective community of Israel.
Who most influenced you Jewishly?
The most formative Jewish influences in my life were my parents, who have always been very active at Temple Emanuel. Both my mother and brother have been president of the congregation. Another key influence was Rabbi Joseph Klein, the senior rabbi at Emanuel and my devoted teacher in religious school. He is a model of serious Judaism, of scholarship and wisdom. I was one among many in his orbit. He has sent more than fifteen young people to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In addition, I was close to a series of associate rabbis with whom I worked directly in youth matters-Rabbis Alexander Schindler, Daniel Kaplan, Leivy Smolar, and David Davis -- all of whom had an impact on me and shaped my Jewish thinking. I take great pride in my Reform origins and in the fact that virtually all Reform leaders are now emerging from our own institutions. That is a sign of a dynamic religious movement. How did you decide to become a rabbi? When I was a senior in high school and active in NFTY, I gave thought to the rabbinate but put it aside. Later, as a student at Brandeis University, I began studying Judaism in a serious way. At a certain point in my junior year it all came together -- the combination of my family background, my youth group involvement, my ties to k'lal Yisrael, and my excitement at the study of Torah all propelled me to enter the rabbinate.
In addition to devoting your professional life to the Jewish community, you
and your wife have cultivated a very Jewish household. How do you practice
Judaism at home and raise your children?
Amy grew up in a traditional Conservative home and received a very intensive Jewish education. After we married, we kept kosher because it was important to Amy, and she also wanted to be sure members of her family could eat in our home. Initially, observing kashrut had little meaning to me, but over time I grew to appreciate the spiritual value of a separate way of eating, as well as the historical power of identifying with an ancient tradition observed by Jews throughout the world. While I don't advocate that Reform Jews keep kosher, I do recognize the religious power of this practice and am interested in the possibility of exploring what might be distinctive Reform ways of eating Jewishly -- a Reform kashrut that would be meaningful in today's world. Beyond that, I think the most significant element of Jewish observance in our home is Torah study. I read sacred texts and commentaries and find them to be an important anchor in my life.
When do you find time to study?
I study on Shabbat and often once or twice during the week. I find it relaxing to take out a book and read a midrash. One of my great joys is studying Jewish texts on Shabbat with my children, Adina and Adam. Both of them attend a Jewish day school, have a high degree of Hebrew fluency, and show great interest. It's a meaningful part of my week, and of theirs as well. Last week's Torah portion was Tazriah-Metzora. We discussed leprosy and how the rabbis attributed the onset of the disease to the sin of lashon harah-engaging in gossip and slander. They were fascinated by this notion because, as an 11th grader and 6th grader, they hear kids gossip all the time. The notion that somehow this was a sin according to the Torah disturbed them. They felt the need to determine the exact meaning of lashon harah. Is friendly banter permissible? What constitutes going over the line? If you tell an unpleasant truth about a friend, is it acceptable or not?
How do you spend your leisure time?
I'm an avid reader of Jewish books and periodicals as well as general works on religion. I also enjoy current fiction by authors such as John Updike and Anne Tyler and mystery writer Lawrence Sanders. I play tennis and basketball with Adam, discuss politics with Adina, and go to the theater with Amy whenever we can.
You've described yourself as being part of the baby boom generation. What
can we expect from your generation in terms of synagogue involvement?
The return to religion we are witnessing today is due in part to the fact that baby boomers are now reaching the age of fifty. In confronting their own mortality they are beginning to ask religious questions. The baby boomers are coming into leadership positions not only nationally but in synagogues around the country, and their religious and social sensibilities are shaping the movement in a profound way. That we are a serious generation does not surprise me. In the sixties a great number of us were deeply devoted to social causes, to concerns beyond ourselves, to the betterment of society. We cultivated a sense of community. The commune ethic of that period was very powerful, and I think even though the lifestyle of the sixties receded when people married and established families, the search for community remains as part of that ethos. Our problem is that the baby boom generation has always been somewhat suspicious of institutions. So on the one hand, they're searching for causes greater than themselves, for new religious directions, for some form of experiential Judaism. On the other hand, they are not joiners and tend to distrust authority figures. They are open to religion but reluctant to step into a synagogue, and the notion of a national movement holds little attraction for them. Overcoming this aversion to institutions is a tremendous challenge.
You have said that the Jews in North America are experiencing the
beginnings of a religious resurgence. What can we do to harness that
religious energy and, in your words, "reignite the flame of Sinai in the
hearts of our people"?
First of all, we have to provide them with serious Judaism. People are looking for some connection with the infinite to infuse their lives with holiness. Therefore, they bring to the synagogue a set of expectations to which we are not always attuned. How do we respond to a person who joins a temple because of a new-found concern with ultimate questions? Often, we put him or her on a committee. That response will not work with this generation. We need committees and people to serve on them, of course, but we also must find effective ways to respond to those whose immediate interest is a search for transcendent meaning and holiness. They may not be drawn to conventional programs, but they will go to weekend retreats that offer serious, intense study and worship. They will engage in activities that offer them community, time with their family, support in raising their children. It is precisely for that reason that the UAHC is creating a national network of spirituality kallot and adult education and family retreats, events that will draw people looking for a spiritual message. We also have to build on the commitment of many Jews to social justice by providing a framework that allows them to understand the connection between social activism and Jewish tradition. According to our liturgy, God Himself/Herself heals the sick, frees the captive, lifts up the fallen, and clothes the naked. We testify to God's existence, therefore, not by pondering difficult theological questions, but by emulating God's behavior. That, I believe, is a critical entry point for Jews who are spiritually adrift and searching for an anchor.
You have said that the basis of Jewish renewal is education, particularly
in four areas: Hebrew study, day school development, the expansion of
camps, and the radical transformation of synagogue education in North
America. Why is Hebrew so important?
Hebrew is not simply a tool; it is part of Judaism's very essence, a fundamental value of our tradition and our civilization. Ultimately, you cannot be a part of that civilization, absorb its values, and understand its teachings unless you have a connection with its language. Hebrew is the language of prayer, and while one can pray in any language, Hebrew opens doors to the heart that cannot be opened in translation. Bialik used to say that studying Jewish texts in translation is like kissing the bride through the veil. Of course, most of us will use translation, but our ideal should be to have at least a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Sadly, ours may be the first Jewish community in history that is trying to build Jewish literacy solely on translation, and there's no reason to think that it will work. I believe that any Jew can at least learn to read Hebrew phonetically and follow the service. One is never too old for that, nor does it take an enormous commitment of time and effort. As for younger children, we can aspire to teach far more Hebrew than we currently do. We're far too fatalistic in this regard. We expect kids to learn decent French and Spanish in relatively few hours, but we tend to throw up our hands and assume that Hebrew language instruction is beyond the reach of our young. Hebrew literacy is an attainable goal, and it will be high on our educational agenda.
Another of your educational priorities is the development of day schools.
Our day schools are producing a cadre of educated Reform Jews who are thoroughly comfortable in Jewish texts and Judaism from a Reform perspective. Day school graduates will move into positions of leadership and shape the direction and destiny of our movement. It is therefore in our best interest to support Reform day school education. Supplementary school education, however, must remain our primary emphasis, as 95% of Reform students are being educated in congregational schools in afterschool and/or weekend programs.
You're also advocating an expansion of the camping network,
which you've praised as the most successful
educational program of the UAHC in its 123-year history. What makes our
camps such effective centers of Jewish experience and how can we take full
advantage of their potential?
Our camps kindle the fire of Judaism in our youth and reinforce a sense of Jewish identity that few other programs can match. At camp there is an organic Reform Jewish community 24 hours a day, where Judaism is not just a matter of formal study but infuses all aspects of life. If you ask high school seniors what was the most powerful Jewish experience of their lives, they invariably will cite the camping experience. If you ask students at our seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, if they've attended a UAHC camp, more than 80% will answer yes. Most of our children will not attend day schools, but there is no reason why a substantial percentage should not attend our camps. I believe it is our obligation both to expand the capacity of our camps and to make them affordable for every child in our movement who wishes to enroll. Presently, our nine camps accommodate about 8,000 young people every summer. By adding facilities and securing scholarship funds, the number could increase to 25,000-30,000, catalyzing a renaissance in Reform Jewish life.
Your fourth educational priority is the transformation of synagogue education.
This is our most critical task. We tend to see education as a religious school and a few adult education classes. But if that is all education is to be, then we will fail. We need to create a different vision, one that looks upon the synagogue as a "congregation of learners" committed to promoting universal Jewish literacy, with Torah at the center. All synagogue activities should revolve around some aspect of Jewish learning. Every temple committee meeting -- whether the building committee, the social action committee, or the ritual committee -- should begin with the study of appropriate texts indicating what Jewish tradition has to say about the agenda item at hand. The congregation of learners approach extends to family education as well. Ideally, every year a family should sit down with the temple staff to plan out its educational program. For some it will involve traditional classes; for others it will mean parents and children studying together; for still others it will be participation in a week-end Shabbaton or study in a chavurah group. Synagogue libraries should be stocked with sophisticated home study packets on Hebrew, Jewish history, and holidays, as well as computer games with Jewish content, and the Union must help to make these materials available. In order for a congregation of learners to take root, of course, we also have to create synagogues whose members care about and feel responsible for one another. Learning is most likely to happen in a context where our synagogues are genuine centers of community -- warm, welcoming, and all-embracing.
If synagogue committees adopt Torah study as part of their work, then
committee heads would need to be literate Jews. What steps are being taken
in that direction?
I believe that the best way to transform the lives of Jews is to ask them for serious commitment, and I also believe in the power of leadership to shape our movement and return us to Torah. We have superb leaders on all levels of our movement who are making space for God in their lives and who are far better Jewishly educated than their predecessors. Many of our national board members have participated in our kallot (retreats) and are serving as models for their congregations and regions, raising the general level of literacy and commitment. It is the function of the national movement to encourage all congregational leaders to move in that direction.
Is that why the Union has established the new Department of Adult Jewish Growth?
Yes. This department will offer a national program of adult education retreats and spirituality kallot to reach thousands of people in every area of North America. In addition, it will develop a leadership training program for synagogues. By this I do not mean workshops in organizational techniques, although that is surely important. What's most critical is to develop the religious dimension of leadership by involving temple board and committee members in study and prayer in addition to helping them with synagogue programming and management skills.
In restructuring the staff of the Union, what personal qualities are you
If our ideal is to teach Torah in all our endeavors, then we need leaders who are religiously alive. That is as important as their professional credentials. Religious imagination and depth are essential. Our congregations discovered long ago the advantage of engaging rabbis who are not only good managers and program directors but who can also speak from the soul. The Union has recently filled a large number of senior staff positions with men and women who combine religious sensitivity with administrative competence. We are now well positioned to lead our synagogue movement into the next century.
How do you define the ideal relationship between the UAHC and its member
We have to think about our relationship as a partnership built on covenant, an essential religious metaphor of our tradition. If congregations do not feel that by joining the Union they are entering a life-enhancing partnership, then we have failed. The UAHC is, indeed, a service organization, providing our member congregations with programs and assistance in their day-to-day tasks, but our national movement must be far more than that. We are a union of Jews committed to a particular vision of Jewish life: to spirituality, Torah, and social justice -- the highest ideals of Reform Judaism. We are the most democratic and open Jewish religious movement on this continent, built on a foundation of partnership between lay leaders and rabbis and between Union and congregation. That is our formula for success as a movement.
Do you anticipate that our movement's approach to social action will change
with the new generation of leadership?
I think social action will become more significant. It is essential to who we are, and our most innovative contribution to modern Jewish life. Any notion of Reform Judaism built on education or worship or piety which excludes commitment to ethics and social justice is totally foreign to our self-definition. Reform Jews know that if you ignore the screams of a hungry child, you cannot aspire to embrace the sacred.
Will support for Israel and for religious pluralism in the Jewish state
continue to be a top priority for you?
Israel will continue to be of critical concern to us, but the vicarious Jewish experience we once derived from a relationship based on our political and financial support of the fledgling state is no longer sufficient to engage our people's interest. The most significant question for the Jewish people at this moment is how do we promote a creative, vibrant Jewish civilization wherever Jews are to be found. Our challenge, therefore, is to bring together serious Jews in North America and in Israel, and to work in partnership to promote a liberal, Torah-based Judaism in Israel and throughout the world. In the future, this shared task of promoting a progressive vision of Torah will be what binds us to Israelis and determines our common agenda. Among other things, this will mean continuing our struggle for Jewish pluralism in Israel. It is scandalous that the Jewish state, which will be home to the largest Jewish community in the world by the year 2010, still refuses to officially sanction Progressive Judaism. If this offense against non-Orthodox Jews is not soon corrected, it will be a tragedy for us, and even a greater tragedy for the State of Israel.
Will you maintain Rabbi Schindler's outreach campaign to interfaith
families and non-Jews in general?
We have to be even more assertive in this area. Substantial elements of our community have come forward and said we can no longer afford to look outward, we have to look inward; we can't afford to deal with the marginal, we have to work with the core. I disagree. While the core is more committed than ever, the majority of Jews are still on the sidelines. To write off more than half of our people is theologically offensive and morally unacceptable. We need an aggressive and confident outreach program to interfaith families and to the disaffiliated, one that affirms our particular liberal Jewish approach in responding to those who thirst for religious wisdom and spiritual meaning. Having said that, we also have to be certain that those who turn to us find congregations that are models of committed Jewish living. People will not want to join our congregations if they do not find us deeply engaged in Torah and living joyful Jewish lives.
With three new leaders, do you foresee the Union, the CCAR, and the
College-Institute forging a closer relationship than in the past?
The three of us are friends, and we have a shared agenda and a shared vision. Our approaches to the basic issues of Jewish life are remarkably similar. We are all speaking a language of Torah and mitzvah and brit, and sending a message to our constituencies that Reform Judaism is serious Judaism. Each of us is now getting our own institutional houses in order, and that is appropriately the first step. Cooperative efforts will soon follow, beginning with joint programs in the area of Torah study.
What do you anticipate will be the most difficult part of your mission and
what the most gratifying?
Institutions are fundamentally conservative; they want to do today what they were doing yesterday and the day before. Reform Judaism brings a particular inventiveness, openness, and creativity to Jewish life, but when we institutionalize what has worked best in the past, we too run the risk of creating our own brand of orthodoxy. My role is to break through the inertia and prod us to think in new ways. I have no illusions about the difficulties of reform and renewal, and I will not retreat from the task. As for what I think will be most gratifying, I see myself primarily as a teacher of Torah, whether I am teaching my children, a congregation, or 4,000 delegates at a biennial assembly. Having been blessed with the opportunity to be a teacher to this movement, I look forward, with humility and great trepidation, to the joys of teaching the essential truths of our ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring tradition.
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