End of an era

End of an era

NEW YORK — The longtime leader of the Reform synagogue movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, announced that he will be stepping down in two years.

Yoffie, 63, president of the Union for Reform Judaism for the past 14 years, made the announcement Thursday in remarks at a meeting in Brooklyn of the organization’s board of directors.

“My energy and enthusiasm remain undiminished, but I see 65 as an age when I should be taking into account the simple fact that there are burdens to this job and they cannot be borne forever,” Yoffie said, according to a prepared text of the speech. “Even more important, I recognize the value of making way for new thinking in our future-oriented movement; leadership is an act of renewal and re-creation, and at a certain point, it is best to encourage others to try their hand at these tasks.”

Yoffie plans to stay on two years as the URJ searches for a replacement. During this time, Yoffie told the board, he will focus on four priorities: improving the Reform movement’s youth group, increasing teenage participation in synagogue activities, creating a center that will house the various arms of the movement and boosting intra-movement cooperation until even before the center’s completion.

As URJ president, Yoffie spearheaded the controversial campaign to transform Reform worship and liturgy, a process that stressed a greater emphasis on Hebrew and tradition, and a more participatory musical style.

“I would say worship was boring,” Yoffie told JTA in an interview shortly before his announcement. “People wanted worship that was community building, heartfelt and participatory. They were ready for leadership — and they got it from local leaders and they got it from the union.”

In addition to leaving a strong stamp on the Reform movement, Yoffie emerged as one of the Jewish community’s leading advocates of a robust U.S. role in advancing the peace process, and he frequently criticized Israeli settlement expansion. At the same time, he was not shy about placing the onus for the breakdown in negotiations on the Palestinians. And in 2001, as the second Palestinian intifada raged, Yoffie delivered a highly publicized speech in which he said that he had been wrong about Palestinian intentions and for not speaking out against Palestinian anti-Israel incitement.

Yoffie also sparked headlines with his willingness to cross ideological, political and religious boundaries, most notably when he delivered major speeches to the Islamic Society of North America, an organization that has harshly criticized Israel, and Liberty University, the Baptist college founded by the late Jerry Falwell, a leading Christian conservative.