From a podium in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Rabbi Eric Yoffie discussed religious life in Israel. For Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, the topic is quite familiar. His views on religiosity in both Israel and America are often featured in The Huffington Post, Ha’aretz, and The Jerusalem Post.
Yoffie’s Pittsburgh visit was supported by the Ruth and Bernard Levaur Contemporary Lecture Fund. Since its inception 30 years ago, the Levaur Lecture has welcomed addresses from such speakers as John and Teresa Heinz, Malcolm Hoenlein and Rabbi David Ellenson. Marcia Levaur, daughter of Ruth and Bernard Levaur, joined Rabbi Aaron Bisno in welcoming Yoffie as the series’ latest scholar.
Throughout his Pittsburgh remarks, Yoffie addressed Reform Judaism’s dearth in Israel and efforts to augment its bearing.
“Israel needs us more now than ever,” he said. “If [Reform Judaism] can’t become a force in Israel in the next generation, it will be cast to the margins of history.”
Yoffie noted that despite the Reform movement’s robust American presence, it is a scarcity in Israel. For Yoffie, there are various historical explanations for this phenomenon, including the role of Zionist Orthodox Jews during the establishment of the state in 1948, Reform’s absence from Israel until 1958 and denominational political maneuverings in subsequent decades.
While the previous 65 years provided little growth for Reform Judaism in Israel, Yoffie claimed that 2013 showcased the “beginnings of change.” He noted that the 2013 Israeli elections featured both an increased focus on divisive domestic issues such as the Tal Law, which provides exemption from mandatory military service for haredi Orthodox Jews, and the rise of Yair Lapid, a former journalist who now serves as the Israeli minister of finance and chairman of the Yesh Atid political party.
According to Yoffie, Lapid and Yesh Atid offer promises of hope. Listed among the party’s agenda items is a desire for “creating a more equitable system for the enlistment of young Israelis in serving their country.” Specifically, Yesh Atid offers a plan claiming to “lay the groundwork for the embracing of national service on the part of the ultra-Orthodox and contribute considerably to their meaningful integration into Israeli society, without compromising their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.”
“Issues are on the agenda now,” said Yoffie. Accordingly, he added, Reform Judaism is better off now than it was just five years ago.
However, despite the progress, Yoffie urged that “sweeping reform” must be taken.
Along with altering mandatory military service in Israel, Yoffie advocated for the abolishment of the chief rabbinate. Citing religious restrictions regarding civil marriages and conversions, Yoffie said that the Orthodox community cannot be accepted as the “sole authorized gatekeepers” of religious laws in Israel.
Yoffie continued by speaking of the need to build Reform Judaism in Israel and increase the number of Reform rabbis in the country.
“To abandon Israel is not an option,” Yoffie stated. “[We must] demand legitimacy and recognition for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.”
For the roughly 50 listeners in attendance, Yoffie’s remarks were warmly received.
“I admired his remarks very much,” said Helen-Faye Rosenblum. She considered it “remarkable” that Yoffie could “encapsulate so much of history in a few points.”
Marilyn Asimou added, “I really did enjoy it. He made points I wouldn’t have known.”
Before joining a reception with members of the audience, Yoffie said that he hoped that his remarks offered “practical things to do to bring about change.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.