WASHINGTON — Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had two words of advice Wednesday for his successor, Rabbi Rick Jacobs: “Change everything.”
Well, maybe not everything, but Yoffie, who is stepping down after 15 years in his job, understands that the largest Jewish denomination in the world needs to stay fluid if it is to meet the challenges facing the Jewish world.
“Organizations need renewal; organizations need revival,” Yoffie said. “The danger is you won’t be open to the possibilities of change. I don’t think I have anything to worry [about] in that regard.”
Yoffie and Jacob met with members of the media in an informal session Wednesday prior to the opening plenary of the 2011 URJ Biennial.
Yoffie and Jacobs fielded questions about fundraising, gender issues, inclusion of the LGBT community, support for small congregations, outreach to Jews on college campuses and unaffiliated families and, of course, Israel.
On that last issue, Jacobs, a supporter of J Street, and reported by several media outlets to have been a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet (though his name does not appear on the current list of Cabinet members posted to J Street’s website) said he would maintain the URJ’s strong commitment to Israel. He did not comment on his own affiliation with J Street, though, when asked by one reporter to do so.
“The key role for the president of the URJ is to strengthen our relationship to Israel, to the people of Israel, and the ideas upon which Israel is founded. That is the longstanding commitment of our movement; we have a robust Zionist commitment at the core of who we are,” Jacobs said. “We are committed to the well being, security, to the vitality, of the State of Israel.”
That’s not to say the URJ must agree with everything Israel does, he added.
“We live our values in the Reform movement, our values are about Israel as a vital pluralistic, democratic state,” Jacobs said. He added that the URJ would work with the government finding common ground while affirming the values of the movement.
“It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything the prime minster says, but our commit is to the state of Israel.”
Turning to other issues, Jacobs pledged the biennial, and the movement under his watch, will address question about fundraising to sustain its goals.
“There’s going to be a lot of conversations about fundraising (during the biennial), how do we fund the Jewish future we think is critical.” He pledged, though not to scale back the vision of the movement.
Jacobs also said there will be efforts to channel energy to all 900 congregations, t deal with the “hard truths” they face, and to explore new membership models while engaging the next generation.
He wants to rethink all ways the Reform movement engages its youth, indicating there will be fundraising initiatives and paradigm shifts in this area.
Jacobs spotlighted a program called the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a movement-wide effort to engage a majority of Reform Jewish youth by the year 2020. The campaign will be unveiled in detail on Thursday.
He singled out Jews in their 20s and 30s who are “off everybody’s radar screen right now.
“We can’t just hope they’re going to walk into the synagogues,” he said of that age group. “We need to go where they are.”
Most importantly, he stressed the need for Jews of all denominations, all organizations to think less about their own “slice of the pie” going forward and to work together as one people to ensure the future.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)