Lingering Questions For The Reform Movement

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Ian Spanier)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Ian Spanier)

At the Reform movement’s biennial gathering in San Diego last week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), came out swinging. In his keynote address to some 5,000 participants, he called for his movement to offer a welcome to the unaffiliated so inclusive that he termed it “audacious hospitality.” Reform must embrace the LGBTQ community, multiracial Jews, intermarried families and Gen Xers and millennials, “all of whom have much to teach us,” he declared.

Rabbi Jacobs’ presentation was also bullish on the recent Pew study of American Jews and the opportunities that its findings presented the Reform movement — even though the report found a steep drop in affiliation and a rise in intermarriage along generational lines. He seemed to find validation in the fact that the study revealed that Reform is “not just the largest stream of American Jewry, but larger than all the other streams combined.”

But another part of Rabbi Jacobs’ speech belied his muscular assessment and pointed to the hard questions confronting his movement. In the course of his remarks, Rabbi Jacobs announced that the URJ will sell half of its New York headquarters and will move its staff to nearby Hebrew Union College. A total of $1 million from the building sale has been earmarked for expanding Reform’s youth programs.

The designation of funds to the movement’s youth programs sounds like a positive step — “to reinvest our own assets from bricks and mortar to people,” as Rabbi Jacobs put it. But underlying that move is the well-known weakness that the Pew study revealed: Reform, like most of the Jewish community, is struggling to keep its number up.

To be sure, Rabbi Jacobs announced a number of programs that were planned for the near term: expansion of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) movement; a partnership with the Ruderman Foundation to make Reform institutions more welcoming to people with disabilities; and participation in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program to connect young American Jews to Israel. All good ideas, of course, but none particularly audacious or innovative.

And none addresses the fundamental issue of the consequence of selling half of the movement’s headquarters or how that retrenchment move squares with any planned growth. Indeed, what funding model is based upon the sale of hard assets? And once the headquarters building is sold, where will the next tranche come from?

Further, if the Reform plan is simply to recruit more people to the movement, how is that going to protect against further attrition in the years ahead? What is the plan for retention? Why are new recruits expected to stay with the movement longer than their older siblings and parents?

We are confident that Rabbi Jacobs and the Reform movement have answers to these questions. Some of them may even be audacious. We are disappointed, however, that they didn’t share those thoughts on the biennial stage.

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