|Re-CHARGING Reform – More Silence and Missed Opportunities
There was an important conference May 31-June 1, Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism. More than 300 rabbis and lay leaders attended, according to JNSand Religion News Service accounts. I wasn’t invited, but have watched several of the sessions on youtube, including the keynote by lead organizer Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (which you can also read here) and a panel of Reform movement leaders offering their vision of the future.
An important motivation for the gathering, as the JNS story puts it, apparently was “lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues.” I continue to be astonished when Jewish leaders do not emphasize the imperative to be more inclusive of more interfaith families as key to reversing declining engagement – but that’s what happened at this gathering.
Coincidentally, the New York Times had a fascinating opinion piece on “dechurching” – the decline in people regularly attending houses of worship which the piece says is particularly prevalent among Jews. It notes that people are looking for new spiritual communities that are “less exclusionary than the denominations they were raised in;” one, who was raised Jewish but “became disillusioned when I could not find a rabbi who would conduct an interfaith marriage ceremony,” joined and now leads the Interfaith Families Project in the DC area.
Any lesson about not being exclusionary was not reflected in the movement leaders’ session at the Re-CHARGING Reform conference. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the URJ, did say that “our numeric strength is largely due to our inclusion of interfaith families who have felt our loving embrace… an embrace that has been transformational.” He continued that those not yet connected “still include many interfaith families” – but said nothing about what could be done to connect more of them.
Rabbi Hara Person, head of the CCAR that serves rabbis, said nothing about helping them engage and include interfaith families; she did mention the importance of the CCAR’s resolutions – which still include an exclusionary one that says “we do not condone mixed marriage” and “the ideal toward which we rabbis strive, teach and lead is that Jews should marry Jews.” (Coincidentally, a Tablet article on Reform rabbis seeing “an increase in conversion – much of it coming from the LGBTQ+ community” notes that the CCAR “runs year-round programming supporting the LGBTQ+ community and clergy, such as training for inclusive worship life cycle events.”)
Andrew Rehfeld, head of HUC, referred to the smallest entering classes at the Reform seminary in decades – with no mention of its exclusionary policy not to admit or ordain rabbinic students who are in interfaith relationships.
Rabbi Hirsch in his keynote said we need to figure out how to engage the unengaged and to attract many more people. It made me nervous when he emphasized Jewish particularism and the particularistic covenant of the Jewish people, because that could mean circling the wagons and including only those who are Jewish (including those who convert) and not also those who do Jewish – an exclusionary approach that will not attract or engage interfaith families.
In another missed opportunity, the Jewish Federations of North America announced their priorities for the coming year, which include (in addition to Ukraine, security, antisemitism, and Israel) expanding their equity, diversity and inclusion initiative – an effort that focuses on Jews of color and not on interfaith families.
The silence of Reform movement and federation leaders on including interfaith families fails to counter the continuing Orthodox voice in Israel that denounces any inclusion of interfaith families at all. There was an awful diatribe in Arutz Sheva by an Orthodox rabbi and professor, Dov Fischer, who contends that many of those reported to be Jewish in the 2020 Pew report aren’t “in fact” Jewish because they don’t meet Orthodox standards. In a previous piece, Alan Cooperman, principal author of the Pew report, aptly explained that like all other surveys, Pew is based on self-reporting of identity, and that Pew didn’t take a normative position on the question “who is a Jew?” That’s something that our movement and communal leaders need to do.