Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?

By Evan Moffic
Friday, November 9, 2012

Reform Judaism is the largest movement in American Jewry.  The Union for Reform Judaism represents 900 congregations with 1.5 million members.  It recently chose a dynamic new president, Richard Jacobs.  True, Rabbi Jacobs’ election caused an uproar: he drew criticism from the right for his support of J Street and the New Israel Fund and charges from the left that the people he brought to URJ did not include enough women.  Still, the fact that a URJ leadership change could stir such controversy is a sign that people care about the movement’s future. 

But the Reform movement faces problems far deeper than the distractions of political correctness and ideological minefields.  The recent UJA-Federation study of the New York area’s Jewish population provides a sense of where those problems lie.  The number of Reform Jews in New York has declined both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the Jewish community.  A startling 74 percent of Jewish children in New York can be identified as Orthodox.  True, New York’s Jewish community has certain unique characteristics; but New York’s trends are apparent in other population centers as well, especially the decline in synagogue affiliation and the growing numbers of interfaith families. 

The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement.  But in light of current trends, is that possible?  Some have already answered in the negative.  In 2009, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, declared, "We will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements."  Even within the Reform movement, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan recently wrote that without a serious revision in basic structure and heightened expectations of Jewish living, Reform Judaism is doomed. 

I am not so pessimistic.  But, if the survival of a strong Reform movement is indeed possible, what will it require?  Is current leadership up to the task? 

The first indicator of the movement’s problem—the decline in synagogue affiliation—is not hard to understand.  Increasingly, American Jews simply choose not to join synagogues.  People see synagogues as too expensive, boring, or irrelevant.  This trend is most pronounced in precisely those parts of our country, like the West and Southwest, where the Jewish population is growing most rapidly.  The recent economic downturn has merely accelerated an already-existing trend. 

Thus, if Reform Judaism is to survive, the primary task of its leaders is to focus steadily on promoting synagogue affiliation.  Synagogue membership is the citizenship card of Jewish life.  It provides the resources needed to create places in which the growing intermarried population can raise Jewish children and Jewish learning can be transmitted to the vast majority of Jewish children, those who do not attend Jewish day schools.  Synagogue membership provides funding for the URJ and social capital for other Jewish organizations. 

This task does not require us to “reimagine” synagogues or transform the ways in which they are funded; the challenge must be not redefined but met.  Reform synagogues simply need to do what synagogues have done for the last 2500 years: serve as centers of Jewish living and community.  And Reform synagogues, in particular, must maintain an open door for anyone who wishes to walk through it. 

But if that is the central task, is Reform leadership up to it?  The movement needs high-quality clergy, of course; it also needs committed lay leadership. 

The Reform movement was built on the basis of lay-rabbinic partnerships.  We need to attract strong dynamic lay leaders who see and feel that the future of the Jewish people depends on them.  Too often we reward people simply for showing up.  We need to find ways to draw serious people to address the serious challenges of Jewish life. 

The kind of organizational dysfunction we too often see does not have to be accepted; it does not exist everywhere in Jewish life.  The community Federation in my hometown of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Chicago is the technical title), for example, while it employs skilled and forceful professionals, also engages lay leaders.  More than financial resources, board membership demands a serious commitment of time.  In spite of these demands, or because of them, individuals actually compete to be on the board.  

When lay leaders see that their communities’ future rests in their hands and not just those of professionals, they become energized and active.  Some rabbis seem to fear that engaged lay leadership will weaken the authority of the professionals who run communal organizations, but it is more likely that skilled lay leaders will recognize and respect the professionals’ skills.  True, respect will not always mean acquiescence; but the disagreements that arise are more likely to be serious and constructive. 

Moreover, if lay leadership is stronger, rabbis will be freed to do what they are most qualified to do: articulating a compelling case for Jewish meaning in 21st-century America.  Despite American Jews’ extensive achievements in secular learning, they have produced no significant Jewish theology since Mordecai Kaplan’s 1935 Judaism as a Civilization.  Judaism needs a view of God incorporating advances in neuroscience, an understanding of Jewish identity that includes the many interfaith families who raise Jewish children while incorporating references to other faiths, and an understanding of Zionism that goes beyond boiler-plate affirmation.  This enterprise will strike some as syncretism, capitulation, or assimilation.  Yet, if the Reform movement does not address these matters, who will?   The job is fully large enough to occupy the time and energies of the Reform rabbinate; strong lay leadership will give Reform rabbis a better chance to succeed at it.           

In 1969 Rabbi Richard Levy, later to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote that the American Reform synagogue has “defaulted” on all three of its traditional functions: building community, nurturing study, and engaging in meaningful worship.  Since he wrote, the default has only deepened.  If it is not addressed now, there may be no future opportunity for repair. 

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois. He writes frequently on Jewish thought and American Jewish life. Thousands read his blog at 

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