Rabbi Eric Yoffie Announces Retirement

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, has announced plans to step down effective in two years. Yoffie’s long-rumored announcement was made yesterday at the organization’s Board meeting in Brooklyn.

In prepared remarks Yoffie also addressed some of the challenges the movement faces – including the necessity of rebuilding their youth movements, once the pride and joy of the URJ. NFTY has been in a decade long decline, beginning with Yoffie’s controversial 2001 decision to cancel summer programs in Israel following a suicide bomb attack at a Tel Aviv disco. Fortunately for the movement, while NFTY was declining, their summer camp programs were growing even stronger. As an aside, Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston has developed an excellent program to strengthen youth activities at the congregation level – perhaps a good model for the URJ to refer to while developing a new strategy.

Here is what Yoffie said:

“Welcome to our board meeting. This meeting, as you can see from the schedule, is radically different from any board meeting that we have ever held. We are breaking out of our old patterns and doing things as a board in different ways. We are moving ahead on the reorganization of the Union. We are spending some time thinking and dreaming about the future of Jewish life. And we are taking on some of the great and troubling issues that we all face, in the Reform movement, in Israel, and in the broader community.

With this in mind, I have done some thinking ahead of my own. My work as President of the Union has been extraordinarily fulfilling, endlessly challenging, and a great joy in every way. There is no more satisfying way to serve the Jewish people. Still, I am aware that in June of 2012, two years from now, I will be 65 years old, and I will have completed 16 years as President of the Union—the equivalent of 4 terms of an American President. It is, therefore, my intention to retire as President of the Union at that time.

I do so for a number of reasons. My energy and enthusiasm remain undiminished, but I see 65 as an age when I should be taking into account the simple fact that there are burdens to this job and they cannot be borne forever. Even more important, I recognize the value of making way for new thinking in our future-oriented movement; leadership is an act of renewal and re-creation, and at a certain point, it is best to encourage others to try their hand at these tasks. And this too: while I don’t know if I believe in life after death, I do believe in life before death. There are a number of things in the professional realm outside of my Union responsibilities that I hope to accomplish, and there are personal things as well that Amy and I hope to do.

I inform you now because I have always pledged to give two years notice to our leadership. This will allow ample time for a search for my successor, and it will provide for a transition that will be stable and orderly and that will enable us to continue our work without disruption.

I have, of course, discussed all of these matters with our chairman, who has been gracious and helpful in every way.

I want to stress that I have not structured these remarks as a formal farewell for the obvious reason that I am not leaving now. I will remain as president for two full years. There will be occasions, including at the Biennial in Maryland, when I will have the opportunity to address the movement prior to my departure about the issues that I see as important to us as Reform Jews. And there will be occasions as well for others to say goodbye to me. So let’s agree that we will avoid two years of interminable goodbyes so that we can focus on the challenges ahead.

And let’s agree on something else as well.

We have a great deal to do in the next two years. Decisions of a monumental nature will appropriately be left to the new President, but our agenda is nonetheless long: there are plans that we have announced that we must implement, there are projects that we have started that we must finish, and there are concerns about our movement that we must address. At a time when our synagogues are in economic distress, and when our institutions are therefore under intense scrutiny, we do not have the luxury of remaining idle, even for a moment.

What, then, are the tasks that we must focus on? Many of them are on the agenda of this meeting.

We must begin the work of rebuilding our youth movement. In a few minutes, you will hear from Rabbis Michael White and Paul Yedwab. They will tell you about a Rabbinic Think Tank convened by the Union in April, and about a report prepared by a lay/rabbinic task force to consider the condition of NFTY. I will leave the details to them, but the heart of the matter is this: We have seen the decline of our youth activities to dangerously low levels, and we are not now providing our kids with the staff and the resources that they desperately need. Without question, this is a difficult time for every area of the Union’s work, and every budget cut that we have made is terribly painful; but the youth movement has always been a fundamental area of Union responsibility, and it is essential that we reverse this decline. There is no quick solution, and a partnership with our rabbis and our congregations will be essential; but the task force is right that the work of rebuilding NFTY must be given priority, and we must begin to address this problem now.

A related area of equal importance is the work initiated by the Commission on Lifelong Jewish Learning to help our synagogues promote teen engagement following Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We know that if current trends continue, approximately 80% of the children who have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in our congregations will have no connection of any kind to their synagogue by the time they reach 12th grade. This is a disaster for our young people and for our congregations as well. We also know that a small number of our synagogues, of all sizes and in all geographic areas, have turned these numbers around and retain 80% of their kids, whether in the school, the youth group, or in other Temple activities. If 80%, or even 60%, were to become the norm in our movement, our kids would have dramatically higher levels of Jewish commitment; as a side benefit, it should be mentioned, many of the membership problems that our congregations face would be resolved. I applaud the Commission for its initial work on this topic, which will continue at its meeting here and which will involve almost every arm of our movement. This is an ambitious project that will take time and require our vigorous support, and here too, we do not have the luxury of waiting before we move ahead.

A third area is the creation of the Reform Movement Center in New York that will initially house the Union, the College-Institute, the CCAR, and the RPB. This issue is on our agenda tomorrow, but the key is this: we and our partners are united in our desire to see this Center come into being, and we all understand its potential to galvanize Reform Judaism. Our task in the next two years will be to push ahead. Given the size and complexity of the project, there are a hundred different obstacles that we could confront; and, of course, we must operate in a cautious and fiscally responsible manner. Still, our mission is to recognize that this is an historic, one-time opportunity to reshape our movement, both conceptually and physically, and we must build on the momentum that already exists to move this effort to fruition.

Finally, let me suggest that we must use the next two years to create broad areas of movement cooperation without waiting for the completion of the Center. We do not need to be under one roof to work together in training congregational leaders, educating youth workers, reaching out to young adults, and envisioning new approaches to Jewish study and Jewish living. An excellent example of what we might do is the Reform Think Tank that the Union, College, and Conference are organizing for the coming year. It will involve three sessions at each of the College’s campuses, making use of distinguished Jewish authorities from outside and inside of our movement. It will be available for simultaneous transmission to our synagogues that wish to build programs around these sessions; it will be available as well over the internet. Synagogue leaders and members will be asked to transmit questions to our speakers and their reactions to the presentations. This input will be shared with the rabbis, lay leaders, and professors who will serve on the Think Tank and who will jointly craft some new directions for Reform Judaism. In short, this will be an exercise in grassroots organizing, reversing the usual top-down direction of our thinking; it will be a movement-wide, interactive discussion for our synagogues, the first of its kind; and it will be a serious effort to think creatively and collaboratively about the issues of Reform Jewish life.

And I have not even mentioned all that must be done to finish the reorganization of our own board, governance system, and district system.

And so, even as we begin a search for a new President, we do not lack for challenges. But we will respond to these challenges and prepare for the next generation of leadership by remembering who we are: a Union that believes in Reform Judaism as a genuine endowment from God. And remembering this, we will bring into being a stronger Union and a more dynamic Union—a Union that is rooted in Jewish learning and doing, and that feels hopeful and confident of the future.

Of course, transitions are hard; this will require of us the best of our energies and skills, and a deep measure of faith, vision, and commitment to Torah. But in my 14 years as President of the Union, I have never seen this board give anything less, and it will not happen now. And despite the trying times in which we find ourselves, this is our moment in Jewish history, when we prepare for the future and the promise that it brings with the inventiveness and excitement that these times require. I look forward to the work that we will do together, and I thank you all for your devotion to our mutual sacred cause.”