Rabbi Richard Jacobs 311.
(photo credit: BEN FINK SHAPIRO)
The Reform movement will hold its biennial gathering on Wednesday in the Jewish
denomination’s first major meeting since the October release of a Pew report on
The meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism will be held
concurrently with the Centennial of the Women of Reform Judaism and will attract
nearly 5,000 Jewish leaders to San Diego, according to organizers.
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman and MK Ruth
Calderon are slated to address the gathering.
“The Biennial marks a
pivotal moment for the North American Jewish community” URJ President Rabbi Rick
Jacobs said in a statement.
Among the central ideas to be explored at the
gathering, he said, will be engaging young Jews, making synagogues more
accessible and welcoming and examining “the challenges and opportunities facing
Reform congregations as a result of the findings of the recent Pew
For the first time, the conference will be open to participants
who are not members of Reform congregations.
For the Reform movement, the
question isn’t so much whether the four-day conference is a success but whether
Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation and disengagement in its
In October, the Pew Research Center issued a massive study of
American Jewry that indicated that Reform ranks lowest of the three major
movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.
While continuing its
reign as the largest denomination, with more than a third of respondents
identifying with the movement, the report revealed that “28 percent of those
raised Reform, have left the ranks of Jews by religion
According to Pew, denominational affiliation had dropped
across the board except in the case of the Orthodox community, which is
The Pew report indicated a significant demographic shift, with
six in ten Jews married after the turn of the millennium choosing a gentile
spouse. Around half of Reform Jews are exogamous.
At 1.7 children per
couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major US Jewish
denominations and well below the replacement rate.
Fewer than half of
those children are enrolled in any kind of formal Jewish educational or youth
program. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.
It is in this context,
Jacobs said, that he was brought on, a year-and-a-half ago, as president: to
re-examine everything the movement does.
He has articulated three
strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage
young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls.
URJ biennial is reminiscent of October’s United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism centennial, which addressed many of the same issues raised by Pew. While
the conservative movement has not been hit quite as hard as their reform
counterparts by the trends enumerated in Pew, they did not come out
The proportion of American Jews who identify as Conservative
has shrunk to 18% Pew reported, down from 43% in 1990 and 33% in 2000. And with
a median age of 55, Conservative Jews are older on average than Reform or
Orthodox and more likely to leave their movement than Jews from either of the
other two major denominations.
Jacob’s comments regarding the
revitalization of his shrinking movement echo those of Rabbi Steven Wernick, the
CEO of United Synagogue, who described the USCJ gathering as a chance to “come
up with new strategies and ideas.”
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