Rabbi Eric Yoffie is one of those courageous souls prepared to throw stones
while living in a glass house.
Not content to criticize the Chabad
movement as offering feel-good, commitment- free, money-chasing Judaism (“Reform
rabbis tell me of Chabad rabbis who come into their communities and spend most
of their time cultivating a handful of very wealthy people”), the former head of
American Reform Judaism has now turned his sights on Sheldon Adelson, the global
He believes Sheldon should be all but ostracized
from Jewish communal dialogue (“Perhaps the time has come for important leaders
of our community to decline invitations to appear at Mr. Adelson’s side.”) I do
not know Rabbi Yoffie, but mutual acquaintances tell me he is a good, measured
and decent man. However, surely he is aware that radical attacks on movements
and individuals with impeccable credentials of dedication to the Jewish
community, however imperfect, will lead others to examine his own record of
leadership, particularly given the reverberations of the recent Pew Research
report that paints so devastating a portrait of the state of Reform Jewry, of
which Yoffie, according to his Wikipedia page, served as “unchallenged head...
from 1996 to 2012.”
The Pew study tells us that Reform Jewish religious
attendance has plummeted to 17 percent attending services at least once a month.
Fewer than one in five (16%) Reform Jews say that religion is very important in
their lives. More than half of Reform Jewish families do not enroll their
children in any Jewish programs like Hebrew school or youth groups and, perhaps
as a direct result, only 4% of Reform Jews reported knowing how to read
When it comes to connection to the Jewish state, 60% of Reform
Jews have never visited Israel. Most significantly, one of out of every two Jews
who affiliate with Reform marry outside the community.
NOW, NONE of this
is a criticism of Reform Jews, who are my brothers in every way. I lecture to
Reform groups much more than to Orthodox audiences. They welcome me with love,
are eager to hear the relevance of Jewish values to modern life, and I can bear
personal witness to their deep attachment to their Jewishness and their
dedication to Israel’s future.
They are immensely generous to Jewish
causes and exhibit a deep sense of social justice.
It is, rather, a
critique of leaders like Rabbi Yoffie who seem so preoccupied with firing
torpedoes at those trying to right the Jewish ship (Yoffie himself admits that
without Adelson there would be no Birthright) rather than focusing on saving
their own liner from sinking.
Writing in Mosaic just last month on the
high number of intermarriages Yoffie said this: “The simple fact is that no
feasible strategy is available to lower those rates in any dramatic way. Doing
so would require Jews in this country to pull back from full, enthusiastic
participation in American life and to construct barricades and bunkers to
separate themselves from the American mainstream.”
confession would have us believe that there is no way of internalizing Jewish
commitment and that assimilation can only be combatted by returning to the
ghetto. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Jews – many of them Reform – go out every
day to work, play and live in mainstream America, taking their Jewishness with
them because they have had a solid Jewish education and have found ongoing
sources of inspiration, like synagogues and study groups, to bolster Jewish
But Rabbi Yoffie’s belief that Jewishness cannot flourish in
non-Jewish society is perhaps informed by his puzzling attitude toward non-Jews.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post in September 2011, he said, “I care about
humankind, but I love my own group a bit more. I am more comfortable with
This strange statement would deny the existence of a common human
family. I am an Orthodox rabbi but I am immediately comfortable neither around
Jews nor non- Jews, but rather around those who treat me with love and respect,
whatever their ethnicity or religion. Readers of my columns are well aware of my
two-decade bond with Cory Booker, our newly elected Senator from New Jersey, who
served as president of my Jewish student organization at Oxford, or with Mike
Benson, grandson of Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson, who is today the president
of Eastern Kentucky University.
In Englewood, our Shabbos table has as
many non-Jews as it does Jews.
Perhaps this is why, in an astonishing act
of willful blindness, while almost all segments of affiliated Jewry translated
the results of the Pew study as alarming, even catastrophic, particularly in its
finding on the growing disconnection of Reform Jews, Yoffie actually published
two recent columns analyzing the Pew study but did not mention the words “Reform
Judaism” even once, not in his Haaretz column of October 16, or his Jerusalem
Post column of October 7, which offers the cheery conclusion that “American Jews
are deeply committed to Israel.”
YET, IT is a commitment that Yoffie has
himself suppressed at times. In June 2001, when terror attacks in Israel were
increasing, The Los Angeles Times reported that “the US Reform movement...
announced last week that it was canceling its summer youth programs in Israel.
Politicians in Israel denounced the cancellations... as an abandonment of the
Jewish state in its hour of need by those who should be its biggest supporters.
‘If at this hour Jews do not come visit here, what is the significance of their
solidarity with Israel?’ Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said.”
ordering the cancellations, Rabbi Yoffie’s actions as head of Reform are
The Reform Jews I know stand steadfastly and unswervingly
behind Israel, especially when it is under attack. Why did Yoffie make this
decision for 30% of American Jewry without consulting them? Rabbi Yoffie has
taken a similarly curious posture toward Israel more recently, with his June
2013 column entitled, “Why US Jews must embrace Kerry’s appeal to put pressure
on Netanyahu.” Rather than objecting to our president’s diplomatic overtures to
Iran while the rogue state continues to fund Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists that
kill Jews and Americans, enrich uranium, and prior to the election of Hassan
Rohani issued genocidal threats against Israel, Yoffie believes that it is Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who is the problem.
I do not believe that the
majority of Reform Jews would agree with Yoffie’s appeal to pressure the Israeli
government into concessions that would endanger its security.
I HAVE no
problem with Rabbi Yoffie criticizing Chabad, Sheldon Adelson’s comments about a
nuclear detonation in an empty Iranian desert, or me, for that
Lord knows, all three come in for their share of reproach, and
Judaism thrives on healthy intellectual debates. But it would be nice to see
Yoffie as committed to rescuing Judaism from decline as he is to knocking fellow
Jews down.The author, whom
The Washington Post call “the
most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network,
which regularly stages large-scale, values-based debates on the leading issues of
our time. He will shortly publish
Kosher Lust: Love is Not the
Answer.Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.