Reform biennial to focus on filling pews in post-Pew world

An October study said movement lags behind other denominations in religious engagement in US.

Rabbi Richard Jacobs 311 (photo credit: BEN FINK SHAPIRO)
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 American Jewry.
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.
Prime 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 study.”
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 ranks.
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 entirely.”
According to Pew, denominational affiliation had dropped across the board except in the case of the Orthodox community, which is growing.
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.
The 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 unscathed.
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.”