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 sites on Sheldon Adelson, the global Jewish philanthropist, who he believes 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. But 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 percent) 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 four percent of Reform Jews reported knowing how to read Hebrew. When it comes to connection to the Jewish state, 60 percent 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 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 philanthropic 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.”
This copout 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 identity.
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 them.”
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 with 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 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 7th, 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 U.S. 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.”
In ordering the cancellations, Rabbi Yoffie’s actions as head of Reform is troubling. 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 U.S. 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 Rouhani’s repudiation of Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s genocidal threats against Israel, Yoffie believes that it is Bibi 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 matter. 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.