Tag Archives: Union for Reform Judaism

The new head of the Reform Jews?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, your friend and mine, is retiring next year. He’s been the head of the URJ for 16 years.

Nominated to succeed him is Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who I have never heard of.

Things about Jacobs that seem noteworthy:

  • He is working on a doctorate at NYU in something called “ritual dance”
  • He used to be a dancer and choreographer
  • He is on the board of the New Israel Fund (!)

This does not sound like good news for the liturgy nerds of the Reform world.

Anybody know anything about this guy?

More on this at JTA


Patrilineal descent accepted only in Reform–and only in American Reform

There’s an article at JTA by Sue Fiskoff from a few days ago about the debate over patrilineal descent that took place at the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in San Francisco last week.

I’ll summarize the reasons international Reform Jews cite for rejecting patrilineal descent, then I’ll assess each of these arguments for signs of silliness.

1. It would put them at odds with the wider Jewish community and would endanger Reform shuls financially.

This is actually the most persuasive reason given. In many Western countries (I include in this category South Africa, European countries, Latin America and Australia and New Zealand), there is a central Jewish body that dispenses money to smaller Jewish bodies. These groups are sometimes dominated by the Orthodox. That this reason exists is unfortunate, but if it’s believed that patrilineal descent would be the last straw, it makes sense.

2. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to marry a Jew from another stream.

This is a troubling assault by Reform authority on the autonomy of Reform individuals.

In the US, if a Reform Jew of patrilineal descent wishes to marry a Jew of another stream, and to please that person–or their parents–the Reform Jew of patrilneal descent agrees to a conversion, the CCAR and the URJ have no interests in the issue. It is the problem and decision of the Reform Jew of patrilineal descent who may undergo conversion, not the problem or the decision of the organized Reform community.

Given that none of the international Reform Jews in the article give internal reasons for not recognizing patrilineal Jews, let’s assume that they have none. Rather, all of their reasons, like this marriage reason, are based on external reasons–essentially, “If we allow this, what will the other Jews think?”

So–based, admittedly, on a whole lot of assumptions–let’s assume that they actually desire patrilineal descent and that they would allow it if the external impediments were removed. In that case, the marriage thing is a red herring! It is only a problem for individuals, as we determined when discussing how this occurs in the US. If the marriage reason isn’t a communal one, but a potential individual problem, then Reform communities have no business making decisions based on this reason.

And if all of this is true, this reason would not stand on its own. And if it can’t stand on its own, then it’s not reason at all.

3. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to make Aliyah.

This one fails for the same reasons as the marriage reason.

But it actually goes farther than that. In Israeli laws that are determined by the Chareidi-dominated state rabbinate, what makes these people think that a patrilineal Jew who undergoes a Reform conversion in, say South Africa, will be any more acceptable than a patrilineal Jews who has not undergone a Reform conversion?

4. If a community allows patrilineal Jews, it might jeopardize the ability of other members of the community to make Aliyah.

If someone has a Jewish mother, they are kosher in the eyes of Israeli rabbinate. So the Jewish identity of members of the Reform community with Jewish mothers is not in question, despite their involvement in the Reform community. However, in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate, if a child of a patrilineal Jew–or anyone else for that matter–converts under the auspices of a Reform rabbi, they will not be considered a Jew.

So, this reason, too, is poppycock. Refusing to recognize patrilneal Jews as Jews has no effect on anyone’s ability to make Aliyah, including the patrilineal Jews themselves as well as other Reform Jews. The proof of this is in the successful Aliyah of many American Reform Jews.

5. In El Salvador, the Reform community was accepting patrilineal Jews, but has stopped doing so. According to the article, they were accepting patrilineal Jews “during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.”

I am 100 percent bewildered by this one. Why would a civil war have any effect on any of this? Given the mention of the fact that community was lay-led, I imagine that it may have something to do with the arrival of a rabbi who was not amenable to the recognition of patrilineal Jews–like the next reason given. But it’s quite unclear what’s going on here.

6. According to the article: “The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis.” Apparently, it was more important to them to have Conservative rabbis who spoke Spanish than to hire Reform rabbis from the U.S.

This is an interesting one, and totally understandable. I can see that having a rabbi who comes from a similar cultural idiom might be an important thing. However, it is odd to hear about Reform communities that are OK with absolute rabbinic authority of this kind.

The article also mentions that Canadian Reform rabbis, who are members of CCAR, the same rabbinic body as their US counterparts, rejected the CCAR’s adoption of patrilineal descent in 1983, though it does not say why they rejected it. It also notes that the resolution is not binding on any Reform rabbis, anywhere. All of them have autonomy, despite the resolution.

Hey, Nakedhead! The David A.M. Wilensky Story

I went to Limmud NY 2011 and wrote a lot of posts about it. Here’s a guide to them.

While at Limmud NY this weekend, I did a lot of hanging out with Mixed Multitudes blogger and author of the forthcoming dirty children’s book “There are no Baths at Camp” Tamar Fox. (Her posts at MM about Limmud NY are here and here.)

Tamar is on this kick–and I am now too–where she likes to take things said about or by a person and assert that the phrase should be the title of their biography or whatever.

The best one this weekend came in the middle of the Traditional-Egalitarian Shabbat morning service. I stepped out into the hallway for a minute in the middle of the Haftarah to get some water. When I came back, a rather deranged looking, older gentleman with tremendous eyebrows said to me, in a rather deranged sounding voice–mind you, in the middle of Haftarah reading and a normal volume–the following:

“Hey, nakedhead! Where’s your kippah!?” Not in the mood for this conversation at this moment, I walked right past him and said, quietly, “I don’t wear one.”

“You don’t wear one!?”


Then he stood behind me and made gross mouth noises during the entirety of the Prayer for the State of Israel.

I later saw him harass a teenage girl about the strands of techelet in her tzitzit–still in the middle of the repetition of Musaf.

For the rest of the conference, he kept puttering around near me, making occasional eye contact with me like he wanted to continue the charming conversation I had so rudely ended earlier. I just gave him threatening looks and he moved on.

When I told Tamar about this, she immediately said, “Hey, Nakedhead! The David A.M. Wilensky Story.”

I’ve been seriously considering changing the name of this blog lately. It has served me well, but it’s rarely about Reform anymore. Hey, Nakedhead! is definitely a front-runner.

Also in the running is a suggestion from an upset Jewish Christian (…!) who wants for the URJ to accept her (…!). When I told her she’s not a Jew in this comment thread on an old post that has suddenly become quite lively again, she told me I was being intolerant and that I should call myself “The Reform Schmuckle.” So consider The Reform Schmuckle in the running for the new title of this blog as well.

Limmud NY Notes: Debbie Friedman and the Reform Jews

I went to Limmud NY 2011 and wrote a lot of posts about it. Here’s a guide to them.

During Havdalah at Limmud NY this year, there was a brief mention of the recent loss of Debbie Friedman. The tunes included Friedman’s famous Havdalah (if you don’t think you know it, think of the Havdalah tune–the misinai one!), Noam Katz’s terrific “Layehudim” and some original work by the folks leading, which included Darshan–Shir Yaakov and Eprhyme.

Reform rabbinical student Marc Katz pointed out something interesting to me in the middle of Havdalah: Despite the generally small presence of Reform Jews at Limmud NY (which is a whole topic for a whole other post that I’m not gonna write right now), the music during Havdalah and the entire musical style in which Havdalah was conducted was created by Reform Jews–Friedman in particular.

And after Havdalah itself was done, the event turned into what might as well have been song session at a NFTY event or at a Reform summer camp. I suppose people who grew up in other Jewish youth movements may have thought something similar to themselves about the movement they grew up in, but it was interesting nonetheless.

It was the first time I really felt anything about the loss of Debbie Friedman.