Rabbi Eric Yoffie is retiring

Crossposted to Jewschool

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism will retire in two years.

Jonathan Sarna has a nearly glowing review of Yoffie’s tenure at The Forward. The final point of Sarna’s piece is:

In confronting these challenges, will the URJ look to a leader who champions, as Yoffie consistently has, Torah, prayer and the practice of mitzvot? Or will it, in keeping with American Jewry’s larger outward turn, select a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam? Whatever happens, the Yoffie era will go down as an important period in the history of the Reform movement. At a “critical juncture in Jewish history,” he made Reform Judaism more Jewish.

Lets ignore the final sentence of this and move on from my aneurysm. I do have some appreciation for what Yoffie has done. Despite Sarna’s point about him growing NFTY (I’m not prepared to give him credit for that anyway), he’s also been openly dismissive of NFTY presidents and overseen the total demolition of the URJ’s college programming and said stuffy nonsense like (I’m paraphrasing here) if you don’t wear a suit to a Reform congregations, you’re a putz.

So I don’t think too highly of him.

But at this point we’ve got a great opportunity to talk about what the right replacement for Yoffie will be like. Sarna’s article explores two possibilities: someone like Yoffie or “a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam.

The new president needs to be able to do two things, neither of which involve being an ideological dogmatician.

Leave tradition and social action to a team of experts and let the new president be the face of a more well-written message. So the first thing the URJ needs is a charismatic salesperson who can tell American Jews why Reform Judaism is good because the URJ has a message/marketing problem.

Meanwhile, the administrative, structural and technological functions of the URJ have to come to forefront of the job of the president of the URJ. The URJ is teaching congregations how to blog, it’s tweeting, it has its own (dysfunctional) blog and it needs someone who understands these things and knows how to grow the URJ with these tools. It needs someone who can be like @daroff with his or her own heavy twitter presence. Last year, the URJ underwent a major restructuring effort. The next president of the URJ has to be an administrator to continue reconsidering the bloated infrastructure of the URJ.

Thoughts?

7 Responses to Rabbi Eric Yoffie is retiring

  1. Randi June 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    I don’t know enough to opine about R’Yoffie’s influence on the URJ’s youth and young adult programs, but when I read his 2007 Biennial speech, I stood up at my computer and applauded. Which made everyone at work look at me quizically…

    That was the single best-written “Reform” message I had ever read.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 21, 2010 at 10:00 am #

      So he gets it right once, for you. The message, even if he can put it well, doesn’t seem to be getting out. And, this might sound stupid, but that may have a lot to do with the fact that the URJ couldn’t blog itself out of a box.

  2. Larry Kaufman June 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    Although I read your Yoffie piece when you posted it, I had to wait until now to respond because my comments are too many for a BlackBerry, which is all I had ready access to in Israel.

    Regarding NFTY — I’d like some chapter and verse on your comments on disrespecting NFTY presidents. I’ve never been to a URJ board meeting where the NFTY prez wasn’t given a place on the program (more than can be said about some URJ committee chairs or other affiliates) and treated publicly like the savior of the Movement’s future. Nor have I ever heard anything from Yoffie’s mouth, nor read anything from his pen, that would support your crack about wearing a suit to services. (At the recent URJ Shabbat morning service held at HUC-NY, most of the men attending, including me, were not wearing suits.) Meanwhile, the same meeting at which Yoffie announced his retirement also brought an announcement of a major new initiative to strengthen the Union’s youth programs, which Yoffie conceded had fallen on hard times in an age of non-affiliation. (As one of the sages in the field of youth work put it, Teens today don’t join the drama club — they go out for the spring play.) As highly as I may regard Eric Yoffie, I don’t credit him with the ability to single-handedly withstand the trends of the larger society. (If you haven’t read Bowling Alone, you should.)

    Sarna’s comment about the nature of the successor is poorly stated, since it suggests that Yoffie was deficient in his commitment to tikkun olam. Most of the public criticism of Yoffie’s Union has in fact been based on its active role on social justice issues, which some believe are beyond the purview of a religious organization.

    A more appropriate dichotomy of the two types of potential new leader are an administrator vs. a visionary. One of Yoffie’s legacies (and it’s too early to tell whether for good or ill) will be the overhaul of the way in which the Union delivers service. If either he or his successor is to be evaluated according to his or her prowess with social media, we’re all in big trouble. (The Obama campaign’s command of social media was no harbinger of the Obama administration’s ability to manage the affairs of the nation.)

    I agree with you that the URJ has a message/marketing problem — but you seem to equate the Union’s problem with the Movement’s problem. And while I see many benefits to the proposed creation of a single address for the institutions of Reform Judaism, the physical consolidation will not in and of itself make the world aware of why and how the institutions are earning their money, and thus of why they deserve to be supported.

    (Incidentally, while Daroff tweets to let us all know what plane he is catching, it is not he but Jerry Silverman who has the challenge of crafting the Federation’s message; Daroff is only the messenger.)

    One thing I can confidently predict: whoever succeeds Eric Yoffie will also have flaws, even as did Moshe Rabbenu. But if they are no more serious than a deficient college program and an inconsistent siddur, we may all still look for as auspicious a future for Reform Judaism as has been its recent past.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 28, 2010 at 10:50 am #

      The suits thing, I think, is from the Houston biennial that I went to. In the midst of his state of the union speech, he went off on this whole thing about how people dress for services. Drove me nuts at the time.

      I’ll admit (again) that my bit about NFTY presidents is totally anecdotal, but I’ll tell you why I was very willing to believe the things I’ve heard. When I was at the 2005 URJ Biennial, doing the NFTY track, we were kept apart from the biennial for most of every day. We didn’t get to go to interesting workshops. But you bet we were trotted out as the the great hope of the future during Havdalah on stage with Noam Katz. And we all felt like the entire experience was one of condescension.

      I’ve met Yoffie a few times, though I don’t think he’d remember. Whenever he comes to Kutz everyone complains that he’s condescending to them and dismissive of what they have to say.

      I do equate the Union’s problem with the Movement’s problem. Yoffie is the president of the Union and leader of the Movement. The Union is the biggest, most important arm of the movement. Its resolutions are binding for other arms!

      And I’m really tired of the way you talk about the college programming so dismissively. “A deficient college program.” No, a non-existent college program. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: an entire generation is being told we don’t matter.

      • Larry Kaufman June 29, 2010 at 2:18 am #

        Here’s what he said:
        Second, as one who has long advocated a more participatory, community-building, user-friendly worship experience, which is now becoming the norm in our Movement, I welcome the move toward comfortable and informal dress in such congregations. For many Reform Jews, it seems, formality of dress is associated with a cold, distant worship style. If dressing in a more casual manner––within reasonable limits––opens us to warm, enthusiastic prayer that both touches our souls and brings us closer to God, then it is a blessing for us and for Reform Judaism.

        • David A.M. Wilensky June 29, 2010 at 11:21 am #

          Well. Um. I definitely remember being upset by it at the time. Never mind that bit then.

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