I have to put my own personal satisfaction aside that J Street was not permitted to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Despite my personal opinions about the damage J Street has caused to Israel and Jewish causes in general, I am well aware not everyone shares this perspective. However, I was quite disturbed to hear the Reform Movement’s reaction to the news. I think their decision to announce they are considering leaving the Conference is a major mistake, one that might cause the movement irreparable harm if they follow through on. Though I realize I may be overreacting to the situation, I would like to offer my thoughts in the hope the Union of Reform Judaism will consider.
Union of Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs astutely observed that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations holds little sway over the lives of most Jews. Those people who don’t regularly listen to the John Bachelor Show are highly unlikely to have ever heard of Malcolm Hoenlein, despite the fact he has been the executive vice chair of the organization since 1986. The Jews who are actually looking to their Jewish leadership for guidance are most often found in the Orthodox community, and many of the major Orthodox organizations such as Chabad and Agudat Israel aren’t members of the Conference either, nor do they care. Even Orthodox Jews who are members of the three Orthodox organizations that are members are going to follow the opinions of their rabbis and communal leaders, not those of the Conference.
What R’ Jacobs doesn’t acknowledge is URJ is essentially in the same boat as the Conference. Most Reform Jews are unaware of who their leadership is or what they have to say. They certainly don’t live their lives in accordance with the rulings of the URJ’s rabbinic body. In fact, I would speculate what things most Reform Jews know about Judaism would probably conform more to what Orthodox Jews would say, a point I will soon demonstrate. Simply put, I believe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In truth however the position of the URJ is actually more tenuous. R’ Jacobs claims his organization represents 1.5 million Jews. This statistic is likely to be inflated as it most likely includes the non-Jewish spouses and children of non-Jewish mothers. Given the fact that according to the Pew poll almost 1/4 of Generator Xers and 1/2 of Millenials have only one Jewish parent, this number is likely significantly lower. Now the argument will be raised that Reform Jews acknowledge patrilineal descent as well as matrilineal descent, so that all of these children should be counted as Jews. Not so fast. I understand this has been the official position of the Reform Movement since 1983. However, not only have Conservative and Orthodox Jews not accepted the idea, neither have most Reform Jews. It’s certainly a precarious situation to have a synagogue where the congregants don’t accept the rabbi as being Jewish and yet in a number of Reform synagogues this is actually the case. I remember vividly talking to a friend of mine I had met while I was in LIFTY who was having a meltdown over her Jewish identity because her mother was a Reform convert. She ultimately decided she felt Jewish and that’s what counted but her story actually highlights another and potentially more serious problem. As of 20 years ago even members of the Reform movement didn’t consider Reform conversions to be “real” conversions, and I can’t say beyond my experience how widespread that perception was or currently is. All of these issues highlight the precarious situation the Reform movement finds itself in dictating policy in the Jewish world.
R’ Jacobs announced to the world that he believed it was his movement gives legitimacy to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and therefore they need to change their policies to reflect how the Reform movement envisions what American Jews really want. The opposite might actually be true. If a significant number of the URJ’s membership and leadership are not considered to be Jews, even by members of their own organization, and their policies and dictates are not shaping the hearts and minds of the members, then membership in the Conference may actually be a vital part of asserting the Jewishness of the URJ. I understand the frustration of the URJ leadership of losing the vote, but leaving the Conference will not help their cause and would likely undermine it. Whether I agree with the beliefs and goals of the Reform movement, I acknowledge its role in the lives of many American Jews. I believe they would be doing a terrible disservice to their constituents and I urge them to rethink their position.