Reform to focus on inclusion, social justice, leader says

UFJ biennial event at the Orlando World Centre Marriott UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM FACEBOOK PHOTO
UFJ biennial event at the Orlando World Centre Marriott UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM FACEBOOK PHOTO

“Audacious hospitality” and social justice are among the key priorities that the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents and supports Reform Jewish congregations and communities primarily in North America and Israel, is focusing on going forward.

On the heels of its 2015 biennial meeting, held in Florida in early November and attended by about 5,000 Reform Jewish leaders from around North America and Israel, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the president of the New York City-based URJ, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, will be visiting Ontario Nov. 20 to 22.

He’ll be meeting with several local congregations and sharing some of the highlights of the biennial, which establishes the URJ’s agenda for the year, and what he said were “critical and exciting opportunities we have to strengthen Jewish life here in North America.”

In addition to finding ways to keep people already involved in Reform Judaism engaged across generations, Rabbi Jacobs said the movement will be looking for avenues to open doors to those interested in becoming involved.

For example, Reform is conscious of being inclusive of those who might not otherwise feel included in Jewish institutional spaces such as synagogues. “The idea of ‘audacious hospitality’ extends to LGBT people, millennials, people with disabilities, and looks at how we can help move people from the periphery to the centre, to meet people where they are,” he said.

Further, he stressed the movement’s intention to welcome interfaith couples and families. He pointed to recent research from Brandeis University showing that millennials raised in interfaith families who’ve been brought up in synagogues and Jewish youth movements often show a strong commitment to, and knowledge of, Judaism.

“So interfaith inclusion and outreach works. It changes the demographic trajectory for a Jewish life. Since the late 1970s, our movement has showed that when we do outreach to interfaith families well, it succeeds,” Rabbi Jacobs said.

He clarified that the URJ supports the right of individual rabbis to make up their minds about officiating at interfaith weddings, and while in Canada, Reform rabbis have largely decided not to do so, in the United States, it’s a question that each rabbi confronts.

“We’re clear that no matter a rabbi’s stance on officiating, there are concrete ways that we as a Reform community can draw close [interfaith] families and not make them feel they’re outside of Jewish life,” he said.

In addition to inclusion, Rabbi Jacobs emphasized social justice as a fundamental URJ priority, one that both brings people into Jewish life and fulfils the Torah obligation to “love thy neighbour.”

American Reform congregations have been part of the push to get the U.S. Congress to raise the number of refugees it allows into the country, he said.

When the Syrian refugee crisis became a major public issue earlier this year, Rabbi Jacobs said Canadian Reform congregations were “visionary in their response,” showing a real commitment to sponsoring refugee families.

“I’ve spoken about, and will speak in Canada about, tikkun olam as the largest gateway for most Jewish people to come into Jewish life… We’re looking at how Jewish life doesn’t just make social activism possible but can really inspire it… Like, say, if a commitment caring for refugees is sustained by a Shabbat experience that renews one’s optimism and commitment to Judaism.”

He said traditional Judaism too often leaves out tikkun olam, and the URJ believes it’s important to integrate the latter into spiritual and communal Jewish life.

“It’s sometimes only about not leaving chametz out or kashrut… But we’re looking at, how do we make society kosher? We want to be engaging not just to young people searching for spiritual identity but also to people looking for more meaning and depth in their daily lives.”

Rabbi Jacobs will be giving a keynote address at a community Shabbat Nov. 20 at Temple Sinai Congregation. On Nov. 21, he’ll be at Solel Congregation in Mississauga to install Rabbi Audrey Pollock as its new senior rabbi. Later that day, he’ll travel to Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, and on Nov. 22, he’ll speak at Holy Blossom Temple, and later in the day, he’ll visit Oakville’s Shaarei Beth-El.