By Uriel Heilman for JTA
SAN DIEGO (JTA) – What do you get
when you bring together 5,000 of the Reform movement’s faithful for a
conference in sunny San Diego in mid-December?
days of singing, learning, schmoozing and worrying at a gathering that
seemed equal parts pep rally and intervention session.
there were the spirited prayer services, the morning-till-night stream
of musical performances and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the
Union for Reform Judaism, or URJ, who compared the challenges facing the
movement to giant waves, crying “Surf’s up!”
“Big waves require
more skill and courage to ride, but if ridden artfully they enable us to
go faster and further than ever before,” Jacobs said, a giant screen
projecting a swell behind him.
For the intervention, there was
session after session devoted to the challenges facing the movement,
especially the question of how to engage young adult Jews who, by and
large, are steering clear of Reform synagogues.
“I think the
Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much we double down
on great programming, it might not increase the likelihood that those
young people are going to walk in,” Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, a Reform
rabbi who is president of the Wexner Foundation, said in a conference
session focused on the recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry.
“I think that’s really hard for this gathering to keep in mind because
we are the people who love what we do, and we just think if we do more
of it and do it better and do it more often and do it faster that
they’re going to come.”
Though Reform is the largest denomination
in American Jewish life, there was palpable concern at the conference
that the movement is headed for a diminished future. The fastest-growing
group in American Jewry is Jews of no religion, and the denomination
doing best at holding its own is Orthodox, according to the Pew survey.
membership is dwindling, synagogues are struggling to secure their
bottom lines and, as Jacobs noted at the last biennial, 80 percent of
Reform Jews are “out the door” by the end of high school. Many never
return: Fewer than half of Reform parents have their children enrolled
in some kind of Jewish youth, camp or educational program, the Pew
Jacobs has promised to “reboot” the movement, and he is focusing his efforts on young people.