Sunday, March 26, 2006

"I can no longer in good faith remain part of the Reform Jewish movement" (or Congregation Micah)

Following is a Reform Jew's letter of resignation from his temple and the Reform Jewish movement. Compelling stuff. Are the folks at the URJ paying attention?

December 27, 2005

Congregation Micah
Brentwood, TN


Dear [xxx],

There is a fair amount of history between [my] family and the Reform Judaism movement in Nashville, much of it good and strong. My great-grandfather... arrived in Nashville from Cincinnati in 1864, imbued with the spirit and teachings of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. He—[my great-grandfather] that is—was one of the founders of the first reform synagogue in Nashville, which, after incarnations, eventually morphed into The Temple. This history, however, has also been tinged with resentment felt by some family members who happen to be free-market Republicans. That resentment had been directed towards a progression of Reform rabbis, whose preaching at times stepped outside the Jewish liturgy into the American political arena, with an undeniable left-of-center tilt.

I have been sitting in reform synagogues for more than 40 years now. I have listened to excellent and intelligent rabbis say many insightful and important things. I have also heard them, on a regular basis, speak in condescending terms of Republicans and conservatives. I have heard them offer political views antithetical to the advance of free people and of free markets. In short, virtually every reform rabbi I have ever encountered has eventually trampled on the very values that I hold dearest. This trampling is done publicly and sanctimoniously. These rabbis—good people all—simply have a blind spot when it comes to believing that their view on American politics is the only correct, moral or “Jewish” view.

Thus, the recent and much-publicized actions of the Union of Reform Judaism, and of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the union’s president, come as no surprise to me.

As you no doubt know, the URJ, at its recent biennial conference, passed yet another spate of resolutions in support of what some consider to be knee-jerk liberal political positions. One resolution opposed the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another called for a “clear exit strategy” from Iraq. Clearly, these are defensible positions, even if they may not be my own. But what they have to do with Reform Judaism is beyond me.

The most offensive words were found in the press release that accompanied the resolutions. This release contained a statement from URJ’s president, a section of which I quote verbatim: “The sentiment was clear and overwhelming,” said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union. “American Jews, and all Americans, are profoundly critical of this war and they want this Administration to tell us how and when it will bring our troops home.”

My brother... wrote shortly afterwards, by way of response: “All Americans? Please. Not this American. Not this reform Jew. Not in my name, Rabbi Yoffie.”

To be fair, the response from some quarters of American Judaism has been swift and on-point. The Republican Jewish Coalition quickly launched an ad campaign in major newspapers, including The New York Times. The Republican Jewish Coalition is a Washington D.C.-based grassroots organization with five full-time offices, 41 chapters, and a membership roster of more than 20,000 Americans. That ad read, in part:

“THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM DOES NOT SPEAK FOR US. The recent statement by the Union for Reform Judaism saying American Jews oppose the President on Iraq is misleading and wrong. We support the President and the War on Terrorism. We stand behind our troops and their mission of creating a safe, democratic Iraq. This mission is vital not only for the continuing fight against terrorism and the stability of the Middle East, but also for making the world a safer place for our children.”

Other comments from prominent Jews were reassuring. If nothing else, the extremism of Rabbi Yoffie’s comments seemed to have focused attention on an issue—the left-leaning tilt of the leadership of the Reform Jewish movement—that has long been in need of critical spotlight.

Rabbi Mark Gellman penned a piece in Newsweek, titled, “Historical Blindness: The Union of Reform Judaism’s vote to oppose the war in Iraq was a mistake and embarrassment for my movement.” Rabbi Mark Ankcorn, a signatory to the RJC ad, wrote that the URJ “couldn't be more wrong” on Iraq. Sen. Norman Coleman even took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to take issue with URJ’s latest campaign.

But where is URJ? Where is the apology? Where is the call for moderation? Where is the statement reaching out to all Reform Jews, whatever their political beliefs? Here in Nashville, where is Micah? Where is common sense and decency?

The deafening silence from Micah, and from the Reform movement is profound, sad, and disturbing.

Of course, the sad irony in all this is that Reform Judaism, which bows to none in its titular commitment to liberalism and diversity, is institutionally incapable of being gracious, inclusive or tolerant of Republicans in its own midst. One wonders, when the history of Reform Judaism is written objectively 200 years from now, how the actions of Rabbi Yoffie and his ilk will be perceived. As stalwart protectors of, and advocates for, Reform Judaism? Or as narrow-minded zealots who presided at the nascent stages of an irreparable rift in the movement?

To bring the story back to Nashville, the question I face is: What does this mean for me and for my family? My wife... and I have very different politics. But we each acknowledge and respect that the other has valid beliefs and opinions. Our children... are the product of a mixed (political) marriage. We try to teach them not to judge people by their politics. Our children are happy at Micah, as is [my wife]. As such, she plans to stay at Micah and to educate our children there.

I remain fiercely committed to the preservation of Judaism and of Israel. However, I can no longer in good faith remain part of the Reform Jewish movement. With this letter, I officially tender my resignation from Congregation Micah. URJ has taken its stand. Micah has stood silent. I simply can no longer stand with either and be true to my own values. But I want to be clear: My resignation has been 40 years in the making. Recent events galvanized the issue, but my decision is based on my lifelong affiliation with, and alienation from, Reform Jewish organizations.

I hope that my resignation will, in its own tiny way, send a message to the leadership of Reform Judaism. As well, I’d like to give Micah a written heads-up that our self-determined dues in the future will reflect my departure from the synagogue.


Willy May Stern
(Letter posted with permission from the writer, a relative of this blogger. The links were added by David M.)

  • A correspondent writes, "My sister just resigned from her reform temple in Newton, Mass, for the same reason." The first rumblings of an army of Davids?
  • Matt Brooks writes in, "This remains a critically important issue."
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