Global, Identity, Religion

Sweet home Chicago

I already mentioned briefly that the Chicago area has completely taken over the leadership of American Reform Judaism’s professional organizations. Now it’s a cover story in the Chicago Jewish News:

For the next four years at least, the Chicago area is the center of power in the world of the American Reform rabbinate.
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, spiritual leader of Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, was recently installed as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the national organization of Reform rabbis, believed to be the oldest and largest rabbinic association in the world.
At the same time Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, was installed as vice president.
Knobel will serve two years, then Dreyfus will take over as president.
As long as records have been kept for the 118-year-old organization, this is the first time the two top leaders have been from the same city.
[…] In addition to the two rabbinic leaders, two more Chicago-era individuals head national Reform movement organizations this year. Lori Sagarin, director of congregational learning at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, is the president of NATE, National Association of Temple Educators. And Edward Alpert, executive director or Am Shalom in Glencoe, is the president-elect of NATA, National Association of Temple Administrators.

But this article is relevant for more than just Windy City boosterism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here are the key paragraphs:

In broad strokes, [Rabbi Dreyfus] says, she sees a clear division between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox streams, but within the non-Orthodox stream, “the question is how we define the differences between Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism. That’s one of the challenges Peter (Knobel) wants the movement to think about-are there differences that we can really articulate, and do they really matter?”
In the case of young people, she believes the answer is no. “I see a growing post-denominationalism” in a younger generation, she says. “The movement labels are totally irrelevant. How are we going to reach out as a movement to young people who have no interest in movements? that’s another challenge.”
One answer, she says, may lie in the chavurah (informal fellowship group) movement-her eldest son, among many others, identifies with it. “His cohort are less interested in institutional synagogues as they are in studying, celebrating, creating community. At this point we don’t know what will happen to them when they settle down and have children, but we don’t want to lose the best and the brightest because we have become irrelevant,” she says.

This message contrasts sharply with URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s statements railing against “postdenominationalism”. Rabbi Dreyfus’s message is one that I (and other Reform movement expats) have been waiting for years to hear from the official institutions of the Reform movement: a recognition that we have created meaningful Jewish lives outside the Reform institutions without abandoning our progressive Jewish values (i.e. the reason we’re not there isn’t because we’re not interested in Judaism), and an acknowledgement that we are missed and that our absence highlights an area where the movement falls short. Acknowledging the problem is the first step towards solving it, so the message we’re hearing from the new leadership portends good things for the future.

4 thoughts on “Sweet home Chicago

  1. Nice piece, BZ, but I just wanted to take issue with the “sharp division” between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Unless you call anyone without a hat/sheitel “non-Orthodox”, I think there’s a pretty smooth spectrum all the way from left to right, with no breaks anywhere. Each person on the spectrum can wiggle a bit to the left (egal from Shira Hadasha, shira hadasha from traditional) or to the right (vice versa), without blurring the lines. Or am I talking poppycock?

  2. I agree that the distinctions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox are blurrier now than they were a few years ago. But I disagree that there’s a well-ordered linear spectrum from left to right. For communities like Shira Hadasha, it may be clear what is to the left and to the right, but this breaks down when applied to non-Orthodox streams and substreams: 1) because the usual left-right ordering is based on Orthodox values rather than based on liberal streams’ own values (see my comments here (search in page for “left wing”) and here); 2) even when you do that, it’s not so obvious how to rank things. E.g., people (even operating in the conventional problematic frames) always have a doozy of a time lining up the Reform and Reconstructionist movements from left to right: one of them uses more Hebrew in the liturgy and has also been at the vanguard of progressive attitudes to GLBT, etc.

  3. you’re right. Possibly the model should be revised to include several spectrums – liturgical innovation, liturgical traditionalism (not the same thing! one could be techinos and meditation vs. sticking to the same tunes, the other would be Hebrew vs. vernacular), halakha, gender issues, etc. But all the same, I don’t think the divide between Orthodox/non orthodox still exists the way it used to (except in the minds of people, making it boil down to “if you think you’re Orthodox, then you’re Orthodox”)

  4. On that matter, see my article (in Hebrew, sadly) on Yoel Bin Nun, in Aqdamot 15 (sorry, no link). I pointed out that Yoel Bin Nun, despite his revolutionary and controversial position on many matters halakhic is still “Orthodox”, only because he says he is.

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