Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a Reform rabbi who established the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College during the 19th century, would likely have been beaming with pride had he attended the panel discussion on the Reform movement April 14 at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.
Wise’s name came up several times during the discussion, “Re-forming Reform Judaism for the 21st Century,” featuring three prominent Reform movement leaders. More than 500 people attended the 90-minute program in the temple’s sanctuary.
The event was a celebration of the March 4 installation of Rabbi Richard Block as president of the CCAR. Block has been senior rabbi at The Temple-Tifereth Israel since 2001.
Block served as moderator for the discussion. The panelists were Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institution of Religion; Rabbi Steven A. Fox, CEO of the CCAR; and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“These are truly outstanding leaders, and it means a great deal to me for them to be here,” Block said.
One question Block asked the panelists was, “What do you see as the foremost challenges facing Reform Judaism, the American Jewish community and the Jewish people?”
Fox said he sees changing demographics and financial challenges.
“We see people who don’t have institutional relationships who aren’t committed to their denominations,” he said.
“To me, it does harken back in many ways to what Isaac Mayer Wise wanted. He wanted an American Judaism.”
Fox, who joined the CCAR in 2006, said the American Jewish population has changed significantly in the last 30 years in that most Jews were born in this country.
“Our institutions in many ways are built upon that population,” he said.
“It’s a great challenge to build community and individual meaning in Jewish life, recognizing this is a unique American Jewish population.”
Ellenson said Wise thought he was creating American Judaism in the late 19th century, and he intended to speak to “a broad spectrum of American Jews.”
“If anything, the mission of URJ at this point is precisely the way Rabbi Wise envisioned it,” he said.
About 50 percent of the membership of Reform congregations today is intermarried, Ellenson said.
“Our challenge is how to make Judaism meaningful for people who are by and large what I call a thin Jewish culture,” he said. “This is an incredible challenge.
“Many of our students (at HUC-JIR) enter rabbinical school with minimal Jewish literacy. It’s a much more difficult challenge to educate people Jewishly who are in many instances learning Hebrew for the first time at the age of 22 or 23 or are being introduced to Jewish history at that age.”
Jacobs said he believes the greatest challenge for the Reform movement is to broaden and deepen it.
“We want to deepen every part of it,” he said.
“I think there’s a sense in the Jewish community, particularly here in North America, that the Reform and Conservative movements are shrinking. How can we turn that around?”
Block asked the panelists to share their thoughts about Israel and its challenges as they relate to the Reform movement.
“For me, the most important thing I see today is getting Reform Jews to Israel,” Fox said. “And it’s not just to see the traditional sites, but to see the exciting things going on in Israel in terms of religious life.
“Everyone’s trip to Israel is really to help bridge that gap. A great challenge to think about is how to make sure we have that connection in our community.”
Jacobs said he sees “a young generation that oftentimes doesn’t get past the headlines.”
“They haven’t actually had an opportunity to forge what I forged as a young person, which is a deep love for Israel,” he said.
“I think a challenge for us is to help the younger generation connect with Israel on that deep level. On the 65th anniversary of Israel’s creation, we have a wonderful opportunity.”
A brief question-and-answer period followed the panel discussion. A man asked Block about his vision as CCAR president.
“The organization has the role of trying to help our rabbis develop their skills in leadership and their ability to serve the Jewish people,” he said. “I hope they’ll play an increasingly significant role in advocating on behalf of Jews everywhere and developing meaningful and engaging opportunities to be Jewish.”
Block was elected to a two-year term as president of the CCAR and was installed in Long Beach, Calif. He is the third CCAR president from The Temple-Tifereth Israel: Rabbi Moses Gries held the office from 1913 to 1915, and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver served from 1945 to 1947.
Fox said Block is well suited to be CCAR president after eight years of service in other CCAR elected offices.
“Rick models rabbinic excellence in his everyday work,” Fox said. “He’s so committed to individual and communal needs, and he has the ability to cultivate leadership in others.
“We in the rabbinate owe Rick a great deal. He is intelligent, visionary and thoughtful … a warm, compassionate and caring person.”
Block led the recitation of the Mourners kaddish, in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the Jewish people, on Yom Hazikaron. The program closed with Cantor Kathryn Wolfe Sebo leading the singing of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem of Israel.
The event began with a dinner attended by 340 people. A dessert reception, co-sponsored by the Temple Women’s Association and Temple Brotherhood, followed the program.