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.