Yoffie Emphasizes Need to Forge Links

Reform Jews cannot go it alone.

That was the message at the Reform movement’s 67th biennial in Minneapolis last week.

Despite numerically dominating the North American Jewish landscape, Reform Jews must reach out to other Reform Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe and fight anti-Semitism by forging closer ties to Christians, said the movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

"There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism," Yoffie said at the convention of the newly named Union for Reform Judaism, delivering the keynote address to a Shabbat morning service of 4,500 delegates.

The address marked less of a philosophical sea change for Reform Judaism than Yoffie solidifying an agenda he has promoted since ascending to the top of the largest American stream of Judaism in 1996. Since that time, Yoffie has spearheaded calls both to infuse the movement with more tradition and to invigorate ritual through participation.

On Shabbat, he underscored his points with a distinctively progressive twist. Since God made the covenant at Mount Sinai with the Jewish people, he said, "every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of klal Yisrael," the people of Israel.

First, Yoffie said, the movement would invigorate its support for Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to Reform Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yoffie urged members specifically to raise money to help build two new Reform synagogues in Modi’in and in Mevasseret Zion, both led by women rabbis, while also helping train Reform Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to launch new communities.

He also urged the movement to support Israeli students at the Jerusalem branch of the movement’s seminary, the New York-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with two-year scholarships and two years of post-ordination salary. To raise such funding, Yoffie asked each of the movement’s 920 congregations to ask each member to donate $18 annually — "about the cost of two movie tickets."

Seeking inspiration for this work, Yoffie looked no further than the ultra Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement, which has built outposts throughout the world.

"It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad," Yoffie said. "I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress."

A Chabad spokesman, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, declined to comment on Yoffie’s remarks.

Yoffie also called on Reform Jews to rebuild the bridges they have forged with non-Jews as a path to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Middle East peace.

While Reform Jews led interfaith efforts for decades, those ties have declined recently, and in "many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders," he said.

Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to invite neighboring churches to join in studying a seven-session course on biblical texts and the religious and political issues surrounding Israel.

Whether synagogues can forge those ties remains to be seen, but his call came with joint endorsements by the major Protestant group, the National Council of Churches of Christ; the Presbyterian Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church; the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism," Yoffie said.

Yoffie also urged Reform Jews to look inward. He called on members to study Torah for 10 minutes daily, saying those who complete 100 hours of study using a "Ten Minutes of Torah" Web site will be honored at the group’s 2005 biennial in Houston.

Aiming for the youth market, Yoffie also unveiled a "Packing for College" kit for 11th and 12th graders, a nine-session, two-year course about choosing a college and drafting a "personal Jewish action plan."

In the political realm, Yoffie underscored the movement’s longtime support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and called for dismantling new settlement outposts. Yoffie said he is raising the issue because of what he called "the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s sovereign survival."

With the number of Jewish settlers doubling from 115,000 to 230,000 in one decade, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are becoming so "intertwined" that separation will soon prove "impossible," he said.

After three years’ of intensified violence, "there is a sense of desperation" about how the right-wing Likud government of Ariel Sharon is handling the situation, he added.

"I don’t understand, where are they moving?" he said. "The settlers are turning Israel over to the Arabs. — JB

Making ‘Waves

Visiting Anne Stern at her modest one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment, you quickly learn that she is very proud of her artwork. On the walls of her apartment hang her creative accomplishments – a prize-winning collage, an oil landscape, tiny acrylic still lifes of a covered challah and flower bouquets – all of which she is eager to talk about in her charming British lilt, a vestige of her Wembly upbringing.

What Stern, in her mid-80’s, might not tell you up front is that she has spent many years living alone on a fixed income, and is a recipient of Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Home Delivered Meals, a quarter-century-old program that delivers seven balanced entrees a week to homebound seniors. Last week, with the help of Israel Humanitarian Foundation (IHF), JFS greatly modernized its program by purchasing a supply of microwaves that will be given to more than 300 senior citizens in the program.

“Microwaves are safer than conventional ovens, which the elderly might neglect to turn off,” said Joan Mithers, director of community programs and staff training at JFS, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Eligible candidates for the Microwave Meals Program are 60 years of age or older, and they suffer from illness, disability or frailty that keeps them homebound and unable to drive. Many of them are also Holocaust survivors, and are socially isolated without any direct family support. Those on the program will now receive a microwave and seven meals for each day of the week.

IHF donated $65,000 to expand JFS’s long-running Home Delivered Meals Program. In addition to the microwaves, a significant improvement to the program is a machine called the AmeriPak 245 filled-tray sealer, a conveyor belt designed to add efficiency to meal packaging.

Overseeing the entire process is Carrie Hornby, director of food and nutrition services, who runs the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen.

“This machine can do over 600 meals an hour,” said Hornby, who plans the menu cycle, which has the approval of the Department of Aging for both the city and county, as well as the city of West Hollywood’s counterpart.

The meals, which are blast frozen for preservation, are delivered by JFS twice a week. Choices vary from week to week – ranging from roast chicken to turkey cacciatore to the occasional beef dish, and featuring desserts from fruit to pumpkin or chocolate marble cake – but always strike the recommended balance of protein, vitamin A and vitamin C. Hornby said that the kitchen is required to provide the seniors with about one-third of recommended daily nutritional allowances, but in reality, they have been fulfilling almost half.”Our intent is that they remain independent in their home as long as possible,” said Hornby, who said that the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen routinely serves 105 people a day.

At the Microwave Meal Program’s launch last week, even JFS office staff were getting into the spirit of the program, as Valerie Chavez, assistant executive to Director Paul Castro, volunteered some time to help prepare food at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen.

Frederick Simmons, who has served on the IHF Board for 25 years and expressed his enthusiasm for the new project, was also on hand for the microwave project’s kickoff.

“I’m a lawyer. It is very rewarding to think we’re making something happen that otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not only important to do good, but to be seen doing good you’re inspiring people to become involved,” said Simmons.

Established in 1960, IHF, whose slogan is “The Charity of Choice,” prides itself on being a direct conduit between donors and a specific area of philanthropy. IHF supports more than 120 projects related to Israeli life, and provides services for humanitarian causes, educational programs, medical care and research, youth-in-need and the elderly.

IHF first became involved with the JFS project about a year ago. “We have various avenues from which we get our funds. One donor who passed away wanted to help the elderly Jews of the Pico-Fairfax area. We couldn’t have thought of a better cause,” said Geoffrey Gee, national campaign director and executive director of IHF’s Western Region.

Gee, a past president of University Synagogue and a past board member of The Jewish Federation, explained that IHF’s goals are “project related, not program related,” which means that now that they have helped subsidize improvements to the JFS program, IHF will move onto other projects, which includes one with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that will assist the Jewish elderly.

Back in West Hollywood on this sunny weekday morning, JFS staff install Ann Stern’s new cooking appliance. Stern seems a little perplexed by the demonstration of this new technology, but the facilitators of this project will make sure that she is well-schooled in the art of preparing food via electromagnetic waves. Stern is asked how she feels about the extra layer of convenience the microwave should add to her life, and the retired Saks Fifth Avenue employee’s response is as candid and unpretentious as the paintings on her wall: “I’m happy I’ve got it, but I can’t tell you yet till I use it.”