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Rabbi Yoffie Urges Jewish Spirituality and Declares "The Age of Ethnicity Is Over"

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 1997

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared at a tribute dinner for Rabbi Simeon Maslin at Knesseth Israel in Philadelphia (May 3, 1997) that, ". . . the age of ethnicity is over. Young Jews, and older ones as well, are saying that Judaism can no longer be an exercise in nostalgia, or an act of spite: you better be Jewish because the Nazis tried to destroy us. Yes, we are and will remain a people, but Jews will wish to be Jewish only if our people/religion can help us to find transcendent meaning in our lives. Yes, we will need to help beleaguered Jews throughout the world, and our brothers and sisters in Israel, but we will also need to come to the aid of each individual’s beleaguered soul."  

Rabbi Yoffie criticized those in the Jewish community who "have been infected by the separatist virus. ‘We are surrounded by enemies,’ they say, ‘so let’s dig in our own garden, let’s go it alone. No one else will fend for us.’ But Reform Judaism, liberal Judaism, has always been a champion of the opposite view: that separatism is bad for the Jews, and that Jewish tradition imposes upon us a duty to care for all humankind."  

Liberal Judaism, Yoffie pointed out, "reminds us that if we take care only of our own, we forget the meaning of this country, which has embraced us like no other country in our long history. Here, groups can retain their culture and their space, but they do not surround themselves with impenetrable walls. In other words, to close ourselves off to the needs of others is not only a betrayal of Judaism; it is a betrayal of America. And if we are inclined to forget this, then our children will remind us. Because what binds our children to us? The intensity of our moral worth and the beauty of our ethical vision. We have not always been successful in drawing young Jews into the synagogue, but in virtually every case where we have programs that work, they are built around a commitment to social justice. Liberal Jews understand that our children are most likely to join us when they see us engaged in the heroic moral journey of Jewish destiny."  

What Judaism must do, Yoffie states, is "reach out for the spiritual, the transcendent, the holy. We need to fill the spiritual vacuum with serious Jewish reflection on God and on mitzvah, and on the meaning of life."  

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