NEW YORK — First, there was the Conservative movement’s October biennial conference, billed as “The conversation of the century” and opened up to presenters from outside the movement.
Then came the November General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.
Now comes the biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be different from past years by — you guessed it — opening it up to outsiders.
For the first time, the conference, slated for Dec. 11-15 in San Diego, Calif.,will be open to participants who are not members of Reform congregations. Learning sessions, which in past years were run almost exclusively by Reform staff, will be led in many cases by presenters from outside the movement.
And the night before the service, performers from the conference — from musicians to comedians — will go out to venues in the surrounding neighborhood to share Reform Judaism’s good cheer with greater San Diego.
Reform leaders say they don’t want to be trendy; they want to bring the conference in line with the movement’s philosophy.
“We have opened the biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform movement,” said the group’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”
Jacobs said he wants outsiders to the movement to “experience the incredible vitality and depth and openness of Reform Judaism in the 21st century.”
For Jacobs, the biennial will be the first he is running. The last one, held near Washington and featuring President Barack Obama as a speaker, was the movement’s largest conference ever and marked the transition from the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor.
This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to address the conference — a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, though he’ll probably deliver the address via video rather than in person.
Other presenters include New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute; Ron Wolfson, a star of the Conservative movement and a professor at the American Jewish University; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; and Sharon Brous, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who leads the popular IKAR community in Los Angeles.
For the Reform movement, the question isn’t whether the four-day conference is a success but whether Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation in its ranks.
The Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that while Reform remains the largest American Jewish denomination, with 35 percent of American Jews, it ranks lowest of the three major movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.
Reform Jews are the most likely of the denominations to leave the Jewish fold. According to Pew, 28 percent of Jews born Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox.
Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Just 43 percent of Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them, and only 16 percent say religion is very important in their lives.
At 1.7 children per couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major U.S. denominations and well below the replacement rate. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.
It is in this context, Jacobs said, that he was brought on a year-and-a-half ago as president to re-examine everything the movement does. He has articulated three strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls. Some programmatic changes along those lines are underway.
Next summer, the movement will open two new summer camps. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a science and technology camp outside of Boston, will be its 14th overnight camp. The movement’s first summer day camp, Camp Harlam, will open outside Philadelphia.
Since May 2012, a pilot group of more than a dozen synagogues has been working to overhaul the movement’s approach to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as part of a program called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The effort, the movement says, is intended “to reduce the staggering rates of post-B’nai Mitzvah dropout.”
Like its counterpart in the Conservative movement, the Union for Reform Judaism also is under pressure to demonstrate to its 871 member congregations that they are getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay. The group now has a resource desk and hosts an online forum for congregational leaders to share ideas and resources. Consultants provide congregations with strategic expertise.
An initiative called Communities of Practice brings together like-minded congregations to work on programming for young adults, engaging young families, improving early childhood offerings and figuring out how to stabilize synagogue finances.
The union itself has shrunk slightly since Jacobs took over. Thirty employees were laid off in May 2012 as part of a general restructuring; the union now has about 350 employees.
For Reform Judaism to thrive, Jacobs said, everything needs to be reconsidered. “When I was hired, that was the job description: Challenge everything, question everything — and make us stronger, make us more effective, make us more filled with the core meaning of the Jewish tradition.
“It’s not enough just to keep doing the same things with more vigor,” he said. “You have to say: Is it effective? That’s exactly what is needed in every part of Jewish life. This is not a business-as-usual kind of moment.”