For Reform head, nixing trips is just latest controversy

As president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations — whose approximately 1.5 million members make it the largest of the American Jewish movements — Yoffie has taken the lead on a handful of controversial issues in recent months.

Yoffie increasingly is perceived as the leader of the American Jewish left, which is struggling to regain its bearings after the shock of the Palestinian uprising.

His outspoken positions have earned him more quotes in the New York Times and other influential newspapers than he received in the past, but also more enemies among Jewish and Israeli leaders.

And while his admirers — and even some critics — laud Yoffie for possessing the "courage of his convictions," others wonder whether his media presence is driven by an ambition to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who left the UAHC post in 1996 and until his death last November was lauded as "the last of the giants" of 20th-century U.S. Jewish leaders.

Regardless of the motivation, a pattern has emerged concerning the 53-year-old Yoffie: A controversy breaks publicly, and Yoffie is at the forefront of the voices of condemnation.

First came his criticism in January of Ronald Lauder, then-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for a speech Lauder made at a controversial Jerusalem rally without the blessing of the Conference.

Then, in February, Yoffie publicly chastised Jewish leaders who he said had been "bought" to write letters to President Clinton in support of a pardon for fugitive billionaire Marc Rich.

In April, Yoffie spearheaded a campaign against Mortimer Zuckerman after it became clear that Zuckerman was the front-runner to replace Lauder as Conference chairman. In Yoffie's view, Zuckerman faced a potential conflict of interest because of his political column in the magazine he owns, U.S. News & World Report.

This month brought a double whammy.

In a June 1 speech in Cleveland, Yoffie leveled harsh criticism at Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for sparking and then failing to curb Mideast violence, but the headlines were dominated by Yoffie's call for a freeze on Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That call echoed a core recommendation of an international fact-finding team led by former Sen. George Mitchell. But it was also seen by some Jewish and Israeli leaders as a slap at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had sought to qualify such a freeze.

The timing of Yoffie's call was lousy: That night in Israel, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv disco, killing 20 Israeli youths.

The bombing provided a backdrop for Yoffie's next declaration. On June 2 he announced that the Reform movement, which says it has sent some 30,000 American Jewish teens to Israel during the past four decades, became the first Jewish movement to cancel its summer trips because it could not guarantee the teens' safety.

Yoffie, who himself plans to visit Israel in coming weeks and lead a Reform mission there in July, described it as one of the most difficult decisions he has ever made.

Legal liability was "a passing concern, but it really was not as significant as our moral responsibility," Yoffie said. "If we run the program, then we're responsible for them."

Yet a number of Israeli and American Jewish leaders are irate about Yoffie's perceived breach of solidarity. Yoffie, they say, has delivered a victory to terrorists who seek to further isolate the Jewish state.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from within the Reform movement itself. Rabbi Marc Gelman, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he is "ashamed" of the move and blasted Yoffie as "a good man who's made very stupid decisions" in recent weeks.

Gelman, who describes himself as a more conservative member of a movement "that has lurched to the left politically," said he left a message for Yoffie on Monday imploring him to reverse the decision to cancel the trips.

"My voice is not alone in this," Gelman told JTA. "Eric Yoffie does not speak for the entire Reform movement on these matters. There is a vigorous voice of dissent. He speaks for his vision of the Reform movement, and that's what a leader should do. But that doesn't mean the leader is always right."

In response, Yoffie said, "In a movement as large and diverse as ours, we expect and anticipate criticism, and we accept that. That's the price of pluralism."

Critics outside the Reform movement said the decision on youth trips only fuels the perception that Reform Jews are less committed to Israel than their Conservative or Orthodox counterparts.

But Yoffie's defenders said he is a devoted Zionist, who reads the Hebrew-language Israeli papers daily and remained in Israel during the Gulf War "to be with the people of Israel."

Moreover, he "inspires fellow Jews toward deeper understanding of Judaism and Jewish continuity," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, who has joined Yoffie on several of his recent crusades.

One Jewish leader, whose organization this week reiterated its support for solidarity trips to Israel, nevertheless praised Yoffie for having the courage to speak his mind.

Others have taken note as well. The Forward newspaper ranked Yoffie first in its Top 50 list of Jewish leaders in November 1999.

Still, some are irritated by Yoffie's propensity to go directly to the media with his contrarian views, presumably guided by a circle of PR professionals.

"Nobody questions his right to do it; all I'm doing is questioning the wisdom of doing it," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was stung by public criticism for writing a letter on Marc Rich's behalf.

"Why go out and find ways to rip us apart and cause dissent? Why go public and grandstand on this issue?" Foxman asked. "As a spiritual leader, he's not acting as a stimulant for bringing us together."

Others also would like to see Yoffie keep his opinions to himself, or at least low-key.

"A lot of this has to do with timing," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Presidents Conference, who was outraged by Yoffie's continued resistance to Zuckerman.

"Right now, every announcement and pronouncement has an effect. This is certainly not the time for contentiousness. Anything that creates divisiveness is counterproductive."

Yoffie responds with incredulity to the charge that he is media-hungry: "I'm just a media genius, as demonstrated by the wonderful response to this decision" to cancel youth trips.

"I'm not particularly aware of other Jewish leaders being shy about expressing their values and concerns, nor would I expect them to be. I say what I think and I say what I believe."

Of the accusation that he seeks media exposure to match the profile of Schindler, Yoffie answers his critics defiantly.

"Alex Schindler was the greatest American Jewish leader of the last half century, and I'll never fill those shoes," he said. "But if I learned anything from Alex, it's to embrace Torah and speak the truth as you see it. And ultimately, that's all that's important."