Reform Judaism conference embraces transgender rights

Growing up in a traditional Jewish household, Joan Cubell didn’t really know much about Reform Judaism.

But after being ordained a few years ago by a little-known rabbinical institute in suburban New York, Cubell decided to make her home in the Reform movement. First she got a job as the leader of the Reform Temple Beth Shira in Boca Raton, Florida, and more recently she launched her own startup congregation in Boca, Beit Kulam, meaning “House of Everyone” in Hebrew.

“Reform’s the way to go because I believe in pluralism,” Cubell said at the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which took place Nov. 4-8 in Orlando. Reform is the largest movement in American Judaism.

New URJ board chair Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto chants Torah on Nov. 7 alongside (from left) Cantor Leigh Korn, outgoing chair Steve Sacks and URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs. photo/courtesy urj

Cubell was among the 5,000 or so participants at the Reform conference, which was as much a pep rally and celebration of Reform Judaism as it was a place for Jews to learn, network and strategize about improving their congregations and Reform Jewish life.

Highlights included the passage of a groundbreaking resolution supporting transgender rights, a speech by URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs in which he called on diaspora Jews not to support “misguided” Israeli policies and an address by Vice President Joe Biden.

Among the many breakout sessions was one on the URJ’s new model for congregational dues. Leaders earned mostly praise for simplifying and reducing the fees that congregations must pay to be URJ members. The new model — 4 percent of a congregation’s adjusted operating revenue, with a few exclusions and readjustments every two years — will reduce the URJ’s congregational revenue by $1.5 million.

The conference marked the first for Palo Alto resident Daryl Messinger as the chair of the URJ’s board of trustees. “We can create a 21st century Reform Judaism that is inclusive, adaptable and thriving,” said Messinger, who was named to the post in June, becoming the first woman ever to hold Reform Judaism’s top lay post.

The next Reform biennial will be held in 2017 in Boston.

A few conference highlights:


Transgender rights

Among the steps the movement endorsed were transgender cultural training for religious school staff, gender-neutral rest-rooms where possible and sermons on transgender issues.

The resolution, passed by voice vote on Nov. 5, had no opposition. After it passed, most of the thousands of conference-goers who attended the vote rose for a standing ovation, the Associated Press reported.

“This resolution is a reflection of our movement’s longstanding values of inclusion within our communities and that all individuals are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “This movement has been about inclusion and equality from our origins, and we hope it will inspire us to be even more audaciously hospitable.”

Other religious bodies, including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, have approved resolutions affirming equality for transgender and nongender-conforming people, according to the Associated Press.

In 1977, both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the main rabbinical association of the Reform movement, passed resolutions affirming “the rights of homosexuals.” In 2003, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement’s seminary, admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student.


Rabbi Jacobs’ keynote

The leader of American Reform Jewry said diaspora Jews should not support “misguided” Israeli policies and that his movement is an alternative to the “rigid and insular” Judaism in Israel.

“Asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state. It is beyond counterproductive,” he said in his Nov. 5 speech.

“Jews who see brokenness in the treatment of Israel’s minorities, or in the way ultra-Orthodox views of Judaism are being enshrined in secular law, are being told that, when it comes to Israel, you should check your commitment to tikkun olam at the door; we will not,” Jacobs said.

Noting that the current Israeli government “is unlikely to permit advances in religious freedom such as civil marriage, equal funding of non-Orthodox institutions and reducing the power of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate,” Jacobs said Reform Judaism is an “alternative to the rigid and insular Judaism that permeates Israeli public life.”

The Reform leader also criticized religious Jews for being scrupulous about certain Torah observances but ignoring the imperatives of social justice. He cited the “staggering gap between rich and poor” and “the despair of the Arab citizens of Israel.”


Joe Biden’s speech

The vice president was cheered by thousands when he criticized Israeli settlements. The cheers were even more boisterous when he pledged to fight the delegitimization of Israel and to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In his Nov. 7 address, he acknowledged disagreements between the Obama administration and Israeli government over settlements and the Iran deal. But, he added, the “core of our alliance is as strong as steel.”

Biden stressed the need to turn the focus on the Iran deal to ensuring that Iran lives up to its commitments. The vice president pledged that if Iran tries to cheat, sanctions will snap back. If Iran does cheat, he added, all options — including the use of military force — remain on the table for stopping any future Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

“We simply will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Period. Period,” he said, receiving strong applause.

Later in the 45-minute speech, the vice president received a standing ovation when he promised that the Obama administration would fight efforts to delegitimize Israel and likened some harsh criticism of the Jewish state to anti-Semitism. He also received a standing ovation when he stressed the need for a two-state solution.