ATLANTA — Watching Rabbi Alexander Schindler walk to the podium for his farewell address here last Shabbat, more than 4,000 Reform Jews in Atlanta's civic center knew they would hear exquisite oratory.
Many also expected the outgoing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations would discuss some controversial new policies, as he has routinely done in the past.
At the last biennial convention, for example, Schindler proposed the Reform movement proselytize to non-Jews, and that congregations allow the non-Jewish parents of b'nai mitzvah to enjoy the fullest possible honors connected to the Torah.
This year, however, Schindler exhorted his fellow Reform Jews to follow a more traditional path. "I feared and still do that we Reform Jews are entirely too lax in our observances," said Schindler, who has led the movement for 22 years and will officially retire in June.
"Having asserted our autonomy, insisting on our right to choose, too many among us choose nothing at all, or, choosing something, we observe it only haphazardly."
Schindler bade his farewell, which he called his "Jewish ethical will," to delegates at the UAHC's five-day biennial and the parallel Women of Reform Judaism and National Federation of Temple Youth conventions.
Participants attended dozens of workshops and panel discussions, most of them focusing on education, observance and social action.
At a plenary session, a vote to change the name of the organization to something more contemporary fell a few votes shy of the two-thirds necessary to alter the organization's constitution.
However, the group adopted a new, non-binding policy allowing only children who are not being educated in another religion to be enrolled in the movement's religious schools.
Meanwhile, participants passed resolutions supporting American military involvement in Bosnia and applauding a plan for Reform teens to construct houses for the poor and homeless with Habitat for Humanity.
And in a show of support for religious pluralism in Israel, two Israeli natives — unable to wed in their homeland because he is a Kohen and she is divorced — were married in front of the delegates and the bride's beaming parents.
The message from the top of the movement, however, focused on the religious observance of Jewish rituals.
"The covenant is a two-way street, my friends, and in this, my parting message and my ethical will, I urge our fellow Reform Jews to abandon the noncommittal stance that too many have about temple life," Schindler said.
"So inbound are we in our lives from community, so accustomed to our individualism, that we often carry a kind of consumerist prove-it-to-me attitude that is impossible for even the best rabbi and the liveliest congregation to fulfill," he added.
"Let us overcome the arrogance that blocks our perception of divinity. Let us overcome the fear that constrains us to flee from the synagogue and from spiritual commitment."
He defined his movement's central mission as one of teaching "our children Torah, not just to know Torah, nor even to teach Torah, but to be Torah."
Still, Schindler did not neglect the things that make Reform Judaism unique. He emphasized the value of outreach to non-Jews married to Jews, social action, and a paradigm that questions all orthodoxies.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who will become president of the UAHC when Schindler retires, closed the biennial convention Sunday by amplifying the themes his predecessor articulated.
Yoffie said the movement's leadership is catching up with its constituency, which for several years has expressed a hunger for greater Jewish literacy and religious connection.
"The urgent need of the hour is a spiritual intensification of major proportions," said Yoffie. "My goal is to build a movement of Reform Jews for whom Torah is at the center of their lives.
"My goal is a movement which does not speak of `identity' or `continuity,' the fuzzy and feeble generalizations that are so popular today, but which speaks instead the language of brit, mitzvah and God.
"Reform Jews are coming home," he added. "We are coming home to God, because God called us into being, sent us on our way, chose us and thrust distinctiveness upon us."
At the convention, Sabbath worship on Friday night of last week and Saturday morning was spirited. More yarmulkes were being worn than ever before at a Reform movement biennial, and even a few tallitot were draped on the shoulders of worshippers.
Vendors at the Judaica exhibition at the convention reported sellout business in ritual items, reflecting, perhaps, greater interest in living more observantly.
Four prayer services were offered each morning: one in the traditional Reform style, one based on feminist liturgy, a service of healing and one devoted to worship in the Sephardic style. Each attracted at least a few dozen people, and the Sephardic service was packed.
The ascent to greater observance among Reform Jews was far from consistent, however.
On Friday night, about a dozen Shabbat dinners were offered to delegates for each region. But many well-heeled couples from the biennial were seen in the Marriott Marquis hotel lobby here, making reservations for dinner that night at local restaurants. At the same time, the Judaica exhibit closed late Friday afternoon but re-opened at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, hours before the end of the Sabbath. As soon as it re-opened it was packed.