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Campus Life 010: The Confident Response to “Reform Bashing”

You’re a proud Reform Jew at your first multidenominational event on campus. You’re talking to a more traditional Jew about your summer camp experience when suddenly she tells you, “Reform isn’t Judaism!” She proceeds to poke fun at Reform practices, asserts that Reform Jews don’t know anything about Judaism, and ends by claiming that she knows of a Reform rabbi who eats cheeseburgers and shops on Shabbat!

Here’s how to respond to such Reform bashing:

Answer ignorance with understanding. Consider that this person may know little to nothing about Reform Judaism; you may in fact be the first Reform Jew she has ever met. Instead of being defensive, try to remain calm and confident. You might respond, “Gee, that’s not the Reform Judaism I know,” noting Reform’s commitment to Torah (learning), Avodah (worship), and G’milut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness)—the three things upon which the world stands. Gently remind her of Hillel’s famous response after being asked what the Torah teaches: “What is hateful to you,” he said, “do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” From this vantage point, ask her whether she is open to learning about Reform Judaism as it truly is, the same way you are open to learning more about her religious beliefs and practices.

Talk about Reform Judaism’s contributions to social justice. You might say, “I’m proud of the Reform Movement’s commitment to the prophetic teaching ‘Justice, Justice, shall you pursue’”—and offer as examples our Movement’s quick and generous response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, our raising awareness about the genocide in Darfur, and our critical role in the Civil Rights movement (some of the key Civil Rights bills were drafted at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC).

Highlight Reform Judaism’s commitment to Klal Yisrael, and to positive relations with others. Liturgically, Reform offers the most accessible and inclusive worship experiences on campus, enabling less knowledgeable Jews and those who are struggling in their relationship with God to feel comfortable praying in a Jewish community. Beyond Klal Yisrael, Reform Jews on campus reach out to African Americans, Muslims, and others. For example, last year fifteen Reform and fifteen African American students at the University of Southern California traveled to Louisiana for a week of building houses and personal bridges.

Discuss Reform Judaism’s contributions to egalitarianism. Whether it is the ordination of women rabbis (which began in 1972 when HUC-JIR ordained Sally Priesand) or full gender equality in synagogue leadership, Reform Judaism has been at the forefront of empowering women in Jewish life across all denominations.

Stress Reform Judaism’s devotion to Israel. Some Jews believe that Reform is anti-Israel, which is simply not true. Reform Zionist rabbis such as Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise were fierce fighters for the creation of the Jewish state. Today Reform has a strong presence in Israel with many congregations; two kibbutzim; an Israel Religious Action Center; Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem; pro-Israel activism in Washington; Reform high school and college Israel programs; and ARZA and ARZA Canada—our Reform Zionist organizations—which promote trips, connections to the Jewish state, and more.

Ask your fellow student why she’s chosen the religious commitments she holds sacred. Whenever I ask a roomful of students active in Jewish life how many of them have chosen a different denominational affiliation than their parents, I get virtually no response. People are products of their environment, and non-Reform students are no different. So take the high ground: remind anyone bashing Reform Judaism that you appreciate the life choices that he/she may (or may not) have made, and that you would appreciate the same kavod (respect).

The 2nd-century sage Ben Zoma taught, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” For the wise person, diversity is a gift.

So rejoice in what every Jew brings to the table of Jewish life in North America.

—Jonathan Klein, rabbi,
University of Southern
California Hillel


Union for Reform Judaism.