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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism - 30 Stories
Section I: Being a Reform Jew


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RJ: What do you believe are the most significant Reform contributions to Judaism in North America?

Dawn Mollenkopf: I am a Reform Jew today because our Movement supports individual choice and commitment, respects people’s personal journeys as they wrestle with God, and creates a community with common ties. In a Reform synagogue I can participate in a worship service with a woman davening on my right in her tefillin, a man to my left without a kippah reciting prayers from memory, a gay couple behind me sharing a prayerbook, and an interfaith couple in front of me assisting their child in singing one of the prayers—and the group of us would be viewed simply as Jews. Reform Judaism’s strength has been its ability to take the challenge of what it means to be a Jew and continually grapple with it, renewing these questions and pioneering uncharted Jewish paths in every generation.

John Planer: Reform Judaism asks that I assume personal responsibility for my beliefs, values, and behavior; and I, in turn, refuse to allow any sacred text or religious authority to dictate to me what I shall believe, what rituals I shall perform, or what God expects of me. Rather I believe that each person, formally or intuitively, writes a personal covenant with God. And how we each envision that covenant says nothing about God, and much about ourselves.

  Being a Reform Jew
  Photo by Jennifer Kaplan

 

Reform Judaism also does not ask that I reject reason. I study our sacred texts using critical scholarship. I freely question core beliefs and values. I refuse to posit definitive answers to ultimate questions. Because I am at peace with uncertainty, I accept alternate ways of seeking meaning and understanding God.

Finally, my Reform Judaism rejects fear or guilt as goads to belief. It makes heavy demands upon me, yet it affords no special status or promises of afterlife, longevity, safety, wealth, or status—save perhaps the promise of a full life in close relationship with God.

William Berkson: I treasure Reform Judaism because it embraces both the Enlightenment—science, democracy, women’s equality—and Jewish tradition. That, for me, is the strongest foundation for seeking answers today about how to live our lives and act in the world.

Laurence Kaufman: The most important Reform Judaism contribution has been the creation of a Jewish way of life that is compatible with living as a full member of society as a whole.

Dana Jennings: Outreach is the Reform contribution I care most deeply about. We live in a world where each one of us is a broken tablet—imagine, 6.5 billion broken tablets—and, ideally, the world’s religions offer refuge, a place to repair to and be repaired. For me, Reform Judaism is that refuge, an extended community that placed its healing tallit about my broken spirit and gave me the gift of its acceptance—and not only the gift of community, but, too, the gifts of Torah, prayer, and a legacy of wisdom that’s thousands of years old.

Being a Reform Jew gives me a way to be in this broken world. Rather than lapsing into cynicism and despair, I approach our corrupt culture with a mission: to try to be a divine and healing spark each moment of each day—emphasis on the trying.

Joan Pines: Gender equality. In 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, doors opened for me as well. I already knew how to read from the Torah in Hebrew. I was empowered to lead religious services and assist my new congregation in decision making. From there I began to study and to teach Judaism…all of which has informed my life.

Jennifer Warriner: I think Reform Judaism’s most significant contribution is making each of us responsible for our own struggle with God. While we are guided by the Torah and assisted by our rabbis, we are not constrained by the precept that what we should believe and how we should behave were determined hundreds of years ago. Rather, each of us has the freedom to study Torah and decide for ourselves whether “thou shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” means a cheeseburger is prohibited. I can interpret for myself whether the sin in Sodom was homosexuality or being inhospitable to strangers, or whether my God wants women and children to be treated as property.

This modification did not make Judaism “easier.” Instead, it created, for each of us, an unending obligation to struggle with God and with ourselves about the meaning of Torah, laws, and judgments. In order to engage in this struggle we must study Jewish texts and history to determine the best interpretation of these words for our lives at this time. But I would much rather argue like Abraham or wrestle like Jacob than blindly follow accepted customs set forth in previous centuries. I love the “work” of being a Reform Jew.

Joan Pines: I am proud of Reform’s Outreach to the intermarried. Several of our children have married non-Jews, and I believe it is largely because my rabbis warmly embraced their children that our grandchildren have had Jewish upbringings and identify as part of the Jewish people.

Ellen Morrow: Having grown up as a Reform Jew, I’ve never felt “less than” because I am female, but there was a period—28 years ago—when I felt defensive and angry because some people in my congregation did not accept my decision to marry a non-Jew. I continued to act as if I belonged, but I don’t know if I would have continued to stay as involved in my congregation if there hadn’t been a real shift toward acceptance, particularly once my children were born. I wouldn’t have allowed them to grow up feeling excluded or judged or considered “not as Jewish.” The acceptance that finally did come also made it easier for my husband to become a Jew by choice 10 years ago; he did not feel pressured and there was no resistance.

Judy Fisher: The emphasis on social action and social justice as a means to repair our shattered world has been a beacon and provided significant leadership in the Jewish world. We don’t just talk about social action and social justice—we do it!

John Planer: As a Reform Jew I am obligated to promote the welfare of others, including nonhuman life. I commit my life in service to tikkun olam.

Judy Fisher: A significant Reform contribution is our liturgy, especially the new melodies and songs making Judaism relevant to today.

John Planer: Reform Judaism cherishes both our particularism and our universality. As Reform Jews we are a people, a tribe, whose vision is universal and whose membership is always open. I am comfortable being a Jew within the fellowship of all humanity.

Mark Young: I value the fact that Reform Judaism is an evolving and diverse Movement that embraces likeminded people who have been born into it, have migrated to it from other stripes of Judaism, or have been blessed to discover it—all of us striving for new ways to worship God.

Judy Fisher: I really don’t refer to myself as a “Reform Jew.” I don’t like labels because they are limiting. I choose to affiliate with a Reform congregation that is part of the Union for Reform Judaism because I agree with many Reform Movement principles, especially in regard to treating women and men as equals and providing me with the means to make informed decisions about how I choose to live my life in a Jewish context.

Abbey Shepard-Smith: Reform Judaism allows me the freedom to choose my own means and degree of observance, adapting tradition to modernity based on knowledge, not convenience.

Behind the Scenes

This Guide represents a “snapshot” of Reform Judaism today from the perspective of 30 congregants throughout North America who responded to our invitation to share their candid views and personal approaches to Reform Jewish identity, belief, and practice. We sought articulate, thoughtful members of diverse ages, backgrounds, and Jewish experiences who were affiliated with Reform congregations of different sizes and geographic locations; and we recruited respondents primarily on the recommendations of Movement and congregational leaders. Not all invitees participated and in some cases we did not know a congregant’s temple affiliation before issuing an invitation, accounting for the occasional duplication. It is for these and other reasons that we cannot claim that the respondents presented here are demographically or geographically representative, or that the content of this Guide represents the full spectrum of Reform opinion. One of the many strengths of our Movement is its diversity, and no 30 individuals could possibly cover all the many perspectives of what it means to be a Reform Jew in the 21st century.

That is why this Guide to Reform Judaism: 30 Stories is simply the first step in what we hope will be a Movement-wide conversation about what it means to be a Reform Jew today. We invite you to add your voice—in your congregation, with family or friends at home, or on the new Reform Movement blog set up just for this purpose: www.rj.org.

—The Reform Judaism Magazine Editors

The Rabbis Speak

“We pledge to fulfill Reform Judaism’s historic commitment to the complete equality of women and men in Jewish life.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999—the latest of the Reform Movement’s five historic platforms. For the full text visit ccarnet.org.

To Learn More...

about being a Reform Jew, read Liberal Judaism by Eugene B. Borowitz (URJ Press). HUC-JIR Professor Borowitz explores the scope of Jewish thought and ritual practice from a liberal Jewish perspective: www.urjbooksandmusic.com.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.