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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism—30 Stories
Section II. Belonging to a Congregation & a Movement

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RJ: What inspired you to become a Reform Jew or to join/return to the Jewish people?

Dana Jennings: Reform Judaism was the door through which I became a Jew. Twenty-seven years ago I married a Reform Jew, and her parents’ Reform attitudes led them to be totally accepting of me, even though I was a semi-Protestant Swamp Yankee born and raised in rural New Hampshire, where the word “jew” was still a verb. It was my wife-to-be’s Reform ethic that, partly, gave her permission to fall in love with me. And when we joined our current Reform community in 1995, I was never made to feel that I was an outsider because I wasn’t Jewish. Being accepted gave me the opportunity to slowly learn about Judaism, to grow into Jewishness the way a 12-year-old boy has to grow into his first adult suit.

Martin L. Shapiro: I was raised in a small New England town almost completely isolated from Judaism—with few Jewish friends and almost no contact with Jewish experiences. By 1944 I—a kid who’d hardly ever dated a girl and had never been away from home by myself—was a soldier in the U.S. Army, trapped in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, going through basic Signal Corps training. To make matters worse, my fellow soldiers hated my Boston accent. I had to crawl through cold, wet mud and snow on my stomach while under live machine-gun fire. Although I was adept enough at carrying a heavy backpack along with a rifle on 25-mile marches, I consistently failed to keep step while marching in dress parades.

Temple Israel of Greater Miami
Photo by Rober S. Glazier
In the midst of all this misery came the announcement that all Jewish soldiers were invited to take part in a seder service in the small town of Neosho, Missouri, just outside our main gate. I doubt if there were more than a dozen Jews living in Neosho, but that didn’t stop them from giving about 1,000 homesick young Jewish soldiers a seder at the time in our lives we needed it the most. That spirited service gave my morale a badly needed boost and brought me much closer to Judaism than I would have ever imagined. This memory kept me from drifting away from my Jewish roots for many years, until my wife and I discovered Reform Judaism together. It took only a few warm, friendly, and liberal Friday night services for us to embrace Reform. That was 47 years ago; we have maintained enriching Reform congregational memberships ever since.

Steve Arnold: I was drawn to Judaism because I had reached a stage in life when defining my spirituality and relationship to God had become important—relatives and high school acquaintances were dying, my parents’ health had become fragile, and I had no children to ensure my future.

At age 53 I converted to Judaism and became a synagogue member. Jewish life is best lived in community, and the temple I had attended throughout my conversion experience was the natural place for me to deepen my faith. And the moment of spiritual connection to my new community was sealed the first time I held a Torah scroll. An almost electric feeling rippled through me. Then, as our cantor began to sing the blessing, I felt a moment of such utter warmth and peace I started to cry. That feeling still comes over me from time to time when I hear her voice in prayer.

Also, as I am without a Jewish family, the temple is almost the entire expression of religious practice for me. When you are alone, home practice loses much of its meaning. I have tried lighting Shabbat candles in my home, but without a family to share the blessing, the ritual carries far less emotional weight. Devotion, to me, is more meaningful as part of community.

Barbara K. Shuman: My husband and I first joined a congregation shortly after our marriage. I was 23 and he was 26. We were both fresh out of graduate school and strangers to Pittsburgh. My husband’s boss was president of the temple and “encouraged” us to affiliate (I think at the time we thought this was a condition of his being hired!). My initial expectations—of becoming part of a community—were soon met. We joined a young couples club and made deep, lasting friendships. We were also “adopted” by older members, who taught me how to make matzo ball soup and gefilte fish—dishes my mother had never cooked. For years our first congregation was the center of our social life, and truly our extended family. It was also the place where I learned how to be a serious Jew and raise Jewish children.

Andi Rosenthal: When I was a 1st grader at Immaculate Conception School, my mother was extremely active in the PTA, meeting weekly with the monsignor to discuss after-school enrichment programs. Each week the nun who answered the door at the rectory would call out, “Monsignor, the mother of the little Jewish girl is here to see you.”

As the child of an interfaith marriage—Jewish father, Catholic mother—attending a strict Catholic school where the nuns still dressed in habits wasn’t as strange for me as one might believe. Ironically, I felt extremely comfortable in a school where our teachers talked about God as if He were in the room and encouraged us to share our desks with our guardian angels.

In 3rd grade I left Catholic school to attend public school. I was shocked at the change in environment. Suddenly, nothing was sacred. The worship of clothes, toys, and popularity replaced the worship of God and the striving toward elevated ethics.

One Saturday morning in 1983, at the age of 13, I happened to attend a bar mitzvah and for the first time in my life heard prayers being chanted in Hebrew, evoking in me an emotion unlike any feeling I had ever experienced—as if I’d finally come home to the God and the angels I had abandoned so long ago.

Determined not to let the feeling go, I began, with trepidation, to explore my Judaism. I can still remember the feeling of terror at my first Shabbat service. From the minute I walked into the sanctuary, I was certain that everyone could sense that I didn’t belong. But I was wrong. Never had I experienced a warmer welcome—a congregation full of people ready to smile and introduce themselves, to direct me to the right page in the prayer book, to offer a heartfelt Shabbat Shalom. I became a regular attendee at Friday night services, and it seemed that the more I embraced congregational life, the more warmly and lovingly was I embraced in return. At the age of 31 I was ready to convert. And during my conversion ceremony, my rabbi and congregation made me feel as if my joining the Jewish community was a gift to them, but I knew in my heart that I had received an even greater gift—the gift of belonging.

Dawn Mollenkopf: I was not initially attracted to Reform Judaism, or what I thought was Reform Judaism. When I was growing up my mother used to hold up my grandparents as an example of secular Jews who all but flaunted their lack of observance and spirituality. My grandfather was an atheist and my grandmother at best agnostic, yet they identified themselves as Reform Jews. Christmas trees and ham sandwiches were as common in their home as bagels and lox, and synagogue attendance was limited to simchas. Therefore I associated Reform Judaism with a non-committed, non-spiritual, “Judaism lite.”

When I began my own study of Judaism as an adult, I first attended a Conservative synagogue and then, to help me understand Judaism from multiple perspectives, I went to a Reform synagogue. While I enjoyed both, I found in the Reform congregation a stronger sense of community, group involvement, and acceptance. It was not the “Judaism lite” I had expected, but a dynamic, interactive approach to Judaism which I continue to appreciate today.

Martin Graffman: I joined a temple at age 35 because we needed a religious school for my son. I had no other expectations of membership. Then, in my 50s, I began to take stock of my life and realized that I didn’t really know what being Jewish meant or what Judaism was. Most of my Jewish friends, some affiliated and some not, could not answer my questions, so I embarked on a quest of discovery. It was remarkable, empowering, and at times exhilarating. I have learned to translate many, if not most, of our prayers, so I now have a “feel” as well as an intellectual understanding of our liturgy. I have read, if not studied, many texts that speak to me as a modern, independent Reform Jew—the works of Heschel, Falk, Borowitz, Wolfson, and the new Torah: A Women’s Commentary come to mind. Our Torah study group, often lay-led, is inviting and challenging, and this same group has created a Shabbat home service. If I cannot attend the Torah study or the Shabbat home service, something is missing from my life.

Marge Eiseman: My congregation, established in 1956, is only a few months older than I am. My paternal grandparents were among the founding families, and my parents joined immediately upon moving back to Milwaukee shortly before my birth. I joined to raise my children here.

Much has changed since the days of my youth. Gone is the formal Friday evening service led by the black-robed rabbi and hidden quartet. Gone is the original ark, whose fabric curtain was donated by my grandparents. Gone, too, are most of the founding generation, but the ongoing sense of decorum and intellectual challenge lingers even now, almost 51 years later.

My favorite room has always been the social hall—a large sort of nondescript room with a wall of windows facing west and, until the recent renovation, a stage covered with a gold velvet curtain. In that room I remember my friends and family gathering for my bat mitzvah. We held each of the brit milah simchas for our four boys there, converted it to an indoor “arena” for a 4-year-old’s birthday party, and then filled the room with joy at the b’nai mitzvah party for our twins. The back wall of the sanctuary opened, and hundreds of our friends and community filled every available space for my son Baki’s funeral, just as they had done at my mother’s funeral 13 years before.

My synagogue is my second home.

Judy Fisher: When I was 33 we joined our first Reform synagogue in Cary, North Carolina so my firstborn son could attend kindergarten in its religious school and we could meet other Jewish families. Since then we have moved on several occasions, each time joining a congregation to keep us Jewishly connected.

Recently I turned 50, and since my birthday coincided with the 37th anniversary of my bat mitzvah portion, I celebrated it by chanting from Parshat Bo and giving the d’var Torah. I quoted Moses’ response when Pharaoh says, “Go. Serve YHWH, your God. Who are the ones who are going?” Moses replies, “We’ll go with our young and with our old, we’ll go with our sons and with our daughters, with our sheep and with our oxen, because we have a festival of YHWH” (Exodus 10:8-9). A festival with the whole community of family and friends—that’s the sense of belonging I feel in synagogue.

Dick Israel: Nowadays, as a committed member of two Reform temples, I see myself literally as a “re-formed” Jew.

Growing up in a Conservative congregation, I was put off by its ritual rigidity and ideological fundamentalism. When I became an adult (and a judge in Rhode Island), I rarely set foot in any place of worship, other than for a social, cultural, civic, or political event. In the early 1990s, though, I wanted to “re-form” my otherwise utterly secular Jewishness into something more meaningfully “Jewish.” Reform felt like the only viable choice, so I joined Temple Beth-El in Providence. I soon became an active member and was elected to the Board. I served on a search committee for a full-time cantor, notwithstanding my total tone-deafness. More important, our assistant rabbi recruited me into a minyan to engage in Shabbat morning services followed by Torah study. As some of the liturgical and Torah Hebrew I had acquired so painfully many years before slowly returned to me, I began to experience an unexpected joy of worship. Also my intellectual curiosity was piqued by Torah study as it never had been before.

Nowadays, worship fills a need I never hitherto had recognized in my self. And the Jewishness I want to see survive in my family and my country is best served by the liberal willing-to-try-change spirit I find in Reform Judaism.

Jennifer Warriner: When I was converting to Judaism, I chose a Reform synagogue because, as a lesbian who grew up in a conservative Baptist church, I had run out of patience for religious homophobia and did not wish to voluntarily expose myself to the Jewish variety. In addition, I had heard that a Reform synagogue would be accepting of an interfaith family.

As expected, my non-Jewish partner and I were accepted with open arms by the clergy, the synagogue staff, and the congregation’s Early Childhood Center, where our son goes to preschool. We joined the synagogue as a family, attend events as a family, and are treated as a family. For example: last August a friend who belongs to our synagogue called to wish my partner and me “Happy Anniversary.” Somewhat surprised, I said, “Thank you. But how did you know it’s our anniversary?” Her response: “Your names and anniversary date were in the Shabbat pamphlet this week at services.”

How ironic it is that I live in a state that prohibits me from getting married because it might offend some people’s religious sensitivities—but my religious community announces my wedding anniversary as if it were already legal!

RJ: What has belonging to a congregation that is part of the larger Reform Movement meant to you?

Mary Hofmann: Our congregation affiliated with the Reform Movement some 30-plus years ago for the most practical of reasons—out here in the boonies of central California, we couldn’t do it alone. We put out a call for assistance to the various branches of Judaism which met with various responses—but only the people of the Union for Reform Judaism (then Union of American Hebrew Congregations) actually showed up and helped. The Union has been an umbrella and a lifeline for us, providing our temple with everything we’ve needed—and more.

Abbey Shepard-Smith: When it comes to belonging and connection I have three words: Biennial, Biennial, Biennial! There we share worship and workshops with delegates from hundreds of congregations throughout North America and recognize the similarities among us all.

RJ: How would you envision your ideal synagogue?

Steve Arnold: My “ideal” synagogue would be one pulsing with life 24/7. Children learning during the day; adults learning in the evening; social action programs helping us to do something, however small, to make the world a better place; a full sanctuary every Shabbat, each seat filled with people celebrating the gift of being Jewish. Anshe Sholom isn’t there yet, but I finally have the sense we’re moving in the right direction.

Laurence Kaufman: To me the ideal synagogue will have highly participatory worship, a multifaceted adult education program with intensive Torah study, and a strong commitment to social action and to Israel. Above all, every single member will be actively involved.

Marge Eiseman: In my vision, everyone is involved somehow in learning, prayer, or social action/gemilut chasadim because to me Judaism is a religion of doing. Instead of dropping off their children at religious school, parents would learn together with their children. Oh—and I would transform our social hall into a Jewish café every Sunday morning—crank up the Jewish music, offer chevruta/text study, and personally serve as concierge for Jewish culture.

Judy Fisher: I wish that we all would leave the politics at the door and let the synagogue be our safe haven in a busy and crazy world. Let us live in sacred time in a peaceful, sacred space, treating each other in the spirit of our being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Liz Bossov: When I think of what it means to be in a holy place, I come back to the Hebrew word for tabernacle—mishkan—the large, tent-like, portable sanctuary containing the Ten Commandments (as well as all the furnishings necessary for the priestly sacrifices) that was carried through the desert with Moses and the Israelites for 40 years. In this sense, a holy place was wherever the Israelites needed it to be.

In the same way, we teens make a home for t’filah (worship) wherever we go, whether at a North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) retreat, at URJ camps, on a NFTY trip to Israel or Prague, or in our home congregations. We create a mishkan, a tabernacle of spirituality, wherever we worship, just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago.

The Rabbis Speak

“We are committed to strengthening the people Israel by making the synagogue central to Jewish communal life, so that it may elevate the spiritual, intellectual and cultural quality of our lives.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about what it means to belong to a synagogue, read Rabbi Jonathan Blake’s d’var Torah, “What is the Purpose of the Synagogue?” published in “Reform Voices of Torah” (3/3/08 edition).

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