RJ: Looking to the future, what are the most significant challenges we face, as a Movement and as North American Jews?
Joan Pines: I believe our most serious challenge as American Jews is Jewish survival. While the Reform Movement has done well in making Judaism relevant in a climate that could very easily lead to complete assimilation, we must continue to be innovative in our camping programs and our synagogues, and continue the spiritual seeking and creativity that has led to the creation of our new prayer book and our new women’s Torah commentary. Above all, we need to continue to make our synagogues warm, inclusive Jewish homes that respond to our deepest needs for meaningful community.
Barbara K. Shuman: In thinking of the Jewish future, I worry that my adult children are not tied to any Jewish institutions. Both of them are sensitive, caring people who are bound by a strong sense of ethical behavior and feel a bond with the Jewish people—but they are just not interested in the inherited institutions of their parents. The Reform Movement has much to offer those who find the existing institutional structure relevant and comfortable. But for every one of us who fits this category, there is another for whom the status quo is alienating. How can we support these Jews’ spiritual journeys? Perhaps we need to experiment with different models, such as alternative minyanim that meet in people’s homes or Jewish learning gatherings in public spaces.
Ellen Morrow: In my own extended family, more and more members are only nominally Jewish. Most of my cousins have married non-Jews and observe Christmas in their homes. Even my 20-something sons who were raised in an active and observant Reform Jewish household, went to Jewish camps, and attended religious school through Confirmation now observe Judaism only when they spend time with us. We need to do a better job of keeping the next generation involved in Jewish life.
Photo by Dr. Terri L. Edwards
Dawn Mollenkopf: The most important challenge today is to build a stronger sense of community among the diverse group of people that identify as Jews, and to solidify that sense of belonging in a way that makes all Jews feel that being Jewish is meaningful. I think that the Reform Movement, like other religious movements, is moving in a more conservative direction, redefining what it means to be a modern Jew in light of halachah. Personally I am pleased with this development, which I believe maintains Reform Judaism’s respect for individual choice while creating new modes of observance that are meaningful for our generation.
Martin Shapiro: I would love to see our temples devote more time to study and social action and less to rituals such as bending our knees and bowing during services, dressing and undressing Torahs, parading them around our temple, and discussing fixed Torah portions that are overly difficult to relate to today. Prayer shawls, too, are an unnecessary distraction to the practice of modern Judaism. Instead, let’s devote more time to the oneg after services, when congregants can get to know each other, which is as important as participating in worship.
Reform Judaism will change in various ways, some that I will endorse and some that I won’t like. But the one thing I hope will not change is the freedom of choice to engage in those practices that each of us finds personally meaningful.
Dana Jennings: I ache to see all Jews, worldwide, set aside their petty grievances over styles of observance, over who is and isn’t a legitimate Jew, and simply embrace their brothers and sisters in Jewishness.
Then I want to see those same Jews and their children, and their children’s children, embrace Torah the way you embrace your first true love, the way you embrace your spouse after 50 years of marriage, the way you embrace your mother upon her deathbed. Our future does not depend on a third vacation home or a lipstick-red Porsche. Our future abides in Torah.
Elise Silverfield May: One of my big concerns about the future is the high price tag of being Jewish. Take my son Matthew’s upcoming bar mitzvah.
Matthew and I recently attended our first bar mitzvah together. We watched as our friend read from the Torah, led the congregation in prayer, and impressed everyone with his maturity and knowledge. Then, we entered the “party zone” and realized we were not in Kansas anymore. In a museum reception hall fit for a king, there were tables set with china and crystal, a huge buffet lunch, a magician, a tattoo artist, a hip-hop dancer, and the loudest DJ I’d heard since my senior prom.
During a break from dancing and eating, I spoke with some other moms about their b’nai mitzvah planning. When I let it be known that I hadn’t done anything yet for Matthew’s event, which was still 20 months away, I felt eyed by every mom at the table. Then the well-meaning comments began: “What do you mean that you haven’t secured a dancer? All the good ones will be taken.” “You’ll never get a party venue at this late date.” Although I’m sure the comments were not meant to be critical, I felt like a total failure before I even left the starting gate.
So first thing Monday I began making arrangements. In Dallas, I quickly learned, one cannot find a suitable venue complete with tables, chairs, plates, silverware, and linens for less than $2,000. And that’s without the food, which would cost at least another $2,000. If I hire the “must have” hip-hop dancer, that’s $2,700 more. Add the invitations; the photographer; a new suit for my son; well-deserved gifts for the rabbi, cantor, and Hebrew teacher, etc. How can a single mom who barely makes ends meet afford a bar mitzvah party that could cost nearly $10,000?
When I think of my son becoming a bar mitzvah, I imagine him taking on a role of responsibility in our temple. Embracing our religion and participating in our congregation—that’s what a bar mitzvah should be about.
Isn’t there a way my son can have the sense of Jewish community I never had growing up, without the expensive price tag?
Laurence Kaufman: Our adult children face the heavy expenses of Jewish education, synagogue affiliation, camp, and more. Judaism has to be affordable and attractive enough to warrant whatever financial stretching it requires of us.
Martin Shapiro: We spend too much and then have to charge higher membership dues which alienate far too many potential members and prompt some current members to drop out. We all say we make confidential dues adjustments so that no Jew is turned away, and that’s the way it should be—except there are many Jews with too much pride to even ask for a dues reduction.
Dick Israel: An ominous peril to the survival of Judaism in America—even more serious than the tides of assimilation—is the refusal of so many rabbis to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. I know this well firsthand. In 1984 I was appointed to the Superior Court of Rhode Island, at the time the only Jewish judge on that bench. As one who had the legal powers to solemnize civil marriage ceremonies, I became the judge of choice for the Jewish parents of children who wished to intermarry. Because very few if any rabbis would agree to officiate, I became the Cyprus of Rhode Island Jews.
I sincerely believe the time has come for Reform officialdom to encourage our clergy to welcome non-Jews into our worship family by officiating at their marriages. We not only risk the future of the Jewish partner in intermarriage, but we also lose the opportunity to reach out to a prospective Jew by choice when we reject their modest request to be married in their spiritual homes.
William Berkson: After 60 some years as a Reform Jew, I have come to the conclusion that to ensure a strong Jewish future we need to synthesize Jewish values and the insights of modern psychology to create a “New Talmud”—one that focuses on personal ethics and promotes harmonious relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, professional and client.
The traditional Talmud offers concrete and action-oriented guidance and is spiritual, uplifting, but much of it is out of date; modern family relationships depart from the patriarchal model of the husband/father making all the important familial decisions. The New Talmud I envision would give guidance and inspiration as powerful as the traditional Talmud, but be developed for modern relationships. In companionable marriage, husband and wife discuss and make joint decisions, which can sometimes lead to strong disagreements, even an impasse. Here, Jewish values as well as modern techniques of communication, problem-solving, and negotiation could help Jewish couples reach amiable resolutions and ensure shalom bayit—peace in the home.
Imagine if, in Reform congregations far and wide, Shabbat prayers were followed by study and discussion of Torah and Talmud for the purpose of developing a New Talmud in conjunction with liberal Jewish scholars around the world. The Reform synagogue would then become a beit midrash, an uplifting place of study and discussion of Jewish values that would also strengthen our individual relationships and make our lives even more personally fulfilling.
It was the sage Hillel who said: if we don’t “add” to our sacred tradition, we “take away” (Pirkei Avot 1:13). If Reform Judaism is to remain vital and inspire our lives, it must again draw strength from its roots, and grow new branches and leaves to shelter us all.
Steve Arnold: Maintaining relevance to the changing lives of people remains a significant challenge for our Movement. Torah must be shown to hold lessons for modern life. We must also remain culturally welcoming to a broad range of people who want to maintain their Jewish identity without the religion part.
My dream is of a people accepted and safe in whatever society they live, a people devoted to the study of their history and its meaning, a people that have become a true “light unto the nations.” This is not radically different from what we have always been. Continuing and perfecting that history is a worthy challenge.
The Rabbis Speak
“We are committed to furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the world as a meaningful religious way of life for the Jewish people.”
—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999
Continue the Conversation...Here’s How
- Group Study: Use the Guide for adult study programs, Shabbat conversations, Confirmation class and youth group discussions, temple committee discussions, Israel at 60 discussions, and more. Visit www.reformjudaismmag.org for a free Discussion and Study Guide complete with background/history, the perspectives of Reform leaders, questions for thought and conversation, trends, cutting-edge programming, a bibliography, and more.
- Use reprints: Order reprints of the Reform Judaism Guide: 30 Stories, available at cost, to distribute to new members, prospective members, and current members. Contact 212-650-4210 for reprint information.
- blog conversations: Share your ideas about how you celebrate being Jewish and what you believe the Movement’s priorities should be in the 21st century. Go to www.rj.org and join a Movement-wide blog conversation on any or all of the 10 topics in the Reform Judaism: 30 Stories guide.
- Family Study: Each Shabbat for 10 weeks, choose one of the 10 topics to discuss with your family and/or friends. Visit www.reformjudaismmag.org for a free Discussion and Study Guide written by Dr. Alan D. Bennett, R.J.E. that gives you everything you need to have this conversation with other adults and with your children/grandchildren.