Reform Judaism has always honored the past while anticipating the future. It
emerged in Europe at the turn of the 19th century—some say as a protest
movement, others say as a response to social and political changes. In any
event, it proceeded from dissatisfaction with the status quo and set Judaism on
a new course.
What was later to become the Reform Movement began in, of all places, a
Jewish school in Seesen, Germany. Israel Jacobson (who founded the school in
1801) had the temerity to accept girls and the audacity to seat them in the same
room as the boys! His ideas about curriculum were perhaps even more radical:
schooling included religious studies, math, science, and the German language—a
seminal break with the then traditional yeshiva education. Further shocking
tradition-minded Jews, he even opened up the classroom to non-Jewish children.
That a new religious movement began in a school was one thing. That it began
with laymen, rather than rabbis, was another. But the changes in the school’s
prayer-place were the ones that set the course for what would become Reform
Judaism some 40 years later. Jacobson created a worship service which followed
Western models of decorum, was far briefer than the traditional Jewish service,
contained prayers translated into German, featured a mixed male-female choir,
was embellished by organ accompaniment, and allowed men and women to sit
together—altogether new ways of thinking about the Jewish religion.
Reform has been changing ever since.
Then and now, the practical challenges remain the same: to identify the
essence of Judaism and to preserve its beliefs and practices in ways that
accommodate new and changing realities.
We continue to do this to this day, individually as Reform Jews and
collectively as a Movement.
How can Reform congregations, in particular, forge paths to change? In The
Chronicle (download PDF) HUC-JIR, Los Angeles faculty member
Dr. Isa Aron writes of 4 capacities that, she says, are the cornerstones to
- Thinking back and thinking ahead: being both reflective and proactive
- Enabling leaders to follow, and followers to lead: practicing collaborative
- Seeing both the forest and the trees: creating community among diverse
- Honoring the past while anticipating the future: balancing tradition and
Seventeen years ago, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler wrote:
“The deepening of literacy and spiritual vision within our movement should
produce a more powerful tie among us, an increased sense of kinship with the
Judaic past, and a great excitement regarding our future. As our prayers become
more unified and our religious dialogue intensifies, I believe that our
evolutionary form of Judaism shall surpass a grasping Orthodoxy in its claim to
We welcome your participation in this ongoing religious conversation about
the future of our Movement so that we will continue to go from strength to
Overview Questions for Discussion
- How does Reform’s past shape its future?
- What might be the advantages of creating a “self-renewing congregation”? How
close does your congregation come to Isa Aron’s description? Where might it fall
short? What might be done to help?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Alexander Schindler that Reform is an “evolutionary
form of Judaism”?
- Do you think that Reform Judaism is, or should be, in competition with other
expressions of Judaism, such as the Orthodox, Conservative, and
- What can we do as a Movement to strengthen Reform Judaism?
- What can you do—as part of a congregation and as an individual—to strengthen
Reform Judaism and help secure its future?
Section X Question for Discussion
As you look to the future, what do you believe are the most significant
challenges we face, as a Movement and as North American Jews?
1. Jewish Survival: Joan Pines sees a need for more innovation,
spiritual seeking, creativity, and community in order to combat pressures to
assimilate. Ellen Morrow worries that most members of her extended family are
married out of the faith; even her children, raised in her actively Jewish home,
observe Judaism only when they return home. Steve Arnold believes “maintaining
relevance” is a significant challenge. Barbara K. Shuman’s children are “not
interested in the inherited institutions of their parents”; she wants Reform “to
experiment with different models.”
Reform congregations are trying different approaches here—for example,
drop-in coffee centers, parenting groups, or other parent-centered programs that
increase the chances that they will remain involved in temple life as their
children grow older. To learn from the successful experiences of Reform
synagogues, visit the Union's
Discuss ways your congregation is responding—or should be responding-–to
these challenges. How is your synagogue trying to attract and hold members who
do not respond to more established forms of worship and study? What other
experiments would you encourage your congregation to inaugurate?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 ways Judaism is attractive
to you and 6 changes that might make it more attractive.
2. Build Community: Dawn Mollenkopf expresses concern about the
separations among diverse groups of Jews and looks “to solidify that sense of
belonging in a way that makes all Jews feel that being Jewish is meaningful.”
Dana Jennings wants all Jews to “set aside their petty grievances…and simply
embrace their brothers and sisters in Jewishness.” How would you assess the
sense of community in your congregation? What barriers might exist? What actions
might succeed in bringing diverse groups of Jews closer together?
3. More Action: Martin Shapiro wants to see more social action, study,
and community building in synagogue, and less “bending our knees and bowing,”
“dressing and undressing Torahs.” Do you belief ritual in Jewish life interferes
with or supports social action? What can you do to increase your congregation’s
emphasis on action without diminishing the role of ritual?
4. The Cost of Being Jewish: Elise Silverfield points to the high cost
of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, fueled by “what’s expected,” and wonders
whether her “son can have a sense of Jewish community…without the expensive
price tag.” Laurence Kaufman worries about the “heavy expenses” of Jewish
education, camp, synagogue affiliation, and more; he wants Judaism “to be
affordable.” Martin Shapiro thinks the congregational dues structure effectively
drives people away from membership. What is your congregation doing to welcome
membership among those not able to meet the dues scale? Is that an important
goal? How can a congregation balance “below scale” membership with “meeting the
budget?” What’s the alternative? How might you help reduce expectations for
lavish bar/bat mitzvah celebrations?
For religious school and youth groups: Do you support lavish bar/bat mitzvah
5. Modernize Jewish Texts: Steve Arnold wants to emphasize how Torah
holds modern lessons to attract Jews “who want to maintain their Jewish identity
without the religion part.” Is this is a good idea? Explain.
William Berkson proposes that Reform synagogues everywhere study and discuss
Torah and Talmud, synthesizing Jewish values and the insights of modern
psychology to create a “New Talmud” that focuses on personal ethics and promotes
harmonious relationships. Do you believe Jews have everything we need from
existing texts? Is it time for the Reform Movement to create a “New Talmud”? If
yes, what do you think of Berkson’s vision for it? What’s yours?
6. Imagine the Future: In your opinion, what are the most important
challenges we face as modern Jews today? Does Reform Judaism need “reforming”?
Does Judaism need further reforming? If so, in what ways? How can you be part of
Families: Discuss the most important challenges that
you face as Jews and what steps can be taken to meet these challenges.
Congregations/families/youth groups: Stretch your imagination. What is your
vision for the Jewish people in your time? What is your vision for future Jewish
generations? What role can you play in realizing these dreams?
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Note: Except, perhaps, for those embedded in authors’ citations, Bible
text translations in the Study Guide are from JPS Hebrew-English
Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1999.