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Reform Judaism: 30 Stories
Discussion & Study Guide X: Facing the Future
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

Introduction

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 congregational self-renewal:

  • Thinking back and thinking ahead: being both reflective and proactive
  • Enabling leaders to follow, and followers to lead: practicing collaborative leadership
  • Seeing both the forest and the trees: creating community among diverse individuals
  • Honoring the past while anticipating the future: balancing tradition and change.

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 ‘authenticity.’”

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 strength.

Overview Questions for Discussion

  1. How does Reform’s past shape its future?
  2. 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?
  3. Do you agree with Rabbi Alexander Schindler that Reform is an “evolutionary form of Judaism”?
  4. Do you think that Reform Judaism is, or should be, in competition with other expressions of Judaism, such as the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Movements?
  5. What can we do as a Movement to strengthen Reform Judaism?
  6. 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 Membership website.

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 parties? Explain.

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 the process?

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?

 

Bibliography/Resources

Israel Abrahams. Hebrew Ethical Wills. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1976. Paperback.

Isa Aron. The Self-Renewing Congregation. VT: Jewish Lights Publishing. 2002.

Jacob B. Agus. Modern Philosophies of Judaism. NJ: Behrman House. 1941.

Bernard J. Bamberger. Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. NY: KTAV Publishing. 1968.

Herbert M. Baumgard. Judaism and Prayer. NY: UAHC. 1964.

Jack Bemporad, Ed. The Theological Foundations of Prayer. NY: UAHC. 1967.

Brian de Breffny. The Synagogue. NY: Macmillan. 1978.

Ismar Elbogen. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1993.

Bruce Feiler. Abraham. NY: Harper. 2005. Paperback.

Solomon Goldman. A Guide to the Sabbath. London: Jewish Chronicle Publications. 1961.

Alexander Guttman. “The Jewish Calendar.” In Sha’arei Moed, Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year. NY: CCAR. 1983.

A. Travers Herford. The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers. NY: Schocken. 1962. Paperback.

Theodor Herzl. Old-New Land. Bloch Publishing Co. & Herzl Press. 1960.

Alfred Jospe. “The Jewish Image of the Jew.” In Abraham E. Millgram. Washington DC: Great Jewish Ideas. B’nai B’rith: 1969. Paperback.

William E. Kaufman. Contemporary Jewish Philosophies. NY: Reconstructionist Press & Behrman House. 1976.

Peter S. Knobel, Ed. Sha’rei Mo’ed, Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year. NY: CCAR. 1983.

Richard N. Levy. A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism. NY. URJ Press. 2005.

Abraham E. Millgram 1. Sabbath: The Day of Delight. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1956.

Abraham E. Millgram 2. Jewish Worship. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1971.

Michael A. Meyer. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. NY: Oxford University. 1988.

David Nelson and Regina Stein. “One Heart, Two Homes: Israel and the Sacred Identity of Modern Jews.” NY: ARZA. 2007.

David Polish. Renew Our Days: The Zionist Issue in Reform Judaism. Jerusalem: The World Zionist Organization, in cooperation with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. 1976.

W. Gunther Plaut 1. The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook of its Jewish Origins. NY: World Union for Progressive Judaism. 1963.

W. Gunther Plaut 2. The Growth of Reform Judaism: American and European Sources to 1948. World Union for Progressive Judaism. 1965.

W. Gunther Plaut 3. Tadrich Shabbat, A Shabbat Manual. NY: CCAR. 1972.

W. Gunther Plaut 4. “Forward.” In Simeon J. Maslin, ed. Sha-arei Mitzvah, Gates of Mitzvah. NY: CCAR. 1979.

Hayyim Schauss 1. The Jewish Festivals. NY: UAHC. 1938.

Hayyim Schauss 2. The Lifetime of a Jew. NY: UAHC. 1950.

Sylvan D. Schwartzman. Reform Judaism Then and Now. NY: UAHC. 1971.

Gershom Scholem. Kabbalah. NY: Quadrangle. 1974.

Alexander M. Schindler. “Reform Judaism 2001.” In Reform Judaism. Spring 1991.

Daniel Jeremy Silver. “Zionism: A Response to the United Nations.” Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. 1975.

Rifat Sonsino & Daniel B. Syme. Finding God: Selected Responses, Revised Edition. NY: UAHC Press. 2002. Paperback.

Jack Stern. “Jewish Ethics in the Daily Life of the Jew.” In The Jewish Condition: Essays on Contemporary Judaism Honoring Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler. NY: UAHC Press. 1995.

Albert Vorspan & David Saperstein. Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of our Time. NY: UAHC Press. 1998.

Robert G. Weisbord. African Zion. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1968.

Walter S. Wurzberger. Ethics of Responsibility. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1994.

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.




 


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