What was Reform worship like in mid-19th
The mostly German-born Reform synagogue leaders
strove to mimic Reform innovations in Germany, emphasizing, above all, decorum
and order. Reading the board minutes of these early congregations—many of which
were entirely in German—we know that most conversations concerned how worshipers
should dress, how to keep congregants from talking during services, and the
Reform congregational leaders wanted more predictability and less chaos—a
service less like traditional Jewish worship ambiance and more like how
Congregationalists and Methodists worshiped. Non-Reform Jews did—and continue to
do—what we would call private prayer in a public setting. So
when a traditional Jew davened [prayed] at his own pace in the presence
of at least nine other men, he had fulfilled his obligation according to Jewish
law; worshiping in unison was unnecessary. In contrast, from the earliest days
Reform Jews did—and continue to do—public prayer in a public
setting, with congregants singing, reading, standing, and sitting in unison.
Reform also adopted other American practices, such as 1. physically
differentiating the worship leader from the worshipers, the leader facing the
congregation (instead of the ark) and setting the pace and everyone following
along in step; 2. creating a shorter service by not repeating certain prayers
(like the Amida) and not including a Musaf service on Shabbat
festivals; and 3. permitting family pews (as opposed to separating men and
How about the Reform service?
It evolved over time.
By the mid 1800s the typical three-hour Sabbath morning service in many
congregations had been shortened to about an hour and a half to two hours, was
conducted entirely in Hebrew, and included many more prayers than we typically
read today. Sermons were rare, except on the Sabbath before Pesach or between
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Did Reform Judaism introduce the practice of a weekly rabbinic
Actually all streams of Judaism proceeded to imitate the
American Protestant practice of a weekly sermon delivered by a preacher. But a
problem arose: Although many Jews were capable of leading a prayer service, few
could deliver a compelling sermon. This is one of the reasons why, by the early
1870s, congregations from across the spectrum responded positively to the
creation of Isaac Mayer Wise's Hebrew Union College, which would ordain
English-speaking rabbis who also could preach.
What other congregational innovations emerged in the
During this time, as thousands of Eastern Europeans Jews
were landing on American shores, it was not uncommon for Reform Jews of German
descent to make their congregations less inviting to the Yiddish-speaking
newcomers. One of the more significant changes was eliminating the bar mitzvah
ceremony. This custom, dating from the late Middle Ages, had probably emerged to
celebrate a Jewish child's coming of age at a time when life expectancy was
short and many children did not live to age 13. Later in Eastern Europe bar
mitzvahs gained popularity because boys were being conscripted into the army and
their families wanted a ceremony that would allow them to affirm their faith
before leaving home. Reform Jews therefore regarded the bar mitzvah ceremony as
outdated and easily expendable. They replaced it with Confirmation of high
school-age boys and girls—another Protestant practice.
What led to moving Sabbath services from Saturday to Sunday
It's a myth that Sabbath services were moved to Sunday.
In reality, Sunday morning became the time when Reform rabbis chose to deliver
their weekly address as a way of attracting more people into the synagogue.
Remember, the traditional Sabbath service took place on Saturday morning, but
most Reform leaders owned businesses and worked on Saturdays, which resulted in
a paltry turnout. A Friday night service was introduced to see if people would
show up after work, and while this proved somewhat successful, it did not fully
solve the attendance problem. So the synagogue leaders initiated adult education
lectures on Sunday mornings featuring the rabbi's sermon. Throughout America,
the great rabbinic preachers spoke eloquently and dramatically for about 20–40
minutes each Sunday, drawing big crowds of Jews, and often non-Jews as well.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise's orations at the Free Synagogue in New York, for example,
were so well attended, they were often scheduled at Carnegie Hall.
These Sunday sermons were preceded and followed by hymns, and some
congregations added weekday prayers before the sermon as well.
In these early Reform congregations, who "called the
The lay leadership, dominated by wealthy, influential,
and powerful men who owned and operated brokerages, retail stores, and other
business establishments. At the time, the few rabbis and chazanim
(cantors) were not regarded as authority figures, but treated as employees with
particular skills. Often rabbis had to sign synagogue contracts requiring
adherence to strict rules. Synagogue minutes indicate that some rabbis had to
dress a certain way; were required to unlock the building and heat up the stove
in the sanctuary before the worshipers arrived; and had to promise not to
worship at another congregation, because doing so would suggest that he did not
respect his employers.
In 1873 Rabbi I. M. Wise established the first umbrella organization
of synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Did the
Union's founding synagogues have much in common?
They were quite
different from one another. Some were from the East Coast and most from the
Midwest; some were already Reform, some quite traditional. What they shared was
a common goal: to help create and fund a seminary that would produce
English-speaking American rabbis. So they assessed every member belonging to a
Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism/URJ)
synagogue one dollar per year to fund the creation and maintenance of HUC. This
was the precursor to the URJ's Maintenance of Union Membership system still in
place. To this day, 138 years later, the first plank in the Union for Reform
Judaism mission statement still affirms financial support of the Hebrew Union
College, and almost half of the funds the URJ collects from our 900+ affiliated
temples goes directly to support HUC-JIR (representing about one-third of HUC's
The 1930s has been said to be a "reforming" decade in Reform
synagogue life in North America. Why was it so consequential?
one way the 1930s was like the decade we're in now, when economic downturn
accelerates change. When the Great Depression hit, many congregations didn't
have money to pay the utility bills or the rabbi's salary, prompting synagogue
leaders to self-assess, asking themselves, "Why don't we have more money? Are we
losing potential members to the Conservative Movement?" This also led to
increasing scrutiny of the national bodies of the Reform Movement, reaching a
climax at the 1941 UAHC Council (an earlier name for the Biennial), when Rabbi
Louis Mann of Temple Sinai in Chicago delivered a stinging speech accusing the
Union of being asleep and little more than "a religious mail-order business."
Mann warned that membership losses would continue if Movement leaders did not
aggressively reach out to non-German Jews and modify congregational practices so
that greater numbers of American Jews perceived Reform as the mainstream of
American Judaism, not merely a German-Jewish version.
In response, the Union, under its new president, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath,
expanded its programs and encouraged the formation of more congregations to
attract the unaffiliated. Reform congregations also instituted changes,
reinstating Jewish practices that had been rejected, among them bar mitzvah
ceremonies and the wearing of head coverings during worship. In addition, Reform
leaders softened their resistance to the notion of Jewish peoplehood, no longer
insisting that they were Americans who practiced Judaism solely as a religion.
In the 1930s, terms expressing Jewish peoplehood, such as Klal Yisrael
(the community of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), began
to appear in Reform publications. Such changes did not become mainstream until
well into the 1950s and 1960s, after the establishment of the State of Israel,
but they marked the beginning of a 30-year effort to make the children of
Eastern European Jews feel comfortable in Reform congregations.
When did Eastern European Jews truly become comfortable in Reform
The big shift occurred after World War II. As the
grandchildren of German Jewish immigrants and the children of Eastern European
Jewish immigrants served together in the armed forces, they discovered, to some
surprise, that they had much in common. In the U.S. military, Jews confronted
antisemites who did not differentiate between German Jews and Eastern European
Jews any more than Hitler differentiated between one Jew and another. The
wartime experience of these 20-year-old Jews served as a strong bonding force.
Whereas beforehand the two groups had belonged to separate Jewish country clubs
and urban eating clubs, after the war the old preconceptions about the "other"
broke down and the rate of "intermarriage" between German Jews and Eastern
European Jews soared. By the 1960s, half the members of Reform temples were of
Eastern European background, leading, in decades to come, to an infusion of more
traditional practices into the Reform Movement.
How did more traditional practice become normative in Reform
Remember, Reform congregations are democracies and
autonomous. Nothing in Reform Judaism says, "You cannot consider this or that
Jewish practice." So if 50% of Reform congregants grew up in traditional
synagogues listening to a cantor chant the liturgy and the other 50% were raised
in temples with a professional choir, the congregation which never had a cantor
would hire one—and keep the professional choir. Similarly, if the majority of
ritual committee members wanted to observe Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah,
traveling to a body of water and throwing in pieces of bread representing one's
sins, even if Reform Jews had never followed this custom before, the
congregation would adopt it now. And if the majority of the congregation wanted
tallitot and kippot available, they would be offered at
services. Not everyone would have to wear them, of course—the hallmark of Reform
is individual autonomy—but very little of Jewish tradition lay outside the
boundaries of Reform Judaism.
This is how, by the 1970s, bar mitzvah had become the norm rather than the
exception in Reform congregations (with bat mitzvah added for girls), and how
Confirmation began to lose its status as the most significant lifecycle ceremony
for Reform Jewish teens.
How else did World War II impact the UAHC and its
With the introduction of the G.I. Bill, Jews,
like all veterans, were offered low-cost college educations and home loans. As a
result, Reform Jewish families joined America's mass migration from the cities
to outlying areas, sparking a synagogue building boom in suburbia.
In the period from 1945 to 1965, the number of Reform congregations doubled,
from about 300 to 600, and with this upsurge the Union of American Hebrew
Congregations' mission expanded as well. Until World War II, the Union's primary
functions were to support the Hebrew Union College and to publish educational
materials for Reform Sabbath schools. After the war, the Union took a more
active role in helping to create and strengthen Reform congregations, in
creating youth (NFTY) and camping systems to strengthen the Jewish identity of
the emerging baby-boomer children, in establishing a voice in the nation's
capital through its Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and in supporting
the worldwide expansion of Reform Judaism through the World Union for
In addition, this environment of postwar prosperity led to the growing
professionalization of North American synagogues—staff increases, expanded
facilities, and new architectural styles. The staff of a prewar synagogue likely
included a rabbi, a part-time or volunteer educator, and an office secretary.
After the war, with the influx of so many children in temple religious schools,
full-time Jewish educators became a necessity. And the demand for professional
cantors was so great, HUC's new School of Sacred Music couldn't train them
quickly enough. Before World War II, the sanctuary dominated the synagogue
building, but in the postwar period the majority of square footage was allocated
to religious school classrooms, office complexes, social halls, and
Did the '60s protest movements also transform Reform synagogue
Yes, in a different way. The protest culture in opposition
to the Vietnam War and in support of the growing women's movement encouraged
synagogue members to question the established order. People were suddenly
asking, "Why can't we sing along in services?" or "Who says that I have to wear
a tie and jacket in synagogue?" Women began to question, "Why do women only sit
on the bimah at the Sisterhood Shabbat?" or "Why can't women be temple
The Reform Movement adapted to the changes in America far more quickly than
the Conservative Movement. Compare: HUC-JIR ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in
1972; but in the mid-1970s if you were a woman fluent in Hebrew who could chant
Torah, you often weren't allowed to have an aliyah in a Conservative
congregation. By then the Reform Movement empowered women to participate fully
in worship and in leadership as rabbis, cantors, and presidents.
The Union also responded faster and more effectively to rising intermarriage
rates. In 1978, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler launched a
groundbreaking Outreach initiative to welcome non-Jewish spouses of interfaith
families into Reform congregations. In contrast, the Conservative Movement,
publicly perceiving intermarriage as essentially a rejection of Judaism, held
that interfaith families could not be synagogue members; the born Jew in the
relationship could only join as a single parent family. Throughout the '80s and
'90s, thousands of Jews in interfaith marriages who had grown up in Conservative
congregations joined Reform temples, where they found support in raising Jewish
Inclusion became a guiding principle and driving force of the UAHC and its
congregations in the '80s and '90s, encompassing interfaith families, GLBT Jews,
people of color, and many others.
What are the major challenges facing our Movement
The supreme challenge is the changing attitude toward
membership. Belonging to a synagogue or a church used to be a sign of success in
society, but people today are far less committed to organizations of any kind.
Increasingly mobile empty-nesters often resettle in the neighborhood where their
grandchildren live, leaving their long-time congregations and rarely
reaffiliating. And while many younger couples do follow the pattern of previous
generations in joining synagogues after marriage, Jews tend to marry five to 10
years later than their parents did. To encourage innovative temple programming
that will both attract new members and engage current congregants, the Union for
Reform Judaism has awarded incubator grants—each up to $5,000—to 20 member
synagogues (see urj.org/cong/membership/grants/winners).
For more ideas and resources on membership building strategies, see Action: Courting New Members, and urj.org/membership. In addition, the
URJ's membership expert, Kathy Kahn (firstname.lastname@example.org), is
Another challenge is financial. In the last 40 years we have created a
synagogue infrastructure—facilities and staff—that has become increasingly
difficult to sustain, in part because of the recession. Many Jews question
paying temple dues, the main source of synagogue revenue. We therefore need to
rethink our professional and physical infrastructures and ask how we will be
able to maintain them in the future. The URJ is now providing comparative
financial analysis of income and expenditures by congregational size (urj.org/cong/data) to help gauge and
strengthen temples' fiscal planning. URJ financial experts David Katowitz (DKatowitz@urj.org) and Rob Berkovitz (RBerkovitz@urj.org) are also available for
Going forward, to make synagogues less vulnerable to sudden economic
downturns, I think we're going to see less dependence on dues and religious
school fees and greater reliance on annual fundraising, endowments, and legacy
bequests. Congregations will also need to do more long-term financial planning.
Synagogues can bolster their fundraising efforts by reading Successful Synagogue Fundraising Strategies and other Reform
Judaism magazine articles pertaining to "Cost Savings & Finding
Funding" by accessing the magazine's brand-new "Article Search by Subject"
drop-down menu on its homepage, reformjudaismmag.org; click on
"Strengthening Synagogues" to begin.
Can we meet these challenges?
The Reform Movement is the
change agent of North American Jewry, and we will change—as we always have—in
order to adapt to new realities. I'm confident that the Union, along with our
partners, the College and the CCAR, will be able to morph into the Movement that
will best meet the needs of Jews in the next decade and beyond.
- Do you agree that "the supreme challenge" facing the Reform Movement today
is "the changing attitude toward affiliation and membership...that people are
less committed to organizations of any kind"? If you agree, how do we tackle
this problem? If you disagree, what do you think is the "supreme challenge" and
what needs to be done to address it?
- Do you agree that one of the best ways to make the Reform synagogues and the
Reform Movement less vulnerable to economic downturns is to stop depending on
membership dues and religious school fees? What are the best alternatives?
- Are you optimistic that the Reform Movement in North American can adapt to
"the new realities" (e.g. financial, demographic, aversion to affiliation)
because "we always have" in the past? Explain.
to share your ideas and have them considered by the Reform Think Tank, which is
imagining the future direction of our Movement.