Reforming Judaism: Voices from the People, Part II

What Reform Judaism magazine readers say about breaking down denominational barriers, re-envisioning our Movement’s name, standing for something timeless and enduring, and shaping the Reform Jewish future in North America.

As part of Reform Judaism magazine’s Summer 2011 Cover Story, the editors encouraged Reform Jews throughout the U.S. and Canada—as well as unaffiliated Jews—to join
RJ magazine’s online Think Tank conversation about what we need to do to strengthen the Jewish future in North America. Hundreds of Reform leaders, congregants, and others contributed a diversity of perspectives and ideas to move our Movement forward. In the Winter 2011 edition we published “Reforming Judaism: Voices from the People, Part I,” a sampling of the many viewpoints and suggestions we received in response to four of the 12 questions we posed.

We now offer you the Movement’s responses to four more questions. Attributions—including age ranges—appear as appropriate, depending on the original information provided. The submissions below have been edited for clarity and to fit the space.

Would breaking down barriers between the different Jewish movements be a positive development in the evolution of Judaism in North America?

S. Taub, 40-59, Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, North Carolina: If current trends continue, that which divides us will become progressively less significant and the Reform and Conservative Movements will merge, with a minority of the Conservative Movement shifting to Modern Orthodox. Patrilineal descent is the main barrier between the Reform and Conservative Movements, so I suggest a joint solution, such as a very simplified conversion for children of a Jewish father who have been raised as Jews.

Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, 21-39, Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey: If "breaking down barriers" means fostering close relationships of collegiality, mutual respect, shared interests, and collaboration, I'm all in favor of it; it can only strengthen Klal Yisrael . We can do this by

  1. Studying together—our tradition has always valued differing viewpoints.

  2. Singing together. Some of the most popular melodies in Reform congregations were composed or arranged by Orthodox cantors and musicians (e.g., Shlomo Carlebach), and some of the most popular melodies sung by Orthodox Jews at camp or around the Shabbat table were composed by Reform Jews (e.g. Debbie Friedman).

  3. Comforting each other in times of need. Why not create a communal corps of Jews—regardless of affiliation or non-affiliation—in every locality who engage in mitzvot on a weekly or monthly basis?

If, on the other hand, "breaking down barriers" means eliminating the institutions that represent the values that matter to me—like the URJ and its affiliated congregations, HUC-JIR, and the CCAR—then I'm against it. Too often, conversations about "trans-denominationalism" or "post-denominationalism" proceed from the assumption that we are all the same. We Jews are NOT all the same. We have different theological commitments, different ways of fulfilling the commandments, and different ways of fulfilling the mission of Israel. We have different beliefs and practices on such crucial issues as equality of men and women; dietary regulations; acceptance of homosexuality, single parent families, and unmarried individuals; use of vernacular languages in worship; and the authority of rabbis in the community.

These differences matter—even as they do not negate the unity of Klal Yisrael.

E. Lindberg, 60+, Mizpah Congregation, Chattanooga, Tennessee: For as long as I can remember, Reform Jews have directed a great amount of poison toward traditional forms and positions of observance. It is time that Reform Judaism takes a less oppositional attitude to traditional modes, which have survived for thousands of years and are the glue binding the viability of Judaism as a religion and culture.

Tamar Myers, 60+, Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina: Charlotte, North Carolina is an excellent example of how to bring different Jewish denominations together. Oursmall Jewish population (10,000) has Shalom Park, a campus that contains the JCC, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, a library, a Conservative synagogue, and our own Temple Beth El. Our temple holds "mini-university" semesters, and some courses are even taught by a rabbi from the Chabad House. We have witnessed barriersbreaking down on our campus, particularly during events supportingour shared homeland,Israel, which I believeisour common denominator.

Jacob Yungman, 13-20, NFTY, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada, California: Social action, such as helping at-risk youth in local communities, is one way all denominations of Judaism can unite.

Also, if all the movements encouraged their followers to explore other interpretations of Judaism, it would benefit the Jewish community as a whole. I went to an Orthodox day camp until eighth grade, and throughout high school I was very active in NFTY and the URJ’s Kutz Camp. I learned so much from all these programs, and although I may not agree with aspects of different Jewish sects, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of why people choose to follow them.

David Mollen, 60+, Temple Sha'arey Shalom, Springfield, New Jersey: As far as I'm concerned, "Judaism" doesn't refer to a single religion; it refers to a group of related religions. As a Reform Jew I am not in the same religion as an Orthodox Jew. Too much is dividing us tobein the same religion.The Orthodox have every right to their beliefs which are anathema to me—and vice versa. Reform will be stronger when we accept our irreconcilable differences.

Doris L. Bachman, 60+, Temple Beth Sholom of Orange County, Santa Ana, California and Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach, California: I'd tread carefully in this arena. People choose a movement over others for good reason. I don't believe any one movement could speak to the hearts, souls, and brains of all of our people. I personally love the diversity within the Reform Movement and could not flourish spiritually under the more restrictive Orthodox, Chabad, or even Conservative Movements.

Jon Kabbe, 60+, Temple Emanu-El, Oak Park, Michigan: The issue isn't the differences; it is our belief that these differences are a problem and that "the other side" is wrong. Uniformity can become draconian and comfort can lead to constraint, while differences enrich the world—and are necessary to prepare for a changing world.

Marilynn Rothstein, 40-59, Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, Florida: I think we should create a movement called the UAJ...Union of All Jews. Tikkun olam, repairing the world, would be the philosophical "umbrella." Each movement within the UAJ would worship and practice as it wanted, but we would all be united in a global Judaism.

Should we change the Reform Movement’s name?

Anonymous, 40-59, Columbus, Ohio:A new name might be helpful. The term "Reform" implies that something is wrong with traditional Judaism, rather than a broadening of interpretation and egalitarianism.

Howard Lev, 40-59, Temple B'nai Torah—A Reform Congregation, Wantagh, New York: The name is fine the way it is. The word “ Reform” means “ever changing,” and we are always reenvisioning our Movement.

Annice Benamy, 40-59, Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey: Progressive Judaism, which is used in Europe and Israel, would be a better name, because we are progressing forward.

David Mollen, 60+, Sha'arey Shalom, Springfield, New Jersey: I am very tied to the name "Reform." It means "to correct the faults of," and that is very important: Reform Judaism is about correcting the faults of Judaism so that it is attractive in contemporary society. If you think Judaism should not change, you should be Orthodox, and if you think it should change, you are Reform. Yes, I know that sounds simplistic, and it ignores other movements, but we have a marketing problem and one of the keys to successful marketing is simplicity.

Joyce Gordon, 21-39, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, North Carolina: I like that "Reform" is not only a descriptor of our Movement, but also a verb—a call to action. It's what we’re engaged in—Reforming Reform Judaism.

Does the survival of Reform Judaism in a society in which the only constant is change require creating a community that stands for something timeless? If so, what do we stand for that will resonate today and endure?

David Gluck, 60+, past president, Temple Beth Shalom, Sun City, Arizona and Oheb Shalom Congregation, Sandusky, Ohio: We stand for the ancient covenant between God and thepeople Israel. No one intercedes for us: We speak directly to God. We also believe in living in the immediate world, evolving our beliefs and rituals to fit the time and place.

Linda Spindel, 60+, Ohef Sholom Temple, Norfolk, Virginia: We stand for establishing and maintaining an open forum that welcomes with warmth and lovingkindness every person who wishes to learn and practice Judaism.

Patricia Cohen, 60+, Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut:Thattimeless something is Torah ethics. The ethical mission of our children may be the single most important element to ensure the survival of Reform Judaism. We must reclaim, rephrase, and reemphasize Reform’sethical mission in order to motivate each Jew to commit to the spiritual aspects of his/her religion.Let’s focus on such commandments as “Be a blessing” (Gen 12:2) and “Be ‘a light of nations’” (Isaiah 42:6)—both of which require us to live ethically all day, every day, with the goal of setting an example, individually and communally, so that eventually, “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen 12:3). Together, let’s discuss the meaning of these commandments and how to live by them.

David Mollen, 60+, Sha'arey Shalom, Springfield, New Jersey: We stand for justice, morality, life as a joyous gift from God, and the dignity and worth of every human being.

What is your vision for shaping our Movement’s future, 20, 30, or 50 years from today?

Andrew Ramer, 60+, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, California: Let’s expand upon the range of lifecycle events that honor and celebrate us as individuals. That might help us feel more engaged throughout our lives.

Martin L. Shapiro, 60+, Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, Massachusetts:
The psychologist Dr. Erik Erickson taught us that in order to achieve mental stability we need to know who we are, where we came from, and where we fit in this world. We need to stress that belonging to a good Reform congregation, attending services, taking courses, and socializing with fellow members is the best way to maintain not only Jewish identity, but also mental health.

Mark F., 40-59, Temple Shalom, Dallas, Texas: Our Movement needs to allow our children and teens to feel more connected to the community through participation and leadership. Why not ask our high school juniors and seniors to take an active role in congregational leadership as committee and project chairs?They already take on suchroles in their schools—and what better way to connect them to their religion when they are away at college or entering adult life?

Jacob Yungman, 13-20, NFTY, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada, California: People my age want to be more involved in running their own communities vs. the old guard of the temple board and rabbi. One reason why NFTY is so effective is because it is peer- run, with guidance from adults rather than adults running everything.

Tal Potechin, 21-39, NFTY-NEL, Richmond Hill, Ontario: We can benefit greatly from the perspectives and teachings of those who came before us. Pirkei Avot says it is important to create a fixed time and place for Torah study, and practices such as counting the omer teach character development. When we focus on the depth of our traditions with more intention, we can revive our faith.

A great friend of mine takes on one new observance each year. He finds this very manageable and rewarding.

Steven Evans, 60+, Omaha, Nebraska:Forget a 20-year, 30-year, or 50-year plan—we need a tomorrow morning plan. We have squandered too much time and resources, and the day is late.

Howard Koor, 40-59, Brotherhood Vice President, Temple Ohabei Shalom, Brookline, Massachusetts:A synagogue can’t be the way it was 50 years ago. We probably would not want it that way anyway.

I think of the quote, “I seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old. I seek the things they sought.” What did they seek? Perhaps something beyond the day-to-day survival. Something big and great to be part of. To elevate the material world a bit higher and finer. We need to keep an ear to the wisdom of the past and live boldly as well as fully in the present. We owe nothing less to all who came before us and all who will come after us. Amen.

Union for Reform Judaism.