I grew up in the Reform movement at Temple Sinai of North Dade in South Florida. I was a poster child of Reform Judaism, everything that the Reform movement hopes for. I had my circumcision at Temple Sinai, my Bar Mitzvah and even was “Confirmed” there. I was as involved as anyone could ever be. Every day, seven days a week, I was at the temple for one reason or another (choir, youth group, Boy Scout troop, Shabbat services, Sunday school). I loved being a Jew. All I knew was Reform Judaism. When I was 13, I decided that I was going to become a Reform rabbi. The rabbi of the temple at the time told me that this was the crowning achievement in his long career as a Reform rabbi. He had received an enormous amount of respect and honor but never had one of his congregants wanted to become a Reform rabbi. He decided to take me under his wing and help me grow Jewishly as best he could.
When I was 19 I moved to New Jersey to attend university. During all of the years that I lived in South Florida, I never missed attending temple on Friday night and Shabbat morning. So when I arrived at university and Friday night came, I went to the Hillel House. There were three services to choose from: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. I, of course, chose to go to the Reform service. However, I felt very uncomfortable and out of place. It turns out that the Reform temple that I grew up in was very traditional in the sense that most of the service was in Hebrew and it was very connected to Jewish tradition. The Reform service that I attended at Hillel was mainly in English and did not follow the same order of the service that I was used to. I was confused since I thought services at every Reform temple would be similar if not the same.
The next Friday night I went to the Conservative service and there I also felt uncomfortable and out of place. Most of the service was in Hebrew, however, it was more Hebrew than I knew and the service was longer than what I was used to. I didn’t even try to go to the Orthodox service because I knew there was no chance of me feeling comfortable there.
Then someone suggested that I go to Chabad. I was nervous because the Reform rabbi of my temple warned me never to step foot in the Chabad House. However, I felt at a loss. Here I was someone who never missed a Shabbat service in his entire life and now that I was away from the Reform temple that I had grown up in, I could not find a place that I was comfortable. So, despite my Reform rabbi’s advice, I decided to step foot in the Chabad House. It was a life changing experience and today I am a Chabad affiliated Jew living in Jerusalem, Israel. I did fulfill part of my dream of being the Reform rabbi by becoming the prayer leader of one of the largest and most popular Carlebach minyanim (synagogues) in the world.
Back when I was 19 and my Reform rabbi asked me “What happened to you?” I told him that after all of the years of education and active involvement in the temple, I should have been a more educated Jew. I should have been able to walk into the Conservative or Orthodox service at Hillel and known what was going on, but in fact I knew almost nothing about Judaism. When I asked my Reform rabbi why we didn’t put on tefillin, he told me “We don’t need that anymore. That’s an ancient practice.” When I asked him why we don’t keep kosher, I got the same answer. When I asked him how it could be that after all these years I really knew nothing about Judaism, his answer was “Tikkun Olam” (“Fixing the World”). All we have to do is fix the world, do good deeds and help other people. That’s what Judaism is all about, he told me. But, as I later discovered, that’s not what Judaism is all about. It’s true that the ultimate goal of Judaism is to fix the world, but through Torah and mitzvot (commandments given to us by G-d – not “good deeds” as I was taught by the Reform movement). I felt cheated, lied to and robbed of so many years of wasted time. I knew all about the Holocaust, an obsession in my temple, and that there were famous Jews like Billy Joel. We also had many “ethical discussions”. But I had no idea how to live a life as Jew. “Tikkun Olam” was not an answer for me. I was hungry for more.
As a result of my Reform upbringing and my current role in the Jerusalem Orthodox community, I feel that I can contribute to the discussion on Reform Judaism that has appeared in the Times of Israel recently. I can tell you why Reform Judaism doesn’t work, won’t work and how to fix it.
First I can tell you what does work in Reform Judaism. Reform clergy are highly trained as Jewish social workers. They are often good listeners and can be a comfort for their congregants. This is in contrast to many Orthodox rabbis who are trained in Jewish law but do not have the appropriate skills to help their congregants in certain situations where Reform clergy excel. The Reform movement should also be praised for its integration of song during prayer. This is the foundation that helped me participate in creating the Carlebach minyan that I lead today. Also, the Reform movement has excellent summer camps. All of these things are worthy of admiration.
The big flaw and the unsolvable problem of Reform Judaism is that it does not acknowledge the divinity of the Torah and the obligation of a Jew to follow Jewish law (halachah) accordingly. If the Torah is not from G-d and G-d is not real, then why be Jewish? What’s the point? More so, if you don’t acknowledge the Torah is real and binding on every Jew, how do you know how to be Jewish? How do you know that Shabbat is from Friday night to Saturday night? How do you know how to light a Chanukah menorah? How do you know how to keep Passover? Reform Judaism takes the essence of Judaism, waters it down to almost nothing and serves it as the main dish.
In an article in the Times of Israel, Reform rabbi Rick Jacobs (the president of the Union for Reform Judaism) is quoted as saying “I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.” I think this statement sums it all up. Young Jews are hungry, but they are hungry for the truth. You can’t give them Reform Judaism and claim that it’s the real thing when it is not. The Judaism of Chabad and the Judaism of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach zt”l is not “frozen in a distant time”. It’s alive and on fire, right here and now and it’s the reason Chabad and Carlebach davening (prayer services) are taking off while the Reform movement can’t figure out why 80% of their congregants don’t want to come back.
There is no Judaism without the Torah, Jewish law and G-d. Reform Judaism has removed all of these elements from the product they sell as “a real expression of Judaism” and that’s the problem. When you take the heart and soul out of Judaism, all that’s left is an empty shell and that’s why Reform Judaism doesn’t work and won’t work. It’s not real and Jews sense it.
The solution is as simple as the problem. Follow Jewish law. Live a life of Torah and commandments. Keep Shabbat according to Jewish law. Keep kosher. Don’t allow non-Jews to be called up to the Torah. A Judaism without laws and commandments is not Judaism. Our entire religion is laid out clearly before us in thousands of books written over thousands of years by great Torah scholars and holy men and women who toiled to guide us to live a meaningful Jewish life. You don’t need to reinvent Judaism, just embrace what’s already there. No amount of biennials, committees, conferences or money will change the fact that Jews want the real thing.
If you feel like the Jewish life you’re seeing is not real, I invite you come spend one Friday night with me at the Mayanot shul at 28 Narkis street in Nachalot, Jerusalem, Israel. It will be a transformative experience.
Barak Hullman is the ba’al tefillah (prayer leader) of the Mayanot shul at 28 Narkis street in Nachalot, Jerusalem, Israel. He made aliyah from South Florida in 1995. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife, Noga, and their 7 children (all born in Jerusalem). You can see his Chasidic Stories channel at http://www.youtube.com/chasidicstories and read his blog at http://www.themakemoneyonlineshow.com.
The opinions presented here are solely those of the author and not the Mayanot shul or any Mayanot institution.