Five (key) things to know about Reform Judaism

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently published an article — picked up by the Times of Israel yesterday — on nine things you should know about Reform Jews. The idea was to present some interesting kernels of knowledge just before the biennial conference of the Union of Reform Judaism.

This week in Orlando, more than 5,000 Reform rabbis, cantors, musicians, educators and congregants are meeting, praying, studying, learning, laughing and celebrating together.

Although detail rich, the JTA article is remarkably poor in depth and breadth. As a result, it misses key trends and thus fails to create a greater understanding of the Reform Movement, its ideals, its struggles and its recent challenges and changes. Some of the items in the article are just plain silly when presented as real indicators of the state of the Reform Movement. Here are five things you should actually know about the Reform Movement in America today.

1. The Reform Movement published a new set of High Holiday prayer books this year

After years of loving and painstaking work, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published Mishkan HaNefesh, a new set of High Holiday machzorim, prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It follows several years after the CCAR published a new weekday, Shabbat and festival siddur, Mishkah T’fillah.

What’s remarkable about these projects is not just the massive scholarship that went into them — which is expected — but the shifts represented by the content. For example, the Eleh Ezkerah, the martyrology, includes a set of new martyrs of our day. The book also expands the Yizkor service, acknowledging the many ways in which we mourn and wide variety of relationships that touch our lives.

Looking at the progression of changes is revealing. Mishkan T’fillah reintroduced the full third paragraph of the Shema, in the form of an optional reading. Earlier Reform prayer books excluded the second and third paragraphs of the Shema from the liturgy. Mishkan HaNefesh then went further, reinserting all three paragraphs of the Shema as an alternative reading in the Rosh Hashanah volume. This progression of embracing the Shema and other classic prayers heretofore removed from the liturgy is fundamental to understanding both the changes and the stresses in the Movement.

Reform Judaism is in constant dialogue between classic text and modern ideas. Sometimes, the specific changes embrace what could be considered more classic halacha and more ancient text. Sometimes, the those changes outright reject classic halacha and text. Sometimes, new liturgy is created to fill a vacuum.

The new machzor represents the Movement’s innovative approach to Judaism, as well as its willingness to reconsider classic texts that were once abandoned. It also represents the Movement’s long-time commitment to scholarship.

2. More Reform Jews voted in the World Zionist Congress elections than Conservative and Religious Zionists combined

Nearly 22,000 Reform Jews voted in the US elections for the 2105 World Zionist Congress, as reflected by the votes for the Movement’s Zionist arm, ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. In comparison, neither Mercaz USA (Conservative Zionism) nor Vote Torah (a Religious Zionist slate) broke 10,000 votes.

The reputation of Reform Jews as anti-Zionist stems from the early days of the Movement. “Well into the 20th century, the college [Hebrew Union College] was a bastion of anti-Zionism and for decades had inculcated its students with a staunchly anti-Zionist philosophy,” according to a recent article by Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D. What’s forgotten is that some Reform rabbis were, indeed, staunch Zionists. As a result, an alternative rabbinical college was established. “Promoting Zionism while creating a cadre of pro-Zionist Reform rabbis were essential dynamics behind his founding of the JIR [Jewish Institute of Religion].”

Today, however, many if not most Reform rabbis, as well as rank and file Reform Jews, identify as Zionists. The ARZA website states that: “Reform Zionism is Zionism infused with the values and principles cherished by Reform Judaism, including religious equality for women and men, a commitment to tikkun olam, and the creation by individuals of meaningful Jewish lives through informed choice and interpretation.”

Reform Judaism affirms that Jews can live fulfilling and meaningful lives in any part of the world.

3. The Reform Movement faces schisms in the rabbinate and within the rank and file

No surprise. Each of the formal Jewish movements in America faces a set of internal challenges. What might be a surprise is one source of fracture within the Movement: t’fillah, prayer. Other causes: embracing Hebrew, classic text study and adopting the full traditional cycle of Torah reading. With an eye on maintaining the core Reform philosophy and approach to Jewish values, life and text, more and more Reform synagogues are adding regular Shabbat morning prayer, infusing more Hebrew into worship and are studying Torah texts once rejected by previous generations of Reform rabbis.

A backlash movement resulted. The Society for Classical Reform Judaism was founded in 2008 “by a group of rabbis and lay leaders from congregations throughout the United States, as a national voice of advocacy for the broad, universalistic ideals of the Classical Reform tradition — the historic progressive interpretation of liberal Judaism in America.” Among other things, the society was formed to preserve the Reform tradition of prayer in English and an emphasis on lessons of prophetic teaching, namely tikun olam, rather than Torah teaching.

The core attitude is that “reform” is an ongoing process.

4. The Movement is zealously pluralistic, from the selection of leaders to the use of language

In March of 2015, Rabbi Denise Eger became the third woman and the first openly gay rabbi to lead the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Reform Judaism welcomes and encourages women, gays, blacks and converts as rabbis, cantors and as synagogue, educational and lay leaders.

The take away is simple: the Reform Movement is proudly and unabashedly pluralistic. In liturgy, community and practice, Reform Judaism says: If you’re gay, welcome. If you’re black, welcome. If you’re not Jewish but want to be together with Jews in prayer and study, welcome. If you’re thinking of conversion, welcome. If you’ll never, ever consider conversion, welcome. Women, men, trans-gender, bi, hetero, homo, atheist, agnostic, spiritual, religious, searching — you name it — there’s a seat waiting for you. Welcome on your journey.

Reform pluralism extends beyond questions of simple ‘welcome,’ but includes how the Movement looks at and approaches everything from building and renovating synagogue space to the process of conversion, the phenomenon of ‘mixed’ marriages and how to educate and engage parents, children and in-laws in ‘mixed’ families. Another example: while the new machzor has embraced a larger number of classic prayers, the use of language has also been carefully evaluated and revised to reflect pluralistic values, such as gender inclusion.

Pluralism also informs the Movement’s advocacy agenda in the U.S and in Israel, with strong support for the Israel Religious Action Center.

5. Reform Judaism has the highest denominational retention rate and brings more disaffected Jews back into the fold

According to data from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, Reform Jews are more likely to stay affiliated with their own movement than Orthodox or Conservative Jews. Of those raised as Reform Jews, 55 percent currently identify as Reform. In comparison, 48 percent of those people raised as Orthodox Jews currently identify as Orthodox, while 36 percent of those individuals who were raised as Conservative Jews identify as Conservative.

In general, the study found that within the three major denominational movements, most of the switching is in the direction of less-traditional Judaism. So, in parallel with the higher overall retention rate, Reform Jews are also most likely to leave formal denominational Judaism.

Yet, Reform Judaism also appears to be largest doorway back into Judaism for the disaffected. Among Jews raised with no religion, 10 percent now identify as Reform, compared with 4 percent Conservative and 3 percent Orthodox. The same is true among those with no denominational connection. Among those Jews raised without affiliation, nine percent now identify as Reform, compared with 3 percent Conservative and 4 percent Orthodox.

Reform Judaism has brought more disaffected Jews back into Jewish life than the Orthodox and Conservative movements, combined.

About the Author
Alden Solovy is a liturgist, poet, and teacher. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud UK and synagogues throughout North America. He's the author of “This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day” and has written more than 700 pieces of new liturgy. His new book, "This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings," is anticipated in early 2019. He made aliyah in 2012. Read his work at
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