Harold Berman

Is the Reform movement finished?

I am not trying to be judgmental. I’m just trying to understand. But I can’t.

Back in December, I kept hearing about the Reform Biennial. What’s not to like about 5,000 people representing ostensibly the largest movement in Judaism, all gathered to learn, to pray, and to explore the Jewish future together? But through all the rah-rah, something kept gnawing at me.

That something drifted into sharper focus as I read the Biennial speeches, and moreso, the statements since then by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the movement’s head. At the Biennial, Jacobs kept throwing around the phrase “audacious hospitality,” a description of the mindset Reform congregations should adopt with newcomers. I read about how the Reform movement was “reaching out to outsiders, meeting them where they are.” Amidst the buzzwords were meaningless, bumper sticker-type slogans like “our Judaism is for everyone,” contradicted by condescending descriptions of Orthodox Judaism as “frozen in a distant time” and “showing no real success.”

Since then, Jacobs has said that opposing intermarriage is like opposing gravity, and most recently in a JTA article published right here on the Times of Israel, Jacobs reiterated his fatalistic view, opining, “I believe that higher intermarriage rates are largely the result of the open society in which we are privileged to live . . . Anti-Semitism is down . . . So, of course, there are high intermarriage rates.” Hmmm . . .

Forgive my skepticism, but I come to this as someone who tried really, really hard to find a spiritual home in the Reform movement, who was married to a non-Jew and so should have found my place there, who should today be joining Rabbi Jacobs in his calls for “audacious hospitality.”

But I’m not.

I grew up in the Reform movement. My Bar Mitzvah was in a Reform temple, and I stayed on for three years of confirmation classes. I participated in Reform movement youth groups. I identified as a Reform Jew for many years upon reaching adulthood. When I first met my wife, who was a serious Christian who directed the music program for a Texas mega-church, it was Reform temples that we first turned to when we wanted to explore the possibilities of Jewish life. For nearly the first decade of our marriage, it would have been inconceivable to me to look anywhere but the Reform movement.

But try as we might, the Reform movement didn’t give us what we needed. It was only when we migrated to more traditional settings that we found a strong and cohesive community, a profound commitment to Jewish life and learning, and people who freely shared Judaism with us in such depth that it literally transformed us. We began as an intermarried couple on the very margins of Jewish life, but today we are a traditional Jewish family.

Audacious hospitality? Yes, that was the stranger who approached me the first time I entered an Orthodox synagogue, and within 30 seconds had invited me to his home to share Shabbat lunch with his family. I never experienced such “audacious hospitality,” or anything close, in my decades in liberal Jewish settings.

Reaching out to outsiders, meeting them where they are? Yes, that’s what Chabad and Aish did with my family. It was a Chabad pre-school near Boston that opened its arms to my son and my family, when neither observance nor conversion was on the horizon. They not only showed us warmth, but gave us a reason to care about Judaism.

In my travels through the Orthodox world, I’m hardly unique. I can’t begin to count the number of people I’ve met who grew up Reform, and even those who like us, started out intermarried, and took the long road through Orthodox conversion to becoming a Jewish family.

Yet, even though the Reform to Orthodox migration is hardly a minor phenomenon, and the Reform to unaffiliated migration is even less minor, Reform leaders appear to hold an astonishing lack of curiosity about why this might be so, preferring instead to prattle on about how “our Judaism is for everyone.”

Their response to our own journey is representative. When my wife and I wrote our book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, we did so to share how our encounter with a deep and meaningful Judaism transformed our lives. Instead of curiosity (never mind celebration that an intermarried family chose to become Jewish), several liberal Jewish leaders rushed in with knee-jerk criticism of our decision to move beyond the Reform movement and embrace traditional Judaism. Whole articles were penned warning Jewish leaders to ignore the kind of transformational journey that my wife and I represent. But when a major book was recently published making the case for raising children of intermarriage in two faiths and lauding it as a better choice than raising them exclusively in Judaism, these same liberal Jewish leaders were strangely silent.

Yet, Reform leaders have every reason to be curious (and worried) about those who are leaving their movement. For all the hoopla at the Biennial and all the “our movement is just booming” statements, the recent Pew study shows only 17% of Reform movement members attend synagogue services even once a month, and those who were raised in the movement are heading for the exit doors, with 80% leaving by the time they graduate high school and the median age of movement members at 54.

The numbers don’t come as a surprise. As Woody Allen put it, 80% of life is showing up; and it’s impossible to create a meaningful religious community where over 80% doesn’t.

But despite everything I’ve just written, this isn’t about the Reform movement at all. It’s about an approach and what is and isn’t working. I don’t really care what “brand” of Jew people call themselves, but rather what they are doing with their Judaism. If my Judaism ultimately becomes about, as one Jewish academic put it, “the sovereign self,” then my Judaism is boxed in by my own limitations and gives me nothing with which to transcend the self. So the time has come to stop pushing an approach that has replaced obligation with personal autonomy as its overarching value. That approach has failed.

But please don’t take my word for it. When I first read about the Reform Biennial, I wrote to Rabbi Mark Miller, a friend and Reform rabbi (and fellow Times of Israel blogger) with over 40 years in the pulpit, having built Temple Bat Yahm almost from scratch into one of the largest Reform temples in Southern California. Since as a “Reform refugee,” my views may be less than objective, I wanted to hear from someone who knows the Reform movement inside and out.

Am I wrong to suspect, I asked Rabbi Miller, that I am hearing empty slogans in place of substance? What followed was a lengthy e-mail exchange in which Rabbi Miller, as a Reform rabbi, offered a far more scathing critique of the Reform movement and its approach than I ever could.

What about “audacious hospitality?” I asked Rabbi Miller. A turning point? No, he shot back – “Audaciously superficial.” Rabbi Miller continued, “Judaism does not survive, let alone thrive, when we legitimize all personal desires. The Reform movement has presented its adherents with an ideological passport to a land where there are no difficult choices, where there is no sacrifice of personal comfort.”

Surprised to hear such an indictment from a veteran Reform rabbi, I told Rabbi Miller that I believe the tide could still be turned. But only if our Jewish leadership is willing to come forward with courage, abandon the minimalist Judaism that has so obviously fallen short, and chart a new course that instead inspires young Jews to want to embrace Judaism wholeheartedly.

He scoffed at my hope that the Reform movement could right the ship, insisting that it was too far off course and its leaders too unwilling even to acknowledge the problem.

I won’t say more about Rabbi Miller’s thoughts, as he will soon be writing a full article in response to this one, here on Times of Israel. But I will say that young Jews today, underneath their immersion in a societal outlook that is deeply self-focused, are yearning for something more. That something could be Judaism. But American Jewry is at an historical crossroads, and we desperately need, not an earth-bound Judaism subject to conventional forces like gravity, but a Judaism with wings that will help us soar beyond what we could ever imagine.  Whether that will happen remains an open question.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.