Michael Boyden

Reform Judaism’s Future

Once again there are those who are warning of the demise of Reform Judaism in North America. In an article published last week in The Jewish Daily Forward, Jonathan Goldberg observed that “Non-Orthodox schools are declining, despite gobs of philanthropic money. The Jews they’re supposed to save apparently don’t want to be saved.”

More than a generation ago the then President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, warned of the threat of Zero Population Growth to the future of American liberal Jewry and urged the Reform Movement to reach out to the “un-churched”. While his message was and is being heeded to some degree, it has failed to counteract the ravages of intermarriage, assimilation and low birth rates that afflict much of the Diaspora. Goldberg concluded that “Judaism probably isn’t at risk, but the worldly, liberal Jewry that emerged from the Enlightenment … could turn out to be nothing more than a blip in history.”

Were he to be proven correct, it would not only be a disaster for Reform Judaism but would also mean that much of the Jewish world had shown itself incapable of maintaining its identity in an open society and that only those Jews with “high birth rates and strict self-segregation from everyone else” could ensure a Jewish future.

Fortunately, Goldberg’s observations regarding the threat to liberal Judaism in the Diaspora do not reflect the reality in Israel. On the contrary, the Reform Movement here is thriving. Large numbers of Israelis, disenamoured by the Orthodox religious establishment, turn to us and other non-orthodox expressions of Judaism in order to strengthen their religious and cultural identity. This is taking place at a time when Orthodoxy is becoming more fundamentalist and its adherents are increasingly right-wing in their political orientation.

Were elections to be held today, only the Habayit Hayehudi party (The Jewish Home) would be likely to increase its representation in the Knesset. That would not only be bad for Judaism but would also pose a serious threat to those of us who believe that Jewish nationalism endangers the democratic character of the State of Israel.

Only the other day a so-called “secular” Israeli told me that American Reform Jews should make aliyah to Israel in large numbers. Their sane and balanced approached to Judaism would help counterbalance the religious extremism and Jewish messianism (evidenced, for instance, in the Jewish Nationality bill currently being debated in the Knesset) that threaten Israel’s character as a liberal, Jewish democracy.

Reform Judaism has a great deal to offer to the Jewish state both in terms of its religious orientation and its message of pluralism, mutual respect and co-existence. Its voice is one that desperately needs to be heard. It is a tragedy that such should be the case at a time when no small number of Reform Jews in North America feel estranged from the State of Israel, which for many has become a source of contention rather than a factor contributing towards Jewish unity.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.