Is it time to reform Reform Judaism?

Whatever Jewish movement you are part of, make it better. That is what more than two hundred Reform leaders are prepared to do.

I have spent much of my professional life waging a battle against two little letters – “ED.”

It does not mean what you (salaciously) think it means.

The ED with which I struggle is this one.

“I am not a member of a synagogue. I guess you’d say that I’m very Reformed.”

Let me list my “ouches” for you.

My first “ouch.”

Say whatever you want to about being unaffiliated with a synagogue. There might be many decent reasons why people are not affiliated (and I, and my colleagues, would like to show Jews how they can truly be part of the Jewish community).

But, that does not make you “Reformed.” It makes you unaffiliated with a synagogue.

My second “ouch”: Yes, that pesky “ed” at the end of Reform.

There is no such thing as “Reformed” Judaism, though there is certainly such a thing as the Reformed Church in America, which is a mainstream Protestant denomination.

Just recently, someone asked me if I was a “Reformed” rabbi.

My sarcastic answer: “No, I am afraid that I am still at it.”

The problem with “Reformed” is not only linguistic.

It is the air of finality. We have Judaism; we saw Judaism; we reformed it; we are done.

This misunderstands the very essence of Reform Judaism. Some fifty years ago, the late pundit, Leonard (“Leibel”) Fein wrote a study of Reform Jewish identity, that had been commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism).

Its title: “Reform is a Verb: Notes on Reform and Reforming Jews.”

Reform is a verb. It is an active process.

Reform Judaism began as Jews, eager to enter the modern world, began to reassess their relationship with the inherited tradition, and to create new understandings of Judaism.

That has always been a part of Reform Judaism — a constant act of re-thinking, re-imagining, and re-forming.

It is time to do it again.

It all started with a prominent lay leader in the Reform movement, Mark S. Anshan, from Toronto:

Just before the outbreak of COVID, following a conversation with one of my rabbis in Toronto, I began discussions with rabbinic friends. We were concerned about the state of Reform Judaism in North America, and the challenges facing each of us and our friends and colleagues regarding the central question of what it means to be a Reform Jew in these times.  Our discussions focused on our thoughts and concerns about the challenges facing Reform Judaism, identifying the key issues (from our perspective) and thinking about what could potentially be done to address the issues.

The conversation started with Rabbi Michael Stroh, founding rabbi and rabbi emeritus at Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, ON; and then spread to Rabbi Bennett Miller, rabbi emeritus of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ; Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City; myself, and then, Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, who had joined the staff at Stephen Wise. Then, it spread to younger colleagues, all over North America and beyond.

And then — cantors, educators, synagogue executives, youth, and lay leaders.

To learn more about this work, check out this podcast interview with Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, on Jewish Sacred Aging.

Thus was born RE-CHARGING Reform Judaism

“RE-CHARGING Reform Judaism” will take place at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, May 31-June 1, 2023. This conference will bring together Reform Jewish professionals and lay leaders to discuss the future of Reform Judaism in North America, and to debate the critical issues facing the Reform movement in North America.

What are some of those issues?

  • As we mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, we ask: How do we define and re-define our relationship with Israel, Zionism, and clal Yisrael? What does Jewish peoplehood mean for contemporary Reform Jews?
  • What does social justice mean in the Reform movement? How do we define and begin to resolve the tension between universalism and particularism? How do we simultaneously say: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
  • What does it mean to be a literate Reform Jew? Jewish education, of course — but towards what end?
  • Where is God in all this? How do we deal with questions of theology and Jewish practice?
  • How do we balance the disparate elements of living our lives as Reform Jews?

To address these questions, and more, numerous speakers will represent the gamut of the movement – rabbis, cantors, educators, temple executives, academics, lay leaders, activists, thought leaders.

In addition, the conference will hear from leaders of the movement’s three main institutions — the Union for Reform Judaism (Rabbi Rick Jacobs), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Dr. Andrew Rehfeld); and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Rabbi Hara Person).

As I write these words, registration for the conference is already over two hundred people. This will be one of the most broad-based gatherings of Reform Jews since COVID.

Some have noticed that this conference is a grassroots effort, and not officially organized by any of the arms of Reform Judaism.

This was neither an act of conscious rebellion, nor anti-establishment sentiment.

Rather, it was an enthusiastic response to this historical moment in the life of American Judaism.

It is also, historically, how Jews have done their heavy ideological lifting – as independent thinkers who could then create or re-create an ideology, and/or influence existing structures.

In that sense, this conference is a descendant of any number of Jewish conferences in the past: the conferences that helped shape early Reform Judaism in the 1800s; the first Zionist Congress in 1897; even, and especially, the gatherings at Yavneh that essentially created Judaism in the first place.

Again, Mark S. Anshan:

We hope that many others will join us in this journey as we – together – think about Reform Judaism that is a central part of our lives and what the future will be. We hope to reach a large number of Reform Jews who share our concerns and wish to participate in thinking about the future of Reform Judaism in North America and what it means to be a Reform Jew in these times.

You might ask: Why is this conference even necessary?

Some years ago, the modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said: “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”

Well, maybe not embarrassment. Rabbi Greenberg was describing the mitzvah of self-critique and self-correction. To the extent that Judaisms (a deliberate plural) have engaged in that hard work, they have flourished; when they don’t, they become stagnant.

What do I hope for regarding Reform Judaism?

I have invented a parlor game for today’s Reform Jews: Tell me why you are a Reform Jew – and you are not allowed to use any negative words in your answer.

Don’t tell me what Reform Judaism isn’t, or says you don’t have to do, or says you don’t have to believe. A negative Judaism is a thin gruel upon which to feast. A negative Judaism creates negative Jews.

We need a positive Judaism that will create positive Jews.

In his song “Prayer of the Secular,” the Israeli rock musician, Kobi Oz, looks at various Jewish religious communities, and he asks hard questions about them.

He looks at a Reform Jew, and he asks himself: “Does this Reform Jew have a different book, or does he simply have a book with a brand new cover?”

He is asking: Is Reform Judaism a brand new religion, utterly un-connected to Judaism’s past, and to the entire Jewish people?

Is it a different version of (whatever we imagine the “old religion” to have been), with a different presentation and packaging?

A combination of the two?

Something else entirely?

Join us at RE-CHARGING Reform.

We will want to hear your (even tentative) answers to those questions.

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