We asked hard questions about Reform Judaism

Three hundred Reform Jews; three hundred fifty Reform Jewish opinions. It worked.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch opens the Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference, New York, May 31, 2023. Credit: Lenny Medina/RetroLenz Photography

(RNS) — “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”

Those were the words of the modern Orthodox rabbi Yitz Greenberg.

Well, maybe not embarrassment. Rabbi Greenberg was describing the mitzvah of self-critique and self-correction.

Several years ago, a bunch of us — Reform Jewish professionals and lay leaders — started a conversation. We were concerned about Reform Judaism, not only the shrinking of many congregations and the challenges facing the Reform movement but the present and future of Reform Jewish ideology.

We were interested in self-critique and self-correction.

The result: the “Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism” conference, held this past week at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York.

With 300 people in attendance, “Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism” was the largest in-person gathering of adult Reform Jews, with the exception of professional conferences, since 2020. Reform Jews from all over the world, including our movement’s professional leaders, were there.

By the way, this was all a grassroots effort — like many good Jewish things.

In his keynote, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and one of the key planners of the conference, underscored those concerns:

What brings most of us here and now is a sense of urgency that we are at an inflection point in the history of North American Jewry and the Reform movement. That fundamental and rapid changes are unfolding before our eyes that have already and will increasingly challenge our vitality and well-being.

In a series of plenary sessions, workshops and the inevitable hallway discussions, we talked. We debated. We opened our hearts, our minds and our souls. And yes, thanks to the talented cantors and musicians in attendance, we prayed and we sang.

Had you been a fly on the walls of the Free Synagogue, this is what you would have heard from those Reform Jewish leaders of all ages, from different places, who had gathered there.

  • Our connections with Israel seem to be weaker. We are not communicating our love of Israel, nor our commitment to Zionism effectively. Too often, we cast our love in words of rebuke. As someone asked: “Is Israel the ideal state, or the state of ideals?”
  • Many are worried about antisemitism — emanating both from the right and from the left (where it often presents as anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism — to be distinguished from your garden-variety critique of Israeli policies and politicians).
  • Many are concerned about our social justice work, which is one of Reform Judaism’s unique brands. How do we restore the balance between particularism (our focus on specifically Jewish issues) and universalism (our focus on broader social issues)? There is a sense that Reform Judaism’s positions cannot simply echo the positions of the liberal end of the Democratic Party.
  • We have an eye on demographics. Many synagogues are shrinking, and not only because of COVID-19. There is a frustrating paradox: While a large number of American Jews identify as Reform, there are only 550,000 synagogue-affiliated Reform Jews in the United States.
  • Many are worried our liturgy and worship services seem stale, and our theology has not responded to new realities and challenges. “Do we clergy really believe the words of the liturgy that we are saying?” asked Rabbi Brian Stoller, of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. In his presentation, Lawrence Hoffman, the veteran liturgical theologian of liberal Judaism, reminded us that “Judaism is a conversation” and “synagogues are the keepers of the Jewish conversation.” (Best line from Hoffman — the one that moved me the most — “I do not pray because God is real; God is real because I pray.”)
  • Jewish education and youth programs face new challenges. We are worried about the future of Jewish literacy and competence. There has been a 40% decline in attendance in Jewish supplementary schools. Rabbi Dan Levin, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, said the rise of the sovereign self and individualism had produced “a thin Judaism.” Pushing back against hundreds of middle-class parents and their demands for an “easy” Judaism, he stated unequivocally: “Judaism is a series of inconveniences.”

Most significantly: We heard ideas we would normally not hear in Reform Jewish spaces — ideas that are countercultural and even center-right.

  • Rachel Fish is the co-founder of Boundless, a think-action tank that seeks to revitalize Israel education and take bold collective action to combat Jew hatred. She discussed current intellectual trends in American academia — Orientalism, post-modernism, the Marxist critique of power, post-colonialism and identity politics — and how those ideas affect conversations about social justice, Israel and antisemitism.
  • “We need robust debate and diversity on the social justice issues that confront us, and those ideas must be grounded in Jewish ideals and texts. The task for our movement is not only tikkun olam; we need tikkun atzmi as well — repairing our own inner lives.” Those were the words of Rabbi David Woznica of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, who had been the founding director of the 92nd St Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.
  • Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh is a Reform rabbi of Persian background who serves as American Jewish University’s vice president for Jewish engagement. She spoke of how, during her rabbinical education, some of her future colleagues snickered at her proclamations of faith — as if those proclamations were a primitive embarrassment. She reminded the conference: “Klal Yisrael means traversing different Judaisms from around the world,” as well as a statement that should never need to be defended: “Israel is our home and Israel saves lives.”

So, yes, powerful, not-often-articulated ideals. In plenary sessions and breakout groups, we all heard controversial statements. We listened with respect and we conducted our discussions with intellectual curiosity and even humor. No one got “canceled.” Every idea was welcome and had a place at the table.

Want more? Check out the conference videos and use them as educational tools.

In the words of Mark Anshan of Toronto, a leader of Reform Judaism and one of the conference planners:

From the keynote presentations at the plenary sessions to the twenty-one workshops, we were able to analyze and begin to delve deeply into understanding the challenges and setting the stage for the next stage of our work — undertaking thoughtful and creative ways to address the question “what to do” — through a variety of initiatives including seminars, conferences. The publication of the conference proceedings will provide the needed core materials to advance those discussions, leading to recommendations to address the identified challenges. The positive response from our participants indicates clearly the desire to be involved in these conversations and the willingness to participate further in the work to follow.

Several things are clear.

  • There is a hunger for Reform Jews — all Jews, actually — to be together, in real time and not as postage-stamp pictures on Zoom. There is a hunger to be in conversation, to study and to even engage in serious disagreement on key issues. The hunger was more palpable than any of us had realized.
  • These conversations — about Israel and Zionism, social justice and theology — will not only happen in “official” national gatherings and conferences. More and more, they will happen on the grassroots level and in local settings.
  • We need more gatherings like this, and we need to reach out, vigorously, to younger Jews and engage them in these big questions. Reform Jews need local conversations on these topics — synagogue by synagogue.

In my own summation of the first day of the conference, and seeking inspiration and challenge regarding the future of Reform Judaism, I turned to two Israelis, whose surnames are both, coincidentally, Oz.

First, the rock musician Kobi Oz. In his song “Tefilat Ha-Chiloni” (“Prayer of the Secular”), he asks hard questions about various Jewish religious communities.

He looks at a Reform Jew and 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 disconnected from the Jewish past? Or, 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?

Second: the late Israeli author Amos Oz.

Some years ago, he wrote: “We have inherited a houseful of furniture from the Jewish past. We must decide what goes into the living room, and what goes into the attic.”

I would amend Oz’s statement: The act of furniture inheritance might itself be a one-time occurrence.

But, the act of furniture rearranging is perpetual. What one generation thought should be in the attic (kashrut, Shabbat, Zionism) a subsequent generation might very well put into the living room.

It is clear the next generation of Reform Jews will need to do two things (at least): figure out what the “book” of Reform Judaism needs to be, and where to put all that furniture from the Jewish past.

It is a worthy project.

More than this: If Reform Judaism is to thrive, then it is absolutely necessary.

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