Remaking the Reform Movement

Rabbi David Forman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, wrote a provocative op-ed in the Jerusalem Post arguing that the Reform movement needs to change if it hopes to engage Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany. While Chabad has emerged as a dominant Jewish force in many of these places, and other more far-flung communities, the Reform movement “has barely made a dent in the consciousness of Jews in these places.”

He doesn’t blame the the leadership of the international Reform movement (the World Union for Progressive Judaism) or the leadership of the North American Reform movement (the Union for Reform Judaism), but rather the constitutents of the North American Reform movement.

…while … the Union of Reform Judaism … has adopted WUPJ’s religious ideology, whereby both Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of Israel to Jewish theology should be primary forces in the life of a Jew, the URJ’s constituents have not. Preaching by North American Reform leaders about commitment to the Jewish people does not resonate with most US Jews.


He blames the lack of focus on international Jewish peoplehood on three causes:

  1. intermarriage
  2. a focus on spirituality over intellectualism
  3. a negative attitude towards Israel because it has not recognized Reform as a legitimate religious movement

Intermarriage and the focus on spirituality are intertwined in his mind. Because claims of peoplehood may ring hollow, or even offensive, to people in interfaith relationships, he says that the Reform movement in North America has become primarily a “faith-based religion.” Further, in an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of American evangelical Christianity, Reform synagogues have focused on personal spirituality over intellectualism and communal prayer.

If Reform members in the U.S. change their priorities to show greater attachment to international Jewish peoplehood, he says, more money will be spent on sending Reform emissaries to all those communities that Chabad now dominates.

His conclusion is not wrong, but it seems to me he’s willing to gamble with the Reform movement’s greatest strength–its growing membership and presence in the U.S.–for an uncertain outcome. If the members of Reform synagogues don’t quite see eye-to-eye with their leaders or the leaders of the international Reform movement, it’s for a good reason. Jews in the U.S. are attracted to Reform synagogues because of the movement’s open attitude towards intermarried couples and because of synagogues’ attention to spiritual needs. In an assimilated, atomized society, these are more pressing needs for most Jews than a notion of attachment to international Jewish peoplehood.

I also think he casts the Reform movement in the U.S. in an overly uncharitable light. Yes, Reform synagogues may de-emphasize peoplehood somewhat and may focus on spiritualism over intellectualism, but their focus on social action is at least as strong as their focus on spirituality. And the focus on spirituality can be considered a form of marketing, much the same way it is in evangelical Christian movements and even in Chabad. You grab people with a promise to fulfill their spiritual needs and as they get further engaged, they will want to do more sophisticated study–and probably feel a greater attachment to the Jewish people. And it’s not like Reform synagogues don’t push trips to Israel as much as the other progressive movements. I would guess that most Reform Jews in the U.S. are totally ignorant Israel’s position on Reform Jewry.

I wonder if Reform’s lack of success in the rest of the world is more due to a lack of international understanding than due to a lack of American support. In Israel, for example, there are only three stops on the religious spectrum: secular, religious or haredi. Either you’re secular or you’re religious. If you’re secular, you attend synagogue for holidays and life cycle events and keep up the illusion that you’re as observant as religious Jews–and on the following day you return to your regular life.

In post-communist Russia, too, I’m not sure if people’s notions of religion are sophisticated enough yet to understand the idea of a progressive Judaism. In communist Russia, you were persecuted for religious practice so only the most devout people ended up practicing their religion. I imagine that has created a gap between secular life and religion in many people’s minds that can’t be reconciled. Chabad, on the other hand, offers a wholly transformative brand of traditional Judaism, that probably fits in with people’s faint memories of what shtetl Jews looked and acted like. And it’s hardly fair to compare the success of any movement with Chabad–Chabad was an outreach organization before it was a religious movement, whereas the other movements were around for decades, if not centuries, before outreach became a central concern.

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