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Reform Approaches Convention with Mix of Tradition and Creativity

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit

NEW YORK, Oct. 28 (JTA)--A little Hawaiian girl, a rabbi and his male companion, and a young black and white couple with their toddler all share more than a smile. They're among the snapshots that grace a poster called "The face of Reform Judaism," printed to mark the 25th anniversary of outreach efforts by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement's synagogue arm.  

The first movement to aggressively and officially reach out to unaffiliated Jews and their non-Jewish family members, the Reform movement will open its 67th biennial convention in Minneapolis next week as North America's largest Jewish denomination.

The movement claims 1.5 million members in 900 North American synagogues. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, of the 40 percent of 4.3 million American Jews affiliated with synagogues, the largest group--39 percent--is Reform.

Heading into what should be one of the year's largest Jewish gatherings--some 5,000 people are expected to attend--Reform officials plan to maintain the momentum on outreach with such longtime efforts as the "Taste of Judaism" program, a national series of free introductory classes on Judaism.

"Our challenge going forward is to make sure that every person that comes forward to the movement is welcomed and made to feel like they have a place," says Dru Greenwood, director of UAHC's department of outreach and synagogue community. "Outreach and inclusion is a core principle of Reform Judaism."

Yet some outside the movement wonder what the numbers in the new population survey mean for the movement.

"I think they could come out of the NJPS with a sense of triumphalism, because of the numbers," says Rela Mintz Geffen, co-author of a book on the Conservative movement and president of the non-denominational Baltimore Hebrew University.

But, she says, the movement should more closely explore the religious and social dynamics behind Reform Judaism.

"Numbers aren't everything," she says. "How many are Reform from birth? How many left the Conservative movement? How many are interfaith?"

Perhaps one of the most contentious aspects of Reform outreach has been the success in including the non-Jewish spouses and family members of Jews. Many agree that more interfaith couples affiliate with Reform than with other movements, but it is unclear just how many there are.

Some predicted that bringing non-Jews into the movement would "water down Judaism," Greenwood says, but "in many ways what's happened in outreach is counterintuitive." Many non-Jews have become active in their synagogues, participating in adult Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah programs, and "work to lovingly hand Jewish traditions to their children," she says. "It's inspiring."

The recent population survey found that the proportion of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews rose to 33 percent from 28 percent in 1990. But scholars debate how important the finding is--and it's still far below the 96 percent of Jews married to Jews who raise their children as Jews.

The study also found an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, up 4 percent from the last survey a decade earlier.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, UAHC's president, bristles at questions about the character of Reform congregants.

"It's outrageous and stupid," he says. "Intermarriage is a reality," and no Jewish group "has found a way to prevent it. If the intention is to have Jewish homes, it makes no sense to write off those people who are intermarried. We're proud we're a movement that embraces these families."

The movement faces other challenges as well. In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis signaled a new, more traditional direction for Reform, calling for more Hebrew prayer and greater tradition in congregational life. That declaration, called the "Pittsburgh Platform" was a major break from the original vision the movement's founders enumerated in the 1885 "Pittsburgh Platform."

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the movement's seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York, said the new "Pittsburgh Platform" encouraged Reform Jews to take Judaism "more seriously."

"Reform has always stood between tradition and modernity, and the challenge in creating an authentic Judaism is even greater" given those competing forces, he says.

Reform has evolved from the start of the 20th century, when it was primarily a movement of assimilated German Jews who held church-like services led by choirs and featuring largely passive congregants. For decades the movement has stressed creativity and participation. Perhaps the latest sign of that is coming soon in the University Synagogue in the upscale Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

The 800-family congregation is set to stage its first "Great Shabbos," a lavish musical production featuring electric guitars, keyboards, saxophone, drums and a teen choir--not to mention the rabbi and cantor.

"Music touches the heart and compassionately engages the soul--and we need to be touching people's lives every way we can and show them how important Judaism is," Rabbi Morley Feinstein says.

Sally Priesand, rabbi of the 360-member Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., says the movement faces longtime hurdles such as "talmud Torah and tikkun olam"--educating Jews about Judaism and teaching them how to improve the world.

"I think people think of doing things for the synagogue as volunteerism," she says. "But the synagogue is the storehouse of the Jewish spirit."

Priesand broke the gender barrier for the Reform and other liberal movements when she was ordained as the nation's first woman rabbi nearly 30 years ago. Since then, doors have opened to other types of Jews.

Last year, HUC admitted its first transgendered person--a woman becoming a man--and the school now includes a woman who could become the movement's first black rabbi.

In part to reflect the changing nature of the movement, the UAHC is likely to change its name at the biennial to the Union for Reform Judaism.

With its use of the term "American Hebrew," the UAHC reflected an old "apologetic" era, Yoffie says, but now the movement needs a strong and memorable moniker. "We're not Hebrews, we're Jews," he says. "We need an affirming, proud name. 

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Joe Berkofsky

Joe Berkofsky, a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers education, Jewish identity issues, philanthropy and the religious movements. He has been a reporter for the technology network TechTV in San Francisco, daily newspapers in the greater Boston area, and a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Report, The San Jose Mercury News, B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly and other publications. He was also an editor at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and at other weekly newspapers.

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