Leaders of Reform Judaism—far and away the largest U.S. Jewish movement—are sounding the alarm on several issues, including the movement’s growing distance from Israel and the need to prioritize its young members’ Jewish education more deeply.
Some 300 rabbis and lay and communal leaders gathered for two days earlier this month at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue for a conference called “Re-Charging Reform Judaism.”
The Reform movement has been at “inflection points pretty much throughout our 150 years” in North America, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, told JNS.
“We’re just at a moment where we want to strengthen all the bonds that hold us together that hold the American Jewish community to Israel, that hold us all together here in North America,” said Jacobs, “and to think about the big questions: Who we are as a global Jewish people and what does it mean to be Reform.”
Issues of concern
The conference came amid lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues, as North American liberal Jews are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel and as a general sense of Jewish peoplehood is fraying.
It also came as many liberal Jews grapple with rooting social justice (tikkun olam), “repairing the world,” in Jewish particularism and tradition, coupled with trying to better prioritize Jewish education.
Dozens of people spoke at the conference, in which breakout sessions were limited to 30 people, to facilitate direct engagement and debate.
“A critical issue for us in terms of the future of the synagogues is: What is our theology?” Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Wise Free Synagogue, told JNS. “What is our religious practice and belief and rituals that are suitable and recharged and refreshed for the 21st century.”
The conference came together fairly quickly—in about a month—which Hirsch said reflected the moment’s urgency. He told JNS that he was pleased with the turnout of the conference, which drew participants from 25 states.
“When we first began to brainstorm about a possible conference, we thought that maybe several dozen might show up. And we were inundated with people who wanted to come, who dropped everything for two days,” he said.
“The fact that there are so many people here itself is one objective of the conference, which is to broadcast our determination to project the values that we’re discussing here to the broad Reform movement,” he said.
‘Concerned about the values of future leaders’
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, was one of the speakers who offered a response to the audience at the conclusion of the conference.
Moving towards a more religious, rather than cultural, emphasis will not alienate members of the movement, Person told JNS.
“What we offer is that ‘big tent’ idea,” she said. “The way that one person connects is maybe through cooking for the homeless shelter, the way another person can act is by going to services and the way another person connects is by studying Torah on Shabbat morning, and they’re all good. They’re all part of what it is to be part of our community.”
Hirsch, the senior rabbi of the Wise Free Synagogue, told JNS that even some in the Orthodox Jewish world have embraced the modernity that the Reform movement champions. The challenge, he thinks, is to sustain and deepen Jewish understanding and values, and “to remain rooted in the theology and the practicality of the centrality of the Jewish people.”
“That’s a big challenge for us because we can’t lose the anchoring in the Jewish experience in our desire to embrace the broader world,” he told JNS.
Younger generations appear less connected to Israel. “We’re quite concerned about the values of the future leaders, clergy and teachers in the Reform Movement, and we want to make sure that Israel is centered and Zionism is a central value,” he said.
He dismissed “some media attention” that might suggest that there are divisions on Israel in the movement.
“Most of the Reform movement believes what we believe, which is a deep loyalty to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people, and that our qualifications and our values are rooted in Zionism,” Hirsch said. “This is a Zionist movement.”
Jacobs, the Union of Reform Judaism president, told JNS that the Reform movement’s commitment to Israel transcends politics.
“People are concerned that there may be ties that are fraying, and my feeling is our connection to Israel isn’t about who’s in power. It’s not about the political leader or the political party or even an individual policy. It’s about connecting to the values and the people of Israel,” he said.
“We want to make sure that we’re on the surest foundation, so even if a government comes into power that we can’t relate to, that should not sever our deep connection and commitment to the State of Israel,” he said.
A new Amplify Israel Rabbinic Fellowship, which was announced at the conference, funds “an intense year in Israel studies, Zionist studies, studies about the history of the Reform movement and its relationship with Zionism and with Jewish peoplehood, capped by a seven-day Israel experience” for up to 10, newly ordained Reform rabbis, Hirsch told JNS.
“We’re supported by some major communal philanthropies, and we’re very proud of that because we believe that it’s important to intensify and augment the learning and the experiences that younger rabbis received in rabbinical school and then to continue that on during their rabbinical performance,” he added.
‘The centrality of Jewish people’
The concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” which has some basis in Jewish mystical thought and which derives from a reference to “repairing the world with Divine majesty” in the Aleinu prayer, is often cited on Jewish organizational mission statements, particularly those on the left.
The concept, which critics say often wraps left-wing social-justice politics in a thin veil of Judaism, was the subject of a lively debate at the conference. Attendees overwhelmingly disagreed with that characterization but said that tikkun olam should be better rooted in traditional Jewish practice.
“It’s not about tikkun olam for the sake of tikkun olam,” noted Person.
Instead, Reform Jews ought to put Jewish values and mitzvot into practice, via kindness (chesed) and charity (tzedakah), according to the rabbi.
“It’s for the sake of living out what we believe as Reform Jews and what we believe comes directly out of our texts, out of Torah, out of the whole Jewish library of texts and writing,” she said.
Social justice, which has existed since the origins of Judaism, should be important to all Jews, according to Hirsch. But he told JNS that some proponents and critics have twisted it.
“The idea that you can only care about fellow Jews and you don’t care about the world at large is actually a distortion and misunderstanding of Judaism,” he said. “At the same time, prophetic values—values of social justice, that seek to repair the world without being anchored and more in the experiences of the Jewish people—is itself a distortion of the prophetic value.”
Reform Jews must understand that the two flow out of each other, he said: “Social justice and universal impulses need to be grounded in the centrality of Jewish people.”
Jacobs and other attendees pointed out that the conference sought to recharge but not reboot the Reform movement, nor retreat from its foundations.
“If you’re not always checking your health and your spiritual well-being, you’re not paying attention,” he told JNS.
The rabbi noted that the rabbis of the Talmud debated incessantly, and modern Jews must do the same, respectfully.
“However strong we are, however large we are, we want more,” he stated. “We want it to be even more engaging, broader, more supported. That’s our job as Jewish leaders.”