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Reform Judaism has always honored the past while anticipating the future. It emerged in
Europe at the turn of the 19th century—some say as a protest movement, others say as a
response to social and political changes. In any event, it proceeded from dissatisfaction
with the status quo and set Judaism on a new course.
What was later to become the Reform Movement began in, of all places, a Jewish school
in Seesen, Germany. Israel Jacobson (who founded the school in 1801) had the temerity
to accept girls and the audacity to seat them in the same room as the boys! His ideas
about curriculum were perhaps even more radical: schooling included religious studies,
math, science, and the German language—a seminal break with the then traditional
yeshiva education. Further shocking tradition-minded Jews, he even opened up the
classroom to non-Jewish children.
That a new religious movement began in a school was one thing. That it began with
laymen, rather than rabbis, was another. But the changes in the school’s prayer-place
were the ones that set the course for what would become Reform Judaism some 40 years
later. Jacobson created a worship service which followed Western models of decorum,
was far briefer than the traditional Jewish service, contained prayers translated into
German, featured a mixed male-female choir, was embellished by organ accompaniment,
and allowed men and women to sit together—altogether new ways of thinking about the
Jewish religion.
Reform has been changing ever since.
Then and now, the practical challenges remain the same: to identify the essence of
Judaism and to preserve its beliefs and practices in ways that accommodate new and
changing realities.
We continue to do this to this day, individually as Reform Jews and collectively as a
How can Reform congregations, in particular, forge paths to change? In The Chronicle
( 61/EducationalStrategies.pdf) HUC-JIR, Los
Angeles faculty member Dr. Isa Aron writes of 4 capacities that, she says, are the
cornerstones to congregational self-renewal:
• Thinking back and thinking ahead: being both reflective and proactive
• Enabling leaders to follow, and followers to lead: practicing collaborative leadership
• Seeing both the forest and the trees: creating community among diverse individuals
• Honoring the past while anticipating the future: balancing tradition and change.
Seventeen years ago, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler wrote: “The
deepening of literacy and spiritual vision within our movement should produce a more
powerful tie among us, an increased sense of kinship with the Judaic past, and a great
excitement regarding our future. As our prayers become more unified and our religious
dialogue intensifies, I believe that our evolutionary form of Judaism shall surpass a
grasping Orthodoxy in its claim to ‘authenticity.’”
We welcome your participation in this ongoing religious conversation about the future of
our Movement so that we will continue to go from strength to strength.
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. How does Reform’s past shape its future?
2. What might be the advantages of creating a “self-renewing congregation”? How close
does your congregation come to Isa Aron’s description? Where might it fall short? What
might be done to help?
3. Do you agree with Rabbi Alexander Schindler that Reform is an “evolutionary form of
4. Do you think that Reform Judaism is, or should be, in competition with other
expressions of Judaism, such as the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist
5. What can we do as a Movement to strengthen Reform Judaism?
6. What can you do—as part of a congregation and as an individual—to strengthen
Reform Judaism and help secure its future?
Section X Question for Discussion
As you look to the future, what do you believe are the most significant challenges we
face, as a Movement and as North American Jews?
1. Jewish Survival: Joan Pines sees a need for more innovation, spiritual seeking,
creativity, and community in order to combat pressures to assimilate. Ellen Morrow
worries that most members of her extended family are married out of the faith; even her
children, raised in her actively Jewish home, observe Judaism only when they return
home. Steve Arnold believes “maintaining relevance” is a significant challenge. Barbara
K. Shuman’s children are “not interested in the inherited institutions of their parents”; she
wants Reform “to experiment with different models.”
Reform congregations are trying different approaches here—for example, drop-in coffee
centers, parenting groups, or other parent-centered programs that increase the chances
that they will remain involved in temple life as their children grow older. To learn from
the successful experiences of Reform synagogues, visit the Union’s Membership website,
Discuss ways your congregation is responding—or should be responding-–to these
challenges. How is your synagogue trying to attract and hold members who do not
respond to more established forms of worship and study? What other experiments would
you encourage your congregation to inaugurate?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 ways Judaism is attractive to you and 6
changes that might make it more attractive.
2. Build Community: Dawn Mollenkopf expresses concern about the separations among
diverse groups of Jews and looks “to solidify that sense of belonging in a way that makes
all Jews feel that being Jewish is meaningful.” Dana Jennings wants all Jews to “set aside
their petty grievances…and simply embrace their brothers and sisters in Jewishness.”
How would you assess the sense of community in your congregation? What barriers
might exist? What actions might succeed in bringing diverse groups of Jews closer
3. More Action: Martin Shapiro wants to see more social action, study, and community
building in synagogue, and less “bending our knees and bowing,” “dressing and
undressing Torahs.” Do you belief ritual in Jewish life interferes with or supports social
action? What can you do to increase your congregation’s emphasis on action without
diminishing the role of ritual?
4. The Cost of Being Jewish: Elise Silverfield points to the high cost of bar/bat mitzvah
celebrations, fueled by “what’s expected,” and wonders whether her “son can have a
sense of Jewish community…without the expensive price tag.” Laurence Kaufman
worries about the “heavy expenses” of Jewish education, camp, synagogue affiliation,
and more; he wants Judaism “to be affordable.” Martin Shapiro thinks the congregational
dues structure effectively drives people away from membership. What is your
congregation doing to welcome membership among those not able to meet the dues
scale? Is that an important goal? How can a congregation balance “below scale”
membership with “meeting the budget?” What’s the alternative? How might you help
reduce expectations for lavish bar/bat mitzvah celebrations?
For religious school and youth groups: Do you support lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties?
5. Modernize Jewish Texts: Steve Arnold wants to emphasize how Torah holds modern
lessons to attract Jews “who want to maintain their Jewish identity without the religion
part.” Is this is a good idea? Explain.
William Berkson proposes that Reform synagogues everywhere study and discuss Torah
and Talmud, synthesizing Jewish values and the insights of modern psychology to create
a “New Talmud” that focuses on personal ethics and promotes harmonious relationships.
Do you believe Jews have everything we need from existing texts? Is it time for the
Reform Movement to create a “New Talmud”? If yes, what do you think of Berkson’s
vision for it? What’s yours?
6. Imagine the Future: In your opinion, what are the most important challenges we face
as modern Jews today? Does Reform Judaism need “reforming”? Does Judaism need
further reforming? If so, in what ways? How can you be part of the process?
Families: Discuss the most important challenges that
you face as Jews and what steps can be taken to meet these challenges.
Congregations/families/youth groups: Stretch your imagination. What is your vision for
the Jewish people in your time? What is your vision for future Jewish generations? What
role can you play in realizing these dreams? n