The Reform Movement is at an inflection point, at least according to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch.
Hirsch is the senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, which hosted the Re-Charging Reform Judaism Convention from May 31-June 1. He delivered this message as part of his keynote address to the nearly 300 people in attendance.
He said there were three priorities that the movement needed to address at the convention:
• Repair the fraying commitment to Judaism and a growing distance between North American liberal Jews and Israel.
• Recharge and restore the optimal balance between universal values and Jewish peoplehood, and ensure that tikkun olam remains rooted in Klal Yisrael.
• Refresh religious commitments in a post-religious century.
Hirsch noted that in a 2020 Pew Research survey, 2.1 million Jewish adults identified with Reform Judaism, but only about a quarter, 555,000, are affiliated with a Reform congregation. Conservative and Orthodox denominations each have much larger affiliation rates, 56% and 93%, respectively.
Those numbers, along with growing fissures in the Reform movement are reasons for honest debates among its leaders, he said.
“We cannot pretend they do not exist for the sake of a false sense of unity,” Hirsch told the crowd. “Otherwise, the rifts that emerged between the anti-peoplehood, anti-Zionist Reform Jews of the first half of the 20th century, and the Zionists who were committed to Jewish particularism, will reopen in our movement with devastating consequences for 21st-century Reform synagogues. We must develop curricula from early childhood through advanced Jewish studies that instill a love of our people and a commitment to the Jewish state.”
Three local rabbis attended the convention: Rabbi Larry Freedman, director of the Joint Jewish Education Program of Pittsburgh, a multi-denominational Jewish complementary school for students in grades K-7; Temple B’nai Israel Rabbi Howie Stein; and Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman. One other local rabbi was tangentially connected to the convention: Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Gefsky Community Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, whose book “Judaism in a Digital Age” was referenced by at least one rabbi during public remarks. The book’s theses were similar in scope to several of the presentations given at the conference.
Fellman was invited onto the planning committee by a friend nearly four years ago. The idea for the convention, he said, began several years ago among various people who felt the movement had gotten off track.
“I think the letter written in 2021 by 99 rabbinic students in opposition to Israel really sparked people,” Fellman said, referencing a public letter signed by students enrolled in non-Orthodox rabbinical schools accusing Israel of apartheid and calling on American Jewish communities to hold Israel accountable for the “violent oppression of human rights.”
“I think we’ve lost in a real sense of what it means to be a Reform Zionist,” Fellman said.
And while Fellman is quick to say that he doesn’t always think Israel is right, he noted that it’s important for Jews to recognize the miracle of the country.
That concept was the focus of the conference’s first day.
The second day, he said, concentrated on universalism versus particularism, which grew from a conversation about how Reform Jews understand the role of tikkun olam.
“Tikkun olam has become a real centerpiece,” Fellman said, “but it has blurred too easily into what’s the Democratic Party’s policy position.”
Or, to put it another way, “Tikkun olam b’malchut Shaddai, to bring about God’s kingdom based in religious practice, not political practice or political theory,” he said.
For Fellman, that means putting social justice work back in the realm of Jewish identities and pulling it out of the universal political realm.
The challenge, he said, is determining how to make Reform Judaism speak to people, especially to unaffiliated liberal Jews.
“What does it mean to our actual lives? What does this mean to how I live day-to-day? How does this affect me? How does this affect how I raise my kids and interact with my neighbors, do business, donate to charities? That’s a huge place for Reform Judaism to thrive,” he said.
For Freedman, the largest threat to the Jewish people is apathy.
“It’s the shrug,” he said. “It’s not even disinterest. It’s just nothing compelling.”
That apathy, he noted, is apart from “being Jewish.” People like being Jewish, he said.
“They just don’t do anything Jewish.”
This indifference can be seen through Jewish spirituality. Freedman said Jews haven’t rejected the idea of spirituality: They enjoy things like yoga and mindful meditation. He said Jewish leaders aren’t bringing that out in Reform Judaism, though.
Picking up on a theme discussed in Schiff’s book — assimilation and the Reform movement — Freedman takes a long view.
“The advantage of the early reformers is that they were reacting against something,” he said. “When you’re in the midst of a revolution you feel pretty good about it. You identify with it. It’s very moving to be at the vanguard of a revolution. That touches your soul and nurtures your identity.”
What do you do when the revolution is over? he asked.
Switching metaphors, he posited that the Reform world is like jazz.
“We love the harmonies, and we love riffing, but we don’t know the melody very well,” he said.
Early Reform Judaism, Freedman said, allowed its members to be super-creative but today, all that remains are the harmonies. “How do we recapture the melody?” he asked. “That’s the tough part.”
B’nai Israel’s Stein said the conference was important because it reignited the idea of a relationship with Israel as well as building Jewish literacy to help live a life outside of the synagogue.
He felt the Israel portions of the convention were important but said the Reform movement has been consistent in its Zionism, even while raising awareness of some actions of the Israeli government it finds alarming — the treatment of minority groups, for example.
More important, he said, were conversations about how to stay connected to the broader Jewish community and not become isolated.
“And then, how do we reinvigorate the movement, whether it’s worship, ritual practice, education to keep us with the times, to stay relevant and on top of the skill we want Jews to have,” Stein said.
While the conference wasn’t sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, it was attended by URJ leadership, as well as leaders from the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Freedman isn’t waiting for the URJ to take up some of the issues discussed at the convention. He said that J-JEP is changing its curriculum to ensure its students understand how special Israel is. That includes discussing the diversity found in the country and including what it means not only to be a Jew, Muslim or Christian in the country but also what it means to be an Arab Jew.
“With the eighth grade, I want to dig deep into some of the problems,” Freedman said. “They should know about BDS and this anti-Israeli environment. They should know because … it’s an important part of the Israel story. If you don’t want Israel to be what the BDS folks make it out to be maybe we should do something about it.”
He said that if there is even a kernel of truth in the things said by anti-Israeli groups, there is only one answer: Communication.
“Let’s talk about it,” he said.
Fellman, too, is talking about these at Temple Sinai.
The rabbi said he’s already presented each of the three main themes of the conference at Shabbat services and has had conversations during morning minyans.
“So, we’ve already spent some time wrestling with them,” he said.
His hope is that issues like how the movement thinks and teaches about Israel and social justice, and how it can animate Jewish lives, become part of the national conversation.
“I have a hunch,” Fellman said, “that over the holidays these are going to be big topics that we are discussing.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.