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Reform movement takes its pulse; restates its values

By Mike Wagenheim

Leaders of Reform Judaism 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.

From left: Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at the “Re-Charging Reform Judaism” conference held at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City from May 31 to June 1, 2023. (Lenny Media/RetroLenz Photography)

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, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism.

“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, said. “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 was pleased with the turnout of the conference, which drew participants from 25 states.

‘Concerned about the values of future leaders’

Rabbi Hara Person, CEO 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 toward a more religious, rather than cultural, emphasis will not alienate members of the movement, Person said.

“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 said 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 said.

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 said 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.

‘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 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, she said, Reform Jews ought to put Jewish values and mitzvot into practice, via kindness (chesed) and charity (tzedakah).

“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 said 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.

“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.”

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