Body Building

Rabbi Barnett Brickner sits, frowning in his study at Temple Judea of Massapequa, N.Y. He’s been asked his opinion of the proposed new “platform” of Reform Judaism, which comes up for a vote next May at a national convention of Reform rabbis. The platform says that the Torah was revealed by God at Sinai and that its commandments “call to us even though we live in modernity.” It urges Reform Jews to pray daily, to make the Sabbath a holy day, to follow dietary laws, and more. Brickner is alarmed.

“As much as I believe in it, I’m not sure it’s the right move for Reform Judaism,” says Brickner, son and grandson of Reform rabbis. “I’m concerned that it’s going to throw a spotlight on the gulf between where the rabbinic community is and where the congregants are.”

Massapequa is as good a place as any to seek the pulse of today’s congregants. A Long Island suburb 25 miles east of New York City, it’s a sea of 1950s-era tract houses, neither affluent nor poor, best known as the home of Jerry Seinfeld and Joey Buttafuoco. Jews and Italians are so intermingled that locals sometimes call it Matza-Pizza.

Temple Judea sits, improbably, on a leafy thoroughfare called Jerusalem Avenue. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the curbside message board announced the week’s bar mitzvah: Sean Donohue.

That’s just Brickner’s point. “My God,” he says, “when I’ve got a bar mitzvah boy named Donohue, and a McCurdy coming up, do you think they’re going to seriously consider kashrut?”

Similar reactions have been surfacing nationwide since the platform, “Ten Principles for Reform Judaism,” was published in Reform Judaism magazine and mailed to every Reform family in August. Rabbis are discussing it in sermons, teaching it in adult-ed classes, presenting it at board meetings. Reactions are decidedly mixed.

“I am not hearing a groundswell of, ‘Oh boy, this is just what the Reform movement needed,'” says Rabbi Michael Zedek of Congregation B’nai Jehuda in Kansas City. “It can be a healthy catalyst for those who are searching for holiness in their lives. But that’s far from everybody. Much of the comment I’ve heard is along the lines of, ‘What in the world are we becoming, some kind of Orthodoxy?'”

Some congregants are less delicate. “These people apparently haven’t read the demographic data in this country,” says lifelong Reform congregant Sylvia Leff, a retired academic in Walnut Creek, Calif. “I think they are absolutely out of their minds.”

The first official statement of Reform Judaism, adopted in Pittsburgh in 1885, declared much of Jewish tradition obsolete, including kosher laws and restoring Zion. The second, in 1937, embraced Zionism but made few other changes in substance. The third, the Centennial Statement of 1976, was more traditionalist in tone, but was never adopted as a formal platform.

The new platform, by contrast, is deeply spiritual, sometimes downright mystical. An early draft said that, while “Reform Judaism’s founders” judged Jewish belief by standards of modernity, “we proclaim that the mitzvot of the Torah are our center, and Judaism is the scale by which we shall judge the modern world.”

The platform’s author, Rabbi Richard Levy of Los Angeles, outgoing president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, is quick to note that the document is still being rewritten. Clearly stung by the negative reactions, he recently took a new draft — his fourth — before the Reform rabbinical group’s board. The latest version drops the attack on modernity and tones the kosher business way down.

“The Reform movement operates a big tent,” Levy says. “There are many seekers in the movement. And there are many people who are fulfilled where they are. The movement needs to reflect and embrace both.”

Critics say that Levy simply doesn’t know Reform laity. A career Hillel rabbi, he’s spent his life working with students in search, not surly bar mitzvahs. “He’s way to the right of where the movement is,” says one colleague.

Levy insists that the movement is moving in the same direction he is. He points to the growing popularity of head coverings, Hebrew and spirituality retreats. Still, he’s listening and rewriting. “This is a work in progress,” he says.

To Levy’s backers, that’s the best part of it. “I find the whole process extremely exciting,” says Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. “What’s stunning is that people are actually choosing to talk about what it means to be a Reform Jew.”

Geller admits that many congregants are “troubled by their first impression” of the platform, but most warm up once they’ve studied it. “This has been presented in a way that seems to imply there will no longer be individual choice,” she says. “That’s not what Richard is saying. What will be expected of people is serious, informed engagement. I think that serious Reform Jews are ready for that.”

At Beth Torah, a Reform temple in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, a group of congregants is enthusiastically studying the principles in a weekly class with the rabbi. The congregation even drafted its own “covenant,” which reads a lot like Levy’s platform. “People want more out of their religion than just intellectual discussion,” says congregant Robin Silverman, who chaired the drafting committee. “Reform Jews don’t like being told what to do, but it’s good to consider things.”

The question is, what becomes of congregants who don’t take the classes? How many will read the principles and just walk away?

Too many, says Sylvia Leff, the California congregant. “If these Reform rabbis are really concerned about enlarging their constituency and not just complaining about the number of unaffiliated Jews, this is not the way to do it.”

Back in Massapequa, though, Sean Donohue’s mother, Janet, says that the furor doesn’t affect her. Sean’s bar mitzvah, now past, was a huge success. Her relatives, Jewish and non-Jewish, were “overwhelmed at the beauty of the service,” and she wouldn’t change it. “I like it right where it is,” she says.

On the other hand, changes from the top won’t deter her. “My younger son, Troy, is in his second year of Hebrew school now,” she says, and — platform or no platform — “he’ll be called to the Torah soon.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.