Reform rabbis install first openly gay president, Denise Eger


The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform movement, installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger.

Eger, 55, was inaugurated on Monday morning at the CCAR’s annual convention in Philadelphia. She succeeds Richard Block.

The founding rabbi of the Kol Ami synagogue in Los Angeles, Eger has been on the CCAR board of trustees for four years. She was ordained in 1988.

Eger came out in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1990. She is engaged to be married.

She also was the first female and openly gay president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and the founding president of the Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Interfaith Clergy Association. Eger officiated at the first legal wedding in California for a lesbian couple, the Philadelphia Daily News reported.

Monday’s inauguration was scheduled to be followed by a session celebrating the 25th anniversary of CCAR’s Resolution on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, which called for the ordination of gay rabbis.

Rabbi Denise Eger seeks to open doors wider to all Jews


What does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love compassion and walk humbly with your God.

“It’s on my wall,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, pointing to the spot in her office where her favorite Bible verse is written (also transcribed on her tallit). “Prophet Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8. It’s really a reminder of what our human tasks are.”

They are tasks she will have a chance to tackle on a large scale as the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America. When she takes the helm of the 126-year-old Reform organization March 16, at age 55, she will be its third woman and first openly gay leader.

Meeting in the LGBT-friendly West Hollywood synagogue Kol Ami, of which she is the founding rabbi, Eger — a longtime activist on many fronts — said her goal as CCAR president is to make Judaism bigger, more accepting and more inviting. 

“We have to open the doors wider, and open the tent wider, and open the synagogue wider, and open the JCC wider, and open the Federations wider. So that’s my goal to help Jews become more Jewish  —  to open the doors wider,” she said.

Rabbi Steve Fox, CCAR chief executive, said he’s “extremely excited” about Eger becoming president, particularly because she’s been a strong leader and crusader for human rights.

“It’s also very meaningful for the rabbinate that we have elected our first openly LGBT president at a very historic moment in time,” he said.

In 1977, CCAR passed its first resolution calling for human rights for homosexuals, demanding the end to discrimination against members of the LGBT community. It later advocated for the ordination of openly gay rabbis and affirmed the right of a rabbi to officiate at an LGBT wedding. 

But sexual orientation isn’t all that defines Eger. Talking to her is like talking with a family friend — easy and relaxed. Every so often, in a moment of inspired enthusiasm, her face lights up and she speaks passionately, like she’s in the midst of reciting the best part of a sermon. 

In typical rabbinical fashion, Eger speaks in call-and-response, repeating the questions that are asked to her before responding. Asked which biblical character she’d like to spend time with, she throws the question right back at you before answering decidedly: Deborah.

“You know, she’s pretty cool,” Eger said. “She sat under this palm tree and people came to her for advice and counsel and, supposedly like the oracle of Delphi, she gave pronouncements. But she was also a general, so here was this really gutsy woman in a time when women did not do those kinds of things, and she had her finger on the pulse of the nation.

“And I think it’d be really cool to sit under her palm tree with her, have a little cafe au lait or a cup of tea and hear her reflect on her take on leadership … and on the role of women.”

Eger grew up in Memphis, Tenn., in a close-knit Southern Jewish community, which was smaller and less fragmented than the one she later found in Los Angeles.

“The South is a great place to be Jewish, because it’s a tight Jewish community,” she said. “Whether you’re in Atlanta or Memphis or Nashville or New Orleans, the Jewish community is very interrelated, very family.”

With the South as her backdrop, Eger was raised in the belly of human-rights activism. She remembers driving her mother to work on Beale Street, where her cousins owned a business, and sitting outside of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

“Now it’s the National Civil Rights Museum, but at the time, it was a crumbling slum mess. It had fallen into disrepair and disarray in a terrible neighborhood in town — urban blight — and I used to sit there and think, ‘How could this great man have been assassinated? What in our country could lead to such horror?’ And really that inspired me along the way to say that my Judaism was going to be a vehicle for helping others, to lift up those who felt ‘other.’ ”  

Eger knew what it felt like to be an outsider from the time she was 12.

“I knew that I was a lesbian, and it was the South and it was very formal and there was no room for that. It was a different time, you couldn’t talk about it, you had to remain hidden, so that’s where I felt out of step,” Eger explained. 

But for her, the synagogue was a place of refuge, “of great safety and continuity for me.” It was about this same time that she decided she wanted to have a Jewish profession. Originally, she thought she’d be a cantor but decided during her sophomore year in college to become a rabbi. So she transferred from Memphis State University, where she was a voice major, to USC, which had a joint program of religion and Jewish studies with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1988, she was ordained a rabbi.

For many of Kol Ami’s congregants, largely composed of local Russian and LGBT communities, this is their first time returning after many years of avoiding synagogue because of a fractured relationship with their inherited religion, whether it be for personal or political reasons.

“There’s always an ‘other,’ so I think that I’ve been taught both by parents and my rabbis and teachers what it means to help lift up the voices. And that’s one reason we’re Kol Ami, ‘voice of my people,’ ” Eger said.

People of all sorts find their way to the congregation — and Eger. Fifteen years ago, Wendy Goldman was between congregations after her rabbi retired and her mother passed away. “I wanted a place to grieve and find spiritual renewal,” she said. 

So Goldman turned to Kol Ami and, although she identifies as a straight woman, she never felt out of place in the primarily LGBT congregation. Later, when she was in the hospital, she remembers the relief she felt upon seeing Eger at her side during a trying time.

“Groggy from the anesthetic, I opened my eyes to see [Eger] sitting at my bedside, helping me to have courage to face the recovery I was facing,” she said. “She is truly a special person to me.”

Located across the street from a hyper-developed stretch of high-rises, retail chains and grocery stores, Kol Ami got its start in 1992. Back then, the neighborhood was, to put it nicely, downright sketchy — so much so that contractors chose to have the main doors for the congregation in the back, accessible via the parking lot. 

“It’s now a lovely residential neighborhood,” said Eger, who called the synagogue a “mitzvah” of urban development, explaining that, as the first new building on the block, it helped spark what followed.

Her accomplishments as a mouthpiece for human rights are extensive. Eger is a spokeswoman for the LGBT community, sitting on the boards of countless organizations, promoting AIDS awareness, equal marriage rights and basic civil rights. She was the first woman and openly gay president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, blogs regularly for the Huffington Post and has received numerous awards. (She’s also engaged to be married and the proud mother to Benjamin, who is in college.)

Much of her activism, she said, is inspired by her own childhood Memphis rabbis, who staged marches and protests during a tumultuous time in the civil rights era. 

One of those role models was Rabbi Harry Danziger of Temple Israel in Memphis, who served a term as president of CCAR a decade ago. In particular, Danziger said he remembers Eger’s confirmation, which is typically a formal ceremony. Acoustic guitar in hand, she opted to sing Joni Mitchell’s folk ballad “The Circle Game.”

“I take enormous pride in her becoming president, but more, I take pride in the rabbi and human being she has become,” Danziger said. “It is an honor to have been her rabbi and to be her predecessor as president of the CCAR, which is such a force for Jewish continuity and tikkun olam.” 

For all her metaphorical talk about opening doors wider in the Jewish community and beyond, circumstances are making that happen literally. This past July, a stolen Tesla crashed into Kol Ami’s edifice, and now part of the building remains boarded up. 

So what’s the No. 1 item on Kol Ami’s to-do list? Literally opening the doors wider. 

“We’ve known we wanted to change the front entryway for a while now. I didn’t think it would happen by a car crash into a building,” Eger said.

It’s symbolic of her larger plans. 

“Imagination is the greatest gift from God that we have, and what a sin it is if we don’t try and use it,” she said. “And now we have to imagine, what’s the future of Judaism going to look like. What can we make it look like?” 

And that’s why she’s excited to be president of CCAR — “because I’ll be in a position to do that imagining in a larger scale.” 

Moving and shaking: Moving and shaking: Jewish Journal honored, Jewish Federation event


The Reform leadership organization Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) honored 33 CCAR rabbis who have performed 50 years of service in the rabbinate. Among the honorees are Rabbis Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Hillel Cohn of Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino; Haim Asa of Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton; and Jerrold Goldstein, former Hillel rabbi at California State University, Northridge, Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles Valley College. A ceremony for the rabbis, who were members of the 1963 graduating class of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, took place during the annual CCAR convention in Long Beach on March 4. Cleveland’s Rabbi Richard Block was installed as the new president of CCAR, while Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood was elected president-elect and is slated to become president of the conference in two years.


The Jewish Journal was honored at Los Angeles City Hall on Feb. 22. L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz presented the award to the Journal’s editorial staff on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, recognizing the community newspaper’s leadership, reportage, service and the annual Mensch list, which profiles volunteers who do great work on behalf of others. Members of Los Angeles City Council, the Journal’s Rob Eshman, Susan Freudenheim, Ryan Smith and Daniel Kacvinski and honorees from the Journal’s 2013 Mensch List were in attendance at the ceremony, which took place in the council’s chambers.


Former Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles President Lawrence Rauch has been named chair of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles’ board of trustees. A manager of charitable assets and a leader in planned-giving solutions for Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists, the foundation announced the election of Rauch, who succeeds Lorin Fife on Feb. 20.


American Friends of the Hebrew University honored George Shultz, former secretary of state to President Ronald Reagan, and litigation attorney Patricia Glaser on March 2 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Peace Prize was awarded to Shultz for his facilitation of peace initiatives around the world. American Friends’ National Scopus Award recognized Glaser’s commitment to humanitarianism.


State and city officials — including California State Assembly Speaker John Perez; Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer; Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party; and L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz — joined representatives of Jewish organizations such as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles at a reception at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters on Feb. 28. The Federation held the event as a way for staff and lay leaders of Jewish organizations to connect with elected officials in a relaxed atmosphere, according to Debbie Dyner Harris, director of community engagement programs at The Federation.


Pro-Israel student activists from the University of Southern California received the AIPAC Duke Rudman Leadership award, the highest honor that the Israel lobby awards to universities, on March 4, during the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. The award was presented to Sara Sax, president of Hillel at USC’s Trojans for Israel.

New Reform wedding edition confronts same-sex ceremonies


A new edition of a user-friendly guide to making a modern Jewish wedding has changed its approach to same-sex weddings.

Rabbi Hara Person, publisher and director of CCAR Press, which publishes books for the Reform movement, said the new edition of “Beyond Breaking the Glass: A Spiritual Guide to Your Jewish Wedding,” which was published originally in 2001, contains many updates and revisions, but the biggest change is regarding same-sex marriages.

“Whereas in the older edition, the term ‘commitment ceremony’ was used throughout the book, and same-sex ceremonies were discussed differently than ‘regular’ weddings, in this edition we do not differentiate for the most part,” Person said. “A wedding is a wedding, whether it is between a man and woman, or two men or two women. “

Person said the book also includes liturgical options for ceremonies between same-sex couples or couples involving transgendered persons.

“It is important to note how much things have changed in these respects since the first edition now that some states have legalized gay marriage and it has become so much accepted overall—after all, even the president has spoken out in support,“ Person said. “This change of attitude is reflected in the book.”

Person said that while there are still many specific choices that are up to the rabbi based on his or her interpretation of Jewish tradition, the book is meant to be a conversation starter. 

“It’s meant to be used as a book for rabbis to give to couples so that they can become more knowledgeable about Jewish weddings, the tradition of Jewish weddings,” she said. “It gives them creative options for certain parts of the ceremony.”

Person said that other changes include an appendix focusing on how to write a wedding booklet (to hand out at the ceremony), new photographs that show a large range of types of couples, an updated design, a completely revised and more usable checklist, and new references to subjects such as making your wedding reflect your values, for example by serving organic food.

More Reform rabbis performing interfaith weddings


Danny Richter and his fiancée, Lauren Perkins, have never been to a Jewish wedding, yet this fall, the interfaith couple is planning to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event marks other significant firsts: It also will be the first time that Rabbi Jill Perlman, assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., has ever officiated at an interfaith wedding. In fact, it will be the first time that any clergy from the Reform congregation — Richter’s family synagogue for three generations — will have done so.

While the congregation has approved Perlman’s participation, it has yet to decide if intermarriages may take place within the synagogue itself.

The changes under way at Temple Isaiah are part of the new norm in the Reform movement as it continues to explore how best to respond to such unions, shifting its approach on the sensitive issue of its rabbis officiating at intermarriages.

The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It’s part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said.

CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it’s about half.

The organization “believes it is not an appropriate way to judge someone as a rabbi,” Person said of performing the ceremonies.

While Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Howard Jaffe, describes the change since he was ordained in 1983 as seismic, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says the change has been evolutionary. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it has become much more common in the past decade for Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages.

In fact, next month CCAR will publish a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, the first such manual prepared for the organization, according to Person.

Written by Paula Brody, director of the URJ’s Outreach Training Institute, the manual is intended for use with all couples but includes a separate section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples. The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody said.

Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she said. 

The manual also includes suggestions for follow-up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.

Some rabbis set conditions before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage, such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews.

Rabbi Lev Baesh worries such conditions turn off couples. “It matters so much for a rabbi to say ‘yes,’ ” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for Interfaithfamily.com, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.

That’s why Isaiah’s Perlman agreed to do Richter’s wedding ceremony.

As a rabbinical student, Perlman said, she was not comfortable with the idea. But she has shifted her views since her 2010 ordination. “It’s a blessing, in my opinion, to be there in that moment,” she said.

Isaiah’s Jaffe remains deeply committed to the view that Jewish marriage can only take place between two Jews, and that the rabbi’s role is to facilitate this marriage. But, after a year of a year of study and discussion of the subject with Perlman and Cantor Lisa Doob, he says he is comfortable under certain circumstances with his associate rabbi officiating at intermarriages.

He also said he is no longer so certain that his personal opposition outweighs the potential loss of a couple from Jewish life.

As more congregants, like Richter, approach him as their family rabbi, he said he recognizes his view of Jewish marriage is seen as a rejection. “I am aware of the impact of my saying, ‘I love you, I want to welcome you into the Jewish community, but I am not able to officiate.’ I know that in most cases, the words, ‘I am not able,’ are heard as, ‘I am rejecting you,’ even though that is not the message I am intending,” Jaffe said. 

Jewish population studies have found that as many as 50 percent of Jewish households include a non-Jewish partner. Observers suggest that the number is even higher when one looks at the dating population.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate at interfaith marriages. The Conservative movement does, however, engage in outreach work with interfaith couples at all stages of their lives, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

First Woman Heads Reform Conference


Rabbi Janet Marder has a surprising confession for someone
who is making history as the first woman president of the Reform movement’s
1,800-member Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

She’s seriously shy.

“I had years of stage fright before I had to stand up in a
crowd,” said Marder, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos
Hills, near San Jose. “I still get pretty nervous.”

The 48-year-old Marder was able to shake off her jitters
March 29, when she was installed before hundreds of her colleagues at a Washington,
D.C., ceremony. Elected by her peers, she is taking over the helm of the
world’s largest group of Jewish clergy from a Bay Area colleague, Rabbi Martin
Weiner of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel.

“It’s exciting, it’s daunting,” Marder said with
characteristic modesty. “It’s a wonderful kind of recognition.”

Marder, a soft-spoken California native, is well aware of
the historic nature of her appointment, describing it as a milestone for women
in general.

“I really see this as a tribute to all of us, and it makes a
statement about what kind of a movement we are,” she said.

Weiner, in a speech at the ceremony, called her installation
“incredibly significant in one sense but really incidental to her achievements
as a truly outstanding rabbi.”

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean at Hebrew Union College in Los
Angeles, said he thought Marder, a former student, would excel in her new
position.

“She was and remains one of the most brilliant students
we’ve ever had,” he said. “She is an extraordinarily gifted rabbi, thinker and
speaker.”

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills said
Marder helped make the Reform movement more open to gay men and women because
of her work at Bet Cheaim Chadashim, a Southland synagogue catering to
homosexuals. In her new role, Geller said she expects Marder to focus on the
“internal, spiritual lives of rabbis.”

Marder comes to her new post with an ambitious agenda. It
includes working to strengthen progressive Judaism in Israel; transforming
worship services at Reform synagogues with more music, Hebrew and celebration,
and responding to any gender inequities in the salaries of female clergy and
Jewish professionals.

In an interview last month, she said she intends to call
upon this country’s 1.5 million Reform Jews to join ARZA/World Union, the
movement’s Israel advocacy organization. Saying she wants to ensure that Israel
remains an open and democratic state, she added: “I think our movement has a
critical role to play.”

As for gender issues, Marder said she is awaiting results of
a salary survey the CCAR plans to conduct next year. “I have the sense that
there may be some differences” between salaries of men and women in the
movement, she said. In addition, “some congregations still don’t offer parental
leave.”

While cognizant that Marder’s post with a New York-based
organization will mean less time with the 1,270 families at Beth Am,
congregants expressed both support and pride for their rabbi of almost four
years.

Congregants credit Marder with making dramatic changes at
their synagogue, including writing new prayer books, introducing more music and
adding a 6:15 p.m. Friday service.

“The Friday night service is incredibly joyful,” said
President Jim Heeger, estimating that 300 to 400 people attend. “Maybe we’d get
100 before.”

At the same time, congregants say their rabbi has a gentle
and personal touch, particularly with those suffering a family emergency or
other crisis.

Beth Am Vice President Susan Wolfe remains amazed at the
hospital visit Marder paid to her after Wolfe underwent emergency open-heart
surgery on Oct. 9, 2000. The date was important, because it fell on Yom Kippur,
and Marder raced up to the hospital in Redwood City between services on one of
the busiest days of her year.

“She really cares for individuals and makes those superhuman
efforts not just for me, but for everybody,” Wolfe said.

Congregants also gave Marder high marks for a weekly Torah
study class that regularly packs in 60 to 70 participants. “The class keeps
getting bigger and bigger,” Caryn Huberman, a Palo Alto children’s writer,
said. “It has become the center of my week.”

Despite Beth Am’s size, Marder has worked to make her
congregation an intimate place, where members reach out to one another in times
of joy and need. One example is a professional network in which congregants act
as “connectors” to unemployed members. Marder estimates that up to 10 percent
of her congregants are out of work.

 She has worked to make Saturday services at Beth Am a
community event, rather than a private affair reserved for families celebrating
a bar or bat mitzvah.

While she is away on CCAR business, Marder said her
congregation, one of the largest in the Bay Area, will be in good hands with “a
terrific team” that includes three other rabbis, along with a cantor, music
specialist, educators and administrators.

“There’s a lot of travel involved,” said Marder, who has two
teenage daughters and is married to Rabbi Sheldon Marder of the Jewish Home in
San Francisco.

“I certainly intend to be with the congregation every
Shabbat,” she said. “I’ve made clear to CCAR leadership that my first priority
remains with Beth Am.”

Taking the Middle Road


The Reform movement’s much-anticipated “Statement of Principles” may rival the Torah for most carefully scrutinized text in Jewish history.

The two-page statement, which seeks to spell out just exactly what Reform Judaism is about, was discussed for close to two years, underwent six drafts, garnered more than 30 amendments and sparked heated debate among Reform rabbis and their congregants.

The controversial document was adopted last Wednesday by an overwhelming margin of 324-68, with nine abstentions. It was the centerpiece of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ four-day convention in Pittsburgh this week.

The statement seeks to reverse the movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which stridently rejected Jewish tradition and rituals. It aims to redefine Reform Judaism for the coming years: celebrating the movement’s growing acceptance of tradition and spirituality, while reaffirming its longtime commitment to inclusion, social action and diversity of thought.

The principles consist of a preamble that urges Reform Jews to “engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition” and statements about Reform Jews’ relationships with God, Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Among other things, the document:

* Affirms the importance of studying Hebrew;

* Promotes lifelong Jewish learning;

* Calls for observance of mitzvot, or commandments, “that address us as individuals and as a community”;

* Urges observance in some form of Shabbat and holidays;

* Encourages tikkun olam, which the Reform movement emphasizes as social action, and tzedakah, or charitable giving.

“Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as a result of the unique context of our own times,” says the document.

Earlier drafts of the principles, including a version that appeared in Reform Judaism magazine six months ago, specified other mitzvot, such as observing kashrut and wearing kippot and tallitot In the end, a document very different from the original was adopted by the Reform rabbis, one that many rabbis here believed had been diluted too much.

The seemingly endless revisions made for a pareve document with little energy or inspiration, critics said.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, called the adoption of the principles a “wonderful moment for Reform Jews.”

Levy, who had authored the Reform Judaism piece and had been pictured wearing a yarmulke and a prayer shawl, said the document “will liberate Reform Jews to say there is nothing to in the Torah which is barred to me.”

When asked to respond to critics who said it was watered down from his original version, Levy said, “What was passed was a statement that reflected the large number of Reform Jews.”

Levy, who stressed the reaffirmation of Reform Judaism’s commitment to inclusiveness and social action, said, “I hope the Pittsburgh principles will deepen the lives of Reform Jews and make the entire community aware of our seriousness.”

Since the publication of Levy article, the principles had sparked debates about the identity of Reform Judaism, which claims more American Jews than any other movement. As rabbis and lay leaders discussed and revised the principles at official meetings, rank-and-file Reform Jews sounded off on the Internet.

In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews throughout North America.

Some respondents were supportive.

“I think without some kind of standards, Reform Judaism will lose its standing in the world Jewish community and either break off as its own religion or eventually disappear,” Ellen Lerner of Rochester, N.Y., wrote.

But the majority were critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

“If I wanted this much dogma, I’d be a Conservative Jew,” wrote Don Rothschild of Denver.

“I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,” wrote Barbara Stern of Winchester, Va. “It is beginning to feel like the only option that will be open to classical Reform Jews is the Unitarian Church, an option that will not be spiritually satisfying for many reasons.”

The board of one Reform temple, Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago, even passed a resolution urging the CCAR not to vote on any statement of principles.

While both supporters and opponents complained of the statement’s blandness, many acknowledged that insipidness is the fate of any committee-written document.

They also said that the Reform movement’s rank-and-file members might not yet be ready for something stronger, and that the statement should be viewed as a beginning rather than the last word on Reform Judaism.

The movement’s commitment to diversity of thought was highlighted during Tuesday night’s lively — if prolonged — discussion on proposed amendments at the CCAR convention. The evening was filled with passionate debate on everything from the correct application of Robert’s Rules of Order and grammatical fine points to just how accepting the movement should be of interfaith families.

One of the most heated discussions surrounded an amendment involving the intermarried. The amendment, which initially implied openness to all intermarried families, was changed — after much debate — to a carefully worded statement saying, “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home.”

Throughout the debate, shouts, ayes and nays alternated with laughter and applause. With the aroma of popcorn and other late-night snacks wafting through the air, the proceeding — in a packed hotel ballroom — took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

At one point, Levy, called out, exasperated by requests for new amendments and revotes, “People, we cannot keep changing our minds!”

Minor skirmishes erupted over the chair’s decision not to let someone speak out of order. There was discord as to whether “encouraging” immigration to Israel would render American Judaism extinct (the rabbis voted, no, it would not).

Although the debate was initially allotted a modest two hours, it quickly became clear Tuesday that the discussion on the statement would spill over. At 5:30 p.m., with only a handful of the proposed amendments discussed, the rabbis voted — after much squabbling on details — to adjourn until 8 p.m.

In the interlude that followed, most seemed to take the delays and quibbling in stride, seeing them as a sign not of discord but of everyone’s desire to create the strongest document possible.

“The problem is it’s like Talmud — everyone takes every word so seriously,” said Rabbi Morris Kipper of Coral Gables, Fla.

“The process is typical,” said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Homewood, Ill. “We like to argue. Two Jews have three opinions, and so much more so for rabbis.”

The vote, which occurred at Temple Rodeph Shalom, the largest Reform temple in Pittsburgh, reflected a consensus view among the rabbis that some statement was necessary, even if it wasn’t everyone’s ideal.

“I supported it in the end with some reservations, but I feel it is a statement that reflects at least in part who we are as Reform Jews,” Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Great Neck, N.Y., said, echoing the views of many here.

“It’s a centrist document, and it moves us from where we were a century ago,” he said.

Mixed Reviews


Los Angeles’ Reform rabbis returned to their pulpits from last week’s Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Pittsburgh, some of them delighted with the Statement of Principles, some of them disappointed, but all of them primed to revisit the definition of their ever-reforming movement.

“This statement of principles will provide us guidance as we look to the future,” says Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana. “In a very specific way, it’s going to give the average Reform Jew something to hold on to and to look to for guidance on what it means to be an active, committed Reform Jew.”

But Goor says that he is “very disappointed” in the statement’s final form, although he voted for its passage, along with about 80 percent of the 400 rabbis who attended the four-day conference. Like many of his colleagues, Goor believes that the document lost much of its visionary quality in the seemingly endless process of amendments and revisions.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, who crafted the original statement of principles two years ago and shepherded it through the revision process, says he is delighted with the outcome, especially the overwhelming passage.

“I think if it lost some things, it gained more,” says Levy, who is leaving his position as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council to become dean of Hebrew Union College’s new rabbinic ordination program in Los Angeles.

Levy points out that the Pittsburgh Principle’s commitment to “whole array of mitzvot” — in fact, even the mere use of the word mitzvot, defined as “sacred obligations” — marks a substantial shift in Reform dogma.

“That is a very important statement in the Reform movement,” says Levy. “It says the whole tradition is open to consider.”

He hopes that more synagogues will join those that have set up task forces to determine how to integrate the document into educational and ritual programming.

Levy himself has long practiced much of what is discussed in the principles, making him a natural advocate for the platform.

What also made him such an effective architect was his ability to productively and amicably channel the thousands of opinions from rabbis and lay leaders around the country.

“This is the first of the four documents that Reform movement has produced that was not written by a handful of people, but by an entire movement,” says Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, crediting Levy’s gentle hand. “I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this off.”

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills agrees. “Even in the middle of the most intense disagreements on the floor, Richard’s incredible menschlichkayt came through and made it clear that we were engaged in a holy process.”

Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air concurs that Levy guided an important and enlightening process, but he is less than satisfied with the final outcome. Stern, who voted against passage, says the platform missed an important chance to explicitly state what makes Reform distinctive and innovative.

This statement, he says, will have little effect on the average Reform Jew because it is far from revolutionary and simply “confirms what a lot of synagogue and congregants are doing anyway.”

But other rabbis argue that that is the statement’s strength — that it formalizes and validates a decade-long grass-roots shift toward more ritual observance.

“I think, in a sense, the Reform movement has been on a religious journey, and this new document opens up new paths that have always been there but may not have been seen as authentically Reform,” says Goor.

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, who just completed his two-year term as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is proud that the document gives Reform Judaism a positive identity.

“Reform Jews want to stand for something — they want to stand for many things — and not just act as the least common denominator,” he said.

Rosove says the reexamination of mitzvot brings Judaism as a whole closer to a postdenominational age, where Hebrew and traditional rituals become a common language for all ends of the ideological spectrum.

But some have argued that blurring of lines is a problem, that the traditional bent of the document pulls too close to Conservative Judaism and too far from classical Reform, which rejected ritual as antiquated and irrelevant.

Goldmark counters that the Pittsburgh Principles stay true to Reform’s commitment to evolve.

“This does not mean that Reform Judaism has become Orthodox. It mean that Reform Jews have, as we’ve always had, the ability to choose from the traditions of the past, as well as to create new traditions for the present,” Goldmark says, adding that he plans to continue picking apart the document’s subtleties with his congregants at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada. [return to original]

Geller says the statement in its various drafts has already been the subject of debate in her congregation over the past year.

“It raised a whole lot of issues,” she says. “Not everybody was happy. It made people think, it challenged them, it made people angry. But it engaged people in what it means to be a Reform Jew.”