Some Reflections on the Reform Movement at 150 Years

While it may be too soon to project the impact of the Gaza War on American Jewish religious behavior, this moment will likely create a series of ripple effects in our community.
December 7, 2023
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As the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) prepares to observe its 150th anniversary in Washington D.C. (December 15-17), this affords us an opportunity to assess the impact of our largest denominational movement. We are reminded that this celebratory gathering takes place against the backdrop of events surrounding October 7th. While it may be too soon to project the impact of the Gaza War on American Jewish religious behavior, no doubt this moment, with the onset of increased antisemitism, will likely create a series of ripple effects in our community.

The Reform Movement’s celebration next week coincides with the observance of Chanukah and reminds us that the roots of this holiday speak to a religious revolution, where the Maccabees’ sought to reclaim Jewish tradition, removing the imprint of Greek influence and customs. Viewed from an historical context, Reform Judaism represented a transformational expression introducing a universal response to Jewish thought that might be seen in contemporary terms as challenging the Maccabean notions of a return to traditional practice.

Judaism has always had to endure and acclimate to change. Within the context of the American religious space, the Protestant idea of “denominations” would also define the American Jewish religious framework. From 1873 until the closing decades of the 20th Century, the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations) as it was historically known, proved successful as a denominational structure serving the needs and aspirations of its more than 800 affiliated congregations. The Movement’s rich history testifies to both its universal prophetic message and its commitment to meld a modern form of Jewish religious expression with the American experience. Through its various auxiliary bodies and denominational resources, Reform Judaism has provided a rich, textured North American connection for millions of Jews.

As we have observed elsewhere, the religious marketplace today is undergoing a series of major transitions. If competition and capitalism described the American religious model of the past, collaboration and partnerships will be the mantra for the emerging religious marketplace. We are living in a different eco-system that celebrates and promotes individualism and social media connectivity. Chanukah may be the perfect case study, as we increasingly observe alternative and creative expressions of how this holiday is observed and practiced.

The success of this enterprise is directly connected with its conscious focus on welcoming non-Jewish partners and Jews by choice, becoming increasingly aware of the need to remove barriers for Jews of Color, while also welcoming the LGBTQ community. No doubt, its controversial decision around patrilineal descent (1983) has afforded opportunities for many families to find a Jewish religious home. The URJ’s 14 camps are seen by some as the centerpiece of the Movement. Designed to “enrich and transform lives by strengthening Jewish identity, teaching Jewish knowledge, instilling Jewish values, exploring campers’ connection to Israel, and cultivating lifelong friendships—all informed and inspired by the traditions and values of living Reform Judaism,” the camps have generated significant interest and support both from inside and outside the Movement.

Since 1985, the “Second American Jewish Revolution” would introduce a boutique model of communal and religious expression, as alternative organizations began to fill specific programmatic niches, while distinctively playing to the changing tastes, interests and expectations of younger American Jews. All of this is happening from the outside in or from the bottom up. The pace and the nature of these emerging structural changes make this moment both unique and challenging for such mainstream legacy systems as the Reform Movement.

Just as we are seeing mergers, the downsizing and even closure of churches, similar patterns are taking place inside the Jewish religious space. The arrival of multi-Judaisms is at hand. The emerging changes in synagogue life in North America will include various organizing schemes. The shift from the contemporary synagogue model to multiple organizing and delivery approaches, from online Judaism to highly individualized or privatized models of personal religious expression.

Just as we are seeing mergers, the downsizing and even closure of churches, similar patterns are taking place inside the Jewish religious space.

In the near term, the operational tasks ahead for synagogues will be managing the “dwellers” (existing members), serving the “seekers” (individuals who are in search of a religious community), even as we encounter a growing number of religious “nones” (those who are opting out of formal religion by checking the box, “none of the above”).

Moving forward, new religious organizing models will be required, with distinctive offerings, appealing to a marketplace of choice and to individualized needs (privatized Judaism). The undoing of institutional boundaries is in play, as partnerships and collaborative relationships will define elements of this new religious economy. The idea of “membership,” the traditional dues model, and the costs associated with “affiliation” all will contribute to an exploration of alternative Jewish organizing schemes. Even beyond the boundaries of institutional religion, Jewish demographics suggest a far more diffuse, assimilated and diverse community than had once defined who Reform Jews were—making it harder for traditional denominational bodies to deliver their product and messages.

Indeed, at the URJ Biennial in Washington in 2011, URJ President Rick Jacobs framed the challenges facing the Movement and more directly the Union. Beyond the financial concerns, in part generated by the 2008 economic recession, synagogues were reporting a decline in memberships, Jacobs noted the efforts by the Union’s primary partners, HUC-JIR and the CCAR to more effectively collaborate in order to address the issues facing the Movement. To be certain these unresolved challenges remain.

How Israel is perceived and supported among Reform leadership and its congregations has drawn particular attention. Here its critics have argued that Reform is not adequately committed to the Israel agenda. As Rabbi Ami Hirsch noted at a conference that he helped to organize, held earlier this year, entitled “Recharging Reform Judaism:  “Whenever Jews abandoned their ideological—or practical—commitment to Am Yisrael, they eventually drifted away.”

As social justice is a centerpiece of the Movement, some of its critics have charged that various positions taken by the Union’s public policy arm, the RAC, are seen as merely an extension of the Democratic Party, failing to reflect more directly Jewish tradition and law.

For some older members, who define themselves as “Classical” Reform Jews, the Movement’s shift to more Hebrew and traditional practices are seen as problematic, while other long term synagogue members regret the constant introduction of new liturgy and music, seeing it as disruptive and unfamiliar.

Others have raised concerns regarding the Union’s decision to close its regional operations, feeling that this has further distance congregants from URJ programs and personnel.

In connection with small congregations, where demographic trends and financial pressures are negatively impacting certain “dying” Jewish communities, these realities reflect the broader operational challenges facing religious institutions across denominations in rethinking their traditional organizing model.

Moving forward, how ought we to understand the future for liberal Judaism? Reform Judaism will have a unique opportunity to build collaborative partnerships, beyond its existing denominational walls, with an array of organizational players. This moment affords the URJ and others an opportunity to build creative networks involving other sectors within the Jewish religious enterprise, and beyond. 

As with the evolution and reinterpretation of Chanukah, the strength of the Reform Movement may well be its capacity to absorb new and innovative ideas and continue to be audacious in engaging contrarian perspectives and introducing new models of practice.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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