December 8, 2019

Balancing Acts

When Rabbi Eric Yoffie and other Reform movement leaders walked through the doors of Walt Disney World’s Dolphin Hotel about a week before Christmas last year, they were greeted by a garishly lit, outsized Christmas Tree and the sound of caroling.

When they checked out the meeting rooms that they hoped to book for their convention a year later, they found each festooned with Christmas trees and wreaths.

When some 4,500 Reform Jews gathered in that same hotel last week for their biennial convention, they found the caroling silenced and the Christmas lights turned off. But the darkened 45-foot Christmas tree still stood in the lobby, surrounded by enormous foil-wrapped, fake presents.

That compromise, a result of Yoffie’s negotiations with Disney management, could be seen as a symbol of the movement’s effort to strike a comfortable balance between American values and Jewish tradition.

Reform Jews, led by Yoffie — four years into his presidency of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — are also grappling with the pull between traditional Judaism, whose foundation is a system of commandments and obligations, and the individual autonomy that is a Reform movement hallmark.

Deeply rooted in general American culture, while at the same time yearning for a more Jewishly authentic spiritual experience, Reform Jews today are on a quest searching to develop their own brand of Judaism for the next century.

Yoffie led the charge for a new Reform movement at the last convention two years ago, when he initiated a movement-wide Jewish literacy program. He continued it in Orlando, with a similar call for “a revolution” in the way Reform Jews worship.

The atmosphere at last week’s convention was different than it has been at past gatherings.

There were no heated controversies and no obvious political battles. Instead, the Reform congregants, rabbis and cantors attending the gathering spent their time in quieter, more reflective sessions considering their religious future.

It was clear that for Reform Jews, it is a time of inquiry and apprehension.

The most popular workshops, filled to overflowing with hundreds of participants, were those that focused on issues such as “God and Theology,” “Reform Worship in the 21st Century,” “Can We Pray What We Don’t Believe?” and “Torah and Observance in the ‘Principles of Reform Judaism,'” referring to the statement of beliefs adopted by the movement’s rabbis in May.

Workshops devoted to issues of social action and Israel, by contrast, had relatively few participants.

At the sessions devoted to spirituality, panel members and attendees voiced a deep desire for more Jewish feeling in their lives but some also expressed hesitation about how much of a commitment they were willing to make to Jewish practice.

In the session titled “Can We Pray What We Don’t Believe?,” panel participant Jean Abarbanel, from Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, said that after a long spiritual search, she began to say the “Shema,” Judaism’s central prayer, upon retiring at night, and upon waking in the morning.

She first experienced praying daily at a Reform retreat, she said, adding, “The repetition gives me a sense of wholeness at the times of day when I feel most vulnerable.”

A man in the audience said he was at the session because “I’d like to have a better understanding of why Judaism is so important to me when I’m not sure what I think about God.”

Evidence of the new direction was visible everywhere.

It was apparent in the fact that as his four-year term as the UAHC’s chairman came to an end, Jerome Somers, for the first time, publicly donned a kippah and tallit, and chanted from the Torah at Sabbath morning services.

It was apparent in the filled to overflowing daily morning prayer services that were held at 7:30 a.m., after people had been up late the previous nights. A wide choice of services was available every morning, each devoted to a different interest, such as men’s concerns, women’s concerns, the choreography of the prayer service and meditation.

It was apparent in the spontaneous late-night singing that broke out in parts of the hotel lobby well after midnight, with Reform congregants sitting around a cantor strumming on a guitar, long after scheduled music performances had ended.

And it was apparent in the speech Yoffie gave on Shabbat morning.

He devoted most of it to calling for “a new Reform revolution” in worship, and also called on new practices in Reform families, asking that every Reform Jewish child read a Jewish story or play a Jewish tape or video or computer game before being put to bed.

“In many of our synagogues the prayers are heartfelt, the music uplifting and the participation enthusiastic,” Yoffie said in his sermon, which was interrupted by frequent applause.

“But that is only part of the story. All of us — rabbis, cantors, lay leaders — seem ready to admit that far too often, our services are tedious, predictable and dull. Far too often, our members pray without fervor or concentration. Far too often, our music is dirge-like and our Torah readings lifeless,” he said.

Amid all the talk of transforming the synagogue is the fact that in many congregations that have already embarked on such a process, the differing needs of congregants has provoked resentment as the temple tries to please everyone.

Cantor Fran Goldman, from Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Va., helps run a different kind of Sabbath service every Friday night of the month — a family service with a children’s choir, a more classical Reform service with a vocal quartet, a more participatory service with a volunteer choir and a service in which Goldman sings by herself.

On top of the competing interests is the fact that some 40 to 50 percent of her congregants are part of interfaith families, she said.

The overall response to Yoffie’s worship initiatives, and to the shift in focus within the movement, was positive — as long as the new ideas are encouraged, and not required.

The changes “don’t bother me, as long as there is a choice,” Dr. Arthur Lieber, a radiologist who attends Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Ky., said as he finished up a lunch-time cheeseburger and french fries in a hotel restaurant.

The “Principles of Reform Judaism,” a two-page attempt to elucidate the movement’s core values, created upheaval and brought to light deep dissension over what, exactly, those values are. After two years of heated debate, six drafts and more than 30 amendments, the controversial document was adopted by the movement’s rabbinical arm in May.

This is far from the first time that such efforts have been waged within the Reform movement.

In nearly every generation since its beginnings on American soil in the 1840s, the Reform movement has been conflicted over the tension between tradition and autonomy.

“We’re the only movement in Judaism” that has the practice of teshuvah when things need to change, Rachel Adler said, using the word for repentance.

Adler, a professor of Jewish thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement’s seminary in Los Angeles, said in a panel discussion called “Forecasting the Future,” “The thing that distinguishes us as a movement is the willingness to take risks.”

Condemning the fact that prayer, in many temples, has become “a spectator sport,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie instructed his constituents to no longer leave responsibility for worship in the hands of their clergy. He proposed five concrete steps, asking that:

* Synagogue ritual committees reorganize themselves and begin studying, with rabbi or cantor, the history and theology of Jewish prayer and that they undertake an in-depth self-evaluation of their temple’s worship;

* Each synagogue evaluation team visit at least four other Reform congregations to see what they do in their services;

* A Reform movement-wide on-line dialogue on the topic of worship be started, to involve thousands of participants;

* All the arms of the movement cooperate in sponsoring retr
eats for Reform rabbis and cantors devoted to “worship reform;” and

* All synagogues undertake a serious effort to improve Hebrew literacy among their congregants.