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November 07, 2003 - Image 28

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Going Forward

Reform approaches convention with mix of tradition and creativity.

JOE BERKOFSKY -

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Minneapolis
little Hawaiian girl, a
rabbi and his male com-
panion, and an interracial
couple with their toddler
all share more than a smile.
They're among the snapshots that
grace a poster called "The Face of
Reform Judaism," printed to mark
the 25th anniversary of outreach
efforts by the Union of American
Hebrew Congregations, the Reform
movement's synagogue arm.
The first Jewish religious move-
ment to aggressively and officially
reach out to unaffiliated Jews and
their non-Jewish family members,
the Reform movement opened its
67th biennial convention in
Minneapolis this week as North
America's largest Jewish denomina-
tion. The movement claims 1.5 mil-
lion members in 900 North Amer-
ican synagogues.
According to the National Jewish
Population Survey 2000-01, of the
40 percent of 4.3 million American
Jews affiliated with synagogues, the
largest group — 39 percent — are
Reform.
Reform officials plan to maintain
the momentum on outreach with
such longtime efforts as the "Taste
of Judaism" program, a national
series of free introductory classes on
Judaism.
"Our challenge going forward is
to make sure that every person that
comes forward to the movement is
welcomed and made to feel like they
have a place," says Dru Greenwood,
director of UAHC's department of
outreach and synagogue community.
"Outreach and inclusion is a core
principle of Reform Judaism."
Yet some outside the movement
wonder what the numbers in the
new population survey mean for the
movement.
"I think they could come out of
the NJPS with a sense of triumphal-
ism, because of the numbers," says
Rela Mintz Geffen, co-author of a
book on the Conservative move-
ment and president of the non-

A

11/ 7

2003

28

denominational
Baltimore Hebrew
University. But, she says,
the Conservative move-
ment should more close-
ly explore the religious
and social dynamics
behind Reform Judaism.
"Numbers aren't every-
thing," she says. "How
many are Reform from
birth? How many left
the Conservative move-
ment? How many are
interfaith?"

Ellenson

Interfaith Issue

Perhaps one of the most
contentious aspects of
Reform outreach has
been the success in
including the non-
Jewish spouses and fami-
ly members of Jews.
Many agree that more
interfaith couples affili-
ate with Reform than
with other movements,
but it is unclear just
how many there are.
Some predicted that
bringing non-Jews into
the movement would
water down Judaism,"
Greenwood says, but "in Priesand
many ways what's hap-
pened in outreach is
counterintuitive."
Many non-Jews have become
active in their synagogues, partici-
pating in adult bar and bat mitzvah
programs, and "work to lovingly
hand Jewish traditions to their chil-
dren," she says. "It's inspiring."
The recent population survey
found that the proportion of inter-
faith couples raising their children
as Jews rose to 33 percent in 2000-
01 from 28 percent in 1990. But
scholars debate how important the
finding is — and it's still far below
the 96 percent of Jews married to
Jews who raise their children as
Jews.
The study also found an intermar-
riage rate of 47 percent, up 4 per-
cent from the last survey a decade

"

earlier. Rabbi Eric Yoffie,
UAHC's president, bris-
tles at questions about
the character of Reform
congregants.
"It's outrageous and
stupid," he says.
"Intermarriage is a reali-
ty," and no Jewish group
"has found a way to pre-
vent it. If the intention
is to have Jewish homes,
it makes no sense to
write off those people
who are intermarried.
We're proud we're a
movement that embraces
these families."

What Else

The movement faces
other challenges as well._
In 1999, the Central
Conference of American
Rabbis signaled a new,
more traditional direc-
tion for Reform, calling
for more Hebrew prayer
and greater tradition in
congregational life. That
declaration, called the
"Pittsburgh Platform,"
was a major break from
the original vision the
movement's founders
enumerated in the 1885
"Pittsburgh Platform."
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of
the movement's seminary, the
Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, in New York,
said the new "Pittsburgh Platform"
encouraged Reform Jews to take
Judaism "more seriously."
"Reform has always stood between
tradition and. modernity, and the
challenge in creating an authentic
Judaism is even greater" given those
competing forces, he says.
Reform has evolved from the start
of the 20th century, when it was pri-
marily a movement of assimilated
German Jews who held church-like
services led by choirs and featuring
largely passive congregants.
For decades, the movement has
stressed creativity and participation.

Perhaps the latest sign of that is
coming soon in the University
Synagogue in the upscale Brentwood
section of Los Angeles. The 800-
family congregation will stage its
first "Great Shabbos," a lavish musi-
cal production featuring electric gui-
tars, keyboards, saxophone, drums
and a teen choir — not to mention
the rabbi and cantor.
"Music touches the heart and com-
passionately engages the soul — and
we need to be touching people's lives
every way we can and show them
how important Judaism is," Rabbi
Morley Feinstein says.
Sally Priesand, rabbi of the 360-
member Monmouth Reform Temple
in Tinton Falls, N.J., says the move-
ment faces longtime hurdles such as
"talmud Torah and tikkun olam" —
educating-Jews about Judaism and
teaching them how to improve the
world.
"I think people think of doing
things for the synagogue as volun-
teerism," she says. "But the syna
gogue is the storehouse of the Jewish
spirit."
Priesand broke the gender barrier
for the Reform and other liberal
movements when she was ordained
as the nation's first woman rabbi
nearly 30 years ago. Since then,
doors have opened to other types of
Jews.
Last year, HUC admitted its first
transgender person — a woman
becoming a man — and the school
now includes a woman who could
become the movement's first black
rabbi.

Name Change

In part to reflect the changing nature
of the movement, the UAHC is like-
ly to change its name at the biennial
to the Union for Reform Judaism.
With its use of the term
"American Hebrew," the UAHC
reflected an old "apologetic" era,
Rabbi Yoffie says, but now the
movement needs a strong and mem-
orable moniker.
"We're not Hebrews, we're Jews,"
he says. "We need an affirming,
proud name."



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