Reform Judaism Today

Balancing tradition and innovation in the 21st century

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What’s in a Name?

In December, 2002, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) president Rabbi Eric Yoffie received unanimous approval from the Board of Trustees to submit a name change proposal at the November, 2003 biennial meeting. 

The name that Yoffie recommended for the congregational arm of the Reform movement is, "Union for Reform Judaism: Serving Reform Congregations in North America." The name sheds the word "Hebrew," which Yoffie argues reflects an earlier, apologetic time when the words "Jew" or "Judaism" weren't acceptable in mainstream America.

The movement has debated name changes before, and many might ask, "What's in a name?", but the proposed change is telling for a movement that has, in recent years, wrestled with its place in the American Jewish landscape and worked hard to balance tradition and innovation

Reform Once Rejected Traditional Practices

The Reform movement is the largest in American Jewry, with 1.5 million members and more than 900 congregations. Its theological basis is that, while the moral teachings that Moses received at Mt. Sinai are eternal, Judaism is an ever-evolving set of practices meant to be explored anew in each generation.

reform synagogue in south carolinaWhen Reform cohered in the United States in the 1870s, under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Reform Judaism was characterized by all-English services and a general shedding of what many saw as practices no longer relevant to a vibrant Jewish life, such as keeping kosher and worshipping in Hebrew.

But today, the movement sees itself as remaining true to its foundational principles of a progressive, social justice-oriented approach to religion, while also reintroducing a panoply of practices that were considered anathema to the first Reform Jews in America.

While Reform Jews continue to drive on Shabbat, and generally do not wear yarmulkes outside of the synagogue (or sometimes within it), an increasing number are learning Hebrew--even studying for adult bar and bat mitzvahs--observing Shabbat, and even keeping kosher in some form.

Outreach Has Been and Remains a Feature of Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is known for opening its doors to those who might have otherwise felt unwelcome in a Jewish context.  In 1983 the Reform movement ruled that people who were born to a Jewish father but a Gentile mother can be considered Jewish, a departure from the traditional teaching of matrilineal descent.

The movement also welcomes gay and lesbian Jews. The Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis allows rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies. The Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has ordained gay and lesbian rabbis since 1990. 

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Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.