Reform Launches a Worship Revolution

More Hebrew, rituals, and joyful participation called for at 1999 Orlando Biennial.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Forward.

If Rabbi Eric Yoffie [President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization representing congregations affiliated with the Reform movement] has his way, Reform synagogues will be featuring more singing, movement and Hebrew in their services and Reform children will be saying prayers such as the Sh'ma at bedtime.

Those suggestions were part of several initiatives launched by the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation in a Sabbath sermon at the group's [December 1999] biennial convention last week in Orlando. Describing liberal Jewry as "the least worshipful of peoples in North America," he called for a "revolution" in worship that would bring "two‑day‑a‑year Jews" back to their empty pews.

reform templeThe worship and family initiatives are the latest step in Reform's drive to embrace more of Jewish tradition and ritual, veering away from the "high‑church" Protestant style of worship and comportment that marked classical Reform Judaism in America. Last year [May 1999], the movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a platform, "A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism," that embodied some of these leanings, even if it was diluted owing to opposition from some classical elements, mainly in the South and Midwest. The new initiatives signaled a further retreat for this classical Reform tendency, which seemed muted at the convention. Even so, Rabbi Yoffie took the precaution of casting his "revolution" as a "return" to Reform tradition.

"Our movement came into being as a liturgical revolution," Rabbi Yoffie told the 5,000 conventioneers assembled at the Dolphin Hotel at Disney World, "Reform Judaism did not begin with ethics, social justice or personal autonomy; it was a reaction to the chaos and mechanical mumbling of the then-dominant form of Jewish prayer. Worship reform was the very heart of early Reform Judaism; classical Reform Jews, then as now, brought a deep earnestness to issues of prayer."

Yet he described a situation of urgency in many synagogues, which he said had stagnated in their practices and had flagging attendance. "A 27‑year‑old rabbi, newly ordained from the Hebrew Union College [Reform rabbinical seminary], will often look out at her congregation on erev shabbat and realize that she is the youngest person there by several decades. Why has this happened?" Rabbi Yoffie asked, urging the 900 Reform synagogues to create a partnership of rabbis, cantors and laity to launch a searching self‑evaluation of their worship practices. Such an effort, he said, should lookto include "music that is participatory, warm and accessible," "children... [whose] simple faith and playful eagerness will help‑to breathe new life into our prayer” and more Hebrew, "the great democratic tool of Jewish worship, the vehicle that opens the gates of prayer."'

"We do not want to be rabbis who are spiritual imperialists, insisting that worship is ours alone," he said. "We do not want to be cantors who are operatic obstructionists, intent on performance at the expense of prayer, and we do not want to be lay people who are conscientious objectors, objecting to everything that is not as it was."

Rabbi Yoffie also announced an agreement with Synagogue 2000, a nondenominational institute that takes an eclectic approach to worship revitalization, to induct 15 more Reform congregations into its program. Led by an educational expert from the Conservative movement, Ron Wolfson, and a Reform liturgist, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Synagogue 2000 has already involved a number of Reform synagogues in its programs.

Many practices associated with the movement for worship revitalization were already on display at the convention, which was coordinated by a UAHC staffer who is also a Synagogue 2000 faculty member, Rabbi Daniel Freelander. The 5,000 assembled Jews linked arms as they sang hymns for the Sabbath on Friday evening, and strangers sitting side by side greeted each other. People stood during the misheberach prayer and called out the names of those who needed healing as the rabbi conducting the service swept his arm out over the congregation.

Rabbi Freelander said the convention was a "laboratory" at which he could prove the worthiness of new worship styles to "naysayers" and that the conventions had evolved over the last several years to be more participatory, "The reality is a lot less threatening than the idea," he said, adding, "for our classical Reformers, who feel most alienated, they felt validated."

At Saturday morning services, an almost biblical spectacle occurred when, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Reform's initiative to step up outreach to and conversion of gentiles in the Reform Jewish orbit, all the participants who had converted because of that initiative were called to the Torah. Some 200 individuals streamed out of the audience and ascended the podium, swamping the area, as the president emeritus of the UAHC, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, intoned a blessing. Several references were made from the podium to "the biennial at Sinai."

It was, as one participant was heard to say, as if "the '60s generation has taken over the movement." Musicians strummed guitars on the podium and in the halls; men and women wore multicolored yarmulkes and prayer shawls, beribboned sachets passed from hand to hand during the blessing on spices that was said as part of a Havdalah service marking theclose of the Sabbath.

This being Disney World, children were much in evidence, and Rabbi Yoffie’s Saturday speech seemed designed to appeal to the many young parents in the audience. He launched “a campaign to ensure that no Jewish child in America goes to bed without reading a Jewish book, listening to a Jewish tape, watching a Jewish video, or playing a Jewish computer game.” He referred to the Sh’ma, the credo of faith, which many Jews recite at bedtime, and he said, “making bedtime Jewish time is not a new insight; it is as old as the Torah itself. If we offer [children] Jewish stories and the regularity of ritual, particularly at bedtime, we will connect them with Torah, fortify their moral moorings and create sacred memories that are certain to endure.”

Segueing to Reform’s social action agenda, Rabbi Yoffie called for more gun control, eliciting the greatest applause of the morning when he called the National Rifle Association “the criminals lobby” for supporting “the right of any crook or wife beater to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked.” On the question of religious pluralism in Israel, he asked [then] Prime Minister Barak “to oppose legislative Judaism in any form.”

Convention participants, UAHC staffers and Reform lay leaders interviewed at the convention appeared to embrace the worship and childhood initiatives. It will be hard work, but it will get done,” the new chairman of the UAHC’s board of trustees, Russell Silverman, said. The associate director o the UAHC department of religious living, Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, acknowledged that such changes are “threatening. There are some rabbis, some cantors, some lay leaders who’ve come to like it the way it is,” but she said that changes address “a deep-seated need that everyone seems to be having to connect to the spiritual.”

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E.J. Kessler is a staff writer for The Forward.