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."'

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