Reform Launches a Worship Revolution

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

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"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.”

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