Participant in the Women's March in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017. (Jason Dixson Photography/Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

Reform Judaism Today

Balancing tradition and innovation in the 21st century

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.

When 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.

Outreach to interfaith families is another hallmark of the movement.  As intermarriage rates rose in the 1970s, the Reform movement instituted an outreach program. At the time, the goal was to keep intermarried Jews involved with Jewish life in some form.

Today, that outreach endeavor has evolved in response to a more complex set of issues facing the movement. Although many Reform rabbis will not officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies, interfaith families continue to search for meaningful ways to experience Judaism.

Enter the Ritual Revolution

At the same time, though, the Reform movement is becoming more traditional, in the sense of adding more Hebrew to services and incorporating more observances into the average family’s Jewish life.  A generational split is emerging, with younger Reform Jews hungry for more traditional ways to incorporate Jewish meaning into their lives, while the older generation is more reticent to adopt new practices that may change the feel of Reform worship and lifestyle.

Scholars and leaders debate the long-term effect this phenomenon will have on the movement, some wondering whether it will create a rift between the “Classical Reform” on the one hand and a more Jewishly traditionalist group on the other.

Movement leaders say that conversion rates, meanwhile, are rising dramatically. As more and more families choose this option, some wonder whether this will lead to alienation for interfaith families that choose not to convert.

Others, however, think that the relationship between reaching out to non-Jews in a Reform context, at the same time that Reform Jews are re-connecting with traditional elements of the religion, might strike a fruitful balance that will sustain the movement in the future, especially as people reach out to the Jewish tradition for spiritual sustenance.

With the movement growing and changing, a serious shortage of professionals, including rabbis, cantors, communal leaders and educators, has emerged. Although concerns remain about whether this shortage will stunt the movement’s growth, recruitment efforts at the seminary are helping.  With 105 applicants for the fall of 2003, this year’s rabbinical pool represents the second largest group in the last 25 years, say the school’s admissions officials.

Another sign of vibrancy and progress, as well as the focus on more Hebrew and spirituality, is a pending new prayerbook. In development for more than twenty years, it is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2005. The book will reflect the dual trends in Reform Judaism, offering side-by-side pages with both traditional and alternative prayers.

Reform Political Issues

The family, home, and synagogue aren’t the only arenas in which Reform Jews are making a mark.  The public square and political arena are also familiar places for the movement.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC) continues, as it has since 1962, to advocate for a variety of issues that its leaders say are integral to a Jewish sense of social justice and “tikkun olam,” or repair of the world.

Most of the key political issues that the RAC is involved with concern the separation of church and state, in an era when programs from school vouchers to the so-called “faith-based initiative” seem to be striving to use government money to finance religious educational and social service programs.

Maintaining that Jewish values call for social action but also require a religiously pluralistic society, the RAC is seen as an advocate for the rights of minority religions in a largely Christian society.

Dissonance: Zionism and Left Politics

Zionism, or the support of the state of Israel, is also an interesting issue to watch in the Reform context.  The movement has, especially in recent years, been extremely devoted to Israel, urging young Reform Jews to travel there with youth groups and offering synagogue programs on the nation’s history and culture as well as sponsoring trips to Israel for adults and families.

Some scholars observe the tension between this pro-Israel sentiment and the left-leaning political legacy of the movement, which always supported Israel but often advocates for peace with Palestinians through a two-state solution.

The coming years will be crucial for the Reform movement, as it seeks to balance “classical” and “contemporary” traditions, supply and demand for Reform professionals, outreach and conversion, and Jewish and leftist politics in this period of growth and transition.

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