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Peter J. Rubinstein
21st Century Jewry: A Renaissance of Reform Judaism (Rosh HaShanah 5771)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 9, 2010

I have lived my entire life as a Reform Jew.

My first experiences in a synagogue were in a Reform congregation housed on the second floor of a rather inconsequential storefront on University Avenue just off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. My parents joined that temple when my older brother belligerently refused to go to the neighborhood Orthodox Hebrew school around the corner and my mother insisted that there was no way, no how, she was ever going to sit behind a curtain by herself.

With the onslaught from his wife and oldest son, my father was willing to breach the boundary of his denominational Orthodox upbringing on the Lower East Side in spite – I’m sure – of his knowing absolutely nothing about Reform Judaism.

Two years later my parents switched their membership to Tremont Temple on the more tony Grand Boulevard and Concourse. Captivated by the creativity and ingenuity of Reform Judaism, Tremont became our synagogue home where my parents became very involved and where my brothers and I became b’nai mitzvah and were confirmed. I trace my tenacious Reform Jewish roots to this congregation.

Growing up I distinctly knew that we Reform Jews were different from our more ritually observant neighbors. They carried tallitot under their arms and walked to synagogue (or shul as they called it) on the holidays.

We drove to synagogue and “prayer shawls” (as we called them) were never part of our ritual wardrobe.

They kept Kosher. We religiously ate at Chinese restaurants on Sunday evenings and lobsters and clams when we summered in Maine.

They were beholden to the details of Jewish law – halacha, a word I didn’t know. We were committed to the equality, dignity and rights of all races and religions in this country, a principle which we would do well to reconfirm today. We believed in the commanding principles of ethical monotheism as majestically presented by the Biblical prophets and didn’t care at all about the restrictions of Jewish law about which we knew nothing.

The ultimate goal of our Orthodox male friends was to become a bar mitzvah at age 13 and there was no equivalent for girls. For us, becoming a bar mitzvah was eclipsed by confirmation in 10th grade in which girls were equal participants.

And our Reform temple’s worship style was vastly different from any Orthodox or Conservative synagogues my friends attended.  At Tremont Temple our clergy wore clerical robes, our service was almost entirely in English and the minimal Hebrew passages in the service were sung by a non-Jewish choir located in a choir loft with the organ above the sanctuary.  Our hymns from a red Union Hymnal included God is in His Holy Temple,  Lord Let the Swelling Anthems Rise,  and All the World Shall Come to Serve Thee, which though it had distinctly Germanic Protestant roots we will continue to sing in this congregation until the day I leave.

Additionally, we were forbidden to wear anything on our heads in the sanctuary and would never use either the Hebrew word kippa or Yiddish word yarmulke to describe those traditional head coverings.

We Reform Jews were different but nothing mitigated our comfort and meaning as Reform Jews which has been, for me, a source of authenticity and pride for me since childhood.

Some of you (but I know not all of you) had similar experiences.

In those halcyon days of the “Golden Age” of post-World War II Reform Jewry, Reform Judaism was robust, meaningful and focused on being a distinctly modern bridge between Jewish loyalties and beckoning American society. But with a quickening evolution in Jewish life impacted by social changes, particularly in the last two decades, our once visionary Reform movement has been left behind.

Our organizations and even our synagogues have stayed in a distinctly 20th century mode while 21st century Jewry has dramatically altered. The ramifications are quite profound.

We know that now Jews do not feel an obligation to be Jewish as previous generations once did.

Once we were comfortably Jewish searching for what it meant to be an American. Now we are comfortably American searching for what it means to be a Jew. Contemporary Jews feel less connection to a sense of Jewish kinship and less personal commitment to the Jewish people. Ensuring Jewish survival, once considered a collective sacred duty, is not any more.

A Jewish future can no longer be ensured.

There is no one way to be Jewish today.  In fact, there are limitless ways to be Jewish and connect to Jewish life beyond the traditional structure of synagogue affiliation.

According to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the Jewish Community Centers comprise “the largest institutionally based association in American Jewish life, with about a million Jewish members.”  (1)

This movement outnumbers Reform Judaism, which is numerically the largest Jewish denominational movement in this country. In addition to the JCC’s there are independent minyanim, Jewish spiritual support communities, Jewish social justice organizations, and a myriad of doors into Jewish life. There are even shuls that are “online-only” experiences in which worshippers who will never meet each other in person watch on computer screens, key in “amen” after blessings and happily link to “do-it-yourself” Judaism. (2)

Fewer than a third of American Jews presently belong to synagogues. Synagogues have become pass-throughs for life cycle convenience. Nationally, about half of Reform congregants whose youngest child becomes bar/bar mitzvah resign their membership after the event.

The existence of our synagogues cannot be ensured.

Denominational differences are blurring. Among liberal Jews (that is we Jews who do not adhere to the principles of Orthodoxy) the boundaries are especially porous.

Synagogues no longer necessarily hire rabbis, cantors or educators trained at the denominational seminary of their own movement. Small congregations are merging across denominational lines.

Indifferent to their denominational upbringing, liberal Jews move easily between the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. In the last two years only 60% of Central Synagogue’s new adult members were raised as Reform Jews. More than 30% were raised as Conservative Jews. Congregants are not choosing synagogues by denominational ideology. They join for what Cohen calls matters of “aesthetics” because they like a synagogue’s worship style, or clergy, or because their friends attend, or the religious school is convenient and its reputation is stellar.

The survival of liberal denominations and their organizations is no longer ensured.

Intermarriage has dramatically impacted Jewish life. Almost half of the children being educated in Reform synagogues are growing up in a family in which one parent was not born Jewish.

Though it is still reported that membership units in Reform congregations have remained constant, there are fewer adult Jews in our Reform synagogues than there were 20 years ago. (When I speak about Jews I always include both born Jews and converts to Judaism).
The decline of adult Jews in Reform synagogues has been made up on our membership rolls by the increasing number of non-Jewish spouses who are not converting.

The two-generation outflow from intermarried families in which children are not being raised as Jews because the one Jewish parent has only a tentative connection to being Jewish is vast. According to Cohen “well over a million Americans today, perhaps two million, report they had a Jewish parent or grandparent, but presently identify as Christian or as otherwise non-Jewish.”

Liberal Jewish life in this country cannot be ensured.

Our 20 and 30 year olds are changing the rules. Half a century ago, 77% of American women and 65% of American men had by age 30 “completed three of life’s central transitions. They were financially independent, had married, and given birth to their oldest child.”
Today that number is down by over 30% and is probably down even more in the Jewish community. (3)

According to a recent New York Times article, one-third of 20-somethings change residence every year, 40% live at home with their parents at least once and they go through an average of seven job changes before age 30. (4)

This generation has fewer Jewish friends, spouses, neighbors or work colleagues than past generations. “They are the least overtly religious American generation in modern times.” (5)

They are not joiners and they see denominations as divisive. (Synagogue 3000 study, Heller, p. 38)

These are our children and grandchildren. So let us forgo the past assumption that this generation of Jews will be part of a synagogue when their first child is in the third grade as did you, their parents and grandparents. There is a good chance it will not happen.

The Jewishness of our children and grandchildren is not ensured.

Support for Israel is waning among non-Orthodox Jews. In his article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, Peter Beinart (6) argues that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing a “near-total absence of positive feelings.” (HUC-Steve Cohen) 

Israel had become a foundation of Jewish identity for those of us who lived through the 1967 Six Day and 1973 Yom Kippur wars when Arab armies massed on Israel’s borders and Israel’s existence was precarious. But Beinart correctly indicates that our children have grown up “viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power” and they view Israel’s policies as antithetical to liberal ideals.

We can no longer assume that Israel will be an incontrovertible plank in the platform of Jewish identity.

Support for the existence of Israel is not ensured.

We face unprecedented challenges. The choices we Reform Jews need to make are straight forward. We cannot continue business as usual while our institutional life moves precipitously toward atrophy. Rather we can embrace, as we must, the courageous legacy of Reform Judaism and return to the frontier of creativity, robustness and vision. This is the commitment we take on.

Today I am calling for a renaissance of Reform Judaism and proclaim that this synagogue will take the lead. Together we will redirect the power, brilliance and creativity of the synagogues in our movement.

I am calling upon each of us to pledge that no Jew including the unaffiliated will be left alone to wander away from their birthright. We will give new meaning to “outreach.”

We Reform Jews will take liberal Judaism to the streets for our 20’s and 30’s. We will, take it online for the geographically and spiritually distant. We will meet in offices and homes. We will engage the newly married or never married, whether intermarried or inmarried. We will be together with straight or gay, young or old, new Jews or forever Jews.

We will take Reform Judaism to our students on college campuses, which we liberal Jews have all but abandoned and left to fundamentalist elements in our community, the principles of which we and our children reject. They are there and we are not.

We will create relevant engagement for our teenagers. We will increase the number of Jewish nursery schools for young children and their parents. We will gather retiring baby boomers and empty nesters.

Our goal is to take Judaism to every Jew and anyone who seeks to learn more about Judaism.

And to do this we call upon our synagogues and especially the national institutions of our movement – Hebrew Union College, the Union for Reform Judaism, and our professional organizations to gather together and creatively reflect and rethink our movement’s goals, priorities, challenges and opportunities beyond their own institutional survival. We need every person to support the strengthening of our movement and liberal Jewry in North America.

And as a synagogue let us hold a mirror to ourselves.

Last year when I spoke at a sixth grade retreat I pleaded with the parents to speak to their children with passion and substance about the meaning of Judaism in their own lives and why they as parents cared deeply that their child became a bar/bat mitzvah so that Jewish life would continue through their children.

The audience’s reaction was enthusiastic but as I made my way to the door several parents approached and pleaded with me “Rabbi, could you talk to our children about this?”  I recognized their insecurity and embarrassment in not having their own words to express what they felt.

That is our fault. Our Reform synagogues have not provided our Reform Jews the means to speak about and support the Jewish values by which we define ourselves as authentic Jews.

Michael Meyer writes that when we pass down the Torah from generation to generation when a child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah often “none of the three generations involved has more than passing familiarity with the content of the scroll.”

In his wonderful book, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes that “empowered Judaism” recognizes that “thousands of Jews of all ages and backgrounds are thirsting for a meaningful engagement with critical life questions and want to open up the texts of our past to deepen that engagement.” (7)

Let us make this happen. Let our synagogue build on our successes, admit our failures and be willing to fail again if that’s the price of transformational innovation.

If Jews do not feel an obligation to be Jewish then let this synagogue become a place for lifelong learning and engagement. Imagine an Individual Learning Program for every member. We will together and independently study texts from the Tanach and Rabbinic and modern sources. We will deepen our comprehension and appreciation of the values by which we define ourselves as Jews. We will express what it means for us to be a Jews with words and knowledge that tap deeply into the well of the Jewish soul. We will embrace our birthright. We must!

If there is no one way to be Jewish then let this synagogue be a place of community: a place where we share stories, a place where we are taken seriously and we join together to explore the critical questions of our era and our lives How do I decide what is ultimately most important in my life? How do I wisely exercise the unlimited control I have? Why do I worry about what I do? How am I Jewish? (8) These are the consequential conversations that people in community have together.

If denominational differences are blurring then let us join with other Jews across denominational boundaries. Let us not artificially separate ourselves from synagogues and their members in other movements. To the contrary let us pursue ways to study and support social justice as progressive Jews in common purpose.  Let us bring our children together to talk about their common concerns.

If intermarriage has dramatically impacted Jewish life then let this synagogue become the place for the exploration of Judaism: a place of serious outreach to all Jews and those who would consider becoming Jewish and even those who do not consider becoming Jewish but choose to learn about us. We have begun that process by sticking our toe in the great sea of spiritual seekers. We will support non-Jews who are in relationship with Jews, perhaps raising Jewish children. We will care for those who have converted and who are superior in Jewish knowledge but feel like novices in the way of the Jewish people. We will extend a hand to everyone who would choose to hold ours.

If our 20 and 30 year olds are changing the rules then let us be a harbor for our young people who seek Jewish community and life. And if they don’t seek us let us get out on the streets and find them because to do less is to signal that we don’t care. We do care! We must care! We will not, we cannot, let our children wander off.

If support for Israel is waning then let us make engagement with Israel a priority. We may not guarantee that you’ll love Israel but we can make certain that your opinions about Israel are honed with experiences that are up close and personal in Israel. Our goal should be that every one of our students visits Israel before they leave for college.

Above all let us be innovative with our ideas, technology and strategies. It is ironic that Chabad (Lubavitcher Hasidm), Aish Ha-Torah and other communities committed to a Jewish lifestyle of the past have completely outpaced us in using technology of the future. Google any Jewish subject and you will find their Web sites, and not those of Reform Judaism, are on the first screen. We cannot accept business as usual in our Reform movement. We must courageously move forward again to the frontier of innovation, community, meaningful engagement, support of Israel and dedication to Jewish life.

We make one more commitment. As Kerry and I drove across this country during our sabbatical we stopped in on struggling congregations in small towns with decreasing Jewish populations in the heartland of this nation. These communities manage to survive without rabbis, or cantors, or any other professionals. They do it on their own. They are inspiring. Their determination to survive emerges from a resolve that Jewish life will not die in their community on their watch but will continue until their strength fades and their resources are gone.

Let us partner with one of these congregations and share our strength and our resources with them. We will support them with visits by our clergy to lead services and teachers to be with their children. We will embolden them with the vision of our lay leadership. We will provide funding for their minimal but essential needs.  We can even make it our purpose as a membership to stop by if we’re ever within hundreds of miles.

We have reached out to world Reform Jewry. We have nourished partnerships with struggling congregations and day schools in Mendoza, Argentina; Minsk; Berlin; and Israel. It is time to come home and take care of Reform Jewry in this country.

When a congregation completes reading one book of the Torah and before it begins the next the worshippers publicly affirm: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazayk. We will be strong and we will stand shoulder to shoulder to strengthen each other.

I, for one, will not surrender my claim on the robust and progressive Reform Judaism that nourished me and many of you with vision and purpose when we were young. We are at a critical moment in American Jewry. We have much to do. We may not have chosen to be the generation to shape a Jewish future in the 21st century.  But that responsibility is now ours and it is our mission and it now becomes our journey together. For the survival of liberal Jewry in this country we will be strong and we will strengthen each other for the preservation of Jewish life in American today. May God help us. Amen.



1 For statistical data see: Steven M. Cohen, “Changes in American Jewish Identities Since 1948: From Norms to Aesthetics”, The Chronicle, HUC, 2009

2 Sue Fishkoff, “New Sites make Shul an Online-Only Experience”, JTA, August 23, 2010

3 See Jonathan Sarna,  Foreward to Empowered Judaism by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 2010

4 Robin Marantz Henig, What is It About 20-Somethings? NY Times Magazine, August 22, 2010

5 Pew Social and Demographic Trends, “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change. February 24, 2010

6 The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010

7 Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 2010, p. 3

8 See Hayim Herring, “Synagogue Renewal in an Age of Extreme Choice” in Synagogues in a Time of Change,  2009, Edited by Zachary I. Heller


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