Leaders Urge Spiritual Return, Well Aware of the Challenges
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Leaders Urge Spiritual Return, Well Aware of the Challenges

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So many Reform Jews attended morning prayers during their biennial convention here last week that they spilled out into the hotel lobby.

With the doors of three adjacent alternative services open, the recitation of the Shema in different tunes merged into one powerful, spiritual song.

About half the men — and many women — covered their heads with kipot at Shabbat morning services.

It was the first time that organizers of the gathering of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational body, had made yarmulkas available.

And unlike earlier conventions, where only a sprinkling of people wore tallitot, or prayer shawls, this year there were too many to count.

In his Shabbat morning sermon, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, demanded — in strong language that got several standing ovations — that Jews rise up from their “crippling ignorance.”

This is clearly not your father’s Reform Judaism.

For several years now, the movement — with 857 congregations, the largest in America — has been in transition.

However, at this, the 64th biennial, which drew 4,500 Jews from across the country, the movement’s top leaders officially embraced tradition in a way never before seen at a UAHC convention.

From Torah-chanting lessons to the distribution of new booklets of Sabbath and holiday prayers and songs, the direction was unequivocal.

A well-known Reform rabbi, Marc Gellman of Melville, N.Y., said in a speech that Reform Jews should embrace the notions of an afterlife, known as Olam Habah, and of heaven.

While many of his listeners didn’t seem to connect with Gellman’s idea, the substance of what he said could easily have come from any Orthodox rabbi.

But perhaps more influential was Yoffie’s Shabbat morning sermon, his first at a biennial since he became president of the UAHC in 1995.

The 50-year-old Yoffie warned the delegates that if they did not become serious about the Jewish part of their Reform Judaism, the movement would be so weakened that it would cease to be effective.

“Never in our history has the gap between the serious Reform Jew and the non- serious Reform Jew been so great,” he said to the delegates gathered in a cavernous hotel convention space-turned-sanctuary.

“Alongside those who take seriously the reality of God and God’s immanence in Torah are those for whom the vision of the sacred has all but died in their soul.

“This is the single most momentous hour in the history of our movement. We have an affirming core of Reform Jews, and these Jews must now decide if our Reform heritage will be permitted to whither,”

“Too many of us can name the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of Moses; we know the author of `Das Kapital,’ but not the author of the `Guide for the Perplexed,’ he said referring to Marx’s bible of communism and Maimonides’ seminal redaction of Jewish law for lay people.

“Our challenge then is this: to lift up a whole generation of Reform Jews from the crippling ignorance that is all too often their companion, and to help them become competent and literate Jews.”

Yoffie kicked off five new programs to help Reform Jews get where he wants them to go. On the regional and local level, he said the UAHC will help Reform Jews:

Learn how to chant the Torah, an honor usually reserved for the rabbi in Reform congregations;

Read and discuss at least four serious Jewish books each year;

Study relevant Jewish texts as part of every temple committee meeting;

Include Torah study in each Sabbath service; and

Gather on the eve of Shavuot next year to learn together on a night when Jews traditionally stay up late studying the book of Ruth and other Jewish texts.

Yet within the movement, not all members are embracing the the new turn toward tradition.

“A lot of people in this movement are doing it to feel more Orthodox, more authentic,’ said one woman at the convention who asked that she not be named. “And that’s not what Reform is supposed to be about.”

Indeed, the emphasis on tradition poses many challenges for a movement that has long rejected it.

Even as the movement’s president instructed his members that they must return to Torah in a serious way, kosher food was not on the menu at the convention.

Reform is Judaism’s only denomination that rejects as binding Jewish law, including the requirement to keep kosher, though an increasing number of Reform rabbis observe the dietary laws.

The movement is also struggling with how particularistic it can be if it continues to open its doors to the non-Jewish spouses of so many of its members.

A reporter’s informal survey of delegates at the convention revealed that it is common for 40 percent of the members of Reform congregations to be involved in interfaith marriages. As much as 25 percent of temple board members are non- Jews.

In many cases, these Christian partners remain devoted members of their churches even as they demonstrate deep commitment to temple life.

Joseph Karpen is president of Congregation Beth HaTephila, a 200-member temple in Asheville, N.C., an area filled with rolling mountain roads and many Christian churches.

His wife isn’t Jewish. Though she regularly attends services with him, she also attends a Methodist Church each Sunday.

Karpen had what he called “a traditional Jewish wedding” a few years ago, with his uncle, a Reform rabbi, officiating. But his wife’s pastor also gave a sermon as they stood under the wedding canopy.

His 20-year-old son from an earlier marriage is likely to marry a non-Jewish woman, Karpen said, adding that it doesn’t bother him much because he doesn’t feel that there’s anything he can do about it.

While the rabbi of his congregation has recently introduced more traditional Jewish practices, such as walking the Torah through the congregation after it is read, the congregation is struggling with questions of limits to non-Jewish participation.

When it became clear that a non-Jew might be in line to become temple president, the board took up the matter and decided it would be inappropriate.

That temple leader resigned from his position on the board, Karpen said, “hurt that it had been brought up” as a potential problem at all.

A number of Reform temples are dealing with tensions between their movement’s classical ideology and neo-traditionalism by holding two very different kinds of services.

On Saturday mornings at Congregation Mickve Israel, in Savannah, Ga., for instance, the 60-minute worship begins with an English hymn. An organ accompanies the service and a soprano-soloist and the rabbi lead the sung portions of the classical Reform liturgy.

On Friday nights at the 350-family congregation, the service is what Rabbi Mark Belzer described as “warm Reform,” with a part-time cantor, more congregational participation, accompaniment by a guitar and more Hebrew.

Mickve Israel is one of many Reform congregations dealing with the seemingly contradictory impulses within the movement by trying to accommodate both of them.

For the time being, at least, it seems that the movement as a whole, too, will cope with such tensions by staying on two parallel tracks as well.

“There’s always a tension between the committed few — the leadership — and the rank and file,” said Yoffie in an interview.

Still, he said, “never have we had such an intensive approach to Torah study and seen a clear progression” in the movement’s spiritual development.

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