Reform seek to renew synagogue experience


PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 13 (JTA) – At the last Reform movement biennial conference in 1999, its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, called for a “revolution” in the way Reform Jews worship.

If so, a 400-person conference this week in Philadelphia might be considered the revolution’s boot camp.

But these are amiable revolutionaries, whose rallying cries are words like “spirituality” and “meaning,” whose anthems are sung to folk guitar and whose uniforms – if there can be any in a movement that prides itself on individualism and free choice – are multicolored prayer shawls and large crocheted yarmulkes.

Clergy and congregants from 18 Reform temples throughout the United States gathered in Philadelphia to launch their two-year-long participation in Synagogue 2000, a trans-denominational program that helps synagogues rethink their approach to concepts such as worship and Jewish study.

It was the largest such conference to date for Synagogue 2000, which was founded by two Jewish educators five years ago, and the first in which all participants were part of one movement.

It comes as the Reform movement is moving away from its “classical” past in which leaders valued social action over traditional Jewish ritual and observance. Many criticize the old-style synagogues – with their cathedral-like buildings, organ music and operatic cantors – saying they do little to encourage lay participation and spiritual intimacy.

One conference participant, Elizabeth Klein Shapiro of Champaign, Ill., recalled how her wedding 39 years ago at a Reform temple in Manhattan had no chupah, or wedding canopy, and no glass-breaking.

“Reform threw out the baby with the bath water, and now it’s saying, ‘Hey, we need the baby back,’ ” Klein Shapiro said.

The movement now has 906 congregations in North America – more than the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements combined – and is investing heavily in synagogue “transformation.”

This year it is spending $150,000 on the Synagogue 2000 effort, plus an estimated $250,000 in professional and support services.

Individual synagogues sent “teams” of 15 to 25 people, many of whom paid their own way. Most participants, buoyed by the feeling that they were making Jewish history, said they were excited to be there and looked forward to improving their synagogues.

Participants ranged in age from age 16 to 70-something, but the majority appeared to be middle-aged. There were approximately twice as many women as men.

Longtime synagogue members said they hoped to make the synagogue experience more rewarding for newcomers, while many new members said they looked at the Synagogue 2000 teams as a way of getting more involved in their communities.

“I go to services regularly and love it,” said Sandy Glass, a longtime member of Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom. “I want everyone to enjoy it as much as I do.”

Those who worried that the gathering might be too touchy-feely were pleasantly surprised.

At a meeting for Temple Israel of Hollywood, Calif., one woman said her fear of the “Kumbaya factor” had dissipated after the opening plenary.

Marc Gilman, 41, of Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, N.H., happily remarked that the gathering “isn’t hokey or corny.”

There were still some critics, including one woman at a “debriefing” session who complained that a Shabbat evening service with folk music and dancing was more like “a rock concert than a spiritual event.”

At a similar “debriefing” after a Shabbat morning service, one man complained that the Hebrew-language prayers and songs were like “gibberish,” since most participants didn’t understand them.

The conference did not fall on Shabbat, but Shabbat services were included so participants could see different options for worship.

In addition to lively singing – “more than anything else, it is music that makes the service,” noted Rabbi Larry Hoffman, one of Synagogue 2000’s founders – some services had innovations like meditation. In one case, worshipers slowly bent over and then rose while saying “Baruch Atah Adonai,” Hebrew for “Blessed Are You, O God.”

In addition to the services, sessions addressed topics such as creating a more welcoming atmosphere, attracting people to Saturday morning services and using architecture to create “sacred space.”

The lecturer on sacred space urged congregations to create semi- circular sanctuaries where congregants can see each other as well as the bimah. He criticized the Greek Revival-style, cathedral-like structures and parking lot- dominated approaches favored by past synagogue designers.

Ironically, the conference surroundings – in a high modern, Art Deco- style hotel that had once been a bank – were not particularly warm or spiritual.

“Spirituality” was the word of the day, with many participants talking about their own searches and journeys.

The definition of spiritual, however, was as varied as the people involved in the conference.

Arnold Jacobson, 62, of Temple Isaiah in suburban San Francisco, said he would like to see a “multitude of concepts” for thinking about spirituality in the Reform movement.

“Professionally, I help people get pregnant with in-vitro fertilization,” Jacobson said. “For me, that’s spiritual.”

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