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Raising the Bar for Reform Jews, from Shofar Blowing to Daily Torah

November 12, 2003
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At Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom in Nashville, Tenn., congregants newly trained in the ancient skill of shofar-blowing sounded the ceremonial ram’s horn for the first time this past Rosh Hashanah.

It was the first time a lay member of the 150-year-old synagogue had blown the shofar.

“It was quite a pivotal moment” for the 800-family congregation, said its rabbi, Mark Schiftan.

Deeply rooted in classical Reform Judaism, the temple’s services until recently were marked by choirs and English- only prayer.

This Reform movement charter synagogue is undergoing upheaval, and it is not alone.

A journey toward religious tradition, accompanied by musical innovation, is reshaping many of the more than 920 member synagogues of the Reform movement.

The change is not new but it marks a continuing evolution for the movement, which just officially changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism, shedding its old moniker, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The name change was one of several changes at the group’s 67th biennial convention in Minneapolis last week.

Many of those changes have come from on high. The union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, signaled a historic shift in North America’s largest liberal Jewish denomination at its 1999 biennial with a worship initiative urging synagogues to use more Hebrew in prayer and reassess communal worship.

His call came after a statement of principles by the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which had met in Pittsburgh earlier that year, sought “renewed attention” to Jewish commandments, or mitzvot.

Last week, Yoffie tried to nudge the movement even further, calling for Reform Jews to log online daily to a “Ten Minutes of Torah” Internet program.

The Torah, he said during his Shabbat morning speech at the biennial, “is the engine that drives Jewish life.”

“Such a commitment would enable us to meet our Jewish obligation to make Jewish study a fixed occurrence,” Yoffie said. “And if the answer is, ‘I can’t find 10 minutes,’ let me suggest that we need to take a good look at our priorities.”

Yoffie is the first to admit that many of North America’s estimated 1.5 million Reform Jews may find the idea foreign.

Since his initial calls four years ago, Reform Jewry has embraced more intensive religious study “conceptually,” but not in practice, Yoffie said in an interview at the conference.

“There is a core, committed elite that is studying,” he said. “On the ground, results are strong in some areas, less strong in others.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the movement’s seminary in New York, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said that when it comes to congregational worship, “Reform is all over the map.”

Hoffman spoke at a conference panel called “Beyond the Worship Wars: Worship Change Four Years Later,” which examined how Reform congregations are responding to Yoffie’s 1999 calls.

Change “is a process; everybody knows it takes seven to 10 years,” Hoffman said.

Indeed, exhortation to change has become a movement fixture.

After World War II, the UAHC’s then-president Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath began moving Reform away from its classical roots. His successors, first Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then Yoffie, who took the helm in 1996, followed the path, with each one raising the bar further.

For many of the 4,500 movement leaders and activists who gathered in Minneapolis, change remains an article of faith. Daily and evening prayer sessions throughout the week echoed to crowds of dozens, with those praying donning yarmulkes and prayer shawls. The event also saw its first all-Hebrew prayer session.

The workshops on religious themes were crowded too, including those on delivering a d’var Torah, or text-based teaching, learning to chant from the Torah, creating High Holiday liturgy and experiencing a yoga minyan.

Some were not surprised by Yoffie’s renewed call for commitment, if only because it signaled another step in the movement’s evolution.

“Certainly the bar has been raised,” said Rabbi Joe Black, of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M. “One of the things Rabbi Yoffie has done throughout his tenure is place Torah at the center of the Reform movement.”

But Black said he and his 700-household congregation, “haven’t necessarily responded to the call for more tradition — the call was a reflection of what was happening for many years.”

In his eight years at the 107-year-old synagogue, Black said he has seen a boom in adult education, with classes in Hebrew, prayer, and Jewish history. Twice a month, the synagogue offers Shabbat Torah study, which alternates with two meditation sessions.

Many Reform rabbis and cantors in the movement lead services with a guitar — several even held a biennial workshop on music and prayer.

Black has also produced several compact disks. He leads an informal, musical Shabbat service, which relies on a prayer book the congregation designed that transliterates the Hebrew and includes gender-neutral references to God, as well as monthly Friday night family Shabbat service featuring a puppet show for kids.

While 60 percent of the synagogue’s liturgy is now in Hebrew, he said, it also often runs a more formal service with a choir and a sermon following the initial prayers, for those who prefer the old style.

A similar mix flavors the rituals at Nashville’s Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom.

Once a month, some 200 people typically gather there for “Blue Jean Shabbat,” featuring a five-piece band playing music by the likes of the renowned Debbie Friedman. The cantor, Bernard Gutcheon, strums guitar.

While about 40 percent of Ohabei Shalom’s services now contain Hebrew — using the Gates of Prayer book, which was published in 1975 and offers alternative Shabbat prayers — older members still attend more classical Reform services three times a year using the Union Prayer Book, first published in 1895.

The Albuquerque and Nashville temples are among those who have experimented with the movement’s new prayer book, Mishkan Tefilah, which is due to be published in 2005 for wider dissemination.

The new prayer book includes prayers in Hebrew, with translations and transliterations, commentary on the prayers and source references, with music and songs throughout.

Beth Haverim, a 280-family congregation in Mahwah, N.J., is also experimenting with the new book.

Beth Haverim’s rabbi, Joel Mosbacher, said that while he feels the new prayer book’s inclusion of transliterated Hebrew prayers is a crutch allowing people to avoid learning Hebrew, he found that prayer participation among his congregants skyrocketed since its introduction.

“Even as we shift to the right, you have to acknowledge that people aren’t there yet with their knowledge base,” he said.

Like other congregations, Beth Haverim is trying to fill that gap, using about 60 percent Hebrew in its services, but offering adult education such as Hebrew instruction, Friday night book reviews and an introduction to Judaism course that is popular in many Reform congregations. The course doubles as a refresher for Jews and a primer for non-Jewish members.

At the same time, Beth Haverim’s cantor, Barbra Lieberstein, has created such services as pop-infused Rock Shabbat, and has brought in a classically and jazz-trained pianist for the High Holidays.

HUC’s Hoffman joked that in Reform worship, “the three most important things are music, music and music.”

In Reform spiritual life, said Black, “we’re moving from an emphasis on pediatric Judaism, where you drop your kids off at school, to lifelong learning.”

Despite all the signs of fervor at the biennial, Yoffie said he does not delude himself about what’s happening at the grass-roots level, since such summits largely draw the movement’s leadership.

At the same time, he said, “If you walk into the average Reform synagogue now as opposed to 10 years ago, you will see that worship is appreciably different. It’s more participatory, there’s more Hebrew.”

“Have we seen change?” he asked. “Yes. Are we done? We’re never done.”

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