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What’s in a Name? Reform Change Makes ‘judaism’ Front and Center

November 12, 2003
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The prospect of a new, catchier name did not seem to excite many Reform Jews – – until it actually happened.

Thousands gathered at the 67th biennial of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Minneapolis last week, yet few seemed to have much passion for the impending vote to change the venerable synagogue

association’s name to the Union for Reform Judaism.

The sentiments of Stephen Lynn, president of one of the oldest and most prestigious Reform congregations in North America, the Stephen S. Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, were typical: The name-change “is silly,” Lynn said. “I don’t care. I’ll still come to the conventions.”

But that was before the Nov. 7 vote.

The president of the body representing more than 900 Reform congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, urged the name change in a speech that touched on the spiritual.

Names “are not unimportant” in Jewish tradition, Yoffie said.

Referring to the weekly Torah portion that coincided with the conference and the vote, Yoffie said, “Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah, signifying that they are no longer leaders of a clan or a tribe but of a people — and not only a people, but a religious people covenanted to God.”

In Judaism, he added, “a change of name takes place when a person or a group undergoes a change in essence.”

That transformation is taking place in the Reform movement, Yoffie said.

Since its founding 130 years ago, Reform Judaism has gone from a German Jewish movement advocating enlightenment and emancipation from ritual to one seeking more tradition and more active participation in Jewish life.

Reform has grown into “the largest and most dynamic religious movement in American Jewish life,” Yoffie said, with 1.5 million members and 920 congregations.

Studies bear that out.

Of the 46 percent of 4.3 million Jews who claim affiliation with a synagogue, 39 percent identified as Reform, compared to 33 percent Conservative; 21 percent Orthodox; 3 percent Reconstructionist and 4 percent other, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

In the past decade, Reform Judaism grew 4 percent, while the Conservative movement fell 8 percent in terms of affiliation.

Reform attributes some of its success to its outreach to unaffiliated Jews, and its embrace of non-Jewish spouses of Jews.

Yet the congregational umbrella has found it difficult to win acceptance in wider circles, Yoffie said, in part because of an “awkward” moniker.

The UAHC was founded in an era when “Hebrew was considered a genteel substitute far more acceptable in Christian society,” he said. Today, the term Judaism “plainly asserts our Jewish identity.”

Apparently hoping to ease the concerns of the more cost-conscious among the group, Yoffie said that the change of stationery and signs at summer camps should cost little.

The new name required a two-thirds vote, by a show of hands, of the 4,500 delegates to the biennial.

Yoffie hoped to avoid a floor fight on the day of the vote, telling the assembly that after a handful of failed name changes over 60 years, the UAHC’s 270-member board took great pains to devise the new name.

But the debate went on. Asked for delegates’ views, a few dozen people quickly assembled to say yea or nay.

One critic was Rabbi Eric Wisnea, of Congregation Beth Chaim, in Princeton Junction, N.J., who echoed other opponents in saying the move should be low on the list of organizational concerns.

“I don’t ever have a congregant who calls me and says, ‘Just change the name, and I’ll write a check to HVAC or whatever it is!’ ” Wisnea said.

Others, such as David Ellenson, president of the movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, echoed Yoffie’s call.

“Names have tremendous significance,” Ellenson said. In a post Sept. 11-era of religious fanaticism, “it is important for us to express who and what we are, and to do so proudly.”

After a handful of people on either side weighed in, a revolt suddenly seemed possible.

But one delegate cut off the debate by using the parliamentary rule of “calling the question” — forcing a vote by show of hands.

Citing a famous biblical phrase from Genesis, this delegate said the “gap between ‘lech’ and ‘l’cha’ ” — God’s call to Abraham to leave his homeland for the land God would show him — was “too wide” on the issue.

The name change passed immediately — and overwhelmingly. The group’s official new name is the Union for Reform Judaism: Serving Reform Congregations in North America.

And movement officials seemed confident of the switch long before the vote. They had already registered the new Web domain,

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