|Rabbi Stephen Wylen, left, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, and Rabbi Steven Sirbu|
The Reform movement that is marking its 200th anniversary this year looks vastly different from the movement that began as a rejection of what early Reform Jews saw as the rigid and outdated Judaism of their parents.
Today’s Reform Jews aren’t rebelling, because they don’t know as much about their religious traditions, said Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne.
“That has resulted in a return to tradition,” said Wylen who has spent the past 30 years as a Reform rabbi, navigating the movement’s changes. He chose Beth Tikvah because the synagogue has more of a focus on tradition, which he said he likes. And he has noticed a yearning among his congregants to give their children more in-depth Jewish educations than they themselves had.
“The feeling I get from many of the parents who faithfully bring their children [to Beth Tikvah’s Tot Shabbat program is that] they feel there was something missing from their own Jewish upbringing and they want their children to have more and a deeper connection,” he said. “They want their children to feel joy whenever they come into a synagogue, that there’s something here for them that they really need.”
He added, “Nobody does chasidism” – meaning joyous religious expression – “like Reform Jews.”
While many in the more traditional Jewish world may blame Reform Judaism for the rise in assimilation in North American Jewry, Reform Judaism is actually the counter-balance to assimilation, Wylen said.
“Most Jews, once they become Americanized, are not going to choose a way of life that rejects American life and culture,” he said. “If they’re going to remain Jewish, they have to remain Jewish in a way that affirms their culture at the same time. That path is Reform Judaism.”
The Reform movement is in the process of reinventing itself through the so-called Reform Think Tank, charged with reassessing the goals of the movement (see related story). This re-examination is in line with the character of the movement, which pioneered religious equality for women decades ago and turned a woman rabbi into a common occurrence outside of Orthodox circles.
“Reform means change,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly. “We are a movement known for being open to change. That dynamism continues.”
Four decades ago, Millstein said, Reform worship was fairly uniform, with congregants sitting in pews, listening to an organ, and doing responsive English readings.
Now there are a multitude of services, all under the Reform banner. They include bands, more Hebrew, guitar instead of organs, and more interaction between congregants and rabbis.
One of the big changes in the past few decades, he noted, has been the inclusion of tradition in the Reform service and more textual studies. Different forms of worship have replaced the once-uniform Reform service, so that one Reform synagogue might look vastly different than another. Millstein noted a growth in traditional-style services that are still egalitarian but include more Hebrew than earlier Reform services did. Reform, he said, has begun to take tradition and modernize it.
Temple Sinai joined with five other Reform congregations this summer for a Tisha B’Av service that drew about 200 people. The commemoration of the destruction of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem has not typically been part of Reform observance, but it is one of the many traditional pieces now getting an update. The service included the traditional reading of the Book of Lamentations, but also a discussion of the Haiti earthquake and relief efforts there.
In January, Sinai will hold a Tu B’Shevat seder, which has deep kabbalastic roots. The congregation has created its own haggadah, Millstein said, and plans to include discussion of environmental issues.
“You’ve got the traditional piece there and a modern piece,” he said. “That’s a creative re-appropriation of tradition.”
Millstein noted that he frequently meets with b’nai mitzvah students who come from mixed backgrounds – with one parent who may have grown up in the Reform movement and the other who grew up Conservative. This speaks to the new allure of the movement in mixing tradition and modern values, he said.
“The Reform movement has managed to combine Jewish tradition with the progressive ideal of being an American,” he said. “That value of inclusion and progressive values of welcoming gays, lesbians, intermarried families is an important thing that’s happened in the Reform movement in the last 30 to 40 years.”
For years, Reform Jews have typically taken breaks from synagogue life after high school until their first child begins religious education.
“It’s become more of a challenge to engage Reform Jews in their adult years in synagogue life,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. “Reform Jews, along with most Americans, are looking for religion to be highly personal.”
Sirbu pointed to the Internet as a prime example of instant access and customization to individual tastes.
“The more that a Reform synagogue and the Reform movement can really speak to each individual, the more we’re going to be successful in achieving our goals,” he said.
And what does the future hold for the movement?
Reform Judaism is a synagogue-based movement and will continue as such, Wylen said.
“We have to strengthen our individual congregations if we’re going to strengthen Judaism in America,” he said. “That the Reform movement is dedicated to the synagogue is one of our strengths.”
But as technology advances and people find new ways of interacting with one another, Reform Judaism will have to change as well.
“The next 30 years have to be a balance of tradition and technology,” Sirbu said. “We live so much of our lives online and yet the two major goals of synagogue life – worship and community – are achieved primarily in person. Our challenge is to take a generation that is very digitally adept and remind them that some things are best done in a synagogue building.”