Making Reform relevant

The World Union for Progressive Judaism will reap success if US Jews redefine their Judaism.

reform 88 (photo credit: )
reform 88
(photo credit: )
The Reform movement's World Union for Progressive Judaism is holding its annual international conference in Jerusalem this week. This is as it should be, for Jerusalem is the epicenter in the historical and spiritual drama of the Jewish people. Almost 35 years ago, the offices of the World Union were moved from New York to Jerusalem. There was a conceptual understanding that its home had to be in the historical and spiritual capital of the Jewish people. Over the years, WUPJ has been instrumental in strengthening and creating Reform communities in the former Soviet Union, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland and throughout Israel. And yet, with all its hard work, Reform Judaism has barely made a dent in the consciousness of Jews in these places. In Israel, for instance, the Reform movement numbers a mere few thousand members. One of the major reasons for the World Union's marginal influence is that while its parallel organization, the Union of Reform Judaism - its natural benefactor representing North American Reform Jewry - has adopted WUPJ's religious ideology, whereby both Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of Israel to Jewish theology should be primary forces in the life of a Jew, the URJ's constituents have not. Preaching by North American Reform leaders about commitment to the Jewish people does not resonate with most US Jews. There are three reasons for this: interfaith marriages, a rush to "spirituality" and a negative broadside against Israel in advocating for Reform rights in the Jewish state. These all overwhelm heroic attempts on the part of some in the North American Reform movement to cultivate a sense of peoplehood as essential to one's self-definition as a Jew. * The Reform movement in North America has become a faith-based religion. One's Jewish identity is defined almost exclusively in religious terms. Concepts of people, land, state, language are virtually excluded from its lexicon. This is the natural result of the growth of interfaith marriages. * To bring more Jews into Reform synagogue life, to a great extent intellectualism has been replaced by spiritualism. While not denying the spiritual needs of an individual, that strikes me as a quick fix. You have to work hard and long on religious experience; it requires consistency and practice, not an evangelical attempt to turn Jewish life into a revivalist tent meeting. Such narcissism is antithetical to the idea of peoplehood as expressed in our liturgy, where we primarily pray as a collective. * Trying to garner support for Reform rights in Israel, when speaking to Diaspora audiences we often blaspheme Israel as lacking any democratic processes because we Reform Jews have yet to gain full recognition as a legitimate stream of Judaism. We have parochialized our interest in the Jewish state, and in doing so have alienated North American Reform Jews whose idea of Jewish peoplehood is not paramount in the first place. As a result, the world movement based here lacks the necessary support to maintain its talented staff and laudable programs. It must continually go begging for funds. Budgets reflect values. Because of the above-mentioned phenomena, the moneys expended by North American Reform Jews do not significantly include Israel and the Jewish people as part of their concerns; otherwise the inroads of the Reform movement throughout the world would be as impressive as those of Chabad and other Orthodox movements, whose financial resources are not nearly as considerable as those of the liberal Jewish world. Instead of criticizing Chabad - and other Orthodox movements - Reform Jews would do well to take a chapter out of Chabad's book of commitment, not only to its own, but to Jews throughout the world. For example, two weeks prior to the return of parts of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, Chabad in Brooklyn raised $20 million for the small Jewish community there to purchase Arab homes and enlarge the Jewish enclave. Just imagine what the WUPJ could do with such an influx of cash. Why not, like Chabad, have 30 Reform rabbis serving Jews in Ukraine instead of one or two? With proper resources, we might be able to do serious outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel. Reform Judaism should appeal to them as the opposite to Orthodoxy's authoritarianism. With real money, Reform might even be able to set up in Goa, India, Machu Picchu, Peru or Phuket, Thailand, so that Reform Jewish centers could conduct High Holy Day services or Seders for all those young Jewish travelers in such places - just like Chabad. The World Union for Progressive Judaism is a remarkable organization, making Herculean efforts to bring a progressive brand of Judaism to Jews in the far reaches of the globe. But its work will reap success only if its North American Jewish friends redefine their Judaism so that peoplehood is fundamental to their Jewish well-being. Only then will Reform Judaism be able to play a significant and defining role in the lives of Jews around the world.