Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.