I last went to the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism twenty years ago. A very large and professional conference, sometimes having as many as four or five thousand people, it is meant for congregational leaders and congregational clergy from the 900 North American Reform synagogues to come together to learn, share best practices, pray together, hear top-notch speakers, and recharge. I haven’t gone because first of all, I wasn’t serving a congregation except for once a year on the High Holy days, and second, I felt a personal distance and even alienation from the heavy use of English in services, the emphasis on social action over religious study, and the lack of “Torah talk” in what I judged to be a religiously weak leadership.
Well, this is not your father’s Reform Judaism anymore, that’s for sure. I walked around the recent Biennial with my jaw dropped much of the time. Services were conducted mostly in Hebrew, and everyone pronounced every word correctly. The music was awe inspiring, soulful tunes which matched the depth of the words they were accompanying. Serious Jews discussed serious topics. There were several minyanim to choose from every morning. Each evening the whole convention came together in deep and heartfelt prayer, and Shabbat was mystical and magical as 5,000 Reform Jews studied Torah with scholars. It was the first time in a long time I felt that Reform Jews were taking themselves seriously, without looking over their shoulders and always wondering what “they” (the Conservative, the Orthodox, whomever) were thinking of “us.” It felt like a paradigm shift.
However, so many people are unaware of these changes and new models. Reform Judaism has gotten a bad rap, especially in “conservative” Toronto. Accused of being “church-like” and worse by people who may not have stepped foot in a Reform synagogue for years— or ever, for that matter—many people still labour under false assumptions: that Reform regularly celebrated Shabbat on Sunday (only a small handful of Reform temples actually did that in the 1890’s and later that was dropped); that services are all in English (not true at all); that all Reform temples have choirs and organs (not true, though many use musical instruments to enhance their Shabbat services); that anything goes (not true; Reform Judaism has clear standards and expectations). How much do people know about today’s “new” Reform Judaism?
They do know know which shuls they wouldn’t be caught dead in. The problem is Jews who have practiced no Judaism at all since they were children or since their children were children, often say “Well, I guess I'm Reform.” Such “Reform Jews” who practice virtually nothing erroneously believe that all it takes to be a good Reform Jew is to be a good person. I often remind such folks that anyone who is a good person is not necessarily Jewish; and anyone who is Jewish is not necessarily a good person. It’s false to say Reform Judaism has no expectations on you other than being nice and helping old people across the street. You can do that by being a Boy Scout.
To my mind, a small revolution has occurred in the Reform movement and I witnessed it at the Biennial. There I saw Reform Jews asking the question, “how can we make a spiritually alive Reform Judaism, a Reform Judaism not famous for its lack of structure and standards but known for its high level of commitment and its deep appreciation for people’s religious needs?”
Now I know “post-denominational” and “transdenominational” and “non-denominational” are the slogans of our age. I think we have much to criticize each movement for; and much to hope for in a community that strives to transcend these boundaries. But it’s time to pack away those tired stereotypes (and it wouldn’t hurt if we packed away all our denominational stereotypes) and all those unfounded assumptions (the stuff that often makes us feel like we are mavens but proves us to be ignoramuses). We should try and judge the movements—all of them—by their best adherents, not by their worst, by their paradigm shifts and not by old jokes, hearsay, and information from a decade ago, and be open to the possibility that each of them, with all their weaknesses, has grown and changed, has something to teach us, and something to offer in our complicated Jewish world.