by Rabbi Sarah Hronsky and Emeritus Rabbi Jim Kaufman

For 3500 years, religious Jews had only one option…. Orthodox Judaism.
Then, in 1783, Moses Mendelson did something cutting edge.  He said that in Germany, so many Jews did not know Hebrew and, therefore, knew nothing of the Hebrew Bible.  Mendelson proceeded to translate the Bible into German. Nothing new about Bible translations, but this one was targeted for the Jewish community of Germany.
Of course, the Orthodox considered it blasphemy and condemned such an endeavor.  But this was the beginning of the process that gave birth to Reform Judaism.
The Reform movement officially began not with a rabbi, but with a German businessman named Israel Jacobson, who, with his own money, founded a boarding school in 1801 near Hanover, Germany. He held Shabbat services with prayers and songs in German. He introduced the choir and the organ.
Guest rabbis were invited to deliver the weekly sermon in German or Yiddish. He changed Bar Mitzvah, which had been an official ceremony for boys since medieval times, from a singular experience at age 13 to a group Bar Mitzvah at age 16 and called it confirmation. All this was revolutionary but a logical outgrowth of the period of Enlightenment that prompted changes in so many other religious and political institutions.

Moses Mendelson and Israel Jacobson wanted to be free of the constraints of the Orthodox and sought to update Jewish religious life and make it relevant.  They wanted Judaism to fit into the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. The early reform Jews who followed after did not create a nurturing Judaism. They seized their newly acquired freedom to pronounce certain Jewish behaviors and beliefs as wrong. Reform Jews don’t keep Kosher. Reform Jews don’t wear side curls. Reform Jews don’t put yarmulkes on their heads. Reform Jews don’t sing and pray in Hebrew if they don’t understand. Reform Jews don’t believe in Messianism and the afterlife of the soul and of the need to enter the Zionist movement to work towards the establishment of a State of Israel.
Reform Jews do adapt to the land in which they live; acculturation was the mandate of Reform Judaism.

The Orthodox say: here is Judaism, and here you are… not you need to fit into the Jewish pattern. The early Reform Jewish leaders, instead of preserving freedom of choice, proceeded to create an Orthodox Reform, declaring a host of prohibited behaviors.
They goofed. In seeking change, they forced Jews back into another religious straight-jacket. And in America, up until the 1940’s and 1950’s, with periodic adjustments made at major Reform conventions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Columbus, this has been the restricting garb of Reform Judaism.

Yet the changes over the past 60 years have been monumental.
In the 40s and 50s, we shared the desire of the German Jewish community to be integrated into American culture.  At the same time, we stuck together socially, and we were more private about our faith and our practice. It is said of American Jews in the 50’s that when we stood in line at the cashier in the market and were talking to a friend about Jewish things, we would lower our voices when referring to Jews or Jewish things. We were painfully self conscious.

Jim remembers being ten years-old and getting looks from people while standing in line at the old Studio City Theater (now Barnes & Noble) when he and his friends would talk about Jewish stuff.  None of his friends ever wore a Jewish star or mezuzah.  Jim’s Bar Mitzvah was here at Temple Beth Hillel in 1957.   Rabbi Bauman, who officiated, was, like most of his colleagues at the time, not happy about Bar or Bat Mitzvah, preferring still the Israel Jacobson model of confirming your faith at the more mature age of 16.   Rabbi Bauman would officiate at no Bar Mitzvah unless the 13-year-old agreed, in writing and before the ark at the end of the Bar Mitzvah, that he would stay in religious school until a 12th grade confirmation.
In the 1950s, Reform synagogues sought to elevate such American holidays as Thanksgiving, Labor Day and July 4th by including some synagogue observance or liturgy.  At Temple Beth Hillel in the 50s, there was a Jewish religious Thanksgiving morning service with its own special prayer book. Today, our Thanksgiving service is an interfaith activity for the entire community.
When Israel was founded in 1948, Reform Judaism, flourishing in America and wanting to be perceived as pure American (especially in the McCarthy era), demurred from fully participating in the efforts to sustain the fledgling Jewish state.  Many Jews feared accusations of  dual loyalty.

The 1960s — rocked by the civil rights movement, the Six Day War and Vietnam — were tumultuous for America and a watershed for American Reform Jews.  As America let it all hang out, it was time for Reform Jews to do the same.  So many flower children were Jewish, so many of those who marched with Martin Luther King were Jewish, and so many who quietly conscientiously objected or vociferously objected to Americas tragic involvement in Vietnam were Jewish. Theologian Eugene Borowitz states that American Reform Jews “were no longer infatuated with the model of the American melting pot.”  Instead, Borowitz describes their relationship as “creative alienation.” He writes: “Creative alienation implies sufficient withdrawal from our society to judge it critically, but also the will and flexibility to keep finding and trying ways of correcting it. Jewishness offers a unique means of maintaining such creative alienation.” We would add that Reform Judaism was and remains the perfect vehicle for creative alienation with enough distance to criticize, enough prophetic ethical zeal to speak truth to power, and enough care to remain loyal American citizens.

With the 1967 Six Day War, the Reform movement finally woke up to Israel. Reform religious schools began teaching the Sepharic Hebrew of Israel …Shalom, Adonai, Yitgadal, vyitchagash… and discarding the Eastern Eurpopean Ashkenazi Hebrew of Shoilem, Adonoy, Yisgadal, Vyischadash. We went from one hour of week for Hebrew school to five hours a week.

The Reform movement separated itself from the American melting pot and grew secure enough to become a willing and significant supporter of Israel. ARZA, the association of Reform Zionists of America, was founded and Reform Jews were now fully “out of the closet.”  Soon, 250 year-old traditions were reintroduced into Reform households and synagogues.

By the 1970s, Reform Jews were so confident (and growing in population, just behind Conservatives in sheer numbers) that we boldly, publicly declared what Reform rabbis had been quietly believing and acting upon for 250 years:  Acceptance as Jewish those children raised by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. If being born to a Jewish mother is matrilineal descent (established during our 4000-year-old history only 2000 years ago), being born to a Jewish father and raised a Jew is called patrilineal descent. The Orthodox and Conservative movements declared we had caused an irreparable schism among our movements.
Our public patrilineal descent declaration led to an outreach to interfaith couples. Then it led to an even bolder public declaration in 1975 by the national rabbinic and lay leaders: If you are an unchurched Christian and you are interested in pursuing Jewish life, please call your local rabbi. Yes, we were soliciting converts. We had been doing it for centuries, but the events of history silenced our outreaching voices. Since then, the Reform movement has welcomed tens of thousands of wonderful “Jews by choice” who have enriched and reinforced the sometimes frayed fabric of Reform Jewish life.  We became active and proud (not aggressive) missionaries for Judaism.

Then came the 1980s. Though our tradition had intoned for two millennia that man is not complete without a woman, this never translated fully into the leadership of Reform Jewish life. Yes, Rabbi Sally Preisand (pictured at left) was the first ordained woman rabbi in America from any movement in 1972, but the inclusion of women in the reform rabbiniate did not pick up speed until the 1980’s. With that came the continued restoration of discarded traditions and the infusion of a more caring and compassionate approach in synagogue life.  Better yet, the Reform movement became even more creative and energized. With pride, we Reform Jews can point to the facts: over half of the new rabbis being ordained are women.
In the 1980s, Reform Jews continued to exercise publicly our collective conscience as Israel’s hold on the occupied territories continued to bring pain for all sides. Reform rabbis founded an organization called Brayra, meaning “choice.”  Its platform: American Reform Jews should be loyal to Israel, but it need not be a blind loyalty.  It is okay to constructively criticize Israel, and Brayra pushed in a very public way the agenda that Israel must negotiate with the Palestinians. Reaction from other Jews was strong, even from some Reform rabbis. As a member of Brayra, Jim signed an open letter to the prime minister of Israel, pushing for negotiations and pushing for land for peace.  Two days after the letter appeared, a hastily gathered group of rabbis from all movements declared in the media the Brayra letter was signed by a rag-tag collection of “undistinguished” rabbis and should be ignored. Our group proudly constructed buttons simply saying “undistinguished.” The Reform movement had come of age — we were able to disagree in public.
In the 1980s, with the success of our outreach to the unchurched community, we also realized we needed to focus on “in-reach,” to be a welcoming place for Jews who were unwelcome in other Jewish arenas: the disaffected, those with learning disabilities, the disabled, interfaith, gay, and lesbian families.  This was Reform movement’s version of “no Jew left behind.” And there is an inclusiveness in Reform Jewish life that is unique among all other religious Jewish expressions.  There should always be a safe home for every Jew, and Reform Jewish synagogues in America are that home. God bless creative alienation. It gives us the perspective on our society that fosters such wonderful inclusive, healing acts of care and concern.

Reform congregations, in the 1990s, reached out to hundreds of thousands of Former Soviet Jews, providing testimony that God had survived 70 years of communism. God also survived a Reform movement overly focused on social action.  And so, with the realization that no matter how hard we try, we cannot melt in; with the spiritual touch that women rabbis brought to us; and with the inclusion of a whole generation of Russian Jews hungering to talk about God out loud; we witnessed the full return of “God talk” to the Reform movement.

Yes, it all began with Mendelson in 1789, but we never fully realized our potential until these last 60 years.
Today, the Reform movement is the largest segment of any Jewish religious movement. Just last year, we also provided the largest voting contingent to the World Zionist Congress, an Israel-focused gathering.
Jim witnessed a piece of that growing public pride last summer when he returned with a group of 80 teen campers from a social action trip to San Francisco. After a full day of lobbying and petition-signing for immigrants rights, they stopped at a Fresh Choice restaurant in Santa Rosa for dinner. Since it was a buffet, they all began to eat at separate times, but ended up finishing about the same time.  Unorchestrated, the teens began to sing in loud, proud voices, “Raboti n’varech, yhee shem adonai mvorach may atah vad olam.”  This is the birkat hamazon, the traditional blessing after the meal.  Teenagers of the 50s and 60s would never have shown such pride and confidence in themselves and their traditions.
Leonard Fine, a brilliant Jewish thinker and leader, said that Reform is not an adjective, but a verb.  Adjectives are passive. Verbs are active and connote movement and change.  In that spirit of action and movement and change, let us pray that Reform Judaism be two things:
One:  A blessing for all of Jewish life, for Israel, for America, for our synagogues, for ourselves and, most importantly, for our children;
Two:  May Reform Judaism always be creatively oriented.