The only thing that is constant is change, taught the Greek sage, Heraclitus.
Judaism’s Reform movement embraces this philosophy.
We are “about change,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism. Being a Reform Jew “is a blessing and a challenge. The blessing is we are the movement that has built into its DNA the word reform.”
The challenge is a continuing problem of how to engage in the traditions and “hold ourselves accountable to maintaining continuity. It’s a constant challenge to stay true to Judaism while reforming,” Pesner said.
That challenge is what Gerdy Trachtman loves about being a Reform Jew. “The Reform, we know where we are headed. You do whatever is meaningful to you,” said Trachtman, who has been a member of Washington Hebrew Congregation since 1979.
“I think we are becoming more traditional. There is more Hebrew [spoken in services],” she said of the synagogue which has some 3,000 families as members.
Trachtman and fellow congregants who recently gathered at their synagogue’s monthly Shabbat Under the Stars service cheerfully sang the prayers and other tunes along with song leader Audrey Katz, who encouraged everyone to join in, regardless of whether they knew the words.
Guitars, organs, pianos and full synagogue bands often complement Reform services, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Reform Judaism is the largest movement in America. Some 1.5 million people belong to Reform congregations, according to the URJ. Nearly 900 Reform congregations are affiliated with the URJ.
Reform Judaism was born around the time of the French Revolution in the late 1700s, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. It came to America when German reformers immigrated here in the mid-1800s and rapidly spread. It was greatly molded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who came to the United States from Bohemia.
Known for its liberal ways, Reform Judaism has long been accepting of interfaith marriage, gays and women involved in all facets of Jewish life. Pesner attributes the increase in the number of Reform Jews partly to this stance. Currently, the emphasis is on attracting children born to interfaith families, reaching out to them rather than waiting for them to first step into a synagogue.
“We are open, welcoming and engaging for those seeking a spiritual home,” said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami.
The Reform movement is reexamining just about every angle of Jewish life – from the b’nai mitzvah to life after that big day; from summer camp to adult study groups; from membership dues to affiliations with other movements – in its efforts to both retain members and gain new ones.
“We have this whole generation who grew up dissatisfied with the religious school education and said, ‘We are not going to do this to our children,’ ” Pesner said. “They are looking for something more meaningful. They are not interested in the pickup and drop-off. These are the parents who say, ‘I don’t want my kid to be bored and hate Hebrew school the way I did.’ ”
Temple Beth Ami has attracted a whopping 700 children to its religious school, which Luxemburg said is one of the largest in the Reform Movement nationally. That is why he considers it important to try “different approaches to youth engagement,” retaining as many as possible of today’s busy children, he said.
While the movement as a whole has long offered a summer camp program, it now has 15 camps, three of which have been around only for four years. These camps specialize in sports, science or technology but also are “deeply religious” and include daily prayer and study, Pesner said.
As for b’nai mitzvah, the movement is trying to change the rite’s image for some as the endpoint of Jewish involvement. Several synagogues are participating in a pilot program in which b’nai mitzvah families choose from a menu of activities to comprise the celebration. While this approach allows teens to opt out of the traditional Torah and haftarah chanting, Pesner said he’s finding that most people are “doing the traditional way, and with extra.”
Synagogues are allowing families to take ownership of their big day, deciding what will be the most meaningful for the child as well as the whole family, Pesner said. The important element is to have the family, clergy and synagogue community get together for a conversation, discussing what will be the most meaningful for a particular child in a particular synagogue.
The b’nai mitzvah still remains true to the traditions while throwing in a heavy dose of art or community projects, he explained.
Reform synagogues are reaching out to various other Jewish groups and begun partnering with them. It partners with the Orthodox AISH on trips to Israel. Educational materials from such groups as the Shalom Hartman and Mussar institutes are being used both in the classroom and for group study.
“It’s a more serious education” than what was offered in Reform Sunday schools of the past, Pesner said.
But it’s not just about education or services. “Synagogue is a community of relations rather than a collection of programs. The Reform movement is learning from Chabad [about] the human way to engage people,” Pesner said.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church sees this every day. Her synagogue, and its 1,600 families, feels a strong connection to the synagogue, a connection that is not only steeped in Jewish learning.
Jews in Northern Virginia “want a meaningful community experience. They want to share Shabbat dinners, do projects with other Jews. They want to be with people doing something that has content,” Schwartzman said.
The synagogue is listed on a computer meet-up page, and when one member posts that he or she is going to go work at a food bank or volunteer at a school, that person soon has a group of people with whom to share the experience, she noted.
Rodef Shalom opens up its doors to homeless people one Monday night a month from December to March. Close to 50 homeless people turn to Rodef Shalom for dinner, a late night snack, a place to sleep and then a breakfast to go.
When congregants were asked to provide the meals, “literally within 24 hours, we had the whole thing filled. We had to tell people they couldn’t sign up for more than one” meal, Schwartzman said.
Other congregants fill their religious needs through Shabbat yoga, meditation groups or tilling the synagogue garden, she said.
Schwartzman is well aware that about half the Jews in Northern Virginia currently do not belong to a synagogue but that “essentially at some point, they probably walked through the doors of a congregation.” Her synagogue tries to reach those Jews and is working on a way to provide Shabbat services outside the synagogue setting, hoping to attract new people.
Temple Micah congregants also want to be connected with their fellow Jews, said Rabbi Daniel Zemel. “I think there is a great hunger for meaning. I think there is a great hunger for purpose. I think there is a great hunger for feeling connecting to something that matters.”
His synagogue, like so many Reform synagogues, has a strong social justice component. Members are involved in tutoring and helping formerly homeless women and are active in many of the issues of the day.
“I don’t call it social justice. We are trying to be good citizens in the city where we live,” he said. “I see it as good citizenship of our neighborhood.”
Besides helping in the community, Reform rabbis and congregants often are on the front lines on such issues as immigration and gun control. The movement’s Religious Action Center is the center of its Jewish social justice and legislative actions, frequently mobilizing its members on the pressing issues of the day.
Israel also is discussed and debated within the synagogue. “Israel matters,” Luxemburg said, adding Temple Beth Ami is a place for “an open and respectful forum. We want a place where we can all talk about it in a constructive way.”
And, of course, Friday night services are a time for worship.
Several years ago, Reform Judaism issued a new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, which means “dwelling of prayer.” The movement is now working on a new prayer book for the High Holidays.
Both prayer books are larger and contain numerous two-page spreads with four readings per prayer. One reading is in Hebrew, one contains the liturgical translation, a third is a poem about the prayer and the fourth is a special reading.
“It calls for the individual worshipper to make choices. We are celebrating individuality,” Pesner said.
To keep the pews filled, committees are meeting to come up with a new way to cover the costs of hiring rabbis, cantors and teachers and paying for mortgages, utilities and upkeep of buildings. For many years, there has been a set, age-dependent fee that people either paid or decided not to join.
Recently, some synagogues have adopted the fair-share method, suggesting congregants pay what they consider their fair share. Other synagogues use a free-will offering, asking members to pay what they can afford. Still other temples have simply taken the amount of expenses and divided it by the number of congregants to come up with one set membership fee.
What successful congregations have learned, Pesner said, is that the method to determine the amount of dues is not nearly as crucial as how engaged individual congregants are in the process. When a synagogue’s leadership sits down with an individual family and has a conversation in which the family talks about what is important to them and the leaders talk about the synagogue’s needs, that synagogue will raise the money it needs, Pesner said.
“The secret sauce is the engagement,” he said.
Temple Emanuel in Kensington, like many Reform synagogues, is working to re-energize its outreach to people in their twenties and thirties. The synagogue formed Kesher Now about one year ago. “The goal is basically for people who are in their 20s and 30s, who finished college and are no longer in NFTY – North American Federation of Temple Youth – or Hillel to basically connect in the Jewish community,” explained President Lauren Whitney.
They meet once or twice a month, holding such events as a chocolate seder, latke party, hamantashen baking, bowling and hiking. The group relies on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to draw members, but it is struggling, only getting about five people per meeting, said Whitney, a 28-year-old school librarian.
Young people are the future of Reform Judaism, as they grow with the challenges, bringing their families along with them to services and programs. Pesner foresees a bright future, especially after recently visiting one of the summer camps. “I saw dozens and dozens of guitars lined up, and I knew these are the new song leaders. They will take the new songs, the new melodies, back to their communities. They are creative. They will generate new melodies.”
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