Why I Love Being a Reform Jew
by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
In my first installment in this series, I spoke about the merger discussions between our congregation and the Tri City Jewish Center. At that time I stated that since I addressed institutional reasons for why the resulting congregation should affiliate with the Reform movement in my answers to the Merger Task Force’s questionnaire, therefore in this series I would restrict the focus of these articles to personal ideological reasons for my love of and commitment to Reform Judaism. However, as I now conclude this series, I wish to remove that self-imposed restriction and revisit why I feel so strongly about our congregation’s connection to the institutions and organizations of Reform Judaism.
While ideology, practice, culture, all are important, they do not exist in a vacuum. They do not spring up overnight, born of thin air. Rather they are the product of like-minded people coming together and investing their time, energy, thoughts, and emotions into formulating these ideologies, establishing these practices, and creating this culture. That is precisely what has been, and continues to be, accomplished by the institutional branches of the Reform movement – the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ – formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE), the National Association of Temple Administrators (NATA), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods), Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods), and the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). It is because of the work of these organizations that the ideals of Reform Judaism have been translated from thought into action; from dream into reality. It has been through the organizations of Reform Judaism that our ideology has been given substance.
As a Reform rabbi, I am probably more conscious of this fact than many congregants, for throughout my career I have had the privilege of being on the “front lines,” participating in my own small way as so many of the principles of Reform Judaism have transitioned from discussion topics to Reform Judaism’s operative doctrines. I was ordained with the second woman rabbi, in the same ceremony in which the first woman cantor was invested. Indeed, at ordination, I walked down the aisle with the second woman rabbi. The Cantor and I were the first clergy couple to meet and fall in love at the Hebrew Union College. I was there at the CCAR conventions when the principle of Patrilineal Descent was first proposed, then studied by a task force, later to have that task force report its findings, and then finally to have the body debate and vote this doctrine into being. I, along with several of our congregants, was at the plenary session of the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as we considered and ultimately approved resolutions calling upon our congregations to be open, welcoming, and fully inclusive to all Jews regardless of sexual orientation. Then later I was there when the CCAR voted to accept gay and lesbian rabbis, and later still, to support rabbinic officiation at same sex marriages. These and so many other significant issues were seriously studied and debated before they were voted on and established as Reform Jewish standards. Today, so many of these ideals are considered as matter of fact on the liberal Jewish scene, but they would not exist today had it not been for the formal efforts of the institutions of Reform Judaism to give them birth and establish them as fixtures of contemporary Jewish life. Others may have come along later and adopted them for themselves but there is a fundamental difference between adopting a principle and establishing one. It is likewise fundamentally true that those who establish principles will continue to work to establish new principles while those who merely adopt the work and ideology of others will only continue to adopt the work and ideology of other, drawing from the well but never adding to the pot; never building for the future. The institutions of Reform Judaism build for the future.
While establishing ideological principles is an important part of the work of the organizations of Reform Judaism, it is not the sum total of what they do. There is so much they do which is practical and hands on for our congregations and their members, and for other Jews as well. In our own congregation, one of the clearest examples of this is to be found in the Reform movement’s creation of the Chai Curriculum and its support materials, which is the curriculum we have been using in our Joint Religious School. Our students, as well as the students from the Tri City Jewish Center, are receiving an excellent Jewish education as a direct result of the efforts of the URJ’s Education Department. Along with the Chai Curriculum, our religious school has greatly benefitted from the counsel and expertise of educational consultants whose services have been provided to us by the URJ, free of charge. Then there are the camps. Over the years, so many of our children have greatly benefitted from the excellent Jewish summer camp experiences which are to be found in the network of our movement’s Reform Jewish summer camps. Likewise, there have been young people in our congregation who have gone on wonderful NFTY sponsored Israel youth trips.
However, do not think that belonging to the URJ only benefits our children. It benefits the adults of our congregation as well as our congregation as a whole. Educational consulting is only one of the consultation opportunities which are provided for us by the URJ. On several occasions our Board of Trustees has benefitted greatly from synagogue leadership workshops conducted by URJ staff members. We have sought their counsel on financial matters, fund raising matters, administrative matters, and even on the subject of possible merger – something from which the members of the Tri City Jewish Center also benefitted. The URJ also offers us a host of materials to enhance our adult education programs and our worship. Indeed, throughout most of the history of our congregation, whichever prayer book we used in our worship, it was a prayer book produced by the Reform movement. Then there are the URJ’s online resources as well. Members of our congregation can participate in online adult education through such programs as “Ten Minutes of Torah.” Our movement also provides online discussion groups for those interested in various aspects of Reform Jewish living. If you wish to discuss worship practices, you can be a member of IWorship. If you wish to discuss the particular issues that confront small congregations, you can be a member of Smalltalk. An invaluable tool available to every synagogue president in our movement is the discussion group Presconf. Personally, I am on the discussion groups for Reform rabbis (Ravkav) and HUC alumni (Hucalum).
Nor do the offerings of our movement end there. Of course there are our affiliate organizations, such as the Women of Reform Judaism (of which our Sisterhood is a founding member), Men of Reform Judaism, and NFTY (which has provided our community with regional and national youth group experiences for high school students from both of our local congregations). Then there are the URJ’s subsidiary organizations such as the Hebrew Union College, the Religious Action Center (RAC), and ARZA. The Hebrew Union College trains our rabbis, our cantors, and our educators so that they are not only highly educated Jewish professional but highly educated Reform Jewish professional, who are committed to Reform Jewish principles. It is through the RAC that so many of the Tikkun Olam activities of our congregations originate and are coordinated. Make no mistake about it! It is due to efforts of the RAC that when it comes to Tikkun Olam activities on the American Jewish scene, it is Reform Judaism which is the unchallenged leader. ARZA is the body which connects our movement to Israel and advocates for Reform Judaism in Israel.
As a result of all of this, it is the formal structures of our movement which weave our individual congregations into a powerful Reform Jewish family. It is through this network of connections which we share with other Reform congregations that we draw strength, sustenance, and identity. Others may imitate us but in the end, without these connections, they will always remain mere imitations; never the real deal!
(originally posted on Rabbi Karp’s blog)