Birth of a Synagogue Movement: Reform Worship Through the Years

An interview with Rabbi Daniel Freelander on the history of Reform innovations in worship.
Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander

What was Reform worship like in mid-19th century America?

The mostly German-born Reform synagogue leaders strove to mimic Reform innovations in Germany, emphasizing, above all, decorum and order. Reading the board minutes of these early congregations-many of which were entirely in German-we know that most conversations concerned how worshipers should dress, how to keep congregants from talking during services, and the like.

Reform congregational leaders wanted more predictability and less chaos-a service less like traditional Jewish worship ambiance and more like how Congregationalists and Methodists worshiped. Non-Reform Jews did-and continue to do-what we would call private prayer in a public setting. So when a traditional Jew davened [prayed] at his own pace in the presence of at least nine other men, he had fulfilled his obligation according to Jewish law; worshiping in unison was unnecessary. In contrast, from the earliest days Reform Jews did-and continue to do-public prayer in a public setting, with congregants singing, reading, standing, and sitting in unison.

Reform also adopted other American practices, such as 1. physically differentiating the worship leader from the worshipers, the leader facing the congregation (instead of the ark) and setting the pace and everyone following along in step; 2. creating a shorter service by not repeating certain prayers (like the Amida) and not including a Musaf service on Shabbat festivals; and 3. permitting family pews (as opposed to separating men and women).

How about the Reform service?

It evolved over time. By the mid 1800s the typical three-hour Sabbath morning service in many congregations had been shortened to about an hour and a half to two hours, was conducted entirely in Hebrew, and included many more prayers than we typically read today. Sermons were rare, except on the Sabbath before Pesach or between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Did Reform Judaism introduce the practice of a weekly rabbinic sermon?

Actually all streams of Judaism proceeded to imitate the American Protestant practice of a weekly sermon delivered by a preacher. But a problem arose: Although many Jews were capable of leading a prayer service, few could deliver a compelling sermon. This is one of the reasons why, by the early 1870s, congregations from across the spectrum responded positively to the creation of Isaac Mayer Wise's Hebrew Union College, which would ordain English-speaking rabbis who also could preach.

What other congregational innovations emerged in the 1880s?

During this time, as thousands of Eastern Europeans Jews were landing on American shores, it was not uncommon for Reform Jews of German descent to make their congregations less inviting to the Yiddish-speaking newcomers. One of the more significant changes was eliminating the bar mitzvah ceremony. This custom, dating from the late Middle Ages, had probably emerged to celebrate a Jewish child's coming of age at a time when life expectancy was short and many children did not live to age 13. Later in Eastern Europe bar mitzvahs gained popularity because boys were being conscripted into the army and their families wanted a ceremony that would allow them to affirm their faith before leaving home. Reform Jews therefore regarded the bar mitzvah ceremony as outdated and easily expendable. They replaced it with Confirmation of high school-age boys and girls-another Protestant practice.

What led to moving Sabbath services from Saturday to Sunday morning?

It's a myth that Sabbath services were moved to Sunday. In reality, Sunday morning became the time when Reform rabbis chose to deliver their weekly address as a way of attracting more people into the synagogue. Remember, the traditional Sabbath service took place on Saturday morning, but most Reform leaders owned businesses and worked on Saturdays, which resulted in a paltry turnout. A Friday night service was introduced to see if people would show up after work, and while this proved somewhat successful, it did not fully solve the attendance problem. So the synagogue leaders initiated adult education lectures on Sunday mornings featuring the rabbi's sermon. Throughout America, the great rabbinic preachers spoke eloquently and dramatically for about 20-40 minutes each Sunday, drawing big crowds of Jews, and often non-Jews as well. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise's orations at the Free Synagogue in New York, for example, were so well attended, they were often scheduled at Carnegie Hall.

These Sunday sermons were preceded and followed by hymns, and some congregations added weekday prayers before the sermon as well.

In these early Reform congregations, who "called the shots"?

The lay leadership, dominated by wealthy, influential, and powerful men who owned and operated brokerages, retail stores, and other business establishments. At the time, the few rabbis and chazanim (cantors) were not regarded as authority figures, but treated as employees with particular skills. Often rabbis had to sign synagogue contracts requiring adherence to strict rules. Synagogue minutes indicate that some rabbis had to dress a certain way; were required to unlock the building and heat up the stove in the sanctuary before the worshipers arrived; and had to promise not to worship at another congregation, because doing so would suggest that he did not respect his employers.

In 1873 Rabbi I. M. Wise established the first umbrella organization of synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Did the Union's founding synagogues have much in common?

They were quite different from one another. Some were from the East Coast and most from the Midwest; some were already Reform, some quite traditional. What they shared was a common goal: to help create and fund a seminary that would produce English-speaking American rabbis. So they assessed every member belonging to a Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism/URJ) synagogue one dollar per year to fund the creation and maintenance of HUC. This was the precursor to the URJ's Maintenance of Union Membership system still in place. To this day, 138 years later, the first plank in the Union for Reform Judaism mission statement still affirms financial support of the Hebrew Union College, and almost half of the funds the URJ collects from our 900+ affiliated temples goes directly to support HUC-JIR (representing about one-third of HUC's income).

The 1930s has been said to be a "reforming" decade in Reform synagogue life in North America. Why was it so consequential?

In one way the 1930s was like the decade we're in now, when economic downturn accelerates change. When the Great Depression hit, many congregations didn't have money to pay the utility bills or the rabbi's salary, prompting synagogue leaders to self-assess, asking themselves, "Why don't we have more money? Are we losing potential members to the Conservative Movement?" This also led to increasing scrutiny of the national bodies of the Reform Movement, reaching a climax at the 1941 UAHC Council (an earlier name for the Biennial), when Rabbi Louis Mann of Temple Sinai in Chicago delivered a stinging speech accusing the Union of being asleep and little more than "a religious mail-order business." Mann warned that membership losses would continue if Movement leaders did not aggressively reach out to non-German Jews and modify congregational practices so that greater numbers of American Jews perceived Reform as the mainstream of American Judaism, not merely a German-Jewish version.

In response, the Union, under its new president, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, expanded its programs and encouraged the formation of more congregations to attract the unaffiliated. Reform congregations also instituted changes, reinstating Jewish practices that had been rejected, among them bar mitzvah ceremonies and the wearing of head coverings during worship. In addition, Reform leaders softened their resistance to the notion of Jewish peoplehood, no longer insisting that they were Americans who practiced Judaism solely as a religion. In the 1930s, terms expressing Jewish peoplehood, such as Klal Yisrael (the community of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), began to appear in Reform publications. Such changes did not become mainstream until well into the 1950s and 1960s, after the establishment of the State of Israel, but they marked the beginning of a 30-year effort to make the children of Eastern European Jews feel comfortable in Reform congregations.

When did Eastern European Jews truly become comfortable in Reform congregations?

The big shift occurred after World War II. As the grandchildren of German Jewish immigrants and the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants served together in the armed forces, they discovered, to some surprise, that they had much in common. In the U.S. military, Jews confronted antisemites who did not differentiate between German Jews and Eastern European Jews any more than Hitler differentiated between one Jew and another. The wartime experience of these 20-year-old Jews served as a strong bonding force. Whereas beforehand the two groups had belonged to separate Jewish country clubs and urban eating clubs, after the war the old preconceptions about the "other" broke down and the rate of "intermarriage" between German Jews and Eastern European Jews soared. By the 1960s, half the members of Reform temples were of Eastern European background, leading, in decades to come, to an infusion of more traditional practices into the Reform Movement.

How did more traditional practice become normative in Reform Judaism?

Remember, Reform congregations are democracies and autonomous. Nothing in Reform Judaism says, "You cannot consider this or that Jewish practice." So if 50% of Reform congregants grew up in traditional synagogues listening to a cantor chant the liturgy and the other 50% were raised in temples with a professional choir, the congregation which never had a cantor would hire one-and keep the professional choir. Similarly, if the majority of ritual committee members wanted to observe Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, traveling to a body of water and throwing in pieces of bread representing one's sins, even if Reform Jews had never followed this custom before, the congregation would adopt it now. And if the majority of the congregation wanted tallitot and kippot available, they would be offered at services. Not everyone would have to wear them, of course-the hallmark of Reform is individual autonomy-but very little of Jewish tradition lay outside the boundaries of Reform Judaism.

This is how, by the 1970s, bar mitzvah had become the norm rather than the exception in Reform congregations (with bat mitzvah added for girls), and how Confirmation began to lose its status as the most significant lifecycle ceremony for Reform Jewish teens.

How else did World War II impact the UAHC and its congregations?

With the introduction of the G.I. Bill, Jews, like all veterans, were offered low-cost college educations and home loans. As a result, Reform Jewish families joined America's mass migration from the cities to outlying areas, sparking a synagogue building boom in suburbia.

In the period from 1945 to 1965, the number of Reform congregations doubled, from about 300 to 600, and with this upsurge the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' mission expanded as well. Until World War II, the Union's primary functions were to support the Hebrew Union College and to publish educational materials for Reform Sabbath schools. After the war, the Union took a more active role in helping to create and strengthen Reform congregations, in creating youth (NFTY) and camping systems to strengthen the Jewish identity of the emerging baby-boomer children, in establishing a voice in the nation's capital through its Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and in supporting the worldwide expansion of Reform Judaism through the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

In addition, this environment of postwar prosperity led to the growing professionalization of North American synagogues-staff increases, expanded facilities, and new architectural styles. The staff of a prewar synagogue likely included a rabbi, a part-time or volunteer educator, and an office secretary. After the war, with the influx of so many children in temple religious schools, full-time Jewish educators became a necessity. And the demand for professional cantors was so great, HUC's new School of Sacred Music couldn't train them quickly enough. Before World War II, the sanctuary dominated the synagogue building, but in the postwar period the majority of square footage was allocated to religious school classrooms, office complexes, social halls, and kitchens.

Did the '60s protest movements also transform Reform synagogue life?

Yes, in a different way. The protest culture in opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of the growing women's movement encouraged synagogue members to question the established order. People were suddenly asking, "Why can't we sing along in services?" or "Who says that I have to wear a tie and jacket in synagogue?" Women began to question, "Why do women only sit on the bimah at the Sisterhood Shabbat?" or "Why can't women be temple presidents?"

The Reform Movement adapted to the changes in America far more quickly than the Conservative Movement. Compare: HUC-JIR ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972; but in the mid-1970s if you were a woman fluent in Hebrew who could chant Torah, you often weren't allowed to have an aliyah in a Conservative congregation. By then the Reform Movement empowered women to participate fully in worship and in leadership as rabbis, cantors, and presidents.

The Union also responded faster and more effectively to rising intermarriage rates. In 1978, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler launched a groundbreaking Outreach initiative to welcome non-Jewish spouses of interfaith families into Reform congregations. In contrast, the Conservative Movement, publicly perceiving intermarriage as essentially a rejection of Judaism, held that interfaith families could not be synagogue members; the born Jew in the relationship could only join as a single parent family. Throughout the '80s and '90s, thousands of Jews in interfaith marriages who had grown up in Conservative congregations joined Reform temples, where they found support in raising Jewish children.

Inclusion became a guiding principle and driving force of the UAHC and its congregations in the '80s and '90s, encompassing interfaith families, GLBT Jews, people of color, and many others.

What are the major challenges facing our Movement today?

The supreme challenge is the changing attitude toward membership. Belonging to a synagogue or a church used to be a sign of success in society, but people today are far less committed to organizations of any kind. Increasingly mobile empty-nesters often resettle in the neighborhood where their grandchildren live, leaving their long-time congregations and rarely reaffiliating. And while many younger couples do follow the pattern of previous generations in joining synagogues after marriage, Jews tend to marry five to 10 years later than their parents did. To encourage innovative temple programming that will both attract new members and engage current congregants, the Union for Reform Judaism has awarded incubator grants-each up to $5,000-to 20 member synagogues.

Another challenge is financial. In the last 40 years we have created a synagogue infrastructure-facilities and staff-that has become increasingly difficult to sustain, in part because of the recession. Many Jews question paying temple dues, the main source of synagogue revenue. We therefore need to rethink our professional and physical infrastructures and ask how we will be able to maintain them in the future. The URJ is now providing comparative financial analysis of income and expenditures by congregational size to help gauge and strengthen temples' fiscal planning.

Going forward, to make synagogues less vulnerable to sudden economic downturns, I think we're going to see less dependence on dues and religious school fees and greater reliance on annual fundraising, endowments, and legacy bequests. Congregations will also need to do more long-term financial planning. 

Can we meet these challenges?

The Reform Movement is the change agent of North American Jewry, and we will change-as we always have-in order to adapt to new realities. I'm confident that the Union, along with our partners, the College and the CCAR, will be able to morph into the Movement that will best meet the needs of Jews in the next decade and beyond.