200 Years And Counting

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


There is a new phrase circulating around the Jewish world- “Post Denominational.” Individuals do not want to be identified with any one of the particular movements, so they are Not Reform, Not Conservative or Not Orthodox, but – “Post Denominational.”

Other self-definitions that I have heard or perceive include:

  • Cultural Jews, who love dancing the hora at weddings or B’nai Mitzvah or at least mindlessly whirling in circles numerous times, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue
  • Spiritual Jews– “I’ve got that Jewish feeling.” They believe in God, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue.
  • Gastronomic Jews love lox and bagels, chopped liver, matzah balls and all Jewish foods, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue, except to eat.
  • Cardiac Jews claim to be Jewish in their hearts, as long as they don’t have to put the rest of their bodies in the synagogue


You can hear the common theme in all four. Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco addressed this post denominational phenomena at a recent gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1), adding a number of additional categories, some serious, some not, including:

  • “Not very Jewish Jews”, who know little, are detached from organizational life, but may occasionally pop up when they need something, then quickly disappear.
  • “Formerly affiliated,” who voluntarily drop membership, (No one has to resign. This synagogue always works with need issues.) but who still speak of “my synagogue” or “my rabbi” and have no qualms about asking for, if not demanding services as needed
  • “Very Jewish Jews,” who affiliate, support and participate. They just can’t get enough. Rabbis love these folks.
  • “We’ve always done it that way Jews” for whom however it’s been done is the absolute norm- it’s tradition; any changes –“you’re ruining the congregation.”
  • “Suddenly Jewish Jews” are people who find a Jewish ancestor on their family tree and realize they are Jewish, embracing it with fervor;
  • “Jews by Choice” are similar, formally converting and actively living as Jews.
  • Half-Jewish Jews with one Jewish parent, often raised with no religious instruction or a little of each, resulting in a confused identity.
  • Non-Jewish Jews, precious people who have not chosen Judaism for themselves but are supportive of their Jewish family, often participating actively.
  • Unconventional or Renewal Jews are generally young and disconnected from traditional Jewish institutions, technically savvy, environmentally aware, programmatically creative and care deeply about Jewish life.

My guess is that each and every one of us could identify with one or more of these categories. Yet here we are as one congregation on this day, one community. Though there are those who proclaim that we are in a “post denominational era”, I will argue that all of us can sit under the same umbrella of our particular denomination, Reform Judaism, which this year can claim to celebrate its 200th year.

Specifically on July 17, 1810, Israel Jacobson a wealthy German Jewish community leader built and dedicated a small “temple” building next to an educational center he constructed in Seesen, Germany. Jacobson’s first goal as a leader was to have Jews receive full civil rights as German citizens. With his school and synagogue he advocated that Jews be modern, maintain their Judaism, but also fit into surrounding society. Borrowing from the Christian Church’s practices, he initiated organ music, choral song, German language prayers and sermons as part of the typical worship service. Confirmation on Shavuot became a new ceremony as young people affirmed their beliefs as Jews, first just boys then soon after to include girls, as opposed to Bar Mitzvah, which represented adherence to Jewish law.

Michael Meyer (2), a leading historian of early Reform Judaism, describes the dedication ceremony as unique, bringing Jews and Christians together in a way that was previously impossible. He summarizes Jacobson’s message from that day: Speaking to Jews: “He assured his coreligionists that he was a faithful and observant Jew who did not desire that Judaism should disappear or be merged into a universal religion of reason.” To Christians: “He asked that they accept the Jews into their midst without prejudice, and he thanked God for creating man as a rational autonomous being.”

Along with many other lay and rabbinic leaders, Jacobson began the process of reforming Judaism, beginning with ideas that were revolutionary in their day and are now conventional convictions. But it was a challenge for Reform to fully develop in Europe, where State governments appointed committees to oversee Jewish matters and controlled finance. Dominated by old guard traditionalists, who opposed reforms, growth was limited. In that environment, where there was not a full modern alternative to be Jewish, many of Jacobson’s grandchildren ultimately were not Jewish, contrary to his vision.

German Jews brought reform to America, a totally different religious climate. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise lobbied for a single unique expression of Judaism for this new land, embracing both German reforms and traditionalism. He published a German/Hebrew and later English/Hebrew prayer book, called “Minhag America- the Custom of America,” organized a congregational structure for all synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a modern American seminary- Hebrew Union College. However, one united expression of American Judaism was not to be, especially with the influx of Eastern European Jews starting in the 1880s, who were so very different from the Germans.

And so a distinctive path for Reform Judaism was outlined by Reform’s leading rabbis in 1885, historically known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Like Jacobson, American leaders wanted Jews to be Jewish and part of the society in which we live. Among the ideals they stressed were:


  1. The belief in God as an Idea, taught and developed by Jewish texts and teachers
  2. Recognition that Scripture and science and modern scholarship are not antagonistic
  3. Here comes a major break from tradition in the realm of Jewish law: moral laws are binding, ritual laws are not; Related to this is the idea that rituals and customs are good if they speak to us. They supported ceremonies that elevate and sanctify our lives, but specifically rejected Kashrut and ritual garb as being anachronistic.
  4. Our identity as Jews and our covenant with God is not dependent upon a land, Zion. Rather, we looked upon ourselves solely as a religion like everyone else.
  5. They embraced the hope for a better world by committing to a messianic age, not a personal messiah.
  6. Related to that hope came a pledge to partner with brother and sister religions to establish a reign of truth and harmony, to be involved with alleviating separations of rich and poor, dealing with the problems of society based upon justice and righteousness. For decades we called this Prophetic Judaism.


Keep in mind, this was 1885. Reform Judaism has evolved from those early days. One of my pet peeves is when we are referred to as ReformED Jews, when the term is Reform. We changED and continue to change. Our relationship with Israel, politically and spiritually is a prime example, as it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. What our Reform ancestors rejected, we now often reclaim, embracing ideas and practices once deemed anachronistic and anti-modern, now seen as relevant and uplifting, reshaping customs to address our needs. While rationalism was a foundation of Reform, we have sought the spiritual as well. Subsequent official statements about Reform more clearly delineate who we are and what values we uphold. As opposed to what happened to Jacobson’s family and in response to those who criticize Reform as the last stop before leaving Judaism, we have many Jews who are second, third, fourth and fifth generation Reform Jews. I am among them as are many seated here this morning.

After 200 years I truly believe that our Reform approach to Judaism is relevant, inclusive of a wide spectrum of people, interests and needs, yet still distinctive and compelling. Over the past few months I conducted an exercise, first with our Board and then a group of teenagers at Jacobs Camp, where I asked them to list what it particularly means to be a Reform Jew today, then compared it to a statement by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (3), President of the Union For Reform Judaism. Responses were essentially the same.


  1. We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
  2. We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
  3. We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the intermarried, non-Jewish spouses and all who bind their fate to that of the Jewish people.
  4. We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
  5. We see tikun olam-repairing our world as an essential element of our Reform identity- in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
  6. And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.


These concepts are underlying principles of Reform Judaism. They are descriptive, but

not prescriptive. As important as it is to know where you stand and what you believe, actions are the key. To be what I will simply call a “serious Reform Jew,” not just a twice a year Jew, who makes excuses or self-justifying rationalizations as to why you are not behaving in a way that you intellectually believe is the right way, consider the following:

  1. Struggle with how you think about God- don’t sit pat with childhood beliefs; don’t absent yourself from Jewish life due to adolescent rebellion still raging years later; stop blaming God for perceived injustice, either personal or global; Instead- read, reflect, accept, reject, reconsider; When you find a comfortable personal theological position… struggle some more
  2. Grow educationally. Ignorance is nothing we tolerate in jobs, raising children, evaluating current issues, purchasing major items. Instead, we study, research, explore and then commit. Why should we do less in our Jewish lives, short-changing ourselves of the wealth that is our inheritance? Participate in adult learning- Shabbat mornings, Continuing Education programs; learn Hebrew; search the internet, but be careful of sources; read a book, two books, one every month from the Lake Library.
  3. As you have done today, set your watches, Palm pilots, I-phones and Blackberrys according to Jewish time with a primary focus being the 7th day of the week, Shabbat. On that day rest, break away from routine; renew your spirit; come to synagogue; reflect upon the week that is past with appreciation; rekindle important relationships with your partner, your children, your friends, your community and recharge for the week ahead.
  4. Serious Jews live by morals and values that are distinctly, though not uniquely Jewish- standing up for the oppressed- the widow, the orphan, the stranger; caring for parents, family and friends, pets and the environment; opposing bigotry of any kind- racial, religious, sexual, xenophobic; having compassion for those who suffer whether from the ravages of illness or nature or human failures; Outrage is good, but action is better. Conduct your daily activities and relationships with integrity, honesty and humility.
  5. Celebrate life as a Jew. Recently, Irl Silverstein, a long-time congregant, invited me to visit his home as he surprised his wife for their 40th anniversary with a ketubah. In 1970, their Reform rabbi did not use such a document. With tears in his eyes and a quavering voice he read words of love and commitment surrounded by a devoted family shaped by Jewish tradition. A few weeks later there was not a dry eye in the house, including my own, as I performed an impromptu renewal of vows for Larry and Judy Rudman as they celebrated their 50th anniversary. Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha- As Reform Jews, we can serve God, not out of fear or dread or guilt or solely a sense of obligation, but with joy.

We are at 200 years and counting. Are we at a turning point in history, a new Post Denominational Era? Will Reform be a footnote in history like other approaches to Jewish life from the past? Only time will determine the ultimate answer, as we write the history by our commitments and actions. To be continued..


  1. Pearce, Stephen, “Postmodernism Cultivates Postdenominationalism,” Presented to the CCAR Annual Convention, San Francisco, March 7, 2010
  2. Meyer, Michael, Response To Modernity.. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism

p. 42

  1. Yoffie, Eric, Comments to CCAR Annual Convention, March 9, 2010

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