What Is "Authentic" Reform Judaism?
Some Jewish families light Shabbat candles every Friday night. That is authentic Reform Judaism. Some families rarely or never light Shabbat candles. That, too, is authentic Reform Judaism.
Reform Judaism is both a living religion and a vibrant culture. As Reform Jews, we are charged with using the Torah as a guide to living meaningful lives and making the world a better place. We carry out rituals and maintain traditions that add meaning to our lives. It’s up to us to make informed, educated decisions about which rituals and traditions we will follow, both in our homes and in our synagogues.
As a result, some in our congregations keep strictly kosher houses, never eating non-kosher food outside the home. That’s authentic Reform Judaism. Others cook and enjoy bacon cheeseburgers and other non-kosher fare. That’s authentic Reform Judaism too.
Some say that “ethnic food” means corned beef and matzo ball soup; others prefer a little shrimp or stir-fried pork on their Passover rice. Both are authentic Reform Judaism.
What about holidays? Congregants build sukkot every year, host Passover sederim, light candles each night of Hanukkah, and fast on Yom Kippur. Well, some do. Other congregants never do any of these things, ever.
Some families observe one day of Rosh HaShanah and seven days of Passover; others follow two days of Rosh HaShanah and eight days of Passover. Each of these practices represents authentic Reform Judaism.
Do you come to Friday evening or Saturday morning services to observe a yahrzeit? Do you put on tefillin? Do you attend Torah study? If so, you are an authentic Reform Jew. If you don’t know what tefillin are, you are still an authentic Reform Jew. Do you believe women should wear tallitot and read from the Torah? Some Reform Jews ascribe to this belief, others do not.
Do you trace your Jewish lineage in an unbroken line from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to you? You are an authentic Reform Jew. Does your Jewish heritage come from your father only? Are you a Jew-by-choice? Each of you is an authentic Reform Jew.
Such diversity is our strength, and demonstrates just why Reform Judaism is the largest, fastest-growing Jewish denomination in North America.
In early December 2013, 5,000 Reform Jews attended the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)’s Biennial Convention, gathering together to study, to pray, to teach, to learn, to share ideas, to get in touch with our spirituality, to celebrate, to hear from leaders of our Movement and our world, to sing, to dance, to worship, to inspire and to be inspired. The amazing Biennial—as it always does—celebrated the diversity of authentic Reform Judaism—both here in North America and throughout the world.
Over time, we have seen rituals come and go, traditions reinvented and reinterpreted. Constant change—the foundation of Reform Judaism—is here to stay. With it, we are free to re-evaluate of what works, what is meaningful, and what speaks to our collective minds, souls and spirits.
As a URJ board member, I’m privileged to attend worship services at Reform synagogues all over North America—from Berkeley to Boston, from Dallas to Denver, from Seattle to St. Petersburg, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, from Portland to Phoenix, from Burlingame to Brooklyn.
We can see the diversity of Reform Judaism in our Movement’s nearly 850 congregations, where, it seems, every possible practice can be found. Every shul is unique, yet we are all the same.
Some synagogues use Mishkan T’filah, some use Gates of Prayer, others use homemade siddurim. Every rabbi, every cantor, the music and the readings, the customs and the rituals—they’re all unique, they’re all the same. Most of all, each and every one is authentic Reform Judaism.
The onegs, the motzi, where the candles are lit, what’s in the kiddush cup on the bimah, the ways that members, leaders, young people and guests are engaged—it’s all the same, it’s all unique, and each demonstrates authentic Reform Judaism.
I am proud—and I hope you are, too—to be part of the most vibrant Jewish movement in North America. I am proud to be part of a movement that is authentic, organic, energetic, growing, engaging, advancing, evolving, and moving. Indeed, authentic Reform Judaism never stands still; it is, in fact, why we are a movement.
Alan Zeichick is a member of the North American board of the URJ, an overseer of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and president of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, CA.