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100 Years After WWI, Its Effect on Reform Judaism is Still Felt

100 Years After WWI, Its Effect on Reform Judaism is Still Felt

By August 1915, World War I was raging in the most densely Jewish areas of Polish and Lithuanian Russia on the dreaded Eastern Front. On the Western Front, the fields of Belgium's Flanders region were soaked with Allied and Central Powers blood.

In the Second Battle of Ypres, 100,000 corpses filled the trenches in a battlefront that had already seen gas warfare and the sadistic but effective flamethrower. Across the Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson doggedly upheld his campaign promise to keep America out of the fight, despite murderous German U-boats on the high seas.

By the time the guns fell silent three years later and politicians and statesmen gathered to draw up the terms of German surrender, the political, military, and cultural consequences of the “war to end all wars” were already widely perceived as globally transformative.

The Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires were gone. The Bolsheviks were consolidating power in the old Czarist Empire; the Ottoman Empire had also been dissolved. Poland, among other new entities, was on the world map as an independent state and Germany was being roundly punished by its enemies. For its part, the United States refused to back Wilson's League of Nations and was sliding into isolationism and xenophobia.

For world Jewry, the war prompted equally profound changes.

The Jews of the USSR were increasingly cut off from the outside world. Violent anti-Semitism swept across newly proclaimed Poland, now the home of the world’s largest Jewish community. The United States began closing its doors to Jewish immigration, following Great Britain’s lead. The UK's Balfour Declaration breathed hope into the growing Zionist community in British Palestine and planted seeds of enmity between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Nothing it seems – Jewish or non-Jewish – had been left untouched by history's bloodiest conflict to date.

What about Reform Judaism? Had it, too, been transformed by the Great War?

Indeed, in at least seven areas, Reform Judaism was redefined by World War I. No longer a child of the 19th century, Reform needed to rediscover itself as a 20th-century religious movement.

What were those changes?

First, 250,000 American Jews, mostly of East European stock, had fought in the war, with tens of thousands encountering Reform chaplains and an official Jewish military prayer book heavily modeled after the old Union Prayer Book. In time, many of these doughboys affiliated with Reform synagogues, changing the sociology of Reform Judaism.

Second, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Zionist movement faced a practical challenge: to increase settlements in British Palestine. For Reform Judaism, Zionism remained a highly divisive issue, but now the Zionists in the movement were on the rise, prompting an internal transformation that ultimately led to the guiding principles for modern Jewish life detailed in the 1934 Columbus Platform that was developed and ratified by the Reform rabbinate.

Moreover, Germany, long viewed as the cultural homeland of most American Reform Jews, was now viewed by many Americans with suspicion, making the movement somewhat of “an orphan in history.”

Simultaneously and perhaps ironically new Jewish religious developments in Germany during the 1920s, particularly those associated with Frankfurt’s Lehrhaus (lectures by Jewish scholars and leaders), opened the way to an existential rapprochement with Jewish tradition and many of its practices among Reform Jews and many of their younger rabbis.

The war years also saw a surge in feminism, with women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. and numerous other countries. Although gender equality was still a distant goal, the number of women serving on synagogue and other boards quickly increased after 1919.

Pacifism, little discussed among today’s Reform Jews, also deeply rooted itself in the movement after the war. Berlin’s Rabbi Leo Baeck, for example, became an international leader of the global movement and as many as 80% of Reform rabbis became openly pacifistic. New Reform renditions of Passover Haggadot and the Scroll of Esther reflected this trend toward non-violence.

Finally, the idea of “progress” – perhaps the key concept in pre-World War I Reform Judaism – was deeply damaged by the war’s slaughter of soldiers and civilians. How can we talk about humanity bettering itself, intellectuals and others reflected after the war, when the first two decades of the 20th century had already proven the most barbarous in history? And what about science? Had scientific advancement led to a better world or to more powerful weapons and greater willingness to use them against each other?

At the end of World War I, humanity was adrift. Radical ideologies found new audiences. People and nations turned inward – some toward isolationism, others toward self-indulgence. Religion itself suffered a growing lack of confidence in the non-scientific. The scientific, though beneficial, was no longer perceived as a sure source for humanity’s salvation.

World War I changed the world, and Reform Judaism was no exception. Perhaps, 100 years later, it is still looking for its essential self.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and the Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. A historian of the American Jewish experience, Sussman has taught at Princeton, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College. A prolific author, he is currently editing a volume of his own essays and working on a television documentary on Philadelphia Jewish history.

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