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If You Want to Know What It Means to Be a Reform Jew Today, Look No Further

If You Want to Know What It Means to Be a Reform Jew Today, Look No Further

A Conversation with Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, Ph.D., editor of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press

Young woman carrying a Torah scroll through the congregation at camp recently sat down with Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, Ph.D., editor of the CCAR Press, to talk about a new adult education cirriculum. Here's what she had to say. Why did the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) decide that now was the time to launch a new adult education curriculum?

Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, Ph.D., editor of the CCAR Press: On one level, we saw it as a fitting way to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the 200th birthday of our founder, Isaac M. Wise. We also recognized that the aftermath of the shooting in Pittsburgh was a time in which a movement-wide conversation about what it means to be a Reform Jew today was necessary. It is important to mourn; it is important to lament. However, it is equally important to reassess our Judaism as a source of inspiration, guidance, resilience, and hope in troubled times.

Why is the adult curriculum called A Life of Meaning: An Introduction to the Sacred Path of Reform Judaism?

This three to five session curriculum is anchored in a book we published last year, A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, an anthology featuring essays by many of Reform Judaism’s thought leaders and edited by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, Ph.D. This book provided us with the sources for our curriculum as well as the title.

Reform Judaism is a huge subject to break down into three to five sessions. Which overarching themes did you and your co-author, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student Jessica Kerman, choose to highlight in the source sheet, and on what basis did you decide?

We included what we thought might be the richest topics for fostering a conversation that would be both movement-wide and personally meaningful. We therefore began with a first session on the history and core identity questions of the Reform Movement (“Who are we as Reform Jews?”); continued with three consecutive sessions on Reform Jewish mitzvot (sacred obligations), the mitzvah of social justice and its centrality in the Reform Movement, and spirituality in the Reform Movement. Few Reform Jews realize that Judaism entails spiritual practices that can equally ground, challenge, hold, and uplift us, from prayer to reading to the tending of deep relationships. The last session is dedicated to the “Torah of our Time: What are we to learn from the current moment?”

Why does the curriculum give greater emphasis to the mitzvah of social justice?

More than any other, the mitzvah to establish justice in our world has shaped the Reform Movement. We wanted to study the history and role of social justice more intensively, because many Reform Jews, increasingly young Jews, base their Jewish identity on this mitzvah.

What groups or individuals come to mind when you picture this curriculum being used in the field?

The uniqueness of this curriculum is that it is not written for a specific audience; instead, it is written for a specific time: the current moment.

We wanted to try to put something out there that can be used in all kinds of adult educational settings, and facilitated by rabbis, educators, cantors, and congregational lay leaders. Beyond providing a broad picture of Reform Jewish history, values, and practices, the curriculum also serves as a resource for personal assessment and growth. “Where are you in this story? How does this value unfold in your personal life? Which practice might give you a sense of approaching God?” It is designed for Reform Jews who wish to understand the legacy they’re inheriting as well as for spiritual seekers from within and outside our movement.

Can you tell us about the curriculum’s six videos?

They feature Rabbis Carole Balin, Lance Sussman, and Gary Zola, who are among our movement’s leading scholars and contributors to A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path.  The videos provide starting points for each session of the curriculum – and for the conversation at large.

How can people access the curriculum?

Download A Life of Meaning: An Introduction to the Sacred Path of Reform Judaism and the source sheet, a useful instruction guide to the book and the related videos.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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