The Children Shall Lead

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The story is told of a classical Reform temple somewhere in America where they blew a French Horn on Rosh Hashanah. Younger members of the congregation were dissatisfied with this, and proposed using a Shofar. Some older members took umbrage at the suggestion — one exclaimed, “these youngsters have no respect for our traditions!”

Whether or not this story is apocryphal (and the Rabbi who told the story gave no indication that it was), the underlying tension that it describes is all too real and becoming ever more pronounced. As described in the latest NY Jewish Week, active young members of the Reform movement are adopting traditional practices and rejecting “innovations” in ever greater numbers. This came to a head when the staff at Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp, brought in a jazz musician with a keyboard for a “creative approach” to Ma’ariv, the evening prayers. Forty campers — one-fourth of those in attendance — found the service so disconcerting that they spontaneously walked out.

This was a weekday Ma’ariv, on the evening of US Independence Day, July 4. These are not kids whom we would imagine say a weekday Ma’ariv frequently enough to grow attached to the traditional service — but they do. In the words of a 16 year old girl, social action VP of her temple youth group, “when the prayers were very nontraditional, they felt botched; the music was so distracting. It seemed so disrespectful.” This girl is from California, no less.

When Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, advises that “we should be prepared to explore everything, even things that would have been unthinkable to parents and grandparents,” and when HUC Rabbinical Student David Singer says “we’re looking for things outside the box in which our generation feels comfortable experimenting and expressing our Judaism in ways that haven’t always fit into the established norms” — they’re not talking about Tikkun Olam in Darfur, dance circles, or the embrace of “alternative lifestyles.” They are referring to kashrus, tzitzis, and Shemiras Shabbos!

Needless to say, the older generation hasn’t figured out what to do with the neo-observant youth within the movement. The Director of Kutz, Rabbi Eve Rudin, says that “even though the Reform movement is about being pluralistic, there is a range” of accepted behaviors. What she means is that you can only be so frum and still be Reform. Singer asserts that “we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about.” He doesn’t have it right — obviously, we are all choosing to do whatever observances we do. The Orthodox choose to regard observance as an obligation (the word “mitzvos” means Commandments), and that’s the difference. In Rabbi Yoffie’s words, “if you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Our Sages teach that G-d would prefer that His children the Jews “abandon Me, but observe my Torah” — because Torah itself will return them home. At a certain point, kids who “experiment” with observance begin to regard mitzvoth as something more than good deeds, which is the red line that Reform cannot tolerate.

Rabbi Yoffie seems relatively sanguine about the future, regardless of the choices the youth may make. “Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.” The Conservative movement, on the other hand, has been losing its most committed members to Orthodoxy for decades, and is now, in the words of its own leaders, grappling with an existential crisis. The most committed Jewish youth are returning to Orthodox practices — while that may be an optimistic message for the Jewish future, it is only hastening heterodoxy’s decline.

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18 Responses

  1. Tzadik in Peltz says:

    I dont like the disparaging reference to California. Some of America’s finest Orthodox live there.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Emily,
    I, as a person who grew up in a Reform congregation back in the 50s-60s and am now Orthodox living in Israel, definitely feel your pain. I have a mother and brothers and friends back in the US who are not like me and I work hard to be decent and fair and respectful of them as human beings, despite differences in both opinion and lifestyle. The older I get the more disinclined I am to jump on the soapbox on every issue. Derech eretz kadma laTorah, menschlichkeit/decency precedes Torah/frumkeit/religiosity. You can’t communicate your ideas unless and until you have the respect of others and the willingness or even active interest of the people involved to be in any way an audience. If you haven’t reached that point, you hold back. If you realize you never will reach that point, you leave it completely. There are a lot of good people who have ideas that I consider incorrect, but trying to change their opinions is in most cases counter-productive. When in doubt, follow the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

  3. Emily Katcher says:

    I am a Reform Jewish woman, so I hope I’m not offending anyone here by writing. From the inside, I do see these struggle as ultimately positive. I am always pushing for more observance at my shul, certainly. But the thing is, I really want to do it from a place of love, that if we do this, it will be enriching and wonderful. I let it go when folks don’t want it, I don’t attack them or reject them or tell them they’re not Jewish. Why would anyone be drawn toward mitzvot if they are presented with bitterness? Some of the Reform teens who are becoming more observant have returned to us, not just with lots of learning and new ideas, but with some heavy duty superiority. As a matter of fact, they get a little touchy when adults agree with them!

    Every time my husband and I have been drawn towards deeper observance, we have been so put off by the rejecting, almost snobby attitude of more observant Jews, that we just end up saying, yeah, well, I guess we’re still Reform. At least they’re nice to us.

  4. Reuven Tradburks says:

    The initial joke about lack of respect for tradition in a Reform Temple occured here in Toronto this month. Holy Blossom Temple, a 3,000 member Temple was constructed years ago facing West. This was presumably a deliberate decision to express “Berlin is our Jerusalem”. In a $30 million renovation the architect redesigned the sanctuary to face East. There was a major dispute in the Temple, eventually coming to a full vote of the membership over this very issue – how can we turn our backs (sic) on the tradition of our fathers who faced west? This was covered in the major Toronto newspapers. In the vote, just a few weeks ago, the membership voted to change the orientation to face East by a vote of 75%. Jewish Tradition won out over local tradition.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Well, perhaps eventually what will be left of Reform will be ReFRUM Judaism.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken: These poor kids have so little connection to the world of Halacha that some went off to make their own service in the bathroom. But something within them is crying out.

    Ori: True. The “front door” of access through their synagogues is probably closed, but they all have Internet and they all know Google. Which key words would they search on? What kind of content would they read?

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken: We will surely be asked what we did to reach out to these kids.

    Ori: Nothing you can write or say will have the effect of interacting with young adults their own age, in diverse circumstances that won’t allow them to pretend to be anything other than what they really are. Kids who grow up with access to all the lies on the Internet and phishing scams straight to their e-mail and instant messenger are going to be really sensitive to any agenda you may have. They will probably interpret anything you tell them as an idealized picture. Seeing people their own age in action will be a lot more convincing.

    Would you send your own kids to a secular college to stay at the dorms as an example of the advantages of a Torah life style?

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    Many of the comments seem directed at the official positions of the Reform movement, and, in context, that is misplaced. The NYJW article is documenting a rebellion within the Reform movement against its “tradition” of taking liberties with tradition. One-quarter of Reform campers walked out on a “jazz Ma’ariv.” [“Dr. E” doesn’t see the “chiddush” — he doesn’t see what’s new?]

    I think Rabbi Oberstein has hit the nail on the head. Even among their leaders, there’s no one to argue with anymore. These poor kids have so little connection to the world of Halacha that some went off to make their own service in the bathroom. But something within them is crying out. American Jews of 60 years ago were surely asked, when they reached shomayim, what they did to save the Jews of Europe. We will surely be asked what we did to reach out to these kids.

  8. Calev says:

    My wife and I hosted a female Reform convert for a week – her Jewish-born fiancee had broken off their relationship, she had been evicted from her flat and was in an awful emotional state (that’s the short version!). I contacted her rabbi (of a big, wealthy Reform temple) and explained the situation. I asked whether his temple had a chessed committee or something similar that could help her (after all, she was not a friend of ours, as we’d only met her once briefly and we have a small flat – hosting her was a serious inconvenience). The response from the rabbi was, in essence, one big shrug: no chessed committee, no sense of responsibility, no expression of concern.

    On talking to the woman I began to understand Reform a bit better. It turned out that she had been taught by the same rabbi that I’d spoken to that, if she was spending Shabbat with her fiancee (!), then she shouldn’t bring in Shabbat (ie light candles) until he came back from work. There was no question of sunset, dusk or nightfall; it seems that, according to this Reform rabbi, the Shabbat Queen enters the home arm in arm with the man of the house.

    Should we be encouraged by a few Reformniks taking on more traditional practices? Well, I know we’re enjoined to judge people favourably and we should, no doubt, be happy when a fellow Jew takes on a mitzva. But I would suggest that Reform as a whole is so far removed from anything genuinely Jewish that we should not be too optimistic about anything that happens there.

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I remember a few years ago an interesting, and perhaps unexpected, statement in the Jewish Observer by a member of its Moetzes. At the time, I think that the Reform Movement had issued a call to embrace the concept of “Mitzvah”. The rabbi noted that if there is a “Mitzvah”, there is also the concept of a “Metzaveh”, a Commander, and that there was something positive in the Movement recognizing that, from a historical perspective of its origins.

    Truth to be told, I don’t know the current history of Reform enough to know if that policy statement actually lead towards any change in direction on the level of the organization. But if the “Pintele Yid” did not have an effect on the collective direction of the movement, it could be part of the longing of some individual members, even if they haven’t actually left Reform.

  10. lacosta says:

    We should not be too sanguine over heterodoxy’s demise, if the price is, as in mitzraim, the loss of 4/5 of US jewry. but maybe, since the final geula will be ‘kimei tzeitzchem mimitzrayim’ , it should seem inevitable…..

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Look at it this way. We all know of many BTs who either were part of USY or attended Camp Ramah and then became either MO or Charedi. It is very possible that we may be seeing a shift within RJ as well. Think of Dr Jack Wertheimer-when I read his articles about American Judaism and intermarriage, I wonder how and why he remains affiliated with CJ and JTS. I could foresee Dr Wertheimer moving into MO without any difficulties.

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Two generations ago, US culture connected identity to ethnicity. If you were born to Jewish parents, you were expected to be Jewish. I assume that Reform Judaism included many people who wanted the ethnic identity without the religion, or without the parts of the religion that aren’t “user friendly”.

    Our culture changed. Today identity is very much divorced from ethnicity. This means that people from my generation who don’t care about Judaism as a religion simply aren’t there. Reform Judaism in the current generation only gets those who are serious about Judaism.

  13. Loberstein says:

    The late Dr. Jacob Petuchowski who taught at HUC once wrote an article in which he compared today’s Reform Movement to the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Nothing remains but the smile, the body is gone. Today’s Reform isn’t even a pale shadow of the original movement. The reason being that they all assimilated and disappeared.

    Many of today’s Reform rabbis are not anti-halacha, but there is a very wide distance between such outward symbols like wearing a tallis and a kipah and actual emunah in the Torah. You can have a Reform rabbi who is gay perform a wedding between two women and they can all wear kipot and tallitot and it don’t mean a thing.

    My main point, which I can never get across to my Jewish Observer friends is that Reform isn’t worth fighting any more, this is not Rabbiner Hirsch’s Reform. We need to be mekarev them as individuals and try to save what can be saved.

  14. Dr. E says:

    I’m not sure if my reaction to this piece is what’s the chiddush here, or why is he kicking a dead horse. Take your pick.

  15. HILLEL says:

    “PLURALISM” is a code word for “NOT ORTHODOX.”

    So, by definition, an Orthodox Jew cannot be “Pluralistic.”

    BTW, When do you referred to Reform Leader Eric Yofee as a “Rabbi,” you reminded me of the story where a Rabbi hung our a sign proclaiming that he was “Grand Rabbi of the United States of America.” When asked: “Who appointed you to this position?” He answered: “The sign painter!”

  16. David says:

    I also read a Reform Responsa that said that a Reform Temple could NOT chose to observe two days of Yom Tov, mainly because to do so would fly in the face of Reform “tradition” of a about 150-200 years. The question was about Shavuos falling on Friday and Saturday, and the answer was that the congregation MUST read the Eretz Yisroel Torah reading on that Shabbat, not the second day Shavuos reading. Oddly, not reading the Torah at all was also given as a valid option.

  17. kar says:

    “Our Sages teach that G-d would prefer that His children the Jews “abandon Me, but observe my Torah”—because Torah itself will return them home.”

    They say would they abandon me and Learn my torah – shamaru here means learn. (Look it up in context, see eg psicha to eicha rabasi os beis) This midrash is not about the value of orthopraxy. It’s a litvishe midrash about “Teyre, teyre, teyre.”

    I do not understand why this midrash is so commonly misconstrued.

  18. soccer dad says:

    I was once skimming through a friend’s copy of American Reform Responsa. The first question concerned whether or not it was appropriate to read a Kesuva at a wedding. The temple’s Rabbi and ritual committee were disagreeing. (I forget who took which position.) In a nutshell the question was about whether a couple could voluntarily follow tradition or whether Reform doctrine took precedence.

    The answer was that the Kesuva was ananchronism so that it shouldn’t have been read.

    IOW, Reform has standards too. Those standards, though, involve actively rejecting accepted tradition.