Reform Teens Revolt

From The Jewish Week:

Warwick, N.Y. — The sun was setting at the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp in this picturesque upstate town, and in the dying light of a sweet summer day it was time for the evening prayer service.

In the lakeside pavilion that serves as Kutz Camp’s synagogue, the visiting musician who led the evening service on the Fourth of July, a Wednesday, set the prayers to an easy-listening jazz sound.

It was a musical style, played on an electric keyboard, that almost none of the campers connected with, many said later. But some took their displeasure a step further, doing something unprecedented that night at Kutz that speaks volumes about a generation of Reform teens that is staking a new claim to Jewish ritual and tradition and posing a challenge for movement leaders.

As the musician played a jazzy version of the Barchu, a couple of campers got up and walked out. Over the next several minutes, other pairs of high school-age campers, one after another, got up and quietly left. It took awhile for the adults in the room to realize what was happening, but some 40 campers in all, about a quarter of those in attendance, spontaneously got up and left the service. The service was too untraditional, they later said, offensively so.

Turns out, it was their own spiritual Independence Day.

Full story.

30 Responses to “Reform Teens Revolt”

  1. “There are limits to what the Reform movement can encompass, he said. “We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented,” he said, referring to Jewish law.”

    I wonder why he works so hard at separating the Mitzvoth from Halacha?

    Taking on the Yoke of heaven is still a Choice that has to made every day.
    Can’t help but feel that Reform is trying to hang on to its own “age-old” Tradition, that Observance is somehow not PC.

    In the end, how I formulate my observance is no better or worse than anyone else, so why make a big brouhaha about kids wanting a little more ritual observance than their parents?

    I don’t get it.


    Silly Old Bear · August 12th, 2007 at 2:15 pm
  2. My understanding of the Reform attitude toward halacha has always been that you should learn about it and then decide what’s right for you, but it’s not binding. I think that’s what the mitzvah/halacha distinction is: you perform mitzvot more in the sense of good deeds (think Tikkun Olam) than commandments.

    In the end, how I formulate my observance is no better or worse than anyone else, so why make a big brouhaha about kids wanting a little more ritual observance than their parents?

    If how you formulate your observance is no better or worse than anyone else, why call it “more” observance rather than “different” observance? You’re giving away your biases. (Sorry, BZ, beat you to it.)

    Nitpicking aside, there is an answer to your question. The vast majority of Jews I’ve met tend to find the traditions they grew up with to be the most authentic/meaningful, and tend to feel uncomfortable with unfamiliar traditions. That’s true no matter what strain of Judaism they call their own.

    Just as there are plenty of orthodox folks who don’t like Carlebach nusach and think it’s “too chasidic” to add Yedid Nefesh to open Kabbalat Shabbat, there are plenty of Reform Jews for whom it doesn’t feel right to add all those tehilim to Kabbalat Shabbat or recite kaddish five times in the course of a service.

    Every congregation’s practice of prayer changes over time. When that congregation is a summer camp where creativity in worship is encouraged and the members come from different shuls all over the country, things will be more volatile. There will inevitably be certain innovations (whether those innovations are jazzing up the liturgy or adding back components of the service that were stripped away by Reform leaders generations ago) that aren’t to one or another member’s liking. The question is when is it okay to decide that somebody else’s innovation is too much, and walk out.


    themicah · August 12th, 2007 at 4:18 pm
  3. These aren’t my own words, but: Judaism is meaningful when it’s countercultural. When it is a conscious rejection of slavery to false idols, including money, wordly success, status, popularity and even – approval from those with power.

    The question I ask myself is: where those kids feeling ‘powerful’ because they belonged to a more close knit group that collectively expressed power by leaving? Where they seeking an elite status (even as a secondary motive’ by breaking apart the sense of the whole camp being ‘one’?

    For this walkout to be meritorious and not a case of teens being selfish and self centered shmendriks, I’d want to hear that they first engaged in a dialogue about what the problems were (and why the camp does what it does) and only then took action.

    The less liturgical high reform tradition does deserve ‘protection’ within a camp culture. Reform leaders have it right. The kids choosing ‘more’ observance should also observe the need to work with and within the community before stepping out publicly.

    Can’t believe I’m standing with the leadership though. I mean, I wear a kippa, pray in Hebrew, and don’t usually enjoy the high reform service. But the Reform movement is valuable to me and others, and I hope it stays strong, even as folks push for change (like doing more than jerking off to end the war in Iraq) and enjoy greater pluralism in religious practice.


    Progressive Jewbilation · August 12th, 2007 at 5:53 pm
  4. If how you formulate your observance is no better or worse than anyone else, why call it “more” observance rather than “different” observance? You’re giving away your biases. (Sorry, BZ, beat you to it.)

    Ha. And LastTrumpet beat me to posting this article — that’s what happens when I’m at Institute all week (and have a longer trip home than LastTrumpet). But suffice it to say that this article made my blood boil, and I have a long post about it that I’ll try to get up on Mah Rabu in the next day or two.


    BZ · August 12th, 2007 at 6:01 pm
  5. are we sure it wasn’t just too cheesy rather than too untraditional? though it might seem that way sometimes, the two aren’t coextensive.
    aesthetics and theology aren’t the same thing either, though again it’s easy for people who are really into one or the other to conflate them.


    ephraim · August 12th, 2007 at 9:10 pm
  6. are we sure it wasn’t just too cheesy rather than too untraditional?

    UNfortunately, That’s where I’d put my money. I can’t say for sure, but IMO it’s pretty likely that what we’re talking about here is not necessarily that they want a more traditional service. but more that they didn’t care for what their elders thought was hip and happenin. If they had chosen something less “jazzy” I wonder if the response would have been the same.


    Kol Ra'ash Gadol · August 12th, 2007 at 9:40 pm
  7. any comments from the campers themselves.
    At my friends Bar Mitzvah at a well established Reform temple we “snuck” in our own yalmuka’s and put them on after we were seated.We weren’t religious but we just felt wrong not wearing one in shul. The usher came over to us and told us to take them off as we were being disrespectful.Weird.
    There is something cool about not messing around with tradition Jewish songs to the tune of uncle johns band are cool but weird/wrong. I seek sacred.

    Reform has jumped the shark


    happytobefrum · August 12th, 2007 at 11:39 pm
  8. I just want to go back to the comment at the beginning about “more” versus “different” observance. I really don’t see how saying more observant is biased… I mean observance is obviously in reference to halacha. and the more of the commandments you keep, the more observant you are. Why is there a problem with that? I don’t see that as a superiority type of statement. For me, it seems the argument would and should be about when people say they are “more RELIGIOUS.” Being more observant does not always mean more religious. That, I think, is the issue.


    Yirmiyahu · August 13th, 2007 at 12:00 am
  9. happytobefrum, how long ago was your friend’s bar mitzvah? Are there really still Reform shuls that forbid kipot?

    As for “not messing around with tradition” when it comes to music in shul, you should take a look at where the music you consider “traditional” comes from. Many of the “traditional” melodies sung in conservative and orthodox shuls today were originally written in the 19th century for a cantor with choir and organ accompaniment. And the music borrowed heavily from the popular secular (and Christian) music of the day.

    Should we not have allowed those composers to “mess with tradition” either? How about Carlebach? His music is now heavily used in many frum shuls (shuls that gets thumbs up from me), yet he messed with tradition in a big way (not to mention the whole sex abuse thing).

    The Grateful Dead may not have been writing their music for Jewish liturgy, but if their melodies makes prayer more relevant, why not use them?


    themicah · August 13th, 2007 at 12:32 am
  10. Anyone else notice that the “traditional” “davening” was held in a bathroom? What’s up with that? I mean, forget about the halakhic prohibition since halakha isn’t viewed as binding, but isn’t it common sense that praying in a bathroom (whatever prayer, whatever religion) is just kinda inappropriate.

    Also, it’s worth noting that the “traditional” folks didn’t rebel b/c they believed in halakha or wanted more ritual but rather because they wanted what they were used to (which, as mentioned above, is common among many different groups).

    OTOH, I have to admit that IMHO, the bindingness of the Jewish legal system (regardless of how many rituals one does or doesn’t observe in their personal life) is what defines normative Judaism. Of course there is plenty of room for legal interpretation but when Jewish law isn’t binding, it’s not Judaism.


    amechad · August 13th, 2007 at 2:11 am
  11. I heard this story last week at CAJE from the musical accompianist. He said that they walked out because the tunes were not the same old tried and true camp melodies that they were used to. They were not looking for high Reform services. They just wanted camp to be the same as it always is. Tradition is a tricky thing.


    uzi · August 13th, 2007 at 2:16 am
  12. I don’t see why this is newsworthy at all. They didn’t enjoy the music and so they walked out? What exactly does that have to do with religion at all? It was bloody soft jazz at a summer camp. Of course they walked out.

    Not to mention that walking out of a service because of musical reasons has nothing to do with some kind of latent conservatism in these campers. If they walked out because the service had been altered, it would be one thing. But they were expressing disapproval at the style, not the liturgy. Not exactly a revolution here.


    Mordy · August 13th, 2007 at 7:34 am
  13. I wonder what “jazz” services meant-i.e. for those in NY, was it CD101.9 jazz, or WBGO jazz? Kenny G or John Coltrane/Miles Davis? That could make a big difference in whether it was inspiring or just cheesy.


    yossi · August 13th, 2007 at 7:37 am
  14. Well, I agree tha tmost any of us would have walked out of anything ‘soft jazz’ regardless of the context. However, the article appears to be intimating, and the other quotes eem to express that thsi event happenned in the context of tension and disagreemen that had been occuring al sujmmer. Probabaly, it was not just that a 1/4 of the students walked out, but particularly which students walked out that made it clear that they were not just objecting to mixing Muzak with Nusach.


    Josh Frankel · August 13th, 2007 at 7:56 am
  15. Curious about the reform anti-kippot comment. I was raised reform and most of my congregation wore a kippah (including many of the women). And they were totally de rigeur at reform bar and bat mitzvahs. Was not wearing them part of the movement?


    Siviyo · August 13th, 2007 at 8:26 am
  16. Here’s a very brief background on the kipot thing:

    www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,991153,00.html

    Note that Time Magazine was covering the classical vs. traditional debate in Reform Judaism in 1999. It’s nothing new.

    And here’s a little more background:

    judaism.about.com/od/beliefsandlaw1/f/rabbi_kipa.htm


    themicah · August 13th, 2007 at 9:26 am
  17. I can’t help but wonder about something that doesn’t seem to have been addressed here.

    But what a hurtful thing that is to do to a visiting musician, no? In the name of “this is tradition” or “this is how we prefer to pray”, etc…to walk out on a guest who is putting themselves out there, apparently riskily so, in order to offer them (a new, and perhaps uncomfortable) means of engaging in Jewish prayer?

    I don’t think this this is revolutionary or iconoclastic or innovative, it’s just not very nice. And so completely consumerist. “We don’t like your product, we’re going to another store”.

    Did the notion of derech eretz or v’ahavta l’reech camocha play into their behavior at all?

    Wouldn’t it have been possible to “suffer” through these services and then engage the musician after the fact in why it was difficult for them rather than abandoning the thing wholesale?

    Maybe I missed this if it was already addressed, but that’s my immediate response.


    Balaam's Donkey · August 13th, 2007 at 10:36 am
  18. “and the more of the commandments you keep, the more observant you are. Why is there a problem with that?”

    There isn’t, at least from where I’m sitting.

    Having spend 8 years in the Conservative Movement, I finally left, not due to theology, but because Orthodox Jews, of all stripes, are the most committed, spiritually engaged, giving (of their time, homes, food, etc), learned, and hence, their classes are much more engaging then liberal movements.

    And I say this as a, theologically, Conservative Jew.


    shtreimel · August 13th, 2007 at 11:40 am
  19. Yirmiyahu and shtreimel: If a woman decides to start laying tefillin every day, does that make her “more observant” or “less observant”? What if she had been laying tefillin but decides to stop? (Credit to BZ for the question idea.)


    Desh · August 13th, 2007 at 2:54 pm
  20. “does that make her “more observant” or “less observant”?”

    Let’s move past the theory shall we. All liberal branches of Judaism are failing in almost every area of Jewish living…from shul attendance to keeping mitzvahs to intermarriage. The proof is in the practice.


    shtreimel · August 13th, 2007 at 3:23 pm
  21. More observant. And I say that as an Orthodox Jew. What I find troubling is that even without the “restrictions” of halacha, the Reform movement has found so gosh-darn few ways to make Judaism very meaningful. If you’re going to be Reform, hell, be radical! I recently saw the new Reform prayerbook (I don’t know if it was published yet, what I saw was a galley copy). For Kabbalat Shabbat it has all of the Tehillim, but for most of them it just prints the first 4 verses and the last 4. i.e., just what would be chanted out loud. Never mind that there’s just as much in the verses that were left in that “violates” Reform theology, it’s like reciting the first 4 and last 4 lines of a Shakespeare sonnet! They’re poems, for goodness sake! If you want to get rid of them, get rid of them, but please do something more interesting, spiritual, or meaningful instead, don’t cherry pick the traditional davening and then mutilate it!


    yg · August 13th, 2007 at 4:01 pm
  22. I knew it was only a matter of time before we started bashing the Reform and Conservative movements. And this in response to an article about kids who don’t like keyboard jazz at services!

    And I went to Kutz. And we davened mightily, Reform or not.


    sarah · August 13th, 2007 at 8:45 pm
  23. [...] Jewish Week article, which LastTrumpet already posted, is making my head explode for all kinds of different reasons. So I’m posting a line-by-line [...]


    Jewschool » Blog Archive » YOUR HEAD A SPLODE · August 13th, 2007 at 9:43 pm
  24. I think that article said in there that once you accept halacha as LAW you are not reform anymore. But if you CHOOSE to follow it you are ok. I have a friend from school who is reform, and he used to daven with our orthodox minyan until he graduated. He wore a kippah and tzitzit everyday, and kept kosher… if you didn’t know him you would say “orthodox.” But he was staunchly reform. For him it was exactly this difference in reasoning that drew the line. He strongly believed in the ability to choose which mitzvot you follow, he merely chose to follow them all.

    So what are the Reform people so worried about? A. I agree that these kids most likely walked out because Kenny G just doesnt go with the Barchu. In fact Kenny G should be banned in everything except hotel lobbies for all time. but B. These kids are CHOOSING to try these more “traditional” practices. If they felt obligated, they wouldn’t be eating at your kosher-style camp. If you allow them to experiment (usually the reform movements battle cry) you won’t risk alienating them, and they will remain reform instead of becoming a black-hatter.


    Yirmiyahu · August 13th, 2007 at 11:29 pm
  25. my bar mitzvah year was ages ago,although it seems like yesterday,1978. The shul was a very well established reform shul. Maybe things have changed but back then yalmukas were not cool.
    I;ll take the dead over carlbach in a heart beat, it’s just kind of strange when its included in the mix. Call me crazy but i thought the chazan at my conservative shul was really good. So was Jerry. All good things in all good time.


    happytobefrum · August 13th, 2007 at 11:48 pm
  26. I was at Kutz last summer. I think the girl who was quoted was probably among those looking for a sense of belonging and empowerment rather than truly understanding why she would leave a service. I absolutely believe that it was disrespectful to the visiting musician to leave, but will admit that had I been present, I’m sure I would have been one of the first to discretely leave to pray somewhere else. In a similar situation during a Kabalat Shabbat service on the reform movement’s semester in Israel program, a more-than-minyan was formed after the “service” before to pray joyfully, and in a manner that we felt was prayerful and respectful to Hashem, in one of our hotel rooms.

    The issue may not have been wanting what these teens were used to. Kutznikim learn new tunes and experiment with different styles of services on a daily basis. In my two summers there (2003 and 2006), nothing like this happened. These teens felt the manner of prayer was more disrespectful to Hashem, not just their notion of tradition, than leaving would be.


    Sarah W · August 13th, 2007 at 11:54 pm
  27. I guess the dialog is winding down here, but I just had to say something because I attended Kutz in ’01. And for however much you guys want to theorize about why these kids walked out of the services, and what that means or doesn’t mean for the Reform Movement as a whole, I can at least tell you a little about my experience.

    I grew up ‘in the Reform Movement’ and I was one of those “most-committed Reform teens from around the country,” but my summer at Kutz as a 17-year old was eye-opening in many ways. I had just seen and put on tefillin for the first time the year before, and my time at Kutz was the first time hearing about and being exposed to Jewish philosophy and any kind of Jewish text outside of the ‘Bible,’ (aka Torah aka ‘The Tree of Life’) which I hadn’t even cracked open. It was my first time being exposed to prayer other than on Friday night or Saturday morning (if you could call what I had experienced on Friday night or Saturday morning prayer at all).

    You could say that Kutz was praiseworthy for exposing me to all of this (which it was), but at the same time, looking back, it was really sad that I had to wait until I was 17 years old at Kutz Camp to find out all that stuff. I think that really shows a failure on the Movement’s part to educate the youth (although, of course, I had a pretty good Holocaust education).

    And as far as davening in a bathroom, yeah, it’s very “halachically not-cool,” but trust me, being raised Reform you don’t learn about what is “halachically cool” or “not-cool.” I remember vividly the year following my summer at Kutz when I got a pair of tefillin and started putting them on occasionally, and occasionally in the bathroom because it was a private spot where I could lock the door and my friends and anyone else didn’t have to know. Little did I know, right? And I was one of the “most-committed Reform teens from around the country;” it is very sad and scary to imagine all the other ‘not-so-committed’ Reform teens at that time, and where they are in their connection to Judaism today.

    And yeah, I made ‘informed decisions’ after that like a good little Reformnik. I informatively decided myself into keeping kosher. And then when I was a counselor at a popular Reform summer camp the next summer, which didn’t have kosher facilities, I made an exception in my ‘observance’ for the sake of the Movement. And then I found out that the staff didn’t even care whether anything in the camp was kosher, and that was a downer. So what is a little Reformnik supposed to do when he informatively decides himself into keeping shabbos, davening everyday, learning and practicing halacha… he is rejected from participating in the Reform Movement any longer.

    But I did enjoy Kutz and it was an important step on my journey to wherever I’m going. And also, I guess everybody probably already knew this part too and just didn’t need to say it, but in case you didn’t know, Kutz was also a lot about the hooking up. That was a big part of it. And sometimes you just can’t take life too seriously, you know?


    G-D SQUAD · August 14th, 2007 at 2:41 am
  28. [...] Nascar trips for teenage youth.“Look, there is this misconception that the Reform Movement is the easy listening jazz movement, but we’re so much more than that!” said Rabbi Yoffie. “We’re pluralistic, and that can mean [...]


    Jewschool » Blog Archive » Reform Reaches Out to Teens Through Nascar · August 14th, 2007 at 5:23 pm
  29. My son was one of the ones who walked out. I got the feeling it was more of “this seems wrong” “I am not getting anything from this” feeling than it was a statement- making walkout. My son was one of the bathroom daveners which later moved to an outdoor shed. My son possibly had this feeling also because we attend weekly Chabad classes and Shabbatons. Chabad has given him a sense of Hebrew davening, not the poetry prose/fest that the reform siddur has become. As I recall when he called us from camp, he explained that the word Barchu was like all riffed up and on and that was too much.
    He told me that they did discuss the possibility of the singer being offended in their Jewish ethics class.
    I was really interested when I saw pics online of some of the boys that had tzitzit and kippah. While we discussed this tonight we wondered out loud…if halachah and observance was so important to you, why would you go to a reform camp? The answer we came up with is many of us only have a refrom shul in our town. So the kids have reform friends, even though they may be more observant. And you want to hang out with your pals, but you can’t go to Young Judea or Camp Gan Israel as you don’t know anyone…so it is a big topic to discuss.
    But anyway, I did not get the feeling that the walk out was a protest, but more of a “looking for more”.
    G-D Squad: my daughter went to Kutz same year you did..I recall it clearly that you all were in NY just a few weeks before 9-11.
    My son and daughter had a wonderful time at Kutz. I have really taught my kids that if you want more, you have to seek it out. This is why we go to a break off from a reform shul Chavura and Chabad. Don’t label Jews..labels are for shirts.
    At our Chabad shul on the toilet doors there IS a prayer! it is all about thanking HaShem for making all those parts work!
    Many of our tunes by the way are old German drinking song tunes..ie the uptempo ain Keloheinu, Adon Olam….


    elaine · August 14th, 2007 at 8:26 pm
  30. As a 2007 URJ Kutz Campus for Reform Jewish Teen Life participant, I attended this service.

    I remember that 4th of July like it was yesterday. One of my really good friends was part of the service and was helping out. All the lights were down in the beit am and there were colorful lights towards the front on the two singers, the boy on the drum box, a boy playing guitar, and a man on an electric panio. I asked my friend who was helping lead what type of service this was going to be, and she told me how it was going to be a different kind of jazzy service.

    I was somewhat excited because I do like jazz, and it was nice that we were going to change things up a bit. I decided to sit in the front row because no one seemed to want to be up there, and I’m not afraid of things like this so, I did with a friend in hand.

    The service started with the jazzy beats and the panio tunes. I realized that this was no ordinary service at all. After realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to have a connection I just decided to have fun with it. I was not going to walk out because personally I find it rude and disrespectful when someone walks out a service that was obviously very hard to put together. As a regional songleader, I know what kind of hard work and effort gets put into these types of services. So I just kind of pretended it wasn’t a service and just danced and made the best of the situation.

    It did bother me a little bit that he interupted a lot of prayers and kind of took us out of most people’s confort levels. But honestly, I just went with it.

    I didn’t realize that so many people walked out until they all came back in. The RA’s had to do their job into getting all the PP’s to go back to their seats.

    It’s the aftermath that really got to me more. After that service all of our services had all hebrew. We all the sudden became really traditional. It personally made me upset when people walked out because of the work put into a service. I mean I understand why they did, but I know that I would feel so badly if I’m up there trying to lead the congergation in a service and they just got up and left. I think that’s what a lot of PP’s didn’t realize when they walked out.


    Rachel Wolman · August 15th, 2007 at 9:02 pm

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