Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

Another Reform post

The slide in the picture, from Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman‘s presentation yesterday at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute‘s International Conference on Contemporary Reform Judaism, depicts a sentiment I’ve been warning about for years. This quote is from an interview with one of Prof. Fishman’s students at Brandeis, but she said that it was typical of many of her students. So I guess this means I wasn’t just crying wolf.
The two-day conference continues today and promises to be interesting, so if you’re in Jerusalem, stop by the Van Leer Institute (it’s free and open to the public), and if you’re not, you can tune in to the live web broadcast. I only caught a little bit of yesterday’s sessions, but I’ll have more time today since my Arabic class is cancelled (apparently most of the students are observing some sort of holiday or something), and I’ll be covering it for Jewschool.
Unlike the recent URJ biennial, this is not a conference put on by the Reform movement — this is an academic conference talking about Reform Judaism. And I must say that, in the limited time I was there yesterday, I found it quite refreshing to hear Reform Judaism discussed with respect, rather than either disdain or defensiveness.
No time to write more — I’m off to hear about “Halakhah and Ritual in Reform Judaism”. Perhaps I’ll see some of you there.

17 thoughts on “Another Reform post

  1. This quote described me when I graduated Georgetown. I enrolled at HUC because it was to my knowledge the only place where I could do the kind of learning I wanted, at the time, to do. I also thought about JTS but I grew up Reform and the JTS community was not a comfortable place for me given my observance level at the time.
    I was pretty explicit with the admissions committee that I was not interested in a pulpit and was pressed a bit on why I wanted to go to rabbinical school. I said that I could potentially see myself as a Hillel rabbi and that seemed to satisfy them, because I was admitted. In fact after ordination I spent two years working in the Israeli Reform movement and then came back to the States and did indeed become a Hillel rabbi.
    When I applied to HUC I could not have foreseen that I would eventually become a Conservative pulpit rabbi. I am grateful that HUC was able to provide me the education I was looking for at the time, even if I left that hashkafa and kehila behind.
    But I do think it’s unfortunate that the only way most people feel they can live their lives as a passionate and committed Reform Jew is to be a rabbi or cantor. But I also think it’s a true statement. A serious and observant Reform lay person will be seen as “not really Reform.” Of course outside the big city a serious and observant Conservative lay person will be labeled “Orthodox” by his or her fellow congregants as well.

  2. my story is pretty much exactly like charles, except that i was first deferred and then rejected from HUC. i actually did tell them that i wanted to be a pulpit rabbi, but when i described a pulpit in which i was part time (so i could devote time to interfaith work and writing), they labeled this view as ‘leaderless’ and one that would not have me as the ‘icon of the congregation.’ (let me be clear, those are not ironic or sarcastic quotation symbols; those are both quotations). anyway, after looking at a bunch of schools, i ended up getting a masters in jewish education and bible at jts, which fit me quite well in the end.
    like BZ, i still consider my practice informed and influenced by my upbringing in the Reform movement; however i barely identify with the current Reform movement as an institution.

  3. Why do we think it is that doing some post-college learning in a Yeshiva open to Reform students isn’t much on the map of options? It seems to me that Torah is Torah, and someone coming from a Reform background would do well to learn from people with a variety of hashkafot, and integrate that learning into their informed, autonomous practice. What about all the programs like Adamah and Avodah? Do people feel like they need to be learning in an exclusively Reform environment?
    In addition, my experience in Boston was that there was a plethora of learning opportunities in the greater community in a variety of institutions, and one could have any sort of job one wanted and still remain committed to learning and Judaism.
    IMHO, people don’t know about their options because the Reform movement starts recruiting for HUC when you’re in the 9th grade. Options outside of the movement are rarely presented, especially since such a large chunk of your synagogue dues are already funding the movement programs.

  4. Last Trumpet, let me clarify that I graduated college in 1981. Basically at the time the only place that would have been open to me without an a priori commitment to a certain level of observance would have been Pardes, which for whatever reason I didn’t consider. There are definitely more pluralistic “Torah lishmah” options now than there were back then.
    At the same time one is then faced with the question of “what next?” after one is outside the full-time learning framework. Not everyone can arrange their lives to live in NYC, Boston, DC or LA, places where I know of serious progressive Jewish communities where someone who is observant but explicilty not Orthodox can find a chevra. It is a serious problem in both the R and C communities, I think.

  5. Wow, this is exactly why I used to think about rabbinical school as well. I considered it every fall until just about a year ago when I finally wrote it off. The bummer is that now that I understand that I can get the education I want at a part-time yeshiva or summer program, I’m too old to do so (in terms of my availability to not make money for months on end) and I don’t live in Israel/NY/LA where such options are available.
    I am already envisioning living vicariously through my future kids on this front. Sigh.

  6. What would be the ideal program for adults who want to do serious study but can’t take time off work to do it? WOuld it be evening classes? A grad school model, with earned degrees at the end and the opportunity to get loans etc? What would you sign up for if it were available, and was a serious learning opportunity, not just another of the endless rounds of one-off classes taught by someone in the community or another parshah class by the rabbi?

  7. One thing that’s hard to find is a resource for independent text study. I would love to know of a place where you can find text study partners, use or borrow texts, and have others around to teach you how to handle certain harder works or help you decide what you want to study.
    I happen to have such a place at my local university’s Hillel, but there’s nothing “out in the community” that I know of, and I’m sure most places don’t even have Hillel as option for this.

  8. I think a good model, perhaps not the best, but still good are the items found at There you already have thousands of hours of mp3 lectures, some with text handouts, where you can follow along the learning on a plethora of Judaic Studies. Did I mention it’s free? Why can’t JTS or HUC or any other rabbinical seminary do the same? So many people want to do the Jewish learning on a seminary level without becomming a rabbi. The YU site is a pretty good attempt at that. Why can’t that be adopted in the non-ortho seminary world? Why can’t the Conservative Yeshiva, JTS, HUC, Pardes webcast more text learning. is also a pretty good free site but they make you pay for lectures you don’t hear live.

  9. In Boston, there are a couple of options that would fit what you’re looking for… There’s Me’ah, the 100 hours of adult learning program created by Hebrew College and run through a variety of partners (you can take classes at the college or at a synagogue, JCC, etc). The classes are all taught by professors with PhDs, follow a curriculum through different periods of Jewish history (antiquity, rabbinic, medieval, modern), and are taught at a pretty high level. There are also graduate school style classes available for graduates of Me’ah through the Me’ah Graduate Institute.
    For less structured learning, there are also some beit midrash options, like the Charles River Beit Midrash and Hebrew College’s summer Beit Midrash programs. Harvard Hillel also used to have an open Beit Midrash where you could come and find a partner and a text and just go to it – not sure if that’s still going on.

  10. Desh– kinda like the DC Beit Midrash?
    Their library is only two rolling bookshelves, and some shiurim (classes) are stronger than others, but it’s a great atmosphere for chavruta(paired) learning, and my chavruta and I have usually found someone to help us when we’re stuck, and our friends Frank and Jastrow aren’t helping.
    Are there any shuls in Philly with a decent text library that would be willing to open up a room once a week so people could learn in chavruta?

  11. I would love it if some program got established to be specifically a roving Beit Midrash, sort of a wandering Pardes. It would spend a month in a dozen different cities offering an intensive monthlong evenings and weekends learning program. If you were hardcore, you could go on tour.
    Our minyan offers great occasional learning, and of course there’s lots of weekly adult ed here at the JCC and at various shuls, but I would soooo welcome a month of regular, nightly chevruta learning in a co-ed environment, on a continuous basis here in SF.

  12. I really wanted to hear those lectures – I wish that I had known about the live web-cast – there was no indication of it on the Van Leer Site. I can’t wait for them to put the edited videos on their site.
    I think there are two issues going on here – the admissions policy/institutional attitude of HUC – number one, and the need for MORE serious liberal learning opportunities – number two.
    Number one is a sore point for moi so I will demur from discussing it. Only that I DO want to be a Rabbi, and AM a reform Jew, and was rejected by that august institution, not once, not twice, but THREE times.
    Number two is that there IS a Bet Midrash at Bet Shmuel in Jerusalem. There are a number of Reform programs, mostly in Israel.
    Finally, as a regular participant in the URJ’s Iworship mailing list, and a participant and leader in a number of congregations, I can tell you that the movement is hardly monolithic. OTOH, it has traditions and structures that don’t lend to any kind of seeming to be anything but. Alas.

  13. As a serious Reform Jew who has to remain employed full-time for the forseeable future, I would love either evening classes in my city or a one-to-two-week program of intensive study. (More than that and I won’t have enough vacation time to do it.) I’ve been to Hebrew College’s Open Beit Midrash (one week in the summer) and am likely to return; I wish it had been more intense (only about six hours of learning per day), but it was still a good program. I crave the intensity of something like the Sh’liach K’hilah program (now deprecated), which featured 15-hour days that were exhilerating, not exhausting (one week at a time, two successive summers). What I can’t do is quit my job and move my household three times in five years, which is what going to HUC would require (or even two times for any other acredited program).

  14. All you need is a kloyz. Really – a shul that would be open to everyone all the time with a library and maybe two or three people who would be paid to answer questions. A shiur once a week in three or four subjects, and free tea and cookies. Not too much to ask.

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