Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 1
Over the past several months, as my congregation has explored the possibility of merger with the other local synagogue – the Tri City Jewish Center – a congregation which used to be affiliated with the Conservative movement but now is not affiliated with any movement, one of the issues which has been discussed, and over which there will yet be a good deal more discussion, has been that of whether or not the resulting congregation should affiliate with a national/international umbrella organization, and if so, which one. As part of the merger exploration process, the task force in charge of moving the process forward submitted to the two rabbis a series of questions, the rabbinic responses to which would be published, distributed, and discussed. One of their questions sought our opinions on the issue of whether or not the new congregation should affiliate with any particular movement, and if so, which one and why. In my response I stated that I favor belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism; the North American organization of Reform synagogues. In support of that position, I offered all sorts of organizational reasons as to why we should belong to the Reform movement. However, now I would like to take the opportunity to share my personal reasons for being a Reform Jew and wishing to remain one.
In order to better understand from whence I speak, I need to wax a bit biographical. Many in my congregation and in the Quad Cities Jewish community assume that I was born and raised a Reform Jew. Well, that was not the case. When my mother was a child, her family belonged to a Reform congregation, but her parents were not very involved. My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew. In fact, whenever I conduct our congregation’s B’nei Mitzvah Family Program I tell the participants about my father’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, which took place during a weekday morning minyan, on either a Monday or a Thursday, when Torah is read. He went to services with his father, was called to bless the Torah, and after services enjoyed a light oneg of sponge cake and schnapps – his first taste of alcohol, other than Shabbat and Passover wine of course – and then went off to school. As an adult, he had no love of Orthodox Judaism, and wanted no part of it. This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that in Europe his grandfather was a very important Orthodox educator. While in my youth I did not understand the source of his anger, today, as an adult, I have to wonder whether or not his animosity toward Orthodox Judaism had something to do with the fact that his beloved Uncle Jack – the son of this renown Orthodox teacher and the man who took primary responsibility for my father and his sisters after their parents died – married outside of the faith, and therefore was rejected by the very same Orthodox Jews who honored the memory of Uncle Jack’s father. Whatever my father’s reasons, as a result my parents were among the many New York Jews who were unaffiliated. For them, being Jewish was simply a title, not a life style. In fact, for a while our family even celebrated Christmas. We had lights on our house and a tree in our living room, with presents under it on Christmas morning. If you do not believe me, ask my wife, for she has stored away a photo of young Henry Karp sitting on the lap of a department store Santa and has threatened to reveal it to the world, should I ever become too arrogant or self-righteous about my Jewish identity.
There is a certain irony that it was my mother – this woman who was raised as a minimalist Reform Jew – who was the one who came to feel that there needed to be more to our Jewish life. So when my sister (who was 6 years older than me) came of religious school age, my mother insisted that we join a synagogue and send her to religious school. My father acquiesced, but made it clear that he would have nothing to do with it, other than pay the bills. So my mother enrolled us in the closest synagogue; an Orthodox one. My mother, who was one of those lovers of organizational involvement, dove into membership in the Sisterhood and support of the school. But my father, true to his word, never entered the building until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. While I had entered the building on several occasions with my mother, I never attended a worship service until that Bat Mitzvah.
Now that Bat Mitzvah was not like the ones we contemporary liberal Jews are used to. It was a group event, somewhat like our Confirmation services. It took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time which did not conflict with traditionally scheduled services. The girls all wore identical dresses. There was no Torah blessing or reading. In fact the bulk of the service was in English. And after it was over, so was our affiliation with that synagogue, my father insisting that I would never be sent to that synagogue for my Jewish education.
It was but a short time later that my parents were approached by some neighbors – Alan & Muriel Billig – who were out recruiting for members for a newly established Reform congregation; Judea Reform Temple (later to be renamed Temple Judea). With great enthusiasm, the Billigs described how their form of Judaism differed from Orthodoxy. They must have been successful, for my parents agreed to give it a shot. The congregation was small. It met in a loft; a set of rented rooms, on the second floor, over a stationary store, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop, on a busy Bronx commercial street. Right outside the windows, the elevated subway trains rumbled by constantly. I remember clearly the first time I entered this synagogue. Right inside the glass entry door there was a long set of stairs. No sooner was I through the doors and starting to climb the stairs then I took of my hat – as I had been taught that was the polite thing do when entering a building. But my father stopped me, saying, “Henry, in a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.” Soon both he and I would learn differently. Thus began my life as a Reform Jew.
The members of that synagogue quickly became like family to us. Both of my parents got deeply involved in its activities while I quickly made friends in the religious school, some of whom I still keep in contact with today. It seemed like everyone came to Shabbat services. Of course in those days, all Reform congregations were what we today call classical Reform. Services were conducted primarily in English, using the old Union Prayer Book. To listen to the adults speak about our services, it was clear that they loved the fact that they could understand the prayers they were offering and were far more able to participate in reading along. They also loved the fact that men and women sat together. As for us children, we sat together too, usually close to the first row, with parents sitting behind us, ever ready to whack us on the back of our heads should we become too talkative.
While at the time, I fully appreciated the warm and wonderful life we had at that synagogue, it would not be until I was older and more comprehending that I came to realize that what made the life of that congregation so wonderful was its spirit of inclusiveness, as well as its refusal to be Judaically judgmental of its members. It was not only in that particular synagogue, but it was and is inherent in Reform Judaism itself. All are welcomed, Jews and non-Jewish spouses alike. Members aren’t judged by how closely they adhere to the particulars of Jewish tradition but rather, they are encouraged to discover for themselves those aspects of the tradition which are particularly meaningful to them, and then they are valued for their efforts in that search, whatever its outcome. For in Judea Reform Temple in those days, and in Reform Judaism itself, both then and now, there was and is plenty of space for the diversity of individuality when it comes to the practice of Judaism. So when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to wear both a kipah (yarmulke) and a talit, both of which were never seen in our synagogue. My father wanted me to wear neither. Ultimately we compromised, and I wore the talit without the kipah. And to top it off, my father was allowed to audio tape the service on Shabbat. Where else but in a Reform synagogue would such choices be allowed? This was the Reform Judaism of my youth.
In Part 2, I will share with you how the emotional bonds to the Reform Judaism of my youth were only to be strengthened and deepened as I grew to intellectually appreciate the values and principles of the movement.
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