Monday, August 13, 2007


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

This 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 fisking of the article, to attempt to enumerate all the things wrong with it, though I’m probably just scratching the surface. Unlike previous articles I’ve done this for, where the problems were primarily with the frames invoked by the reporter, this article has at least five distinct categories of things wrong with it:

  1. Destructive framing by the Jewish Week reporter (inappropriate for a paper supposedly committed to objective journalism)
  2. Self-destructive framing by Reform movement personnel quoted in the article (inappropriate for an organization supposedly committed to Reform Judaism)
  3. The Jewish Week reporter creating a narrative unsupported by the facts
  4. Problematic attitudes and policies by Reform movement personnel
  5. Poor tactics by Reform movement personnel demonstrating a complete ignorance of adolescent psychology

I am particularly disturbed because I have written numerous apologetics for Reform Judaism (as I understand it), defending it from ideas that I believe to be misconceptions, and now official voices of the Reform movement are making statements that affirm all of those ideas.

David Kelsey has been posting about how OU/NCSY is pursuing an agenda of recruiting liberal Jewish teenagers to Orthodoxy. When I read articles like this, sometimes I wonder whether URJ/NFTY is stealthily doing the same thing. Maybe they’re not doing it on purpose, but if they were, it’s hard to imagine how they could be doing it more effectively than what they’re doing now: getting kids excited about Judaism, and then when the kids explore different options to build Jewish identities for themselves, responding with frames that affirm Orthodoxy as the standard against which all Jewish movements are defined. Every time a NFTY or UAHC/URJ camp alum ends up in the Orthodox world, it is viewed as an isolated incident (Rabbi Yoffie says “Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”), but the numbers are so great that it is time for the Reform movement to do some cheshbon hanefesh about this systemic phenomenon. I have already considered some of the sociological causes in “Profile of an ‘Unaffiliated’ Jew”, and this post points out some of the ideological causes.

A note about framing before we get started: Being careful about the frames we use isn’t just about words; it’s about ideas. It’s rarely just a question of replacing an objectionable word with a less objectionable synonym. For example, it would be offensive if I were to write “The role of chicks in the Reform rabbinate has come a long way since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first chick to be ordained by HUC-JIR. In recent years, chicks and men have been represented equally among new Reform rabbis.” But the problem could be completely remedied by replacing each instance of “chicks” with “women”, which refers to the same category of people in an unobjectionable way. In contrast, consider this example: “In recent years, many Reform Jews have become more religious, as demonstrated by such practices as wearing kipot, laying tefillin, singing Carlebach melodies, and keeping kosher.” The problem here isn’t only the use of the phrase “more religious” (though this phrase is problematic here, and “more observant” and “more traditional” would be similarly problematic), and the problem wouldn’t be solved by replacing “religious” with a different adjective. The problem is the idea that these four items can be meaningfully grouped into a category that makes sense from a Reform perspective. The assumption that makes this categorization possible is the truly destructive frame, not just the vocabulary used to describe it.

So here we go:

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.

Shocking! Most red-blooded 16-year-olds LOVE “easy-listening jazz”, so if these campers didn’t, then big changes must be afoot in the Reform movement.

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.

I wasn’t there and haven’t heard any firsthand accounts of what happened, but here’s my best guess based on my decade-old memories of what it’s like to be a teenager and my experience as a high school teacher: The campers reached a rapid consensus that the music sucked, perhaps using even coarser language (and I probably would have agreed with them). This alone would not have been enough to get most of them to “spontaneously” leave on their own. But once a few had left, this gave the rest of them cover so that they could simultaneously do what they wanted (get out of a service where they didn’t want to be), assert their individuality, and be part of a group. We don’t have enough evidence to judge whether all of the people who left felt that the service was “too untraditional”, or whether this was just the stated opinion of a trendsetting few. But it seems to me that the “untraditional” claim is a red herring — presumably if it had been music that they liked, they would have stayed regardless of how “traditional” it was or wasn’t. (Indeed, the style that has been prevalent at Reform camp services for 35 years, accompanied by acoustic guitar and influenced by American folk music, is no more “traditional” in the unfortunate way that word seems to be defined in this article, but I can’t imagine these campers would have walked out on Debbie Friedman.)

Turns out, it was their own spiritual Independence Day.

Once out of the pavilion, clusters of teens agreed to find different spaces so that they could continue their prayers the way they wanted to. Some ended up forming a minyan in a bathroom.

This is beautiful. Really. To the extent that the camp’s educational mission is about empowering people to create their own Jewish life, this should be viewed as a smashing success. To the extent that the camp’s mission is about training people to be docile members of Reform congregations who won’t challenge the professionals’ decisions, I can see how this behavior represents a threat. But that mission is flawed for a number of reasons, not least that if trends hold up, these campers aren’t likely to join Reform congregations for at least another 15 years (if at all), and they’ll need the tools to get by in the meantime.

If the Kutz administration were going to criticize the campers for anything here, it should have been on hachnasat orechim grounds — the campers were disrespectful to their guest. Turning it into an ideological struggle merely affirms the campers in their sense of righteous indignation, makes them feel that they are being persecuted for their beliefs and practices, and drives them away from the Reform movement. The message should have been “Walking out isn’t nice”, not “Your aesthetic preferences are unacceptable”.

“When the prayers were very nontraditional, they felt botched; the music was so distracting,” said Sarah Wolfson, a 16-year-old from Calabasas, Calif., who is social action vice president of her temple youth group. “It seemed so disrespectful. I’ve become quite attached to saying the prayers the way I was bat mitzvahed with. It’s something I find really powerful,” she continued.

Aha! Now we see what “traditional” actually means to the campers, not what the Jewish Week and Rabbi Yoffie would like it to mean so that they can write a story and make a political point respectively. I don’t know Sarah Wolfson, but we can be reasonably sure that the congregation where she “was bat mitzvahed [sic]” didn’t use Carlebach niggunim or yeshivish speed-davening or easy-listening jazz, but used one of the styles that are standard in the Reform movement. Thus, “nontraditional”, to her, means “not what I’m used to”, and carries no ideological valence. Depending on one’s perspective, this attitude of seeking the familiar might be seen as reverent respect for our heritage, or as narrow-minded inflexibility, but either way, this attitude can be found among people in all Jewish movements (including Classical Reform).

Wolfson was one of the campers who went to a girls’ bathroom to pray. “We were all able to create that connection together in our gathering. It was very moving and empowering.”

No doubt. Harnessing adolescent rebellion toward productive pursuits can be very powerful. A pivotal Jewish experience for me during my NFTY years was a retreat at camp where a small group of us from NFTY joined with a small group from an Orthodox high school for the beginning of Sukkot. On the first night, we had services together, organized by the adults. The services were basically what they would have been if the Orthodox group had been on its own, except that they threw us Reform kids a bone by reading some of the prayers in English, which we found condescending. As a protest, some of the people in my NFTY group stood at the back and started singing the Klepper/Freelander “Shalom Rav” at the end of the silent Amidah. Late that night in the cabin, some people from both groups decided that we were going to run services the following night the way we wanted, rather than let those adults do it for us when they just don’t understand. For several hours, we went through the siddur and found a way to do services that would be acceptable to both groups. The issue of 1-day vs 2-day yom tov wasn’t on our radar, since most of us had never observed even one full day of Sukkot as a full cessation from work (however defined), so this retreat was so far outside our experience that it didn’t occur to us that there was something off about the two-day thing. The issue of gender, which would ordinarily be a major sticking point in this sort of Reform-Orthodox pluralistic dialogue, also didn’t really come up, since the Orthodox group was all male, and there was just one girl in the NFTY group and she was apathetic. So the issues we were working out between us were mostly stylistic (and, in retrospect, superficial), but at the time they seemed important to our Jewish identities. In the end, we were proud of what we had accomplished on our own without the adults, and we felt Jewishly empowered and had our first meaningful experiences with creating pluralistic Jewish communities. The content was less important than that empowerment and that dialogue. And none of this would have happened if we had just accepted what the adults were feeding us and hadn’t rebelled.

These teens are part of what appears to be a growing number of young adults in the denomination more interested in conventional prayer and traditional Jewish observances than their parents are.

“Conventional prayer”? The Reform movement is the largest organized Jewish movement in the country, so there’s nothing more “conventional” than what goes on in Reform synagogues every week, and I don’t think these teens are more interested in the rabbi-cantor-choir services from back home than their parents are. “Traditional Jewish observance”? Oh yes, I remember my great-grandmother telling me about how she and her friends used to put on their tefillin and have a Carlebach minyan in the girls’ bathroom when they were teenagers back in the shtetl.

Rather, these teens are exploring Jewish practices different from what they grew up with, and I think it’s completely healthy for them to engage in this sort of exploration as they think about what it means for them to create their own Jewish experience rather than depending on authority figures to create it for them. And there’s nothing “more” or “less” traditional about that — it’s just a part of growing up.

Kutz Camp, which runs sessions from late June through mid-August, attracts the most-committed Reform teens from around the country and so, while what happens there may not be typical of what’s going on everywhere, it is a seeding ground for new leaders and a place where developing trends are evident.

In addition to demanding more traditional prayer, a small but growing number of campers and young faculty there are wearing yarmulkes or tzitzit, even tefillin along with prayer shawls.

Ok, so teenagers are looking for outward ways to display their Jewish identities. What’s the problem with that? This list might also include Tzahal T-shirts and chai necklaces. I think it’s harmless; it’s the adults who are turning this into an ideological movement, not the teenagers. The adults should stop projecting their own issues onto the campers and go read Erikson.

One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected.

“Fervently Orthodox men”??? Here I’m at a loss for words.

For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes.

“More modern”??? Carlebach was writing his now-classic tunes in the ’70s, at the exact same time that Friedman and Klepper were writing theirs. And they were all doing basically the same thing — setting Jewish prayers to simple melodies influenced by an American folk idiom to enable people to join together in spirited musical prayer. Just because Carlebach had a bigger beard than Klepper and sang with an Ashkenazi accent doesn’t mean that his music is any more “traditional” or less “modern”.

There are even “rumblings” of interest in making the camp, which is now kosher-style, really kosher, said Kutz Director Rabbi Eve Rudin. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago. Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”

It’s an ironic shift for Kutz, which has long been a site of creative experimentation, like the jazz service, in Reform worship.

Where’s the irony? These kids didn’t grow up wearing tzitzit or tefillin, so when they try them on at Kutz, it’s in precisely that spirit of “creative experimentation”, and should be encouraged as such.

It also seems to reflect a growing generation gap, with current leaders of the movement’s institutions not always fully ready to embrace the changes that its youngest constituents are calling for.

This sentence could have been written about any movement institutions in any generation.

Several young faculty members at Kutz this summer (where I taught writing during the first session) wanted to gather to sing the traditional Friday evening Psalms at the edge of the lake before camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services. Initially, said one faculty member who asked not to be named, they were given tacit permission as long as they didn’t invite camper participation. But then they were told they could not, since singing the Psalms — even though they’re contained in the Reform prayer book — isn’t a conventional Reform practice.

Wait, I’m confused! I thought you just said that the younger generation was more interested in “conventional prayer”!

Anyway, this policy blows my mind. Kutz, “a site of creative experimentation”, is taking the position that anything that isn’t done in most Reform congregations is out of bounds? Unless it involves easy-listening jazz? Is Kutz denying that these psalms are part of the Tanach, or for that matter, of Gates of Prayer?

For Rabbi Rudin, the issue was about faculty members separating themselves from the rest of the community in order to do something which “would be seen as ‘more religious,’ or ‘better,’ ” she said.

“We as a faculty are here to enable the experience for the kids, so if the kids see that the faculty are not pleased with the worship, what are they going to think about their own Jewish practice? I want every camper to feel proud of the Jewish choices they are making and not to feel that ‘more is better’ or ‘more traditional is better.’ ”

If the article is accurate that this was going on before (not during) camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services, then they’re not actually separating themselves from the rest of the community.

Rabbi Rudin, you are the one labeling these services as “more religious”, by forbidding them on those grounds. The people participating are doing so because they prefer that for themselves, for whatever reason, and are making no statement about what is objectively “better” for everyone. As I got older, one of the things I found frustrating about working at a UAHC camp was that any individually motivated Jewish practice (which someone did because s/he chose to, rather than because it was on the schedule) was viewed with automatic suspicion. If the faculty is pursuing their own prayer experiences to augment the camp-wide services, then the message this sends to the kids is that it’s ok (and perhaps even desirable) to make thoughtful choices about personal Jewish practice, and they have role models for doing this. That was the message I picked up when I was a camper and one of my counselors refused to say Aleinu on ideological grounds. Was his practice “more religious” or “better”? Who cares? That’s not the point. The point was that someone I respected was thinking for himself about what the prayers meant. If camp is supposed to be a laboratory for an ideal Jewish community, then the faculty can be better role models if they are living meaningful Jewish lives than if they are just putting on a show for the campers.

Since the practice of singing these psalms on Friday night dates back to the 16th century, and the rest of the Friday night service is much older, one could easily make the argument that it’s “more traditional” not to sing these psalms. (And as we see above, this is obviously true in the Reform movement’s history as well.) But that shouldn’t matter — including or not including these psalms seems like a morally neutral question that should be subject to individual discretion, regardless of which choice is “more traditional”. Anyway, Rabbi Rudin is falling into the Artscroll trap of identifying “more traditional” with “consonant with contemporary Orthodox practice, regardless of vintage”.

Top Reform leaders are equally concerned that those more inclined to classical Reform Judaism, which is less focused on ritual observance, not feel alienated by those interested in tradition.

Classical Reform Judaism made some strong statements on paper, but in practice, it is just as focused on ritual observance as any other stream of Judaism — you better make sure that the rabbi is wearing a robe, and that everyone stands or sits at the same time, and that everyone listens attentively to the choir, or else. The relevant distinction here is more between communal and individual ritual observance — “top Reform leaders” are concerned that individuals are pursuing ritual observance that is different from the ritual observances mandated by the institutions.

And anyone who bans something because it’s not a “conventional Reform practice” is “interested in tradition”. Congratulations.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, heard from many campers about the “botched” jazz service when he came to Kutz for a visit in mid-July. “They were so afraid of offending these kids [the more religiously inclined] that they were too intimidated to proceed in their desire to bring creative approaches to prayer, something we normally do in virtually any youth setting,” Rabbi Yoffie told The Jewish Week.

“The more religiously inclined”??? This was in brackets, so I’m going to blame the Jewish Week for this one, not Rabbi Yoffie. But come on. Anyone with a “desire to bring creative approaches to prayer” sounds pretty “religiously inclined” to me!

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the movement’s seminary arm, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview that “the Reform movement has to be tolerant and embrace classical Reform Jews for whom this embrace of tradition is not something they celebrate. I would hope it would remain sufficiently pluralistic to include both camps.”

I know some Classical Reform Jews, and they’re all about “embrace of tradition” and they can’t understand why what was good enough for 19th-century Germany isn’t good enough for today’s kids. (As I’ve written before, I think some Classical Reform practices “originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state”. But that’s beside the point.)

Otherwise, kudos to Rabbi Ellenson for his call for pluralism.

Some Kutz teens also viewed unity as the priority.

Grace Klein wrote in the camp newspaper after the jazz service that “as disturbed as I was throughout the service, I as well as everyone else who stayed, chose to place the unity of Kutznikim over personal satisfaction. The choice also had to do with respect” for the musician leading the service.

Ok, fine. I don’t place unity on as high a pedestal, so I think it would have been fine to have two parallel minyanim, one with easy-listening jazz and one without, but I agree that it would have been better to make this decision in advance.

“The fact is that many of us prefer the traditional aspects of Judaism, particularly in worship, more than previous Reform generations did,” she wrote. But “If anything, the schmaltzy, keyboard extravaganza was an experiment … the way to lead the movement towards tradition is not to balk at our predecessors’ choices but to basically keep on doing what we’re doing.”

While the tensions raised by this developing issue may have been more visible at Kutz than in other Reform-affiliated institutions, it is not the only place the interest in traditional observance is being seen.

Many young Reform rabbis are reversing choices made by their older colleagues, some of whom proudly eat shrimp and bacon.

David Singer, 24, is part of this new wave. Entering his fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the Village, he always wears a kipa and tzitzit, keeps kosher and doesn’t ride or use money on Shabbat.

But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.

Why is the phrase “traditional observance” being used to refer purely to ritual observance (rather than to mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro), and purely to ritual observances that weren’t common in the Reform movement a few decades ago?

The spreading interest in traditional observance is creating “a tug of war between pluralism and uniformity” for the movement, said Singer, who was on the Kutz faculty.

“Maybe it’s a fear that ‘God forbid we become more like the Orthodox.’ It’s not about being Orthodox, but the exact opposite because we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about. It’s seen as a threat, but it shouldn’t be.”

I agree 100%.

Singer grew up in the Reform movement, in its summer camps and attending a Reform day school in his home city of San Diego, and now lives in Brooklyn.

“I’m definitely one of the more observant people in my [rabbinical school] class,” Singer said. But “I know that as a class we all struggle to find our place within the Reform movement.

Normally I’d take issue with the use of “more observant”, but it’s possible that he also means it in a way that would actually be accurate.

“Do any of us pray in Reform synagogues in New York City aside from small minyanim at Beth Elohim?” the Park Slope Reform synagogue where he works as rabbinic intern. “No. You’re more likely to find us at the independent minyanim” that in recent years have sprouted up around New York City, where the approach to prayer tends to be at once creative and traditional.

Props to Beth Elohim, which may hold a record among synagogues for hosting the most independent minyanim. So it seems like if it weren’t for the independent minyanim, the Reform movement’s future rabbis wouldn’t have anywhere where they want to pray as participants (rather than as leaders).

“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 of Reform Judaism. At times it is seen as an affront to people who aren’t always ready for it,” Singer said.

This is a much more accurate frame that reflects the internal dynamics of the Reform movement. The Reform movement has “established norms”, and some people are “outside the box”. This makes more sense than the frame prevalent in the rest of the article, which labels practices as “traditional” when Orthodoxy happens to share them and “creative” otherwise, ignoring the motivations behind those practices.

So can these conflicting approaches to Jewish worship and observance be reconciled within the Reform movement?

Only if the Reform movement gives up homogeneity.

It’s a real-world challenge, said Rabbi Yoffie, who in 1999 called for “a Reform revolution” in worship, with more emphasis on lively prayer and text study. “There isn’t a shul in the world that doesn’t struggle to create a worship experience meaningful to everybody.”

Maybe they’d have more success if they weren’t trying to make it “meaningful to everybody”, and instead tried to pick one thing and do it well. “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”

Taking on Jewish observance should be embraced, said Rabbi Yoffie — to a point.

Again, this isn’t in quotes so it’s the Jewish Week’s fault, but “Jewish observance”??? Like loving the stranger, keeping honest weights and measures, and pursuing justice? To a point?

“No aspect of the tradition should be foreign to us. We should be prepared to explore everything. Even things that would have been unthinkable to parents and grandparents,” said Rabbi Yoffie.

Great. (And I hope that includes kabbalat shabbat psalms too, as an example that should be uncontroversial. I also hope it includes “aspect[s] of the tradition” that haven’t been invented yet.)

“Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”

Generally that’s a final step, after they feel that they’ve exhausted their options in the Reform community where they came from. Are you interested in pushing people in that direction? Why?

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. “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.”

Ok, let’s count all the things wrong with this statement.

  1. I honestly don’t understand the distinction he’s drawing between “mitzvah-oriented” and “halacha-oriented”. Is it that “mitzvah” refers to 613 imperative statements in the Torah (many of which are not followed today by anyone) and “halacha” refers to the specifics of how to observe them? If so, then how can the mitzvot be observed with no specifics? (That’s right, no specifics. He didn’t say “we disagree with Orthodox halacha”, he didn’t say “we don’t have a single uniform halacha”, he said “not halacha-oriented”.)
  2. If the Reform movement is “not halacha-oriented”, then has the CCAR Responsa Committee been informed?
  3. Whose official definition does Rabbi Yoffie use for “it all” (referring to Jewish law)? The Rif? Isaac Klein? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? The CCAR Responsa Committee? Artscroll? An educated Reform Jew who is interpreting halacha autonomously? In the Orthodox world, only an extremist (and an ignorant one) would say that there is a single set of practices that can be identified as “the halacha”. So how can there be a single version of halacha of which Reform Jews definitionally don’t observe “it all”?
  4. The language of “take … upon yourself” implies that there is choice in the matter. The language of “mitzvah” implies obligation. Therefore, for these purposes, it seems that “choice” vs “obligation” is a false dichotomy — I think Rabbi Yoffie would agree that there are situations in which both apply.
  5. Are the ethical mitzvot a “choice”?
  6. Add your own!

Back at Kutz, as third-session campers arrived, many to participate in community service programs as part of the camp’s “Mitzvah Corps,” Rabbi Rudin reflected on the tensions playing out between those interested in greater observance and those who are not.

“Greater observance”…… I’ve said it all already. :(

“We do want there to be experimentation, and I do think there’s a place here for someone who keeps strictly kosher and to wear tefillin. This is supposed to be a very pluralistic place. But in the end, even though the Reform movement is about being pluralistic, there is a range” of accepted behaviors, she said.

“This is about the Reform movement coming to terms with the fact that there are boundaries, and what those boundaries may be.”

For sure. But why should those boundaries be anywhere in regard to personal ritual practice? I can think of many practices followed in parts of the Orthodox world (you know, the world that the Jewish Week uses as a standard for “religious”, “observant”, and “traditional”) that should be outside appropriate boundaries for the Reform movement (e.g. discriminating against LGBT people, excluding women from leadership roles, supporting West Bank settlements, encouraging all the men in the community to study full-time instead of getting a job), but nothing of the sort is being pursued by the Kutz campers. Of course, the first two would be happening in the Reform movement today if it restricted itself to “conventional Reform practice” as it was known in previous generations.


  1. this is a superb response and in some shorter form should be sent to the Jewish Week. Yasha Koach
    Rabbi Steven Burton

  2. As a Reform Rabbi and Kutz visiting faculty (although not on the week referenced in the article), I thought I should weigh in.

    1)I had the same reaction to the article, although I will admit I could not have stated it as cogently or thoroughly as done above. Kol hakavod.

    2)Having had a conversation when I returned to Kutz later in the summer with a senior participant, I was fascinated by the two of us having the same opinion in opposite directions. We both wanted participants to feel empowered rather than compelled to try new forms of worship. However, while I felt this was best accomplished by participants being exposed to several different types of services and participating with open minds; he felt that not allowing participants to pray as they wished (in this case, davening to an all Hebrew service)no matter what was prepared by service leaders, was stifling that same creativity. Ironically, although we left the conversation confirmed in our original attitudes, he thanked me for the conversation.

    3) Working with youth leadership in another NFTY venue helping to prepare t'fillah, I have tried to help participants frame desired "traditional" prayer in a manner that is educational rather than mandated. I suggested that we view t'fillah analogously to a program - in that we should attempt to define what we want participants to get out of the experience. However, I was countered with the expressed understanding that the point was not necessarily to expose the students to a different method of worship, but to worship as God wanted us to (or as was "correct"). So, my caveat is that, inasmuch as experimentation with styles of worship that include more Orthodox or "traditional" developments are part of an ideal to explore personal feelings about communal worship - fine; if the "experiment" is really an imposition of an orthodoxy, then there is a real conflict with what I consider Reform Jewish values.

    Again, thank you for your fine commentary on this article. I was troubled by its presentation and am comforted that there are informed Reform Jews discussing the issues raised at a serious level.

    Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

  3. One of the complaints I heard consistently throughout the summer from my peers who were at Kutz was exactly what Rabbi Abraham mentioned. Prayer had become a program. Participants and staff alike bemoaned that it had become more about what the campers could get out of a service than what they could put into it. With human goals and agendas rather than Godly ones, the service DOES just become a program.
    I think a big part of the issue at Kutz, and one probably of interest to BZ given his work on hilchot pluralism, is that people simply want to pray in different ways, but all of them consider Kutz to be THEIR home community. Because they view Kutz as their spiritual home, many are reluctant to experiment in a place where they have been able to pray in the manner they consider their own, whereas at their homes, many participants have no opportunity for spirited musical worship in hebrew that includes more of the liturgy than most Reform synagogues do.

    So home becomes the place where they respect minhag hamakom, engaging begrudgingly in saying shabbat candle blessings as many as three times in a night, or not being given the slightest chance to pray more than the first three blessings of the Amidah. And at Kutz, when they are asked to engage in something different, they become defensive of the one place where they have experiened worship they identified with.

  4. However, I was countered with the expressed understanding that the point was not necessarily to expose the students to a different method of worship, but to worship as God wanted us to (or as was "correct").

    I think if they could feel more secure that they'll be able to pray the way they want and not feel like they're fighting a battle, they would be more open to exploring different types of prayer as an educational experience.

  5. Anonymous makes a good point.

    When I first read the article my response is, to quote Reb Yogi, "it's deja vu all over again." I first put on tefillin in 1974 at Kutz camp. I first saw a tallit katan or met someone who wore a kipa all the time at Kutz camp, in 1974. So all of this is nothing new; Kutz teens have been experimenting with aspects of the tradition which classical Reform rejected for well over thirty years and probably longer.

    And in Reform contexts prayer is a "program." When I was at HUC in the early to mid 1980s, students would compete with each other to see how "creative" they could be in leading services at the HUC chapel. I generally lead services unchanged out of the Gates of Prayer and people would sometimes remark how refreshing it was. I remember one time announcing that "today we will have a special uncreative service."

    Reform ideology should imply the right to make an informed choice to observe kashrut, follow the matbea shel tefila, lay tefillin or refrain from melacha on Shabbat. But in practice, it rarely does. Which goes some way to explaining why I'm one of quite a number of HUC-ordained rabbis who are no longer Reform.

  6. This is fascinating, and BZ's response is terrific. The whole episode reminds me of one of the reasons I so often say I have "no use" for the movements. And by that I mean, when they stop being movements, with the energy flowing upward, and become institutionalized hierarchies that impose their will on the participants (who may even become mere obsevers--interesting word, that).

    But I have a question here. I am naive, in that I am "three months old." I just became a Jew (Reform auspices) last Shavuot, and my total of communal Jewish experience amounts to less than two years. But much of what I read about Reform services seems like stereotype to me, based on my limited experience.

    For instance, our congregation's rabbi and cantor and other leaders regularly "spice things up," with variations in the liturgy and the music. We have a substantial amount of Hebrew in the services and because we still often use one of the versions of the Gates of Prayer, much of that Hebrew is without transliteration. And more than half the men and many of the women wear a kippah, and many a tallit. And, never a choir, except at High Holy Days.

    So, how unusual is this for Reform? Most of the discussion around this story implies it is not typical. I know about "classical" or "high" Reform--one member even calls himself a "dinosaur" for never wearing a kippa or tzitzit, openly disdaining kashrut, and wishing for a choir and organ. But I get the idea that "dinosaurs" (his word, not mine) are more common elsewhere in Reform communities (especially east coast) than in my community. Correct?

  7. I love when you write on these issues, and I think you got it mostly right. But, as someone who comes from the movement world and is currently straddling both the movement world and the trans-denominational world (professionally, anyway - I'm pretty much out of the movements otherwise), I don't think you are being fair enough to the Rabbi in charge of the camp.

    Her role isn't strictly to raise up young Jews to be empowered Jewish adults, no matter how much we might want that to be her job. She does have a mandate to educate these kids as Reform Jews. That mandate extends to all the staff members working at camp. For that reason, it is important that the role models for the kids participate (at least outwardly) wholeheartedly in the Reform services using the Reform siddur, etc, without giving off the impression that they aren't "good enough" or what have you. Now, I think the camp/director/staff have an obligation to address what might be lacking there in an open and productive way - after all, I take it that informed personal choice is a pretty major ideal in Reform Judaism, and what better way to get that across to the campers than involving them in it? But it needs to be framed within the movement's own framework.

    I recognize that this is can be one of those terrible cases of favoring discretion over integrity on the part of the staff members, but at a certain point, they should know going into a summer at Kutz what is expected of them, and if they feel that it's damaging to their integrity, this might not be the camp for them.

  8. As I understand it, these staff members were HUC students, so they've already made a major commitment to the Reform movement, and presumably see their practice as operating within a Reform framework. They're not just random frummies who got a gig at Kutz for the summer and then found that the camp culture wasn't what they were expecting. Likewise, when I was on staff at OSRUI, my practices had developed as a result of my experiences at OSRUI. I thought that I was doing exactly what my Reform Jewish education had taught me.

    In this particular case, the staff members were doing kabbalat shabbat psalms, which appear in the Reform siddur even if they're not commonly done in Reform services (likewise, the Friday night service in Sim Shalom includes English responsive readings even if no one uses them), so it can't be claimed that they were violating Reform principles. If they had been organizing a non-egal minyan, that would have been another matter entirely.

  9. 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.

  10. Hi,
    Magnes Press recently published a book of academic essays (historical, philosophical, sociological) about Orthodoxy. The book was edited by Prof. Avi Ravitzky. From their website you can download the table of contents and also Prof. Ravitzky's excellent introduction. (They've made the table of contents and introductions of most of their books available for free downloading).

    Ravitzky writes in response to Jacob Katz's famous observation that Orthodoxy is a response to modernity and is distinct from pre-modern traditional Judaism. That observation has framed most of the academic discourse surrounding Orthodoxy. After offering several insightful critiques of that view, Ravitzky notes that in some ways Orthodox Jews are traditional and in a way that contrasts to modern Jews (and modern people in general) irrespective of when a given Carlbach niggun was written or minhag adopted.

    Modern people see progress and change as inevitable and positive things, almost without regard to the content of the change itself. Progress, creativity, renewal etc. are major thought patterns of modern people. Orthodoxy finds meaning in continuity and preservation and values the eternal over the temporal. Hence, Orthodox Jews and Orthodoxy are "traditional" in a meaningful way. Tradition and traditionalism are part and parcel of the religious worldview of Orthodox Jews and this puts them (us) at odds with modern people. This is independent of what a historian could notice regarding this or that change in Orthodox behavior.

  11. David writes:
    Progress, creativity, renewal etc. are major thought patterns of modern people. Orthodoxy finds meaning in continuity and preservation

    And in the Reform movement, the latter attitude is found more among the organ crowd than among the tefillin crowd (which believes they are shaking things up).

  12. "And in the Reform movement, the latter attitude is found more among the organ crowd than among the tefillin crowd (which believes they are shaking things up)."

    Right, that may be true about Reform Judaism, but it certainly isn't true about Judaism as a whole. When speaking of Judaism from pre-modern to modern times one who observes kashrut and shabbat would certainly be a more traditional Jew than one who drives to a Red Lobster on shabbat to eat shrimp.

    Reform might very well have its own conventions and mores, adherence to which might make one a more or less traditional Reform Jew. That doesn't negate the fact that Judaism itself has objective traditions codified for centuries (Carlebach notwithstanding), adherence to which would make one a more or less traditional Jew. (i.e. Choosing to observe the laws of kashrut means one is engaging in a traditional Jewish activity).

    It's not clear to me how you can reject the notion that there exist such traditional Jewish activities.I can understand how as a reform Jew you might reject them, but they certainly do exist.

    (in case it's not clear, I agree with David 100%)

  13. How about keeping 1 day of yom tov? When looking at the overall flow of Jewish history, that's a more traditional practice than keeping 2 days. How about benching lulav on Shabbat?

  14. Look, I'm happy to nitpik over different traditions, but you didn't really address my overall assertion, that there are objective Jewish traditions, which would mean one who observes those traditions would be considered a traditional Jew and one who rejects them, seeks to be creative with them or "reform" them would not be considered a traditional Jew.

    One must have an original form in order to "reform" something, no?

    As a famous rabbi once said, the rest is just commentary.

    As for one or two day yom tovs, biblically, one day would be more traditional, but rabbinically it wouldn't. Since Judaism decided to go with the Pharisees rather than the sadducees during/after the second Temple, you're out of luck. Two days became rabbinically traditional, outside of Israel.

    If we went with the Saducees, then yes you'd be right, one day would be traditional today as well.

    I'm sure you can bring a ton of rabbinical anomalies, contradictions, paradoxes, oxymorons. However, since Judaism took the rabbinic path rather than any other, that's the tradition we're stuck with.

    Clearly, Reform, conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism was unsatisfied with this path and chose to make great and small changes. However they were changing Jewish tradition as it was more or less practiced for certainly hundreds of years, if not a thousand or two.

    Of course Jewish tradition was never monolithic by any means and changed within communities, regions , etc for various reasons. But I do think that what was codified in the Oral Torah, from the mishna down to the Mishna Berurah, can be considered a coherent tradition nonetheless

  15. I take back my comment about "being creative" with tradition being un-traditional. I think there is a lot more room to be creative with tradition then many traditional Jews currently think/assume.

  16. " Progress, creativity, renewal etc. are major thought patterns of modern people."

    umm progress happens whether you value it or not. things, including religion and culture change, whether you value that or not, or whether you think about it or not. The world in general is changing at a rather faster pace than it used to, but its silly to say that Judaism hasn't evovled.

    "Orthodoxy finds meaning in continuity and preservation and values the eternal over the temporal."

    what eternal?

    "Since Judaism decided to go with the Pharisees rather than the sadducees during/after the second Temple, you're out of luck"

    why is this statement ok, but not the equivalent "Judaism decided to go with reform rather than orthodox, so you're out of luck"?

  17. Abbi writes:
    As for one or two day yom tovs, biblically, one day would be more traditional, but rabbinically it wouldn't. Since Judaism decided to go with the Pharisees rather than the sadducees during/after the second Temple, you're out of luck. Two days became rabbinically traditional, outside of Israel.

    If we went with the Saducees, then yes you'd be right, one day would be traditional today as well.

    Sorry this is a delayed reaction, but what on earth are you talking about? Were there ever Sadducees outside of Israel? If not, how do we know how many days of yom tov they would have done?