Review: Great Reform Lives

The rabbis who made Reform

By Simon Rocker, January 27, 2011

Edited Jonathan Romain
The Movement for Reform Judaism, £9.99

This short collection of pen portraits of leading Reform figures was produced to mark the bicentenary of the first Progressive service in 1810. Sketched by various members of the British Reform rabbinate, they have been edited by Jonathan Romain, who gives a typically concise and lucid introduction to the principles of Reform.

The booklet might well have been titled Great European Reform Lives, since Americans are conspicuous by their absence - unless you count West London Synagogue's Harold Reinhart, who was born in Oregon. While it opens with continental trailblazers such as Israel Jacobson, a millionaire at 19, or Leopold Zunz, architect of the "science of Judaism", half of its entries are devoted to the UK, ending with more recent rabbinic notables such as Hugo Gryn, Albert Friedlander and Michael Leigh.

The early pioneers inevitably struggled against traditional opposition. When Abraham Geiger was to give his first sermon in Breslau in 1839, the local Orthodox rabbi called the police to try to thwart him. Relations with Orthodoxy were not always so fraught: Rabbi Joseph Strauss of Bradford preached at the town's Orthodox synagogue. Chief Rabbi Herman Adler attended the funeral of West London's first minister David Woolf Marks. But it was Chief Rabbi Hertz's denial of Reform tutors to child refugees from Nazi Europe that led Reinhart to set up a British Reform synagogue body in 1942.

The lone female entry is Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi who died in Auschwitz but was forgotten until her papers turned up in 1991. She believed a woman could be a rabbi or wife and mother but not both.

Not all the choices are obvious. Rabbi Walter Rothschild celebrates little-known Erich Bienheim, a refugee who ministered in Bradford and died aged 63 in 1962. He was one of the rabbinical Isaacswho "did so little of note compared to Abraham and Jacob", Rothschild writes, yet enduring trauma and sacrifice, was nevertheless vital in the transmission of tradition.

Last updated: 12:24pm, January 27 2011