200 years old - but is Reform at a standstill?

On the eve of its bicentenary, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain asks if the Reform movement could do with more missionary zeal.

July 8, 2010
The first purpose-built Reform Temple opened in Hamburg in 1818. The women’s gallery had no grills

The first purpose-built Reform Temple opened in Hamburg in 1818. The women’s gallery had no grills

The birth of Reform Judaism 200 years ago on July 17 1810 in the town of Seesen in central Germany was greeted by an extraordinary fanfare designed to highlight the radical mix of the traditional and the contemporary that it was now offering.

It started with the ringing of bells as a procession of rabbis entered the new building, at which point 70 musicians and singers burst into song, both in Hebrew and German. Moreover, the building was called a "temple", an audacious use of a term not applied in Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

It indicates that, rather than developing accidentally, the arrival of Reform Judaism had been carefully planned. Moreover, its two core missions - modernising Judaism, and creating a bridge between Jewish life and surrounding culture - were evident from the very start.

The proceedings were the brainchild of Israel Jacobson, a successful businessman and observant Jew, who wished to ensure that Judaism remained relevant following the new political and intellectual freedoms resulting from the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.

His sermon at that inaugural event gave a blunt warning as to why Judaism needed to change: "Who would dare to deny that our service is sickly because it has degenerated into a thoughtless recitation of prayers, that it kills devotion more than encourages it?"

He also wished to provide a positive alternative for the thousands of Jews who were reacting to the new world into which they had been catapulted by abandoning Judaism or even converting to Christianity.

It may seem surprising that Reform was born in Germany rather than France, the home of the revolutionary fervour, but being a Protestant country meant that religious reform was a more acceptable and pervasive notion than in a Catholic milieu. In addition, German Jews had become more deeply acculturated than their French counterparts and felt a greater need to modernise their faith.

Some British Jews had been aware of the religious innovations taking place on the continent, but the birth of British Reform in 1840 was largely self-generated and was more to do with communal arguments rather than ideological statements.

When the elders of Bevis Marks Synagogue in the East End of London refused to allow members living in the West End to form a satellite congregation nearer to their homes, a group broke away and set up the West London Synagogue. Having gone independent, it was only then that they decided to introduce reforms into the service.

Liberal Judaism, by contrast, did arise out of a principled stance, when in 1901 Lily Montagu, Claude Montefiore and others felt that the pace of reform was too slow and that a more ambitious programme of change needed to be implemented to fulfil the vision of Jacobson.

The two branches pursued separate paths for several decades, but in recent years have converged to such an extent that they are referred to jointly as the Progressives. Talk of merger is frequently aired, although, with each protective of their respective traditions, there are no plans to implement what many consider a logical step.

Today, the Reform and Liberals have tried to avoid becoming stultified by continuing to change, sometimes in more traditional directions (such as greater use of Hebrew or the re-introduction of mikveh), sometimes in more radical ways (such as accepting mixed-faith couples or using gender-inclusive language in prayer).

Despite this, it is clear that their appeal is not as forceful as it might be, with the latest Board of Deputies-JPR figures showing that they still only account for just under 30 per cent of all synagogue members in the UK.

In addition, there is a slight decline in their actual membership in the last 20 years, although this decrease is shared by most groupings save those growing through a high birthrate. Why have they not advanced further in a community known for being members of the Orthodox but largely thinking and practising Progressive? It is partly connected to the fact that British Jewry suffers from religious inertia and cannot be bothered to shift affiliation. It is also due to many feeling obliged to stay with the Orthodox so as to guarantee burial rights in cemeteries where their family are interred.

Perhaps both branches of Progressive Judaism have failed to be sufficiently missionary: many United Synagogue members who attend Reform services for weddings or bnai mitzvah say that they enjoy them, but are not followed up and persuaded to switch.

Another reason may lie in the growth of Masorti, which has depleted Reform in two ways: first, its vibrant approach - also mixing past and present but with more emphasis on the former - has attracted some Reform members; second, although Masorti has gained more from those disaffected with the United Synagogue, it has effectively stopped them joining Reform, which they might otherwise have done.

However, it is also true that Jacobson did not expect Reform to take over Judaism. His intention was to offer a format combining tradition and modernity for those who so wanted, but who previously had no alternative to the stark opposites of Orthodoxy and assimilation.

Jacobson's great legacy was to break the mould as to the type of Judaism on offer. If there are now a range of options in which different Jews can feel at home and remain Jewish, then we have cause to salute him.

Jonathan Romain is the rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

Last updated: 11:46am, July 8 2010