An unorthodox way to reform

April 14, 2016 12:18

There is a sad inevitability about the news that Reform synagogues in Hendon and Edgware are talking to each other with a view to a merger. Ostensibly, the trigger for this dialogue has been the "northward" move of "large numbers" of Reform community members. But while it is undoubtedly true that many younger Jewish families are moving into south Hertfordshire, the northward move of large numbers of Reformers does not strike me as the full explanation of the merger. To understand what is happening we need to dig deeper, into the soul of the Reform movement.

Over the past quarter-century, this movement has been failing to recruit new members in sufficient numbers to replace those lost through deaths and defections. In its 2011 publication Key Trends, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research noted that, while in 1990 there were 16,824 Reform households in the UK, 30 years later this figure had dropped to 16, 125. We might be tempted to conclude that a fall of just over four per cent is not too significant. But we should note that among the so-called "Strictly Orthodox," over the same period, the number of households more than doubled. In the case of the Strictly Orthodox, this growth was of course due to high birth rates. We might be tempted to conclude, therefore, that the failure of the Reform movement to expand or even maintain its numbers must have been due to a declining birth rate. But we should note that, over the same period, the number of Masorti households increased by no less than 85 per cent. So I'm not persuaded that the Reform stagnation can have been due simply to deaths outweighing births.

The Reform movement is losing members because it has ceased to offer an appealing theology. In its earliest phase, in the 19th century, it did so. Reformers were opposed to a great deal of Orthodox synagogue ritual and practice, such as the observance of the "second days" of festivals. They liked their synagogues to resemble churches, complete with pulpits for preachers, and they were enthusiasts for organ music. But a number of nominally Orthodox synagogues, catering largely for non-Orthodox congregations, in time reformed themselves (so to speak) along these lines: while "second days" were nominally observed, congregants simply made a habit of not turning up for divine services on these occasions.

This convenient blurring of distinctions no longer exists. Nor are younger members of Reform families necessarily attracted by what they perceive as nothing more than a watered-down version of what the United Synagogue offers. Those younger members are drawn instead either to a no-nonsense anti-Orthodoxy of the sort preached by Liberal rabbi and propagandist Danny Rich, who, at last month's Oxford JSoc Intrafaith Conference, denounced Orthodox Judaism for having been founded on "discredited beliefs and antiquated practices."

"The idea," Rich fulminated, "that the Torah was given directly by God… is simply untenable for a Liberal Jew."

Synagogues may merge but other issues must be addressed

Or they are drawn to a rediscovery of Orthodoxy, making the sort of lifestyle journey chronicled by American Reform rabbi, John Moscowitz, in his recently published collection of sermons and essays, The Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi.

For 25 years, Moscowitz - a graduate of Hebrew Union College - officiated at Toronto's prestigious Holy Blossom Temple. But, during that period, he was drawn through his faith and religious identification towards a more orthodox theological standpoint.

Consequently, Moscowitz urges his readers to respect the Shabbat. On the Israel-Arab conflict, Moscowitz started life as a dove but has become something of a hawk. In 2007, he became embroiled in a row over a proposal (which he championed but lost) to rebuild Holy Blossom - English-speaking Canada's oldest synagogue - so that congregants would face east, towards Jerusalem, as they customarily do in Orthodox houses of worship. This proposal outraged the synagogue old guard. Since 2012, Moscowitz has ceased to be Holy Blossom's senior rabbi. But the synagogue membership has been fractured as a result.

The Hendon and Edgware Reform synagogues may indeed merge. I wish them well in the merger. But underlying issues surely remain to be addressed.

April 14, 2016 12:18

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