An Insider Speaks on Reform Judaism Today

excerpted from Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island by Rabbi David Ellenson

These days, everyone seems to have something to say about what they think is wrong with Reform Judaism.

We have heard that the Reform movement is, at best, in stasis and, at worst, facing a significant decline in its membership rolls. Some argue that Reform institutions are insufficiently nimble and overly bureaucratic. Others point to what they see as an underlying ideological or theological malaise, suggesting that Reform Judaism does not galvanize Reform Jews to acknowledge and act upon their covenantal obligations.

Many of the critiques come from within our movement, others from outside it. Most are offered as constructive criticism, while a few are mean-spirited polemics.

Amid this wave of criticism and consternation, we should not lose sight of the great strengths that Reform Judaism displays. As I travel throughout the United States and Canada, I see synagogues where attendance at services is significant and worship is spiritually inspiring. I see thriving Reform day and afternoon religious schools, and summer camps where Judaism is a richly lived experience. I also see countless numbers of Reform Jews engaged in meaningful Torah study, acts of social justice and the forging of inclusive communities. Still, one need not ignore these triumphs to recognize that there is more than a modicum of truth in many of the expressions of concern and the critiques that we are hearing.

The organizational structures of the Reform movement often do not act in purposeful and coordinated ways to address the many challenges confronting the Jewish people. Too seldom is there an overarching vision of liberal Judaism present to guide the Reform movement as we attempt to address the great demographic and religious issues of our day.

… It is only fair to remember that this is a challenge for all Jews, not just for the Reform movement.

There is no magic bullet to resolve the challenges we face. Organizational reform is surely desirable, but institutional reorganization cannot accomplish the task of making Reform Judaism relevant to all Jews. Similarly, theology and vision are crucial. Nevertheless, we should not be naïve and assume that a commanding and compelling theology will inspire all Jews to participate meaningfully in Jewish life.

The recognition of the enormity of the tasks that confront the Reform movement does not excuse us from our responsibilities… Our goal must be to inspire modern Jews to affirm traditional Jewish commitments to God, Torah and Israel while simultaneously insisting upon an open and honest engagement with the modern world.

Rabbi Ellenson’s complete piece, Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island, can be found on the Forward.