Reform Judaism is a Wounded Giant. A Historian Explains Why it Got so Big.

tags: religion, Jewish Americans, Reform Judaism

Karla Goldman is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. She is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard).

Amid a seeming avalanche of Jewish organizational cutbacks, closings and furloughs, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) announced last Wednesday, that it would be cutting its staff by 20% due to coronavirus-related stresses. As with so many basic institutions of American life, the economic disruption caused by the pandemic is highlighting existential questions about the viability of key historic and contemporary institutions of American Judaism.

Founded in 1873 under a different name, the URJ is one of the longest-lasting institutions still framing American Jewish life. It set out to provide the infrastructure for an American Judaism independent of European texts, authority, and leadership. Founder Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s primary goal in creating that first body was the creation of a rabbinical college, although he and his lay colleagues also wanted to help individual synagogues with things like curricula for Jewish religious schools. Hebrew Union College (HUC) was created within two years, with Wise as president.

The menu of littleneck clams, crab, shrimp and frog legs at the school’s first ordination dinner signaled that Wise would not be able to realize his vision of a union for all American synagogues. Still, the progenitor of the URJ represented the American belief in the possibility of a Judaism led by American rabbis, responsive to the needs of American Jews. Both that body and the rabbinical college were the first successful and long-lasting national institutions of American Jewish life. They modeled the structures other denominations would adopt to create their own versions of American Judaism, including sisterhood, brotherhood, and youth movements.

While most Reform Jews see their synagogues as the setting of their Jewish lives, in the background the national Reform movement — mainly the URJ and HUC — has always supplied the rabbis, prayer books, and larger networks that have shaped that religious experience. The funding mechanism has always been drawn from membership dues paid to local congregations.

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