UAHC leader calls for Reform revolution in worship

ORLANDO, Fla. — Deeply rooted in general American culture, while at the same time yearning for a more Jewishly authentic spiritual experience, Reform Jews today are on a quest, searching to develop their own brand of Judaism for the next century.

As they grapple with the pull between traditional Judaism's system of commandments and obligations, and the individual autonomy that is a Reform movement hallmark, nearly 4,500 Reform Jews gathered last week at Walt Disney World's Dolphin Hotel for their biennial convention,

Four years into his presidency of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie once again led the charge for a new Reform movement. He launched the drive at the last convention two years ago, when he initiated a movement-wide Jewish literacy program.

He continued the push in Orlando, with a similar call for "a revolution" in the way Reform Jews worship.

The most popular workshops, filled to overflowing with hundreds of participants, focused on issues such as "God and Theology," "Reform Worship in the 21st Century," "Can We Pray What We Don't Believe?" and "Torah and Observance in the 'Principles of Reform Judaism.'"

Workshops on issues of social action and Israel, by contrast, attracted relatively few participants.

At the sessions devoted to spirituality, panel members and attendees voiced a deep desire for more Jewish feeling in their lives, though some also expressed hesitation about how much of a commitment they were willing to make to Jewish practice.

In the speech Yoffie gave on Shabbat morning, he called for "a new Reform revolution" in worship, and for new practices in Reform families. He asked that every Reform Jewish child read a Jewish story or play a Jewish game before going to bed.

Condemning the fact that in many temples prayer has become "a spectator sport," Yoffie instructed his constituents to no longer leave responsibility for worship in the hands of their clergy. He proposed five concrete steps, asking that:

*Synagogue ritual committees reorganize themselves and begin studying, with rabbi or cantor, the history and theology of Jewish prayer.

*Each synagogue evaluation team visit at least four other Reform congregations to see what they do in their services.

*A Reform movement-wide online dialogue on the topic of worship be started, to involve thousands of participants.

*All the arms of the movement cooperate in sponsoring retreats for Reform rabbis and cantors devoted to "worship reform."

*All synagogues undertake a serious effort to improve Hebrew literacy among their congregants.

"In many of our synagogues the prayers are heartfelt, the music uplifting and the participation enthusiastic," Yoffie said in his sermon, which was interrupted by frequent applause.

"But that is only part of the story. All of us — rabbis, cantors, lay leaders — seem ready to admit that far too often, our services are tedious, predictable and dull. Far too often, our members pray without fervor or concentration. Far too often, our music is dirge-like and our Torah readings lifeless."

In many congregations that have embarked on such a process, however, the differing needs of congregants have provoked resentment as the temple tries to please everyone.

For example, Cantor Fran Goldman, from Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Va., helps run a different kind of Sabbath service every Friday night of the month — a family service with a children's choir, a more classical Reform service with a vocal quartet, a more participatory service with a volunteer choir and a service in which Goldman sings by herself.

On top of the competing interests is the fact that 40 to 50 percent of her congregants are part of interfaith families, she said.

"It means that I have to try to appeal to many constituencies. I have to offer a smorgasbord so people are comfortable," she said, noting one result is that families often go to just the monthly service that appeals to them.

But the overall response to Yoffie's worship initiatives, and to the shift in focus within the movement, was positive — as long as the new ideas are encouraged, and not required.

Liz Cohen, president of Temple Beth-El in Sommerville, N.J., said changes "are necessary because the classical Reform was bereft of spirit. We threw away too much. Now we're rediscovering the traditions and it's fresh."

The notion of obligation, Cohen said, is an "interesting one in Reform Judaism because we've always been taught that it is our choice" to do things or not. "We also have to be a comfortable place for someone who wants marginal commitment. We can't say it's all or nothing, and the talk of obligation may chase some people away."