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Current Models of Classical Reform Practice in Congregational and Community Settings

Jay R. Brickman
Fall 2007

The following two essays reflect different ways that the historic ideals of Classical Reform Judaism are finding expression in contemporary American Jewish life. Rabbis Cukierkorn and Brickman are members of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the American Council for Judaism. Their perspectives demonstrate the creative ways that the broad, inclusive principles of historic liberal Reform are reaching a new generation of American Jews.  
A Truly Welcoming Congregation  
by Jacques Cukierkorn  
My congregation, the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, MO is in my opinion a model for how the values and ideas of Classical Reform Judaism can revitalize the Jewish community. By putting into practice values of inclusion and tolerance, the congregation has more than doubled in size in the past seven years. According to my teacher, Dr. Alvin Reines, the late Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew Union College, we should regard membership and affiliation as proof of a Reform Jewish identity. Such belief makes my relationship with all my congregants easy and practical. I regard them all as equals. Such belief makes my congregation a very welcoming place for all kinds of Jewish families.  
In my congregation, we welcome to our membership the whole family. As long as one member is Jewish, they are welcome to be members. Our approach to membership follows the idea that we accept interfaith families as such. Thus both members of the couple are full members. Both are given the same rights and duties that come from membership.  
Life Cycle Events  
The life cycle events that I perform, inside and outside of the congregation, follow this same logic. The main way we have attracted several young families to New Reform Temple, is by my willingness as a rabbi to officiate at their weddings in a non judgmental way. I make sure that the interaction is about the couple and their needs, rather than about mine or the congregation’s needs. Curiously, I do not make membership in the congregation a requirement for the wedding. Yet, a large majority of the couples I marry end up joining immediately after the wedding or within a few years. They do so because they feel truly accepted and feel that our congregation is a place where they will not be outsiders in any way. We certainly have more interfaith couples than any other congregation in Kansas City, but they are not a majority of the membership. I am also open to co-officiate with Christian (or other) clergy in meaningful and respectful ceremonies that affirm the love and relationship of the couple. The ceremony is always crafted to the couple’s desires and keeping in mind any sensibilities that may exist.  
While I am very open to co-officiate at weddings, at the time of a baby naming, I will insist that the couple decide for one and only one religion. I feel that co-officiated baby naming rituals will lead to confusion in the child’s upbringing. Similarly, we do not allow children in our religious school to be attending a Church religious school. While this approach may sometimes cause personal difficulties for some individuals, we believe it to be the child’s best interest.  
Classical Reform Views  
Our Classical Reform views color the way we deal with the life cycle events in our congregation. Every event must be unique as every family and occasion is unique. I strive to adapt our tradition and customs to the needs and desires of the family in question. For instance, in the case of intermarried families, 1 will include both parents (and their families if wished) in all life cycle events. For instance, we call both parents and sets of grandparents to the pulpit for a Naming Ceremony. In the case of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we reject the stance of traditional Jewish law that prescribes that a gentile cannot touch the Torah scroll. In this age of interfaith families and increasing acceptance of the equality of patrilineal descent, this prohibition can lead to painful and embarrassing situations. There are non-Jewish parents who are very involved in the Jewish upbringing and education of their children and who are also active volunteers in their temple. Yet, when their involvement and efforts culminate in the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of their children, all of a sudden they become second-class human beings in many congregations. That obviously is not the case at the New Reform Temple. The gentile parent (or grandparent) may be included in the symbolic passing down of the Torah on the Friday night prior to the ceremony on Shabbat, and receives the honor of an aliyah (being called up to say the blessing over the Torah reading) together with their Jewish spouse. We also honor non-Jewish relatives and friends with honors like opening the Ark or offering some relevant reading.  
Confirmation as Primary Milestone  
In keeping with the guidelines set by Classical Reform Judaism, our congregation affirms Confirmation as the primary milestone of Jewish education — not Bar/Bat Mitzvah. So we will only agree to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah if there is a clear and firm commitment on the part of the family and child to continue until Confirmation and not to conclude their religious school experience at the age of 13. Unlike some horror stories we hear about 80 percent of Bar or Bat Mitzvah students dropping out, we have almost 100 percent rate of Confirmation among our Religious School students. This is perhaps our greatest accomplishment and the one I am the most proud of. We aim at creating knowledgeable, committed and happy Classical Reform Jews in our Religious School and their Confirmation ceremony attests to that year after year.  
When there is a death, I will officiate at a funeral for a non-Jewish spouse in exactly the same manner I would at that of a Jew. In our cemetery we welcome the burial of both Jews and their non-Jewish spouses — however we do not allow non-Jewish rites, officiants or symbols, that would challenge the identification of our cemetery as a Jewish place of rest.  
Inclusive Jewish Community  
All I have described has helped us create a very inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. It may not be the kind of Jewish community more traditional Jews want or the kind of Jewish community that existed in pre-war Europe. But this is our community:open, welcoming and successful in nurturing happy and proud American Reform Jews.  
Jacques Cukierkorn is Rabbi of the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, Missouri and is a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the American Council for Judaism.  
The Jewish-Christian Journey:  
An Inclusive Interfaith Worship Experience  
by Jay H. Brickman  
There are many species of life which, threatened by an aggressor stronger than themselves, will crawl into a shell as a means of defense. Minority entities in an inimical surrounding will often isolate themselves from the host population and intensify their own cultural identities. This defensive posture has characterized our community for the major portion of Jewish existence. When, as in the Hellenistic period, the surroundings were more amicable, a portion of the Jewish population (despite the opposition of Orthodox zealots) joined in the athletic games and other activities of the overall population. Such circumstances, initiated by the American and French Revolutions, provoked a new liberalism of spirit in this nation and Western Europe. It was in such an atmosphere that Reform Judaism was born and flourished. Rules of dress and diet which prompted estrangement from non-Jews were abandoned. Liturgical portions that spoke of abandoning lands of adoption and returning to the Holy Land were deleted. Emphasis upon antiquated ritual practices were rejected in favor of ethical teachings shared with other faiths, thereby drawing our population closer to that of other denominations. It is unfortunate, in my perspective and that of ACJ, that in the absence of external threat, leaders of Reform Judaism (perhaps in response to the “threat” of assimilation) have chosen to assume the defensive posture, reaffirming: ethnicity, nationalism, ritualism, separatism.  
Interaction with Non-Jewish Clergy  
Interaction with non-Jewish clergy has helped me to recognize a similar split within the Protestant community. There is a right-wing element that stresses the mysteries of the divine birth and resurrection. This group feels itself uniquely favored by God and identifies others, including liberal Christians, as marked for damnation. Ecumenical endeavors with this group bear little fruit. Fortunately, there is a parallel Protestant community which draws inspiration from the words of Jesus, and identifies descriptions of his divinity and resurrection as referencing the teachings rather than the individual. It is the “word” which is immortal. I am comfortable with this point of view. Jesus lived and died as a Jew: he had nothing to do with mysteries attributed to him by later writers. His words and his life experience parallel those of other rabbis in his generation. Jesus did no break with Jewish law but offered a liberal and compassionate interpretation of the law.  
Discussing this similarity of perspectives with a minister friend, we both recognized the similarity of our points of view. I, of course, have a feeling of kinship with fellow Jews which he lacks. The image of Jesus plays a unique role in his devotional life, not in mine. But these differences are minor in comparison to views that we share: the same understanding of God, the same ethical posture, the same sense of historic continuity. It occurred to us that we should be able to devise a common liturgy that would satisfy the needs of both groups and provide an opportunity in Door County, Wisconsin (where no synagogue exists) for an interfaith worship opportunity. We have done so, and discovered the service to be warm, meaningful and of course, inclusive. Ten adults were in attendance. The service opened and closed with hymns that were devoid of Christological reference (A good resource for these is the old Union Hymnal). I led the first portion of the service using the old Union Prayer Book. We read the daily evening service, beginning with Borchu (the call to worship), concluding with the silent prayer and “May the words ...“. I followed this with a short reading from the Torah and discussion of this with the congregation. My friend continued with passages like the Lord’s Prayer (all of its phrases derived from the Hebrew liturgy), portions of the Beatitudes and other prayers with which Jews in attendance were comfortable. He then read and led discussion of a portion of the New Testament in which Jesus spoke of the Prodigal Son and the reconciliation with his father. We followed the service with supper together at one table in a nearby restaurant. All agreed that it was a worthwhile experience and we have arranged for a second meeting at the same time, same place, same restaurant. Participants were invited to bring friends who might be interested.  
I have chosen to recount this experiment in the hope that other groups in other communities may chose to do the same. It is not necessary for the service to be led by clergy, only by those familiar with the traditions. It is not my desire to initiate a schism in the Reform movement. Large increases in Temple membership suggest that the newer interpretation of Reform, i.e. more ritual, more emphasis upon Israel is meeting the needs of a significant percentage of Reform Jews. But this message is addressed to the minority population which, while continuing to support the synagogue and its endeavors, is finding its own spiritual needs unmet. There is a traditional teaching that all things created for the sake of heaven will in the long run endure. We are hoping in time to set a regular schedule for these services. It would be encouraging to learn if like efforts are being initiated in communities other than our own.

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