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entries tagged with: Reform Movement


Activist rabbis to be honored by ARZA

Rabbi Elyse Frishman has followed a guiding principle throughout her 15 years as religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

“I’ve worked hard from the beginning to shift the culture from corporate to spiritual,” said the rabbi.

“A corporate culture is hierarchical in nature,” Frishman explained, assessing contributions she has made to the congregation, founded in 1847.

“There’s someone at the helm and everyone else filters in” in his or her own way. “A spiritual culture is relational, building relationships with one another with regard to each other’s skills.”

The building of relationships has been a key ingredient in the synagogue’s outreach efforts, whether in its social action program or in the relationship between its congregants and the State of Israel.

Fostering members’ relationship with Israel has been an important part of her vision. On June 10, she and her husband, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, will be honored with the Lifetime of Israel Achievement Award by the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The award recognizes the couple’s “outstanding commitment to pluralism.”

Frishman and Freelander — senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Union for Reform Judaism — are funding a new residence in Jaffa for the Mechina program sponsored by ARZA and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. The building, still under construction, will be dedicated to the memory of Freelander’s mother, Aviva Jacobson Freelander, who was born in Tel Aviv and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.

The URF executive said he lost his parents at about the same time he became aware of the Jaffa Mechina program, which is now entering its sixth year. A pre-army one-year deferment program sponsored by the Israeli government, the Mechina program includes both learning and community service components. The Jaffa facility is the only one administered by the Reform movement.

Mechina participants study ethics four hours each morning, exploring “dilemmas in the military, from a Jewish perspective.” In the afternoon, the 60 students engage in volunteer projects with the impoverished Arab community in the city.

Freelander said that over the past five years, graduates from the Mechina program have gone on to have successful army careers. Also, he said, “I predict that within 10 years, they will be a dominant force within the Reform movement [in Israel].”

“It’s one of the most exciting things happening there,” he said, describing the effort as heralding “the creation of the Jewish future.”

Freelander, who has been with URJ for some 35 years, said his grandfather moved to Jaffa from Pinsk during high school, and much of his family grew up there.

“This is returning to our roots,” he said of his new connection to the city.

On the home front, Frishman said her congregation of 480 member-families is committed to “introducing people to Israel” as part of an initiative to foster lifelong Jewish learning.

“We try to send young people on NFTY programs [the youth arm of the Reform movement],” she said, adding that Barnert also sponsors frequent Israel trips.

She noted, as well, that Barnert encourages students to spend a semester in Israel through the Eisendrath International Exchange High School in Israel program.

“We want to get people over there. It’s a big goal for us,” said Frishman, who spent a semester on EIE during high school and later lived for four months with an Israel family outside of Tel Aviv.

“It’s important to have people be able to experience Israel because it solidifies the link,” she added. “My EIE ‘sister’ is still close.” In fact, she said, that particular classmate went on to become a deputy editor of Ha’aretz.

“When [Barnert congregants] visit Israel, we always spend time with key Reform leaders like Anat Hoffman,” director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, said Frishman, citing the efforts made by Barnert to further the cause of pluralism. “What she does is very important.”

Barnert also has a sister congregation, Yozma, in Modi’in. “We gave them a Torah and have been helpful financially,” she said. “Every year we spend a Shabbat with a member of the congregation. When they come here, they visit with us.”

Frishman added that this year the Barnert sisterhood sponsored a dvar Torah on Women of the Wall and is “engaged in support of that.”

The rabbi — who, when she spoke with The Jewish Standard, was preparing to deliver a talk on radical fundamentalism in Israel — said, “We have to talk about the dark side of Israel.”

“We need to be able to talk about that because they’re our family,” she said, noting that Israelis can’t solve these problems themselves because of the structure of the government, which does not allow for separation of church and state.

She pointed out that Mishkan T’filah — the prayerbook she edited in 2007 and which has been adopted by most Reform congregations throughout North America — also has a connection with Israel and Zionism. Not only does it now include a prayer for the State of Israel, but it incorporates “slight changes to prayers” reflecting the movement’s increased involvement with that country.

Frishman and Freelander — the parents of three children, ages 27, 25, and 19 — try to get to Israel at least once a year, said Freelander.

They both have high hopes for that country.

“I’m most influenced in my thinking by the conversations of Rav [Abraham Isaac] Kook about Israel,” said Frishman, “and about the ability to accommodate diverse Jews and the dangers of extremism and the ability to love one another. I’ve always fantasized Israel as a vision for what the world could be. It’s so far from that right now. All I want to do is support the people there who share that vision.”

“The purpose of pluralism goes beyond being receptive to diversity,” she said. “It’s really about ahavat Yisrael, not about my way being only way.”

Freelander pointed out that over the past 10 years, there have been big changes for the Reform movement in Israel. Not only are there more Reform synagogues — as well as “synagogue trailers” provided by the government — but “it’s a younger movement, no longer an immigrant population” from Europe or North America.

“We’ve got our footprints on the ground,” said Freelander, a noted musican and songwriter. He added that Reform movement summer camp programs in Israel have served large numbers of young people, “giving them Jewish pride and comfort” in a country where religion had previously been defined as either Orthodox or secular.

“These kids feel very comfortable,” said Freelander, a member of ARZA since its founding, pointing out that it has been his job, and remains his goal, “to keep Zionism and love for Israel high in the profile of Reform Jews.”


Asking the right questions


Cantors sing in Rome

Can Jewish sacred music sung in a Roman Catholic basilica help relations between Christians and Jews?

For the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors, the answer is a resounding yes.

Twenty Reform cantors from across the United States traveled to Rome this month for just that purpose, performing a unique concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian. Among them was Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia.

“We are here as spiritual emissaries, not political emissaries,” said the president of the cantors’ conference, Susan Caro of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “We recognize the power of music to transform as well as reach across cultural and religious lines.”

The concert, titled “To God’s Ears,” was organized by the New York-based Interreligious Information Center in cooperation with Cardinal William Keeler, the emeritus archbishop of Baltimore, who is the basilica’s cardinal priest.

“Presenting music of the synagogue in churches in order to reach the laity could develop into something very, very worthwhile in interfaith relations,” said the Interreligious Information Center’s executive director, Gunther Lawrence.

Lawrence said several cathedrals in the United States and Britain already had expressed interest in similar concerts.

The Nov. 16 performance featured a range of prayers and texts set to both traditional melodies and music by composers dating from the Renaissance to the present day.

In welcoming remarks, Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, the regular priest of the basilica, introduced the 90-minute concert as a journey into the “profundity of the liturgy,” saying it was “very important to be here together and praising our God.”

The cantors, about half of them women, hailed from California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Texas.

“Our goal was to educate people in Jewish culture and Jewish synagogue culture,” said Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco, who helped coordinate the event. “We feel that through music you can heal, make friends, touch people, reach out.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Humberto Diaz called the initiative “a wonderful opportunity.”

“Any kind of art, especially music, is a way to bring people together for the sake of the common good,” he told JTA.

Diaz and the Rev. Norbert Hoffman, the secretary of the Vatican’s commission on religious relations with the Jews, were among the few dignitaries in attendance.

Highlights of the concert included an arrangement of the “Adon Olam” prayer by the Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi and a rendition of “Sim Shalom” by the 20th century-composer Max Janowski.

The concert also included the world premiere of “Mah Ashiv Ladonai-Quid Retribuam Domino,” a setting of Psalm 116, with words in Hebrew and in Latin, by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y. Contzius, a member of the American Conference of Cantors, did not take part in the concert. Longtime observers of Jewish-Catholic relations said it was likely that the concert marked the first time that a cantorial group had performed such a concert in a Roman Catholic church.

“Italian traditional cantors would not, as far as I know, perform in a church, and I know of no instance when this ever happened in the past,” Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of collections at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.

To watch a video of the cantor’s concert, visit JTA Wire Service


Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

‘We are obligated to take care of and enjoy our bodies’

Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick’s contribution to “The Sacred Table” is about eating disorders.

This is not the first time she has written on the subject. In the late 1990s, when she was an intern in the Reform movement’s department of Jewish Family Concerns, “eating disorders were quite prevalent in our congregations and I was asked to contribute to a manual about them.”

Called “Litapayach Tikvah: Nourishing Hope,” it is subtitled “Eating Disorders: Perceptions and Perspectives in Jewish Life Today” and was disseminated to Reform congregations and used at workshops at synagogues and the movement’s biennial conference. It is still available online at also see EatingDisorders.)

The religious leader of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, she told The Jewish Standard that she has no personal experience with eating disorders, “but I have known people who have had serious eating disorders and certainly within my congregations.” (Before coming to the 400-plus family Beth Or in 2008, she served as associate rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York.)

“Jewish women,” she told the Standard, “often fit the profile of women who are battling with the disorders.” Also, she said, “an increasing number of Jewish men have eating disorders, and teen girls are particularly vulnerable to them because of the self-image and self-esteem issues that emerge” in the teens. (See related excerpts, Returning food to its rightful place.)

She stressed that eating disorders are found in other streams of Judaism, “across the observance spectrum,” and in the population at large.

Zlotnick also stressed that an eating disorder “can become a cycle of self-destruction” and should not be ignored. “You want to look out for warning signs that are different for the different disorders,” she said, such as “changes in eating, weight, a change in secrecy levels in terms of food consumption.”

“There’s some shame attached to eating disorders,” she noted, and recommended that a parent or other concerned person “approach the subject in a careful way. Don’t force the issue of food regarding dieting, weight, etc.,” but rather “with sensitivity and concern and acceptance and love.”

Someone with an eating disorder may benefit from professional help as well.

“We are obligated to take care of and enjoy our bodies,” she said, “because they house the spark of the Divine within us.”


Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Is Reform movement going kosher?

Kosher — it’s the first word in the book. And tackling the “k” word head-on is part of what makes the first Reform guide to Jewish dietary practice so significant.

“The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic,” to be published in February by the Reform rabbinical association, uses an array of essays by Reform rabbis and activists to challenge Reform Jews to develop a conscious dietary practice grounded in Jewish values.

And it’s not shy about suggesting kashrut, both traditional and re-imagined.

“No longer an oxymoron, ‘Reform kashrut’ has entered the Jewish lexicon, although there is no consensus on what this means exactly,” Rabbi Carole Balin, a Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes in the book, which is being published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press.


For a movement whose founding Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 rejected kosher laws along with other traditional Jewish rituals of dress and body as “entirely foreign” to modern sensibilities, the book represents a significant milestone in the development of Reform spirituality and practice.

It also illustrates the increased attention focused on kashrut across the denominational spectrum since the 2008 Agriprocessors scandal, which shuttered the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and spurred a rash of “ethical kosher” initiatives — from small, humane kosher meat operations to the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek project, which certifies kosher food products that meet certain ethical standards.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups, and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution.

Some Reform leaders, including the book’s editor, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

“The Sacred Table” opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws — a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore.

It also includes chapters on each of the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the traditional definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tzaar baalei chayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy, and lay leaders are keeping kosher, partially or entirely. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice, which may or may not include kashrut.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime advocate of bringing more Jewish ritual into Reform practice, says he was pleasantly surprised to see the book’s forthright approach.

In the summer of 2009, while putting together his keynote speech for the movement’s biennial conference, Yoffie said he planned to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice. But after running his speech by key Reform lay leaders, the rabbi told JTA, he heard so much pushback that he dropped the “k” word from the final initiative.

Called “Just Table, Green Table,” the Reform platform for developing consciously Jewish food choices “is not about kashrut,” Yoffie told biennial delegates as he unveiled the project last December.

Yoffie later told JTA that he “wanted people to be open to the idea of Jewish sacred eating, and didn’t want to touch an emotional chord that would prevent them from hearing that message.”

Now, a year later, he says he finds it “fascinating” that the Reform rabbinical leadership has seized the reins.

“Our rabbinical body is coming out and unabashedly embracing the word kashrut, saying this is how we’re framing the discussion and we want people to struggle with it,” Yoffie said.

The thrust of the book clearly favors broadening the definition of kashrut to include related Jewish ethical values, in keeping with longstanding Reform history.

“That is essential,” Yoffie said. “There are those in our movement who will accept kashrut in the traditional sense, but the great majority will take elements of kashrut in a broader sense. They want to relate it to issues of ethics, community, and identity.”

Still, kashrut itself is offered as a recommended practice, however adapted. That does not sit well with some Reform leaders, whose voices also appear in the book, however briefly.

One is Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, who writes that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.

Jewish ethical values about treating workers and animals well, and respecting the environment and one’s own body, are all important to Reform as well as other Jews, he says.

“But we don’t need to graft them onto kashrut,” he said, acknowledging, however, that he is in a shrinking minority among Reform rabbis.

Balin, who teaches a course on food for rabbinic and cantorial students, says she doesn’t know any who adhere to the tenets of Classical Reform.

Jewish dietary practice and the politics and morality of food choices, she said, “are very much on the minds of these future Reform leaders.”

JTA Wire Service


Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, left, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, consults with members of the Reform Think Tank following the group’s online forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Morgan Radmall

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls, and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action, and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team — called the Reform Think Tank — want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions — the synagogue movement, rabbinical association, and seminary — nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched, in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion — we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures, and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Cong. Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents, and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

JTA Wire Service


Area Reform synagogues to mark 50th anniversary of RAC

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has become one of the pre-eminent Jewish political organizations in the country, at the forefront of issues such as ending the genocide in Darfur, promoting human rights, and fighting poverty.

On Jan. 14 and 15, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Reform movement will celebrate Shabbat Tzedek, marking the RAC’s 50th anniversary.

Its founding in 1961 reflected a belief among its founders that as Jews who care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, they had to care about more than issues that affected them as Jews, said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the RAC.

“The center became a hub of social justice in Washington, not just for the Reform Jewish movement,” she said, noting that several congressional civil rights bills were drafted in the RAC conference room. “Our goal is to bring Washington to the Reform movement and the Reform movement to Washington.”

Several area Reform synagogues will mark the anniversary next week, using it as an opportunity to encourage congregants to perform acts of tikkun olam. Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter will use a Shabbat Tzedek liturgy provided by the RAC and Closter’s Mayor Sophie Heymann, a temple member, will speak. Instead of the weekly Torah portion, the temple’s Saturday morning Torah study will focus on readings with an emphasis on social justice.

“The Reform movement has such a long history of social justice and advocacy,” Beth El’s Rabbi Debra Hachen said. “Today many people think of tikkun olam in local ways — for example, helping a local food bank or the wonderful work Bonim does.” (Bonim, a group of volunteers from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, renovates homes for the needy.) “There’s a very important dimension to social justice that’s connected to the prophetic vision,” she continued. “A key part of Reform Judaism is the notion of transforming society, not just reaching out to the needy.”

Paul Kaufman, a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, will speak there during Shabbat Tzedek about a recent RAC mission to the Gulf Coast he took part in. The synagogue will also launch a six-month initiative to serve fair-trade coffee.

“It’s a chance to celebrate all [the RAC has] accomplished and really move forward in terms of advancing what separates Reform Jews from other Jews, which is a concerted commitment to social justice,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who interned with the RAC in 1994 and spoke at the 40th anniversary celebration 10 years ago.

“[The internship] really helped me understand the intersection of Jewish values and public policy,” the rabbi said.

Temple Beth Or in Washington Township will focus on King’s legacy, said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick. Members will be asked to bring poems, pictures, song lyrics, or other items that symbolize the Reform commitment to social justice, which will be used throughout the service.

“One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew,” Zlotnick said, “is because I feel the Religious Action Center has done a marvelous job of transforming freedom for all into advocacy across the spectrum to make sure we live up to our American ideals of democracy and freedom.”

Hachen is hopeful the celebratory weekend will encourage others to get involved in global tikkun olam, and she will hand out information about joining the RAC Social Justice Network. The RAC leadership has recruited about 15,000 to the network so far and hopes to reach 50,000.

“Part of our mandate is to create a just society, not just within our synagogues but within the nations in which we live,” Hachen said. “That’s what the RAC tries to do — help us understand that Judaism has something to say on these [social justice] issues.”

To watch a video highlighting the past 50 years of the Religious Action Center, visit

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