The Society for Classical Reform Judaism at HUC-JIR

Monday, June 25, 2012

The inaugural institute of The Society for Classical Reform Judaism (SCRJ) at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, held on March 19-24, represented a major symbolic milestone, both for their endeavors, and arguably, for the history of Reform Judaism both in America and Israel. 

Rabbi Howard A. Berman, Executive Director, stated, “When the SCRJ launched our relationship with HUC-JIR three years ago, with the warm support of Rabbi David Ellenson, President, and the administration and faculty of the Cincinnati campus, we could have hardly envisioned the success and impact we would make on the historic center of our seminary, where we have become a significant presence and an integral part of the academic and religious experience of the students.”

With the growing scope and depth of the various programs, scholarship, and prize opportunities, and the SCRJ’s influence on the spiritual development and evolving rabbinic identities of a new generation of leaders of our Movement, the SCRJ is challenging and inspiring them to explore and embrace the Classical Reform tradition as an essential part of their personal rabbinic commitments.  The SCRJ’s successes at HUC-JIR’s historic campus in Cincinnati have encouraged them to reach out to our other campuses.  The warm welcome and personal connections in Jerusalem that SCRJ President, B.H. Levy, Jr. made during his visit to Israel in the Spring of 2011, led to introductions and subsequent conversations between Rabbi Berman and the academic leadership that culminated in the invitation by Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, and Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs, to launch a partnership with the Society with a series of events in March 2012. Through the generosity of SCRJ Board member Edward Ackerman, an additional special grant was provided to supplement the support of HUC-JIR with this outreach to the Jerusalem School.

The Society has been planning the program that would build on the highly successful model of the Society Institute at the Cincinnati campus. Special seminars were developed for our stateside rabbinical and cantorial students spending their first year of studies in Israel, as well as the local students preparing for the Reform rabbinate in Israel.  The SCRJ also wanted to present a special public program for the broader Jerusalem community, introducing them to the Classical Reform tradition through the great musical tradition of our Movement.  The Society is committed to providing significant scholarship support to one of the Israeli students as a demonstration of their commitment to supporting their courageous choice of dedicating their lives as pioneers of the emerging Progressive Movement in Israeli Judaism, in the face of tremendous opposition and obstacles. And finally, the SCRJ is establishing connections with Israeli Reform congregations, to offer them support and resources in connecting with the larger historical continuum that they represent.

“In retrospect, every one of these ambitious and, many would argue - improbable – goals was realized far beyond our fondest expectations,” explains Rabbi Berman.  “Throughout the past few months, the staff, administration and faculty of the Jerusalem campus devoted great effort to planning this series of events, and laying the groundwork for the incredible success we achieved. When I arrived on March 19, the promise and potential of the historic mission that we were embarking upon was dramatically symbolized as I approached the entrance to the campus on King David Street, and was greeted by our SCRJ banner hanging across the front doors – proclaiming the Society’s presence and message to the city on its main thoroughfare!  I could never have imagined that such a public endorsement would have been made in such a powerful way, and it was quite an emotional realization of the magnitude of what we had undertaken – and of the College’s commitment to this development.” 

The Society’s major program highlights were held on Tuesday, March 20, with a seminar with our Year-in-Israel rabbinical and cantorial students.  The main focus of the seminar was to introduce them to the history and principles of Classical Reform heritage in a contemporary context, to place the conversation within the broader context of their current experience in Israel - being exposed to and experimenting with a broad range of approaches and expressions of Jewish tradition.  Students were challenged to reflect on the reality that in the midst of the hundreds of distinctive streams of Jewish practice, national cultures and interpretations that create the richness and depth of the Jerusalem experience -   their own heritage as Reform Jews, with its own distinctive principles, liturgy, music and values – represents an equally major voice. Rabbi Berman explained, “I tried to impress upon them that in the midst of this diversity, Classical Reform is yet another beautiful, meaningful, ‘minhag’ – a unique set of traditions –and stands on its own as a distinctive ‘nusach’ – an historic complex of worship and musical customs, alongside the numerous other European, Sephardic, Hasidic, eastern, and African Jewish practices that converge in Israel today. I encouraged them to ground themselves in their own heritage as American Reform Jews even as they experience all of these many other voices… and to understand their encounter with Israel as a means of strengthening their spiritual resources to return and serve the American Jewish community.” 

Students were charged to consider that every moral principle and spiritual value that inspired their decisions to become Reform rabbis and cantors are the enduring legacy of Classical Reform’s courageous Prophetic vision – our belief in the centrality of the spiritual essence of Jewish identity, our commitment to individual freedom and equality, and our determination to respond as faithful Jews to the challenges of modernity. Each of these are indeed the very values that most define Reform as a distinctive alternative both to the dominant Orthodox fundamentalism and the pervasive secularism that are currently the two major options in Israeli society.  The conversations that ensued were enthusiastic and clearly positive in their response. The students expressed great interest and enthusiasm as they learned about the option that the Society offers.

The second seminar was focused on the Israeli students.  This audience obviously posed a special challenge, since the indigenous styles and priorities that define Reform Judaism in Israel are very different from the American context.  The importance of the Classical Reform values of vernacular prayer, a positive engagement with a predominantly non-Jewish pluralistic society, and our focus on outreach to interfaith families, are simply not relevant to the Israeli setting.  However, Reform Judaism’s historic spiritual and moral values do represent the vital and clear alternative articulated above –  these ideals are not merely recent permissive innovations- the conventional Israeli perception - but are rather grounded in a two-centuries old stream of Jewish history, that in turn is rooted in the timeless, universal values of Judaism going back to the Torah and the Prophets.

“This is the Classical Reform connection that I argued could give the Israeli Reform Movement a sense of its own authenticity as it seeks to offer this alternative to countless Israelis searching for a meaningful, modern religious experience in their lives,” stated Rabbi Berman. “Another important theme that I proactively wanted to raise, was a confrontation with the common misconceptions regarding the complex relationship between historic Reform and Zionism.  While I firmly maintained that for Classical Reform in America, there has always been - and still is - a broad range of opinion on the role of Jewish nationalism and political Zionist ideology in our own identity and commitments, I did want to at least confront the usual charges of anti-Zionism as a characteristic of Classical Reform in the past. I pointed out that the leading Zionist heroes in American Jewish history – Rabbis Judah Leon Magnes, Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise – were all fervently Classical Reform in their religious practice.”  This dramatic example of the breadth of interpretation on this critical issue seemed to be particularly enlightening for these Israel students who revere these famous personalities as major champions of the founding and building of the State.

One of the major highlights of the Society’s visit was the Classical Reform Service that HUC-JIR presented as a public community event on March 20.  Coordinated by Cantors David Berger and Eliyahu Schliefer, a world renowned musician and scholar, planned and organized a “Festive Maariv (Evening) Service” entitled “B’hadrat Kodesh – In the Majesty of Holiness.” The Service was a celebration of both the American Classical Reform tradition and the great musical heritage of the Reform Synagogue in Germany, the United States, and contemporary Israel, from the 19th-21st centuries.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, notes, “Classical Reform walks in the footsteps of our prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. They walked in the streets of Jerusalem. How fitting that we re-examine these roots in Israel in 2012. I look forward to our ongoing relationship with the Society. Their support of our Israeli Rabbinic program is surely a sign of their commitment to Jerusalem. I want to thank our amazing cantorial students, who turned their studies into deep devotional prayer.”

The second SCRJ Institute at the Cincinnati campus was held on May 7 and 8.  The Society built significantly on the scope of the inaugural programs held in May, with an expanded schedule of seminars and, for the first time, two special morning services in the Scheuer Chapel.  At the opening session, SCRJ Rabbis Devon Lerner (C'79) and Nadia Siritsky (NY '02) spoke on "Discovering and Embracing the Classical Reform Tradition: Two Women's Perspectives." Other programs included lectures by Dr. Gary P. Zola, Executive Director, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, on "Chicago Sinai Congregation: An Historical Case Study of a Classical Reform Temple," based on the new documentary, "Chicago Sinai: 150 Years of Inspiring Reform"; and Professor Richard Sarason on " The Union Prayer Book and It's Antecedents." 

Worship services on each of the two days of the Institute were led by students using the Union Prayer Book - Sinai Edition, the contemporary, inclusive language revision of Reform Judaism's historic liturgy, accompanied by cantorial and choir music from the historic repertoire, by Cantor Yvon Shore, Director of Liturgical Arts, and SCRJ Board Member Cantor Aaron Kaplan (DFSSM '09). The major highlight of the Institute was the presentation of the winning SCRJ Prize Essay entries for 2012 by Rabbinic Students Erin Boxt, Maura Linzer, Jason Levine, Ari Lorge, and Michal Loving. Each of these papers offered the students' personal interpretations of various aspects of the history, liturgy, or theology of the Reform Movement.

Rabbi Berman concludes, “I cannot state strongly enough how transforming this entire experience was for me personally and how historic the implications are for the Society’s vision.  There is no question in my mind and heart that our principles of the centrality of the American Jewish experience as a core value of our understanding of Classical Reform Judaism, is and must always remain a primary focus for us. However, this visit gave me a renewed personal sense of connection with the history and destiny that Israel represents for me - as an American Jew. And even more important, the importance of nurturing and supporting the Classical Reform voice around the world- but especially in Israel, whose influence on American Jewish life and the Reform Movement is so dominant – represents a unique opportunity and responsibility for the Society.”


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu