Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “Why I Chose Reform Judaism”

  1. I enjoyed reading your articulation of why you felt connected to the Reform tradition. I do want to point out that you glossed over two traditions by not mentioning them at all: Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionism. I’m not saying you should have picked them over your own choice–that’s up to you, of course! But these two movements each have a lot to offer, and are in fact quite progressive, having made a number of contributions in moving Judaism forward. I don’t personally know a lot about Reconstructionism, but Wikipedia tells me that it was the first movement to allow Rabbis to be married to non-Jews–a significant change. And my Renewal congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue, for example, was one of the first (or perhaps the first?) to have rabbis who performed Jewish weddings (as opposed to commitment ceremonies) for same-sex couples. I believe that conversion and studying for the rabbinate would have been possible for people of all orientations with both Renewal and Reconstructionists at the time you were taking those steps. So, again, I’m sure there are great reasons that you picked Reform, and you should definitely celebrate that. But I do think when you’re doing some kind of across-the-board comparison, it’s important to include all the major movements in the US–otherwise, it’s a form of erasure.

  2. I appreciate this column! Having been somewhat forced out of observance from my parents and family situation, I’m working towards rebuilding my faith and converting back into the faith. My original conversion paperwork was destroyed in a flood and I don’t know how to get another original without converting again, so that’s where I am right now. It’s difficult with my family background, but at this point I really don’t care. Judaism is where my heart is and that’s what I’m going to follow. Do you (or anybody) have any ideas on where to go for information? We are limited to walking distance since we don’t have a car, and there’s not a synagogue that close to me. Getting a car is in our future, but I don’t want to wait til then. I figure the suggestion to “go find a Rabbi” works in this case because you are indeed exactly that! Thank you for your advice!

    1. I’m not a rabbi, but I did convert to Judaism. Do you have letters or emails from the rabbi who sponsored your conversion? Anything like that might serve as evidence of your conversion. I’m sorry this happened to you. How stressful it must be.

      1. I do not! I have a copy of the conversion certificate, but no originals at all. Eventually once I buy another vehicle I’ll restart and get my whole family with me too!

        1. The American Jewish Archive in Cincinnati may have a copy of your conversion certificate, if you converted with a Reform rabbi. Also, the congregation or the rabbi usually keep a copy.

          And for most purposes, a copy is all that’s necessary. When I registered as a yeshiva student in Jerusalem, they wanted to see the certificate, and I sent home for a copy, which arrived by fax – and that was good enough.

          Good luck!

          1. I have a pdf version I got from the Synagogue I attended and did my conversion with. I want my kids to be considered Jewish, so it’s very important to me for this to work out. I will check with the Archive as well. Now to get myself back involved with a congregation where I live…if I can ever figure out how to get a car. Money’s super tight, so everything’s pretty difficult. I’m just disappointed it was lost in the first place!

            1. The PDF should be sufficient. I suggest you sign up for the congregation’s email list, and after the High Holidays contact the rabbi there about your interest in connecting. Good luck!

            2. That is a good idea! I have tickets for my family to attend a Chabad house for the High Holidays, so that’s something. I know according to them I’m not considered anything, which is okay. It’s close enough to walk, so even something is better than nothing.
              Thank you so much for your kind advice!

  3. I converted Conservative, but I can appreciate your reasons for converting Reform. It’s so tough to be considered by some to not be a Jew, but I realize that not even all Orthodox conversions are considered legit. I really is political and their problem. The oldest converts never had to jump through all of these hoops. Anyway, I wrote about Judaism and recovering from fundamentalist Christianity tonight; you may find it helpful.

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