Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Not at my service!

Posted by lchaimlover on August 31, 2007


Did you hear what happened at Camp Kutz? Only the juiciest story to hit the Reform Movement since they started actively seeking converts. One evening, in upstate New York, as the camp hosted 4th of July Maariv services for the future leaders of the Reform movement, a performer named Mark Bloom donned his guitar to perform during services, accompanied by several other students. And then, one by when, and somtimes in groups, 40 students, about a quarter of the students in attendance, walked out.

Bloom apparently used services to show off his own skills as a performer and to showcase his own tunes. I searched out several of the students to get an honest account of what went happened. “He messed with the Shma, Mi Sheberach, and many other important prayers,” said Andy Greisinger, a Kutz camper who attended the service. “I know personally the Mi Sheberach is a very important prayer to me, because my mom is currently going through her second round of cancer, and when he played with that song, I was infuriated.”

“I could tell that people weren’t going to take it well,” said Morgan Gross, a student who helped lead the services, “but I didn’t quite expect the reaction that it got. There was a mass exodus from the room, and for days, people went on about how offended they had been by the service.” Students were so outraged by the “non-traditional” service, that they formed their own minyan to daven.

In recent years, Kutz campers have been seen wearing tzitzit, donning teffilin, and some even asked that the kosher style camp become kosher. And the Reform movement isn’t taking it well. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism was quoted by Jewish Week as saying, “There are limits to what the Reform movement can encompass…We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented…If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Morgan Gross had her own opinion on teffilin wrapping, tzitzit wearing campers: “It is now becoming common to see several kids wearing tzitzit at a NFTY event, and at Kutz there were tons. However, it seems like we are getting ahead of ourselves as far as observances go and people are wearing the religious garb without really knowing what it signifies and the responsibilities that it goes along with.”

In an editorial for YNet, Rabbi Levi Brackman wrote in his editorial column, “Undoubtedly, what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of a failed experiment called Reform Judaism. The leaders of the movement have realized this and are thus taking desperate measures to save what is, in fact, a sinking ship.”

So is Reform dying or was this simply just one bad service. The campers I interviewed were struggling with this same question.

“I think what makes us unique [in Reform] is that we get to choose how we like our services to be performed…I know that I personally prefer more traditional prayer because I feel that it gets me even more in touch with my religion,” said Ryann Miller, while fellow camper Katie Schneider said, “Reform Judaism needs to be a living, breathing religion that changes and conforms to the needs and wants of it’s people. I should be able to pray in any way I feel necessary and not be frowned upon if I want to try something new.”


14 Responses to “Not at my service!”

  1. TheSchwartz said

    “…We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented…If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

    We can’t forget our obligation as Jews. Hashem didn’t come to us so we can pick and choose what to follow and what not to follow. Isn’t that why we were chosen because we just said yes to take on the responsibility? It is our obligation as His chosen people. My whole life growing up my Rabbi’s always stressed the obligation I have to the world and doing good in it. I know it is the duty of every Jew to do good deeds, it is our obligation to Him for what He has given us. I’m not the most perfect of Jews and I don’t think I’m better than anyone else, I do the best that I can to keep His laws sacred. He knows who is following His commandments and who isn’t. He knows I’m doing the best I can within my means and that’s good enough. But to say following His commandments is a choice? I don’t agree with that one iota!

    The Schwartz
    “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness Pirkei Avot(1:2)”

  2. Oyster said

    “There are limits to what the Reform movement can
    encompass. We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not
    halacha-oriented. If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation
    rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no
    longer a Reform Jew.”


    From my own reading and from many discussions with the next generation
    of Reform Judaism (R3), it sounds like there is a movement towards
    more traditional forms & melodies. Tefillin aren’t just for the
    Orthodox. A traditional melody is just as holy as a “Shir
    Hadash”. It’s okay to shuckle (swaying back & forth) while you pray.

    From this incident and from other anecdotes that I hear, it sounds
    like many Reform leaders are taking a reactionary stance. Case &
    point: “people are wearing the religious garb without really knowing
    what it signifies and the responsibilities that it goes along with.”
    They’ve resorted to using the same straw-man arguments that they’ve
    traditionally used against the Orthodox to now attack their own young

    I’m really flabbergasted by R. Eric Yoffie’s comments. He’s pretty
    much just called the bluff of Reform Judaism. It’s not merely “one may
    adopt any aspect of Judaism that gives meaning to oneself”, it’s now,
    “you may only adopt practices of Judaism that the older generation of
    Reform Jews approve of”. He’s mincing words by trying to make a
    distinction between ‘choice’ and ‘obligation’. If a young Reform Jew
    decides that he/she wants to wear tzitzit, his or her own personal
    *choice*, does that make it an ‘obligation’ just because R. Yoffie
    doesn’t like it?

    Everything that I’ve read about what the Reform Movement claims to be
    about says that everything in Judaism is ‘on the table’. This
    incident, and the comments of their leaders, now seriously call into
    question whether young Reform Jews really and truly have the freedom
    to explore all of their Jewish heritage, or whether the current leadership has an
    agenda to change or control the nature of Judaism.

  3. eva said

    Reformed Judaism, is in other words “comfortable Judaism”. In my local reform synagoge, they did the Passover seder on Sunday night instead of Tuesday night (approx), to make it comfortable.
    It might try to ‘keep up with the era’- like inserting our biblical mothers into a prayer, performing a Bar Mitzvah ceremony to a girl.

    So that would be a different point of view than what Oyster said:
    “Reform Movement claims that everything in Judaism is ‘on the table’.”

    Because in a way, everything we do is our choice, and it is on the table. How religious we want to be. If we choose to become or stay orthodox, that’s our choice, or on the other hand, choose to keep less traditions.
    What the reform movement doing though, is changing the religion.
    Maybe that’s where the movement fails.

  4. Friar Yid said

    I find this extremely depressing. If this comes to a head it is going to be very bad for Reform as a movement, and is going to have a pretty negative ripple effect, too. Reform isn’t just a depository for the not-so-observant Jews in America, it’s also, for better or worse, the largest-growing movement precisely because, IMO, it’s seen as the one with the least amount of boundaries and restrictions, making it a very attractive first-step feeder for the unaffiliated and secular interested in poking their toes in the water. If Reform starts hemorrhaging because it’s seen as being too “traditional” (i.e., Reform traditional, that is to say liberal… huh, this is kind of confusing…), not only will it start losing members it already has, but I think it will also see a significant dip in the number of new people interested in trying Reform out. Instead they will go elsewhere.

    One of the things that has kept Reform Judaism on my radar as a possible home has been its commitment, even if only philosophically, to pluralism and Jewish diversity. If Yoffie and the URJ can’t figure out how to keep their tent together with traditionalists and liberals coexisting under the same roof, then this commitment will be exposed as being nothing but the most superficial of lip service, and the results will not be pretty.

  5. AaronfromWG said

    I grew up reform. Out of a Sunday school class of about 12 only 2 of us are involved with Judaism’s or the Jewish community in any way. The others have married non-Jews in churches or just gone on with their lives as Americans but not self identified Jews.

    Moses Mendelssohn, whose ideas led to the haskalah and reform movement, had 6 children. 4 ended up being baptized Christians. The 2 who retained their faith and heritage had children who would end up being baptized. This is the unfortunate result of rejecting Torah(or picking what you like and scoffing at what you don’t) When a reform Rabbi tells his congregation that the Torah is not from God but was written by some old Jews(This is what reform Judaism actually believes) long ago, then why should they waste their time with Judaism.

  6. Eva said

    That’s tragic, AaronfromWG .
    Another sign that the reform movement is failing its purpose.

  7. Friar Yid said


    I think there are plenty of issues with Reform, and acknowledge that assimilation is not a good thing, but I think the premise that anything other than Torah-mi-Sinai leads to baptism is profoundly flawed. The majority of Jews today are not Orthodox. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, but I think a big one happens to be that they think it’s bunk. For better or worse, this leads to the unavoidable issue of “what next?” Either they can leave Judaism and Jewish identity entirely, which clearly very few people seem to think is a positive goal, or they can try some other path to somehow marry their desire to be/do Jewish with the reality that Orthodoxy and mizvot aren’t for them.

    You criticize picking and choosing. I say that’s part of living in modern society. The problem with Reform Judaism, as I see it, isn’t the picking and choosing, but the fact that the choices seem to overwhelmingly slant towards doing less rather than more, and oftentimes with less than pure ideological reasons. The problem is that the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric, and that people are choosing convenience and going with the crowd over principled belief and action. For the record, this problem extends past the Reform movement and can be found in every stream of Judaism, even, I would argue, among the Orthodox, though in a modified form.

    You don’t have to believe the Torah is from God to think Judaism has meaning. I can personally attest to that.

  8. Uriel said

    wow, dang, what a bunch of frummies in here! i myself attended kutz back in the summer of ’01, and just to let you know, some of those kutzniks don’t end up as the reform leaders of america… some of them end up burning out of jewish life almost completely, and some of them end up orthodox. it was after my time in kutz (as an 17-year-old) that i got my first pair of tefillin and tzit-tzit and started wearing them occasionally, and no, i certainly didn’t know the significance, but at the time it was just about connecting with my heritage and displaying jewish pride, not about binding G-d to my heart and mind and recalling the mitzvos. but that came eventually. kutz is probably one of the best things the reform movement has going for it, which doesn’t necessarily mean very much.

    oh, one last thing, this article reminded me of this one time at kutz when me and a couple other people were planning this one service, and this one guy in the group just wanted to cut out all the “old stuff” like probably the shema or the shmoneh esrei or something, and even at that time i was horrified at the suggestion. i mean, that’s the thing; at the end of the day, the reform movement is really the “make-up-anything-you-want-and-call-it-judaism” religion. sometimes it looks like judaism. for all i know, that guy is a “rabbi” somewhere today.

  9. Eva said

    Honestly, if anybody wants to be a reformed Jew all one needs to do it become christian. that’s exactly what they are.

  10. Uriel said

    well eva, actually to become christian a person has to hold a certain set of beliefs. the thing about most ‘reform jews’ (i.e. jews who pay dues to a reform synagogue) is they certainly don’t believe in christianity, but they just don’t know very much about judaism, or even reform judaism for that matter. like, if you were to ask the average reform jew about specific events in the reform movement’s history, or about various reform thinkers and their philosophies, i bet you he or she would not recognize a single one. so in that sense, the majority of ‘reform jews’ are not actually reform jews, they’re just jewish people who are ignorant of judaism.

    now, i would say it’s a different situation among the leaders of the reform movement, some of whom, from my experience, i would agree with you, are actively trying to christianize their ignorant congregations.

  11. kibitzer said

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that some of the prayers, particularly Mi Sheberach, was probably using the “traditional” tune by Debbie Friedman (staple music at reform camps). And didn’t she start out by showcasing her own tunes? I mean, her stuff is great – but it’s not halacha, ok?

    Innovative songs and prayers at camp by songleaders is traditional at reform and community camps as far as I remember. So somehow it’s hard for me to see from this post what the fuss is about.

    I go to a conservative synagogue that has been innovating by using tunes by Carlbach to do innovative services on occasion. Didn’t he also do some showcasing of his own tunes?

    The points brought up about the future of reform Judaism, observance of Jewish law, etc. are all very important and worthy of discussion. But it doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with that particular service, and the choice by the leaders to “mess with the … prayers”.

  12. Friar Yid said

    Kibitzer- The issue as I see it is that Reform is leading to its own stagnation by being more concerned about maintaining the Reform status-quo (however defined) rather than being open to ongoing innovation, in whatever direction and regarding a whole host of issues. The danger with this is that it severely limits Reform’s potential, both in reality as well as philosophically. If Reform is supposed to be about individual and informed choice, that’s one thing. But if Reform practice is becoming so authoritative and set in stone as any other movement, then the only thing it has going for it is less rules. This kind of Reform Judaism will, I feel, basically turn into the strawman “Judaism Lite” its enemies so love to bash it over the head with (as illustrated in the ridiculous triumphalism of Levi Brackman).

    I can see how an Authoritarian Liberal Judaism might appeal to some people, but personally, I don’t need someone to DICTATE that I should follow certain rules, or better yet, shouldn’t follow others. If that’s the direction Reform is moving in, essentially becoming a hierarchical movement like, say, Orthodoxy, only they ban tzitzit instead of pork, I for one am going to keep my distance.

  13. Oyster said

    Looks like I wasn’t too far off the mark.

  14. Dave Abbey said

    I am little unclear about the ‘bashing’ of the Reform leadership. I believe there are basic priniciples Reform Jews should not compromise on. I applaud Rabbi Yoffie’s reference to choice.

    Why is it that those of us who like the so-called ‘Classical Reform’ practices/beliefs are made to feel ‘less worthy’ than those in our midst who are hurrying to adapt more traditional practices.

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