Why I Am a Reform Jew

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means for me to be a Reform Jew.

Part of it has to do with a thread that popped up on the forum recently where the poster states that his conversion, under the auspices of the URJ, did not go well. In his and others responses much blame was laid upon the Reform movement and their outreach initiative and as someone who studied and converted under a Reform rabbi as part of a Reform temple my feathers were a bit ruffled. I wrote and discarded a couple of responses, knowing in the end I was reacting emotionally and not rationally or in a thought-out way. While any organized religion, and especially any organized religion within that movement, will have problems, I think blaming the URJ as a whole is more than a little problematic when considering the problems relating to conversion, observance, and acceptance within our own communities.

So, between that discussion and a post over at Thinking Jewish, I wanted to post about why I am a committed Reform Jew.

I believe that personal autonomy and choice is an authentic means to come to observance within Judaism. I know the common refrain is “I don’t do X because I’m Reform,” and honestly I’m sad for those people. They don’t understand the opportunity for taking control of their own spirituality and religious destiny. There are plenty of mitzvot that I do not observe and it isn’t out of laziness or because I don’t want to think about it. Rather I have studied and found what is meaningful for who I am in this moment in time. My observance has evolved from the moment I began to consider myself Jewish, and it will continue to evolve throughout my life. I feel an obligation to the mitzvot, but not in the same way an Orthodox Jew would. I feel that I am obligated to educate myself and to make informed decisions and be deliberate about how I live my spiritual life. For me, to take on an observation just because it is the tradition without putting any thought into why I am doing it is inauthentic to who I am as a person and a Jew. That’s not to say that tradition has no place in my observances or theology, but I subscribe to the the Reconstructionist idea of tradition having a vote but no veto. I have taken on “traditional” observances, such as wearing tzitzit (and kippah, though it isn’t strictly a mitzvot), moving towards a kosher (or at the very least ethical kosher) diet, and the like. And while my idea of Shabbat observance wouldn’t fit into any Orthodox community, I have defined rest for myself and what it means to make Shabbat a sanctuary in time in my own way.

My commitment to Reform Judaism doesn’t just come out of my ideas on observance, however. I believe that the Torah was written by men, inspired by God. I’m not sure if I believe if everything in the Torah happened, just as I’m not sure if I believe none of it happened. What is important for me is the history and the framework it provides for living a moral and ethical life. A few years ago I was thinking about the Exodus from Egypt and whether I believed that the splitting of the Sea of Reeds could scientifically occur and what I realized at that point in time is that it didn’t matter to me if it could happen. I believe that in some way or another it did happen. For the first time in my life I believed in a miracle and not because I was told it was a miracle. I believed because of how the idea of it affected me as a Jew.

I believe that we are created in the image of God and that no one deserves to be discriminated because of who they are. My frustration with certain laws in the Torah and Talmud do not preclude my belief in God or my adherance to Judaism as a religion. My belief that the Torah was written by men inspired by God leaves room for the idea of infallibility in the laws. For some people this would be the end of their faith, a chasm that they just cannot cross over. For me it is something beautiful and brings up the idea of a partnership with God in the creation of our morals and ethics. Those who wrote the Torah and the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash and every bit of commentary that has come down throughout the years, I believe they were all acting as partners with God and responding to where they were at that specific time. I value that tradition but cannot allow it to snuff out my own thoughts and my own responses to where we are today.

When I was considering which stream of Judaism I most identified with at the beginning of my conversion journey I didn’t choose Reform because it was the “easy” way. I chose it first and foremost because the idea of personal autonomy was incredibly important to me. After having been brought up as a Catholic and told that I need to do this or that because that’s what Catholics do and don’t you dare question it because then you won’t be a good Catholic… well, I knew that my faith in God couldn’t be relegated to simply following the rules that someone else has set out without using my own ideas and who I am shape my observances.

Does the Union for Reform Judaism have problems? Sure. As I said above, any organized religion that has an organized movement will have problems, but I believe that all are well-intentioned. The URJ is trying to face modernity, and helps its members face it, in a way that speaks to us as Jews and helps us to continue to connect to our traditions. With a wide and varied group of member congregations can it sometimes hurt to have large overarching programs that don’t necessarily work in each community? Of course, but I think that is only if those implementing the programs don’t take the time to adapt what will work for them. Despite any issues I might have with the bureaucracy of the URJ, I still love Reform Judaism.

About the Author


Jenny (aka d’varim) is a dedicated and serious Reform Jew. Having converted over 4 years ago, she is active in many aspects of her local temple, from Hebrew school teacher, to Board member, to occasional Torah reader. Jenny is committed to the idea of personal autonomy and informed choice, with a lot of stress put on the “informed” part of that choice.

7 Responses to “ Why I Am a Reform Jew ”

  1. This is a beautiful post, Jenny, and one I’m glad you wrote. If I were to write a similar post about why I’m Orthodox, it would actually sound much like yours. Odd, how the same thought processes can lead different people in different directions. As someone who began my Jewish journey in Reform Judaism, I am grateful to read a post that I think really does the movement justice. Your full consideration of tradition alongside your own modernity and thoughtfulness represents the best that exists in the Reform world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Shim,

    That really means a lot. Thank you. I would be very interested in reading a post about why you are Orthodox, and I think it would be good for others who are converting to see that there is more that unites the different streams of Judaism than divides them. I think when we are at the beginning of our journeys we can get so wrapped up in the specific stream that we are in that we sometimes have blinders on to the rest of Judaism.


  3. Yasher koach on a great post!

    I think you have done a lovely job of expressing your connection to the Reform movement. I actually feel (as does Shim) that if I were to write a post on why I am a CJ Jew, it might look very similar to what you have written above.

    As for that guy who wrote the post in our Forums, I say forget about it. He seemed (at least to me) to be less than committed to Judaism and the Jewish people. So while I do see some value in considering his feedback I also think it should be taken with a grain of salt.

  4. You are so cool, my folks were protestant, (” All Catholics shal burn in Hell”) It took me years to see that Jesus, never was, and that there never was a need for him, G-d was doing it all, from the very begining, long before Jesus was invented
    For thousands of years, all the world’s greatest spiritual teachers: Abraham, Zarathushtra, Thoth (Hermes Trismegistus), the ancient Egyptian God of Wisdom, (an anunnaki), Confucius, Siddhārtha Gautama, Mahavira, Lao Tzu, Bodhidarma, Socrates, Pythagoras, Tatanka Yotanka, Isaiah, Osho Rajneesh, Yochanan the Immerser, (and others) have been preaching the same thing to humanity.

    Ever since this world evolved, human beings have spent much time and energy improving external conditions in their search for happiness and a solution to their many problems. What has been the result?

    Instead of their wishes being fulfilled, human suffering has continued to increase while the experience of happiness and peace is decreasing. This clearly shows that we need to find a true method for gaining pure happiness and freedom from misery.
    The example of the Prophets are still good today, and anyone who sees his or her own religion overwhelmed by insensitive, exploitative “orthodoxy” can sympathize with these ancient revolutionaries; whose message is ever fresh and ever new.

  5. D’varim,

    I have a feeling my post probably is what sparked this, and for that I am sorry (that you were ruffled, etc., etc). It was not a downplay on the Reform movement or the Union of Reform Judaism, which I use very often for my own education. However, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union of Reform Judaism – and the two movements in general – see things differently and experience the world quite a bit differently.

    To explain, much of what I experience while visiting Reform synagogues that most closely resembles what the poster was talking about is not because people attending shul aren’t friendly. It’s a simple explanation: there are a lot more people attending weekly services, faces are less familiar, the life of every single person in that synagogue is much less obvious. Like I said in my post, I know this would not be the case at every Reform synagogue I may ever go to – but it certainly is the case at the ones I have been to. It means on the one hand that Reform Jews are doing great things – they set the standard in education, the standard in ethics for how we should treat other people, and being accepting of all other people. Conservative Judaism takes pretty much all of its accepting attitude over time from Reform Judaism.

    Conservative synagogues I go to, however, are often much smaller than Reform synagogues, and often (unfortunately for me) a much older community than I am myself. Since there are only about ten people who show up regularly on Saturday, they’re all good friends and speak for hours on end. It’s a by-product of being such a small community (which is why I said I know I could probably find a Conservative congregation with the same problems as said user mentioned – I’m willing to bet L.A., Chicago, and New York probably have such sorts of Conservative congregations.

    I just find, statistically (at least in California), that Reform synagogues are so successful at getting more people to come every week and have so many more b’nai mitzvah due to the higher amount of members going on in their synagogues (keeping people there many more weeks of the year) that it is not the place to go if you’re looking for someone to be impressed with your conversion and dote on you for hours on end (now, I also think it’s egotistical to be seeking that sort of behavior and attitude, but that’s not the point here). Frankly, the Reform synagogues I used to go to are where I still go if I’m looking for someone to NOT dote on me like, well, an affront to nature. Which, yes, that’s one of the pet peeves I have with my Conservative congregation – I have people walk up to me just to ask me why I decided to convert like I’m a martian or something. A BIG downside to my general preference for small, slightly-to-moderately more observant and traditional synagogues.

    The URJ is an amazing success and does a huge amount of things right that if the USCJ movement could do better wouldn’t be so worried about the movement dying out. But people who find the wrong movement – or even just the wrong congregation – are going to be unhappy. If they’re going to quit and run away without even trying to see if it’s the whole movement or just the congregation or sect, then they’re not really as into being Jewish as they want.

    I just think (from the standpoint of someone sounding like they wanted people to clap them on the shoulders and treat them like they were amazing beings deciding to sacrifice Christ to be Jewish and start obeying “da rules”) that they would have had more luck with a very small, Conservative synagogue than most relatively more successful Reform ones. I think Reform is very much the sect you go to 1. if you agree with the theology and 2. if, on top of that, you are totally comfortable and assured of your Jewishness.

    Maybe that could actually be changed to whether someone prefers a small or a large synagogue, but since I haven’t experienced a small Reform synagogue and a large Conservative synagogue it would be hard to know. But, I must say – I’ve often wondered at whether I’d like a Conservative synagogue if it usually had over twenty people in attendance on Saturday morning like all the Reform temples I go to do. I think not – the conversations I have with the rabbi and other members of my congregations have always been manageable ONLY because there were so few people. Not always comfortable (like when people gawk at me for converting) but always pleasant for three-hour-long conversations after shul.

  6. You know what I like about a reform shul? No one looks at you all weird, analyzes your last name, figures out who you’re related to and xyz. They’re like, hey, wanna join the convo? What do you think of this or that? and such.

    plus: Oneg!!

  7. Thank you everyone for your comments; I apologize for the delay in my own response–work and life took a lot out of me and then I was out of town for a few days on business.

    That said, I just have a few things that I wanted to respond to:

    Avi: Thanks for the feedback. As for the original poster, I definitely took his chatter with a grain of salt, but it spurred on enough thinking on my part and I realized it might be a good idea to have a post like this out there.

    Walter: Thanks. The geek in me always likes to be called cool.

    Sarah: what you wrote was actually not what I was responding to, and even if it was there is no reason to apologize for ruffling my feathers; frankly, I find it is good to have my feathers ruffled a bit every now and again. From what it sounds like you seem to prefer small congregations in general, which you can find in the Reform movement quite frequently. My own temple only has 250 member families and usually have about 30-50 people on a Friday and around 10 on a Saturday, quite the opposite from the large Conservative shul in town. What I was mostly responding to from the forum post is that it isn’t okay to blame an entire movement on issues with a particular synagogue, whether it is the Reform movement or Conservative or Orthodox, etc.

    Yaakova: That has been my experience for the most part, though I suspect there are still plenty of Reform shuls where you’ll have to play Jewish geography with people. At my temple it is very much how you put it. And yes, oneg is pretty awesome.

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