This Month in Our Reform Heritage

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This Month In Our Reform Heritage


We hope you enjoy our new monthly blog series  – “This Month in Our Reform Heritage.”  This educational series, written by Rabbi Howard A. Berman, offers a unique perspective on historical commemorations, background on holidays, and a variety of commentary on Jewish life and ideals, through the lens of our rich Reform heritage.  Please feel free to  download these  articles  and use them in your religious school and adult education programs. We encourage you to share them in your congregation’s Bulletin, on your website, and with your friends on social media.  If you would like subscribe to receiving these articles via email, please SIGN UP HERE.



This Month in Our Reform Heritage – July, 2017

On this Independence Day…

Let us rededicate ourselves to continue, with love and devotion, to do our part, as Americans and as Jews, to build a nation true to its noblest and most sacred ideals… ”  (Download)

by Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Rabbinic Director, Society for Classical Reform Judaism


Since its earliest beginnings, Reform Judaism in the United States has affirmed and celebrated the unique experience and heritage of the Jewish experience in America. Our Torah’s principles of liberty, justice, and the equality of all people, have shaped American democracy from its earliest colonial beginnings. Inspired by the promise of the American values of freedom and opportunity, Jews have played a vital role in the founding and building of this nation. Classical Reform Judaism has always cherished this noble heritage and has remained committed to the nurturing of a distinctly American expression of Jewish worship, life, and culture, which reflect the best of our nation’s democratic ideals.

Our Reform pioneers perceived a virtually cosmic significance to the meaning of America for our people and faith. They recognized the formative Jewish spiritual influence on the emergence of our Nation that culminated in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence and its ringing affirmation of the inherent natural rights of every individual, a notion so deeply grounded in the Torah’s distinctive concept of humanity created in the Divine image. This biblical spirit was perhaps nowhere more dramatically symbolized than by the inscription on the famous Liberty Bell — the stirring words that became the rallying cry of the Revolution, taken from the Book of Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof!”

As we celebrate Independence Day this year, we forthrightly recognize that there are yet many unfulfilled dreams and mandates in the continuing unfolding of our country’s destiny. There remain great injustices and inequalities in our midst, and a dark strain of extremism, bigotry and violence that are a perversion of all that America authentically stands for. I hope that a deeply personal reminiscence I would share may help us as we face these daunting times.

A few years ago, in during one of many visits to our Washington, DC, I spent a morning visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum with its crushing lessons of horror and tragedy, I then walked a few blocks to the National Archives, for one of my periodic pilgrimages to see the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As I stood there, in the quiet awe of that soaring, sanctuary-like space, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the counterpoint – the incredibly stark contrast – between what I was seeing at that moment, and what I had just witnessed at the Holocaust Museum. There, one confronts history’s worst desecration of the human spirit… here, we can stand before the precious relics of the noblest heights to which the human mind and heart can aspire…

I stood and read those familiar words… here, in their original, handwritten draft… that we, as human beings, are “all created equal, and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights… that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” and I was so struck, as perhaps never before, why July 4, 1776 must be considered one of the most sacred dates in Jewish history as well!

At that moment, with the impressions of the Holocaust Museum so fresh in my mind, I realized something that I had often intellectually pondered, but perhaps never so emotionally comprehended before…

That had that faded piece of parchment before me never been written… Had my great-grandparents not left their small villages in eastern Europe over a century ago, to come to this place of freedom and hope… created by that very document… I would – by definition –  be dead… indeed, I never would have been born…

Beyond all of the political controversies and debates of any given moment, this must be the inescapable realization of every American Jew….

Had not our grandparents, or great-grandparents, left all of their hundreds of towns and villages and shtetls in Europe, in the last three centuries, and found new life here in America, we would… every one of us… by definition… be dead.

Standing there, before the Declaration of Independence, and realizing this truth with such force, was a moment of deep and humble gratitude… for the courage and faith that guided my family and so many others in making that difficult journey to a new world so long ago.

As we mark July 4 in this challenging year of 2017, the rich legacy of this shared heritage, and these two precious identities, can offer us much needed inspiration. May we resolve to rededicate ourselves to the best of this inheritance…

to join with all people of faith and good will to “proclaim liberty throughout the land — and to all lands — unto all the inhabitants thereof”… and to continue, with love and devotion, to do our part, as Americans and as Jews, to build a nation true to its noblest and most sacred ideals… “One nation… but rich in diversity… “under God”… but blessed by many understandings of the Divine…“with liberty…and justice… for all!”

Copyright © The Society for Classical Reform Judaism




This Month in Our Reform Heritage – June 2017

Our Spiritual Commencement:
June Celebrations and the Tradition of Confirmation  (Download)

by Rabbi Howard A. Berman,
Rabbinic Director, Society for Classical Reform Judaism


As we enter the month of June, with so many families celebrating the milestones of academic graduations, tens of thousands of American Reform Jews will be fondly recalling a “commencement” moment in their own personal religious lives – their Confirmation ceremonies. For generations of members of our Movement, the celebration of this major Festival of Shavuot (which was observed on May 31 this year) had been given deep personal meaning as the occasion for the culmination of their years of Religious School education. The experiences of the Confirmation process in most temples made an indelible impression on many adolescent minds and hearts, highlighted by the year of personal study with their rabbi –often their first opportunity to develop a personal relationship with a previously distant figure. The preparation of the impressive Service, with the learning of one’s part in the various liturgies that became popular, or composing a personal statement of Jewish commitment… the ceremony itself on Shavuot, with the procession of the class in white gowns…the “Floral Offering” at the Ark… variations on all of these images are embedded fondly in many of our memories.

The focus of much of the study of the history of Reform Judaism centers on the various ritual traditions and observances that were rejected by our Movement’s pioneers, in their efforts to free our faith from centuries of superstition and obsolete cultural practices that had lost their meaning in the modern world. However, it is also important to reflect on the creative development of new ceremonies and approaches to Jewish life and worship that the early Reformers engaged in. None was more characteristic of the liberal Jewish spirit than the Confirmation ceremony.  First introduced at the very beginnings of the Movement in Germany in 1810, this concept was originally intended to broaden the scope of the traditional Bar Mitzvah. Either as a supplement or a substitute, the new experience was conceived to provide a meaningful way for young people to understand the deeper spiritual and moral values of Judaism, beyond the ritual preparation for a Bar Mitzvah Torah reading.  A number of core Jewish ideals were incorporated – from the beginning, Confirmation reflected the major Reform principle of gender equality by including both girls and boys – becoming the first (and very radical) opportunity for an inclusive, egalitarian religious celebration in Judaism.  Moreover, Confirmation was linked to the observance of the Festival of Shavuot. The connection was brilliant… we would commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai with a new and meaningful ceremony that would bring that experience to life for each new generation. In the authentic liberal Jewish spirit, every child would be given an opportunity to learn our tradition, and then, at a more mature age than 13, would have a context for “confirming” their own personal spiritual commitment to continuing Jewish life and learning as young adults – symbolically reliving the Sinai moment by accepting the Torah for themselves.

Confirmation came to represent the genius of Reform Judaism’s commitment to creatively renewing our tradition. However, in our time, Confirmation has sadly declined in importance in our Movement. The excesses of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations have become the focal point for “coming of age” and many congregations have failed to provide a more meaningful milestone to offset the clichéd stereotypes that these lavish parties embody. Parenthetically, one of our most important festivals has become a neglected holiday, where once it was one of the major highlights of the year in Reform temples.  As we struggle to find effective ways to engage our teenagers in continuing Jewish experiences and education, a renewed commitment to the possibilities of Confirmation- called either by its historic name or by the contemporary Hebrew term Kabbalat Torah – can be a vital resource, alongside summer camp and youth group. As in so many instances, we can find inspiration and direction from the courageous, creative spiritual vision of our own Reform Jewish heritage!

First photo in this article: 1938 Confirmation class, Temple B’rith Sholom, Springfield, Illinois.
Second photo: Confirmation class (date unknown), Rockdale Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Rabbi Howard A. Berman serves as Rabbinic Advisor for the Society for Classical Reform Judaism (

Copyright © The Society for Classical Reform Judaism