Reform Judaism


Reform Judaism Essay, Research Paper

The roots of Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism lie in Germany, where, between 1810 and 1820, congregations in Seesen, Hamburg, and Berlin instituted fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs, such as mixed seating, the use of German in services, single-day observance of festivals, and use of a cantor/choir.

American Reform Judaism began as these German “reformers” immigrated to American in the mid-1800s. Reform rapidly became the dominant belief systems of American Jews of the time. It was a national phenomenon. The first “Reform” group was formed by a number of individuals that split from Cong. Beth Elohim in Charleston SC.

According to an article in the Spring 1994 CCAR Journal, the following are early American Jewish congregations, and the dates they became Reform congregations:

Congregation City Date Became Reform

Beth Elohim Charleston SC 1825

Har Sinai Baltimore MD 1842

Emanu-El New York NY 1845

Beth El/Anshe Emeth Albany NY 1850

Bene Yeshurun (I.M. Wise) Cincinnati OH 1854

Adath Israel (The Temple) Louisville KY 1855

Bene Israel (Rockdale) Cincinnati OH 1855

Keneseth Israel Philadelphia PA 1856

Sinai Chicago IL 1858

Reform in American benefitted from the lack of a central religious authority. It also was molded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Rabbi I.M. Wise came to the US in 1846 from Bohemia, spent eight years in Albany NY, and then moved to Cincinnati on the edge of the frontier. He then proceeded to…

Write the first siddur edited for American worshippers, Minhag American (1857)

Found the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873

Found Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875

Found the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889

Early Reform, led by Rabbis such as David Einhorn of Baltimore, Samuel Holdheim, Bernard Felsenthal, and Kaufmann Kohler, took an increasingly radical stance. Many rituals and customs were dropped, some congregations held “Shabbat” on Sunday. This early radicalism was mentioned in the 1855 Pittsburgh Platform (

By 1880, over 90% of American Synagogues were Reform. This was the time of the major Eastern European immigration, which was heavily Orthodox and non-German, as contrasted with the strongly German Reform movement. Many Reform congregations of this time were difficult to distinguish from neighboring Protestant churches, with preachers in robes, pews with mixed seating, choirs, organs, and hymnals. Yet by 1935, Reform had started on the path of return to a more traditional approach to Judaism–distinctly Jewish and distinctly American, but also distinctively non-Christian.

Reform pioneered a number of Jewish organizations, such as the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side of New York, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the American Jewish Committee, and the ADL of B’nai Brith.

Although early Reform dropped quite a bit of traditional prayers and rituals, there was still a “bottom line”. In 1909, the CCAR formally declared its opposition to intermarriage. And, although decried as “archaic” and “barbarian”, the practice of circumcision remained a central rite.

Early Reform was also anti-Zionist, believing the Diaspora was necessary for Jews to be “light unto the nations”. Yet with this, a number of Reform Rabbis were pioneers in establishing Zionism in American, such as Gustav and Richard Gottheil, Rabbi Steven S Wise (founder of the American Jewish Congress), and Justice Louis Brandeis. Following the Balfour Declaration, Reform began to support Jewish settlements in Palestine, as well as institutions such as Hadassah Hospital, and the Hebrew University. In 1937, the Columbus Platform ( affirmed “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in building a Jewish homeland…”.

Since 1937, Reform has remained active on the social action front. It has also been moving back to tradition. This is described in more detail elsewhere in the FAQ.

[Much of this adapted from "The Jewish Almanac", Richard Siegel

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