5 Things I’d Like Non-Reform Jews to Know About Reform Jews

1) We are not secular. We are Reform Jews.

2) We have a love of God, Torah, and Israel. But probably not in the same way you do. Actually, really not in the same way you do. But valid and authentic nonetheless.

3) While many of us are not observant in the “traditional” way, most of us have a healthy respect for our history and the evolution of our traditions. Many of us have chosen to incorporate a few, some, or all of those mitzvot and/or customs into our lives in a way that is meaningful to us and respectful of our past.

4) Many of us are not familiar with other forms of Judaism, or some things about Judaism in general. Please do not hold our lack of education against us – do not mistake it for disrespect or dislike. Most of the time, it was how we were raised and not something we had a choice about. Many of us are working on that – please respect our process.

5) It is insulting to ask us, “But your mother’s Jewish, right?”. In Reform Judaism, the child of either a Jewish mother OR a Jewish father is considered Jewish. Most often, that child is raised completely Jewish and knows nothing else. So to question that person’s status point blank is demeaning and offensive, even if you do not consider that person Jewish. And unless that person is potentially joining your minyan or your family, it is not your business.

Ok, anyone have anything else to add? Feel free to comment!

51 thoughts on “5 Things I’d Like Non-Reform Jews to Know About Reform Jews

  1. There are many possible halachik implications of whether or not one is a Jew that bear on any potential interaction. It is not simply a matter of “joining your minyan or family.”

  2. I have a lot of questions because I understand very little about Reform Judaism.

    Firstly, isn’t it true that you don’t actually need to believe in God, or divinity of Torah, or support Israel to be a Reform Jew? I guess the question really is, what does define a Reform Jew?

    It seems to me that #3 and #4 are somewhat opposites. Are Reform Jews potentially less observant because they’ve chosen to be, or because they haven’t been educated as much? Most Reform Jews that I meet describe themselves as Reform Jews apologetically, in terms of what they don’t do or haven’t been raised with. It seems to me (and I certainly might be interpreting this wrong) that they consider it a catch-all rather than a choice.

    And, wow, do I agree with #5. Although I do not subscribe to patrilineal descent, I still would consider it quite rude, in poor taste, and not within the construct of the laws of treating each other to pry.

    • Oh my goodness. Just #1 is a post in itself! Bottom line for now: officially, believing in God is essential to being a Jew, and a Reform Jew. The movement has made several public statements to this effect by rejecting applications from several Humanist congregations (no God in their belief system) to join the movement. Unofficially, like most denominations, I’m certain there are many people who consider themselves Reform Jews, but privately question God’s existence or in fact do not believe in God.

      Believing the Divinity of the Torah is not a requirement. It is certainly of course an option, but not required. I have a feeling I know what your follow up question/s is/are going to be and I can’t answer that in the comments – it is a forthcoming blog post (2 weeks from now) ;-)

      Supporting Israel is more complicated – while it did not start out this way back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the movement now is ardently Zionist – but this is a very, very, long conversation for another blog post. Complicating this issue is the Israeli government’s ambivalent attitude towards non-Orthodox denominations and the actions they often take (or allow the official Rabbinate to take) that hinder living a full Jewish life for members of those communities (and, in the case of Reform/Masorti clergy, it often hinders their parnassa).

      #3 & #4 – the answer is both – many people are very educated and choose how to be observant, and many people are not educated, and therefore unable to choose what is meaningful to them. We, as you well know, are working on that – it is one of the main reasons I chose to take this blog public :)

      The Reform Jews you meet are insecure in their identity either because they feel uneducated, or because the idea of Reform Judaism not being a valid way to live a Jewish life has been reinforced to them through a variety of ways. This makes me sad.

      WHEW! Good questions! Thanks!

    • Omigoodness! This is such an interesting dialogue! Ruchi, I heave heard so much about you from Rivki Silver. I was brought up Orthodox, but after my horrendous bat mitzvah experience, we switched to a Conservative temple. My husband was raised Reform. We tried the Conservative temple in our city. We both hated it. BUT we both LOVE going to temple. We love the Torah, the laws, the rituals, our culture — and we hope to get to Israel next year! My son is making is bar mitzvah in June, and we are thrilled. He has ben going to Jewish overnight camp since he was 8 years old — the same summer camp I went to when I was young! So yes, we very much feel our Jewish roots.

      That said, not everyone does. Reform Judaism allows some leeway (in my humble opinion) which Orthodoxy did not. And that’s okay with me. I don’t judge those who don’t practice at my level of observance. We are all allowed to find our own way. And I have tell you, my Reform synagogue does not subscribe to the laws of patrilineal descent either, so I think that is one of those areas where things happen shul by shul.

      • ooooo Renee so interesting!!! Especially since patrilineal descent was taken on by the movement itself as an official position – do you know what your shul’s reasoning is? Not judging – just interested! Really, really interested because that is unusual, and a sign that they are more open to more traditional observances that much of the movement is NOT (my shul excepted, of course – if our shul was not open to my lifestyle that would be hard to stay here).

        • My Reform temple leans to the conservative side of Reform. It’s crazy up here. I’m telling you. We’ve never found a perfect fit here in Rochester.


          Um, it’s May 23, and we have 4 inches of snow on the ground. Need I say more?

          I will try to find out about why our temple is tough on that point. I didn’t even KNOW that was a tenet until you mentioned it. My jaw dropped!

          • Ha! I’m from Cleveland, and if this weren’t the weirdest “winter” in the history of the Land of Lake Effect Snow, we’d have snow here too – about 9 years ago, we had a huge snow storm Erev Pesach and the power in my whole neighborhood went out – we ended up doing the seder by the fire and with candlelight!!! ON APRIL 27th. So, I feel your pain!!

            • I remember this because that Saturday night was my nephew’s bar mitzvah. No power! Everything was ruined! I’ve been wanting to blog about that ice storm forever. It’s on my list of things to write about. But now I’m terrified it’s going to happen again! My son’s bar mitzvah is June 23. Do you think it could happen in June? With G-d, all things are possible, right. ;-) Oy!

      • Hey Renee! I’m so sad you had a bad experience…yuk!! I just heard that when the Reform movement voted to accept patrilineal descent, the Reform movement in Canada did not. Maybe Rochester is too close to Canada…

  3. 6) There are things that we – either as individuals or as a movement – care about deeply and passionately with regard to our Judaism. Please don’t minimize or patronize that enthusiasm because it doesn’t align with what you believe Judaism should be about.

    7) There are some areas of Jewish practice where Reform movement excels relative to the other movements.

    8) The number of Jews who identify as Reform (relative to other movements) is not a blip, a fluke, an indication that “lots of Jews are just lazy”, or any other negative attribution. It’s an outcome of some aspect of #7, and it’s worth understanding by all Jews of every movement.

    9) “Generally speaking, all generalizations are false”. Because of the emphasis on individual informed choice, what a Reform Jew “is” (with regard to observances, ideology, etc) is often harder to pin down as a group than other movements. The behavior your observe in one Reform Jew will not necessarily inform your experiences with others.

  4. EdibleTorah’s point #9 is to my mind the primary point that explains all the others, including the five points of the original post! I have observed that people who self-identify as Reform Jews can mean a wide variety of (conflicting) things when they say that, including one or more of the following: justification, explanation, apology and combat. “I am a Reform Jew” as an assertion is a far less helpful descriptor than “I am an Orthodox Jew” even though Orthodox Judaism has a reasonably sized spectrum as well.

  5. I wonder in general about the thrust of this entire piece. The title suggests that “non-Reform Jews” lack some knowledge about Reform Jews that the author seeks to redress. I think the author and supporting writers know perfectly well that this is largely false. I think “non-Reform Jews” are perfectly well aware of every point mentioned. What is clear, however, is that they disagree about those very points. Indeed, the author explicitly asks for others to recognize Reform positions as arising not from lack of knowledge, but from chosen, informed positions, yet ascribes Orthodox disagreement with those positions to lack of knowledge. I’d ask for the same respect you are asking for. My disagreement with your positions arises no less from lack of knowledge than does your adherence to them.

    • I can state (at least anecdotally) that, after a year of living in the frum community, that group is largely unaware of what Reform Judaism is about. We are asked about it all the time. My experience consistently been that, unless the orthodox person to whom I was speaking either was, or has/had family who is/was Reform, they had no knowledge of the movement whatsoever.

      • Sounds like another generalization. The world is filled with some people who are interested and engaged with the world of ideas and disagreement, and others who feel no draw to this and are happy to simply live their lives. Again, the article is defending against Reform ignorance of Orthodoxy, yet is criticizing Orthodox ignorance of Reform. You can’t have it both ways. The reality is that that many in both camps are ignorant of each other, and many aren’t. I don’t doubt that the author may have had any number of insensitive things said that reflected ignorance, but would anyone really speculate that the Orthodox aren’t on the receiving end of insensitivity from Reform Jews?

        • At some level, any statement that involves any group of individuals greater than 1 is going to have an element of generalization to it. Which is why I took pains to state that MY experience, which I’m identifying as anecdotally relevent rather than statistically relevant.

          And, while I won’t speak for The Rebbetzin, I don’t read a defense of Reform ignorance – ie: that it’s OK and everyone else just needs to live with it.

          I do read an explanation of why it might be present in some individuals. And what Orthodox people can do to understand it and bridge the gap. Implicit in that concept is that it works both ways.

        • I am speaking to anyone who is not Reform (which is why I did not title this “5 Things I’d Like Orthodox People to Know”), which is a huge group of people who include Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Humanist, and Renewal, to name a few. People from all of these groups have asked me to explain any number of things about Reform Judaism. OF COURSE both Reform and Orthodox people have been on the receiving end of insensitivity – I am addressing one side, for now. Please do not assume that I plan to ONLY address one side. I cannot possibly post an entire series of blog posts on one day.

          Also, I was inspired by Ruchi’s post “Top 10 Things People Ask Me About my Judaism” and her “Mythbusters” series (not letting me link don’t know why), and this is in the same vein and tone – her blog is http://outoftheorthobox.blogspot.com. Her Mythbusters series in particular was great because many people in my community assume that women are second-class citizens (Mythbusters #2), or that Orthodox girls are not allowed to become Bat Mitzvah (Mythbusters #1). So addressing that ignorance is crucial – I’ve sent those links to many folks in my community who ask about it.

          She also wrote a post called “10 Things I want My Shabbat Guest to Know”. There were several items in that post that assumed a certain lack of knowledge on the part of non-Orthodox folks, which I suppose could be construed as offensive, but because Ruchi is well-known and respected in our community, people of course understood her desire is to educate – not denigrate. Also? I have had people ask me very seriously if it is ok to flush a toilet in an Orthodox home on Shabbat. Sounds ridiculous, but there it is. I have also had people ask me about “the hole in the sheet” which even I find offensive – and I have had to dispel that awful canard. But, then again, I have had Orthodox and Conservative Jews in several different states and communities ask me, very seriously, if I have a Christmas tree, and I have had to dispel that particular canard. So this post was intended to address those things, as well as to educate my own community.

          Lszenes, you are starting from a place of intimate knowledge of Reform Judaism. The many, many folks I encounter here in my community and in the communities in which I lived (Monsey, for example), and my sister-in-law’s community (Providence, RI) and her family, who really do not know very much about Reform Judaism. Also, many of my comrades and JTS knew very little, and for 5 years there I was constantly explaining Reform Judaism. So this is what has informed this post. While I won’t use the term “generalize”, I am addressing things that have come up in my many experiences – which is what personal blogs are for.

          You and I also go back aways, and I know that your experience with me has not always been one of understanding – I have not always been as open to Orthodoxy as I am now. But, over the course of the nearly 18 years we have known each other, I have learned and grown and matured, just as I’m sure you have. I will apologize here and now for any misunderstandings or hostility I expressed early in our friendship, and you should know that I hold no one but myself accountable for that. Clearly, as you can see from the people who comment on this blog, I have a diverse group of friends and colleagues, and I am blessed to receive their friendship on a daily basis. Ruchi and I in particular work hard in our communities to educate and promote respect and Am/Klal Yisroel.

          Thank you for commenting and expressing your views – It is important to recognize this issues and address them.

  6. I grew up going to an orthodox synogogue… then when I got married, my husband and I joined a conservative synogogue. Now, we go to a reformed synogogue and love it. There is no judging and no rolled eyes and nobody thinks they are entitled just because they are more religious than you. Everyone worships in their own way and yet we all still get along and respect each other. As it should be.

    • I’m so sorry your experience in the other denominations was negative. We are fortunate here in CLE to have many shuls/communities of all stripes who are open and welcoming. I’m glad you found a place that works for you!

    • I find it interesting to note that your experience going from Orthodox to Reform was my experience in the other direction. Less so about people in the “before” camp being pompous or self-righteous, but certainly there were those who acted threatened when my family and I took on mitzvot that were “over the line” in their eyes).

      On the other hand, my year-long walk on the frum side has been one of complete and utter acceptance: of my family and our history, of my knowledge and lack thereof, of my reasons for making a home in this community. I’ve seen it with others, too.

      I’ve seen very little of what you experienced and (like the Rebbetzin), I’m sorry that you experienced it.

      And I’m glad you’ve found a place that feels like home.

  7. I grew up Conservadox but openly aware that anyone who said they were Jewish was welcomed to our services. I went to a military chapel so regardless of where you were on the Jewish (or non-Jewish for that matter) spectrum the doors were open to all military personnel whether active duty, retired or reserve. Rarely we had a rabbi.

    Let me tell you what I learned my from my grandfather, who served as the layleader for 20+ years. Clothing does not make you Jewish, neither a kippa nor tzitzit. Keeping kosher does not make you Jewish, plenty of people who keep kosher at home will eat non-kosher food while out. Reading torah does not make you Jewish, plenty of Christian scholars know how to read torah. Going to day school or sending your kids to day school does not make you Jewish, as there are non-Jews who send their kids to a Jewish school. Being a Bar/Bat Mitzvah does not make you Jewish, as I have plenty of friends who did it just for the party and the presents. Keeping Shabbat, going to shul, or going to Jewish camp don’t make you Jewish. Being born to a Jewish mother does not make you Jewish.

    You are Jewish because you say you are Jewish. You are Jewish because you believe in your heart that you are Jewish. You are Jewish because you identify with the tenets of Judaism.

    My mother was raised in an Orthodox home that over time became conservative yet kept kosher and kept many other religious definitions of Orthodoxy. She raised me Conservative but we didn’t keep kosher.

    After years out of the workforce she went back. She got a job at the Reform Temple. And that was where I was Bat Mitzvah’d. That didn’t make me less of a Jew.

    We use labels because it makes it easier to identify people both like us but also different from us.

    It’s sad that we all just can’t be Jewish.

  8. this is simply wonderful. I grew up conservative, but found reform Judaism to be more ‘ME’ later in life. My kids attend day school and are two of many reform Jews there. for the most part, the reform Jews are widely respected YET there are still a few that feel if they are more observant we MUST be more respectful of their practices. Thanks – I am going to share this.

  9. I was brought up a Reform Jew. I totally agree with everything you say, plus I want to add this: What gives ANYONE the right to attach a value, credence or level to MY Judaism. It is MINE. My beliefs are my own, my choices are my own. We reform jews aren’t this way because we’re embarrassed, or too lazy to follow Halacha, or just can’t be bothered to keep the Mitzvot. I went to Day School for 7 years. I understand the rules, but Orthodoxy and Shomrei Shabbes aren’t right for me. That doesn’t make me any less of a jew. My convictions, my identity, they are as a Jew. Before I’m a Canadian, I’m a Jew. Even though i wear pants, and eat shrimp and drive on the sabbath. We need to pull together as a culture as a community not judge and drive apart. As an Aish Rabbi once said to me, ‘If you do ONE thing that defines you as Jewish, such as lighting the Shabbat candles, then you are a good jew.’ Stop judging, start loving.

    • Thank you for your reply Mara! Everyone has to find their own path. I’m glad you were supported in your choices. I think (hope) most people don’t really use the terms “good” or “bad” with Jew when speaking about other people – we are all . . . Jews :)

  10. There is no such thing as Reform Judaism. There is no such thing as Orthodox Judaism. There is just Judaism. The degree to which each of us chooses to practice it is personal and varies greatly. Denominations like reform, conservative, orthodox, etc., are man-made and arbitrary, limited and self-serving. Judaism has its own intrinsic authenticity. It is what it is. It cannot be redefined any more than an apple can be made into car by simply by saying it has four wheels and a steering wheel.

    None of us gets to decide who is a legitimate Jew. Not you. Not me. You can choose to eat shrimp. But you cannot change shrimp into a kosher food, anymore than you can change a gentile into a Jew. (For definitions of kosher, Jew, and many other facets of Jewish life see a little book called the Torah, by G-d).

    We were given life, and an instruction manual, by G-d. Only He gets to make the rules. It we want to make the rules, then we can create our own world…oh. wait a minute….No. We can’t. Only G-d can do that. That’s why we should listen to Him. We are inhabiting His world, our breathe is only because of Him.

  11. I agree with Heidi. If you radically change the fundamentals of a belief system, you should really call it something else. The fundamentals of Judaism have not changed for thousands of years: (In 5 weeks on the holiday of Shavuos it will be 3,324 years): Belief in one G-d. The Torah is G-d’s word. The commandments are the Divine will. Shabbos is Shabbos, kosher is kosher and taharas hamishpacha is taharas hamishpacha (the three pillars of Judaism). G-d’s Torah defines a Jew: one born of a Jewish mother. G-d’s Torah defines the limits of acceptable behavior: homosexuality is not sanctioned. etc etc. Once you throw these away – well, you have a different religion. The definition of idol worship is that you define the rules instead of G-d. You make G-d in your own image. So called “reform Judaism” is exactly like all the other historical spin-offs like Saducceeism or Christianity and will end in the same place. It always starts as follows: Jettison the oral law and interpret the Written for your own comfort and convenience. After a short while (and “reform” has only been around for a very short while) these movements either disappear or have the decency to call themselves something else.

    • While I don’t agree, I understand where you’re coming from. I personally do not “jettison the oral law and interpret the Written law” for my own “comfort and convenience”, and although I cannot speak for my Reform compadres, most of the people I know don’t either. We have a healthy respect for our history, tradition, and it’s evolution. The difference, the main difference, is with respect to the Divinity of these things and Divine command. And with this, there is no point arguing, because one either does, or does not believe that God commands, word-for-word, these things. Which in my book is ok. There are many people on this earth who believe all kinds of things about all kinds of deities, including our One God. It is my hope that we all live and work together harmoniously, and respect each others differences. I do understand that sometimes that is not possible. But it makes me sad.

  12. I’m so happy to find you here (found you via Facebook.) Ruchi and I are blog friends and Renee and I are too! Anyway, this was a great post and I love Ruchi’s similarly spirited series as well. I wrote a somewhat popular post last year explaining why I call myself a reformadox jew. I won’t link it here because I don’t like when people do that on my blog. But email me if you’re interested! I would be so curious to hear what you think about my made up denomination! ninabadzinblog@gmail.com ;)

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