Tag Archives: reform judaism

Andy Bachman strikes again: “regrettable” that Reform truncated Shma

Andy Bachman, senior rabbi of the Reform Beth Elohim in Brooklyn always has smart things to say at his blog, Water Over Rocks. I saw this post from him this morning about the Reform excision of the second paragraph of the Shma. Here’s part of it:

In Reform Judaism, for the better part of the last century, Reform Jews have recited the Shma while standing as a public expression of faith, doctrine, pronounced creed.  And Reform prayerbooks have, additionally, eliminated from the liturgy the paragraph following the Shma (the original Torah text of which appears in next week’s Torah portion) mostly because in its articulation of why one ought to observe God’s commandments, there is an explicit articulation of the Biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, to wit, if you follow My commandments, I will give rain in its proper season, God warns; but if you don’t, the earth you hope to cultivate for sustenance will not yield its fruit in its proper season.

It’s always struck me as a regrettable loss that the early Reformers excised such ideas, depriving generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.

Here’s the rest of it.


I don’t just write the news–I am the news!

The New Jersey Jewish News has honored me with a profile and a really great mugshot.

Johanna Ginsberg, one of their staff writers (and a member of Beth El–these people are over the place!) stopped by one morning last week to interview and photograph me for it. It was lovely and it’s a nice piece.

Things relevant to themes on this blog (the parenthetical bold bit is mine):

At 22, David A.M. Wilensky appears full of contradictions: He wears tzitzit but not a kipa. He embraces Reform Judaism but attends a Conservative synagogue.


Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the beholder. “I go to a Conservative synagogue because I like the services better, but I live a personal life that’s informed by what I learned growing up in the Reform world,” he told NJJN in an interview on the patio of his South Orange apartment. “Is that any more of a contradiction than people who belong to a Conservative synagogue and don’t keep kosher and never come to services?”


…addressing his religious garb, he said, “Wearing a tallit katan and wearing a kipa are separate practices, with separate origins and rationales, so I don’t see that as contradictory either. Unusual? Yes. But not contradictory.

“Maybe that says something about my generation, but to me it all just makes sense,” he concluded.


A patio table is scattered with the accessories of his single Jewish post-collegiate life: a hookah, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts (the cigarette butts are not mine, by the way, just for the record), a Kiddush cup, half-melted Shabbat candles, and a bottle of Febreeze. Behind him, several freshly laundered tzitzit hang on a rack to dry.

Wilensky is confident about the future of journalism, but remains uncertain about his own future.

“I’m obsessed with liturgy right now. Maybe I’ll get a PhD in liturgy and that will be my thing,” he said.

But he’s certainly got a journalist’s instincts. “Why don’t Jewish papers ever put federations under the microscope?” he asked. Maybe he’ll blog about it.

Maybe I will!

You can read the whole article, which really is terrific, over here.


A Week of Things I Like, Day 3: Old Wilensky Family Siddurim

I was at home in Austin for a week and a half and I came back with an extra suitcase–full of siddurim! What could be better? My mother is clearing some stuff out of her place so she asked me to take some things off her hands.

These books were all–with one exception–deposited with her over the course of several visits to my paternal grandparents’ house after she had announced she was going to convert. My grandpa, Sol Wilensky, was so excited about it that he would give her a book or two every time my parents visited.

These pictures were all taken with my new Canon Rebel T2i, a delightful graduation gift from my dad. I like it–and him–also.

Let’s go exploring….

This first one is the only one that’s not from my grandpa. According to a stamp on the inside cover, this one was once a part of the library of the religious school of the synagogue I grew up at, Congregation Beth Israel. It’s a 1976 publication of the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism). It came out a year after Gates of Prayer, so my guess is that it was intended to help familiarize Reform Jews with Big Blue’s view of the liturgy. On the other hand, it’s not actually by GOP‘s editor, Chaim Stern, who wrote his own commentary to GOP (called Gates of Understanding), so who knows. Unlike, Understanding, this one is clearly aimed at kids.

The page on wearing talit is telling glimpse of the Reform movement in that moment in history:


In the past it was only the men who wore the talit. The reason for this may have been that only the men were obligated to pray three times a day…. This may explain why it became  custom for only men to wear the talit. There is, however, nothing in Jewish law which prohibits a woman from wearing the talit.

What do you think? Should both men and women “dress up” for worship by wearing a talit? Do you find it meaningful to wear best clothes to synagogue? Is there a benefit to “dressing up” for special occasions? …. Discuss some of these questions with friends, the rabbi and cantor, and with adults in your congregation. The differences is opinion might make an interesting debate.

In that period, your average Reform rabbi was just as likely to tell you that no one should wear a talit as he was to tell you women should wear them.

When I got these books over to my dad’s place from my mom’s, he immediately identified this Siddur Meforash: A Prayer Book With Explanatory Notes as the siddur he was required to get for religious school at Shearith Israel, the Conservative congregation his family belonged to. It’s a combination siddur and textbook, a precursor to Shema is for Real, if you will. He can remember being miffed at the time that he had to lug it with him to religious school each week, but they rarely actually used it.

I included this image, from Siddur Meforash, because it mentioned Rabbi Chaim Brecher, though this volume was compiled by Rabbi Ralph De Koven, listed below Brecher. More on Brecher later.

Here’s the illustration on the cover:

This yellow ribbon is taped to the inside front cover of the siddur, to be used as a bookmark. I’m amused because it’s affixed to the book in the exact same way that I put book marks on some of my most often used siddurim. I’m also amused by the title of this section, “Prayers Before Retiring.” I’m also amused that this is the page that’s bookmarked–the notion that my dad was ever in the habit of saying his prayers before bed seems entirely unbelievable to me.

My dad also identified this little white book as having been his. It’s a bencher.

You may notice that Rabbi Chaim Brecher appears here as well, this time as Rabbi Ch. M. Brecher. He had his hand in the editing of many of Ktav products in those days, it seems.

Now that I have this bencher, along with the next book in the post, I finally have some that are examples of prefixing Birkat Hamazon with Al Naharot Bavel, as we discussed in the comments on this post.

Another bencher

My dad didn’t have any recollections about this on, but at least we know where it came from.

I’ve always found it kind of funny to translate Birkat Hamazon as Grace After Meals, but this is just hysterical.

And here’s Al Naharot Bavel again, prefixed on to Birkat Hamazon for weekdays. I wonder if it was more common in the earlier half of the 20th Century?

This is from the back of a very decrepit bencher-sized booklet of prayers for mourners. The back has this appendix of pages where different deceased family members could be filled in, according to your relations to them. I imagine these were probably given out by funeral homes in those days. This one is from the death of my great grandfather, Sam Wilensky. It says “Who departed this Life at the age of 42 On May 22, 1933.” And check out this transliteration: “Jahrzeit!”

Though I couldn’t capture this aspect very well in the photo, this Bride’s Prayer Book has a cover made of a pearlescent opaque plastic. It also has a rather ecclesiatically purple bookmark ribbon built in. I suppose it was a gift to my grandmother, Ann Wilensky.

And guess who edited it?

Rabbi Chaim M. Brecher strikes again!

Then there’s this delightfully tacky little gem:

It’s a siddur in a plastic box!

Turn it over and…

The bottom of the plastic box is clear, so you can see the polished metal back cover of the siddur.

But nothing compares to the grandeur of the front cover once you open the box:

It seems this one was a souvenir from Israel, given to my grandparents by an aunt and uncle who had just traveled to Israel.

Presented to Ann & Sol as a memento of our trip to Israel.

Nov 1969

Aunt Cele & Uncle Sam

According to my dad, Cele’s most (in)famous quality was how little use she had for clergy. Rabbis and cantors, according to her: “They’re all ganefs!” (From the Yiddish for thief, rascal, scoundrel, etc.)

And that brings us to my favorite from this collection:

This siddur, according to both of my parents, was the one that my grandpa used around the house for kiddush and that sort of thing.

You can tell what it was used for:

My grandpa had marked the page for Friday night Kiddush with a paperclip because that’s what he most often used it for.

One particularly odd feature of this siddur is this transliteration of Mourner’s Kaddish. It was typical already in this period for siddurim to be printed with a transliteration of large portions of Aramaic like Kaddish Yatom in the back, but this transliteration “To be read from right to left.” If you look carefully, you’ll see that the English letters arranged left to right within each word, but the each word is printed directly under the Hebrew word it corresponds to!

It’s remarkable that it was in regular use well into my life, given its age. It’s unclear how long he had it, but it was published in 1924, when he was 8:

It’s possible that it belonged to my great grandmother:

The cursive here says “Mrs. S. Wilensky,” which could refer to my grandmother or to my great grandmother, both of whom were married S. Wilenskys, but my dad thinks the handwriting resembles my grandmother, Ann.

At first, the significance of the date December 17, 1892, written on the inside front cover as shown above, was unclear. But then I found this:

This is a list of birth dates of a bunch of Stillmans, my paternal grandfather’s mother’s side. (Dad, correct me if I’m wrong on that one.) So here we can see that December 17, 1892, our mystery date from above, is the birth date of Sarah Stillman, who I believe is my paternal grandfather’s mother. (Again, Dad, correct me if I’m wrong.)

Why there’s a list of birth dates written well after all these people were dead, I don’t know.

The inside back cover of the book, with the list of Stillman birth dates clipped on the right:

On the right, he clipped a little supplement of Chanukah material:

Notice how he has put a big H next to the Hebrew and a big G next to the English. This must be from a Chanukah spent with them before my mother converted. The G indicated that she, Glenda, was to read the English and the H indicated that he, Harold, was to read the Hebrew.

I leave you with a final image of it:

The new head of the Reform Jews?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, your friend and mine, is retiring next year. He’s been the head of the URJ for 16 years.

Nominated to succeed him is Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who I have never heard of.

Things about Jacobs that seem noteworthy:

  • He is working on a doctorate at NYU in something called “ritual dance”
  • He used to be a dancer and choreographer
  • He is on the board of the New Israel Fund (!)

This does not sound like good news for the liturgy nerds of the Reform world.

Anybody know anything about this guy?

More on this at JTA

Reform revival in its German homeland

The new Reform synagogue in Hameln, Germany

The JTA wrote today of the completion and dedication of the first new Reform synagogue in Germany since WWII, emphasis mine:

Germany’s first newly built Reform synagogue since World War II was dedicated during ceremonies in the city of Hameln.


“It is another sign of the continuity of liberal Judaism in Germany today, particularly in the state of Lower Saxony, where Reform Judaism had its start 200 years ago…”

Cool stuff. Lots of interesting international Reform stories of late, I’ve noticed. Here’s the full story.

Liberal Jews in UK celebrating 100th birthday

The cleverly named Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, which my dad and I had a nice time at on vacation about six years ago, is celebrating their centenary this month. So mazal tov, UK liberal Jews!

As an aside, the UK has two movements that are members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The Liberal Jews there are more like Reform Jews here and the Reform Jews there are a little most like the Conservative Jews here. Both groups, however, share a seminary.

Here’s some background on the shul. This column has some interesting material about their historical relationship–long abandoned, of course–of anti-Zionism and their ongoing commitment to feminism.

And here’s some stuff about a big party they had.

Patrilineal descent accepted only in Reform–and only in American Reform

There’s an article at JTA by Sue Fiskoff from a few days ago about the debate over patrilineal descent that took place at the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in San Francisco last week.

I’ll summarize the reasons international Reform Jews cite for rejecting patrilineal descent, then I’ll assess each of these arguments for signs of silliness.

1. It would put them at odds with the wider Jewish community and would endanger Reform shuls financially.

This is actually the most persuasive reason given. In many Western countries (I include in this category South Africa, European countries, Latin America and Australia and New Zealand), there is a central Jewish body that dispenses money to smaller Jewish bodies. These groups are sometimes dominated by the Orthodox. That this reason exists is unfortunate, but if it’s believed that patrilineal descent would be the last straw, it makes sense.

2. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to marry a Jew from another stream.

This is a troubling assault by Reform authority on the autonomy of Reform individuals.

In the US, if a Reform Jew of patrilineal descent wishes to marry a Jew of another stream, and to please that person–or their parents–the Reform Jew of patrilneal descent agrees to a conversion, the CCAR and the URJ have no interests in the issue. It is the problem and decision of the Reform Jew of patrilineal descent who may undergo conversion, not the problem or the decision of the organized Reform community.

Given that none of the international Reform Jews in the article give internal reasons for not recognizing patrilineal Jews, let’s assume that they have none. Rather, all of their reasons, like this marriage reason, are based on external reasons–essentially, “If we allow this, what will the other Jews think?”

So–based, admittedly, on a whole lot of assumptions–let’s assume that they actually desire patrilineal descent and that they would allow it if the external impediments were removed. In that case, the marriage thing is a red herring! It is only a problem for individuals, as we determined when discussing how this occurs in the US. If the marriage reason isn’t a communal one, but a potential individual problem, then Reform communities have no business making decisions based on this reason.

And if all of this is true, this reason would not stand on its own. And if it can’t stand on its own, then it’s not reason at all.

3. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to make Aliyah.

This one fails for the same reasons as the marriage reason.

But it actually goes farther than that. In Israeli laws that are determined by the Chareidi-dominated state rabbinate, what makes these people think that a patrilineal Jew who undergoes a Reform conversion in, say South Africa, will be any more acceptable than a patrilineal Jews who has not undergone a Reform conversion?

4. If a community allows patrilineal Jews, it might jeopardize the ability of other members of the community to make Aliyah.

If someone has a Jewish mother, they are kosher in the eyes of Israeli rabbinate. So the Jewish identity of members of the Reform community with Jewish mothers is not in question, despite their involvement in the Reform community. However, in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate, if a child of a patrilineal Jew–or anyone else for that matter–converts under the auspices of a Reform rabbi, they will not be considered a Jew.

So, this reason, too, is poppycock. Refusing to recognize patrilneal Jews as Jews has no effect on anyone’s ability to make Aliyah, including the patrilineal Jews themselves as well as other Reform Jews. The proof of this is in the successful Aliyah of many American Reform Jews.

5. In El Salvador, the Reform community was accepting patrilineal Jews, but has stopped doing so. According to the article, they were accepting patrilineal Jews “during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.”

I am 100 percent bewildered by this one. Why would a civil war have any effect on any of this? Given the mention of the fact that community was lay-led, I imagine that it may have something to do with the arrival of a rabbi who was not amenable to the recognition of patrilineal Jews–like the next reason given. But it’s quite unclear what’s going on here.

6. According to the article: “The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis.” Apparently, it was more important to them to have Conservative rabbis who spoke Spanish than to hire Reform rabbis from the U.S.

This is an interesting one, and totally understandable. I can see that having a rabbi who comes from a similar cultural idiom might be an important thing. However, it is odd to hear about Reform communities that are OK with absolute rabbinic authority of this kind.

The article also mentions that Canadian Reform rabbis, who are members of CCAR, the same rabbinic body as their US counterparts, rejected the CCAR’s adoption of patrilineal descent in 1983, though it does not say why they rejected it. It also notes that the resolution is not binding on any Reform rabbis, anywhere. All of them have autonomy, despite the resolution.

The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music

According to JTA, the Reform cantorial school has been renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music:

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, made the announcement Jan. 27 in New York at a memorial tribute to Friedman, who died Jan. 9 at 59.

Friends of the late singer-songwriter have made possible an endowment to the school, which will be known as The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Ellenson said.

Here’s the full article from JTA.

Also, the article says:

Her most well-known composition, “Mi Shebeirach,” a Hebrew-English version of the Jewish prayer for healing, is now part of the Reform liturgy.

I can’t even begin to describe the aneurysm I’m having about the notion that any individual piece of music could be a Never mind that. It is, in fact, a part of the Reform liturgy. I just found it in Mishkan T’filah on page 109.

Index to the 13 Limmud NY Notes posts

I went to my fourth Limmud NY this weekend. It was great. There are 13 15 posts about it. Hopefully, this post will help you navigate which, if any of them, you want to read.

  1. Lost Versions of Havdalah is about a session Elie Kaunfer taught about a longer version of Havdalah preserved in the Talmud and in the Cairo Genizah.
  2. Miscellaneous is about the continuing Askenazification of my speech, blog sightings, news about my book, networking, nusach Hadar, Kiddushin bishtar and Joe Rosenstein.
  3. Sunday musical Mincha-Maariv with BZ is a review of the Sunday afternoon-evening service with guitar and awesomeness led by fellow Jewschooler and Mah Rabu blogger BZ.
  4. Mahzor Lev Shalem with one of its editors is about a session about MLS, the new Conservative machzor and my favorite machzor. The session was taught by Rob Scheinberg, one of the members of the committee that created MLS.
  5. Debbie Friedman and the Reform Jews is about Havdalah at Limmud NY 2011, the lack of Reform Jews at Limmud NY and the music of Debbie Friedman.
  6. An excuse to get four smart Jews to talk to each other is about a panel that featured a discussion between a Reform rabbinical student, a black hat rabbi, a Renewal rabbi and a recently married woman with an eclectic religious background about Shabbat.
  7. Hey, Nakedhead! The David A.M. Wilensky Story is about a deranged man who said “Hey, nakedhead!” to me in the middle of the Haftarah on Shabbat. It’s also in the running for the new name of this blog.
  8. Pirkei Avot 2:15 is about Pirkei Avot 2:15. I mostly wrote it for the benefit of Shir Yaakov, who gets a lot of shout-outs on this blog today.
  9. Communal Kiddush is about why having communal Kiddush on Friday night at Limmud NY is a mistake from the pluralism perspective and includes a proposal for something different we could do instead.
  10. More on communal ritual issues–electronics on Shabbat etc. is about issues of communal space and ritual observance at Limmud NY–again, from the perspective of wanting to enhance the pluralistic atmosphere of Limmud NY.
  11. Yes, I went to a Renewal service. And yes, I liked it. is a review a Renewal-style service I went to on Friday night. Spoiler alert: I give the service three and a half ballpoint pens.
  12. The ballpoint pen saga’s poetic conclusion and some other observations from a Hadar service is about the beautiful, joyous conclusion to the Hadar ballpoint situation and about how I got to have the coolest aliyah of the whole year. And about how Ethan Tucker reads Torah like a badass.
  13. Shabbat as labor law and An alternate Kiddush are about a session from Will Friedman about how Shabbat is a labor law and about how he thinks Deut. 5 should be used for Kiddush.
  14. A panel of experts on how college students should give Tzedakah is about a session called “‘Just’ Giving,” in which some interesting thoughts about how to give when you don’t have a lot to give came out.

Limmud NY Notes: An excuse to get four smart Jews to talk to each other

I went to Limmud NY 2011 and wrote a lot of posts about it. Here’s a guide to them.

Every year at Limmud NY, there is a panel discussion or two with an irrelevant topic. The panel is just an excuse to get a group of interesting Jews who wouldn’t otherwise talk to each other to talk to each other.

This year’s was ostensibly about Shabbat. Moderated by writer and JLife Consulting founder Dasee Berkowitz, it included:

The content of the panel was great. Better than that were the reactions. Pinson spent a lot of time making great faces at what everyone else was saying–one of his best reactions was the bizarre facial contortion was provoked by Marc’s assertion that he has stopped checking email on Shabbat.

There was a pretty big crowd for the panel. It included:

In the case of the various family members I could spot, watching for their reactions and the occasional eye contact with the panelist they were related to as they were inevitably mentioned in the course of the discussion of their Shabbat observances was endlessly entertaining.

Yoni’s presence was somewhat surprising. Over the last four Limmud NYs, he’s become one of the unique friends that I wouldn’t otherwise know and that I look forward to seeing every year. When I first met him in 2008, he seemed rather suspicious of the entire Limmud enterprise. This year, he proudly told me he was going to try to go to at least one session every day, once his duties in the kitchen end after dinner each day. He asked what I thought he should go to on Friday night and I told him I was going to this panel. Yoni said he’d come because he wanted the full Limmud experience and that this panel, with its diverse voices, would help facilitate that.

He later told me he was glad the he went to the panel, but that he liked Pinson and Ingber the best.

I found all of them very interesting, but I actually found Malya and Marc the more interesting voices on the panel because they were both talking from the point of view of having recently gotten married. Both talked about how their experience of Shabbat has been altered by having to completely share it with another person.

Malya said that she and William have both noticed a bizarre trend in themselves–they’ve been “making fun of Shabbat” since they got married. For instance, one of them will say something like, “Oh, I’m gonna go turn on the oven and cook something. Oh wait… NOT! Because it’s Shabbat!”

Marc noted that it’s been very difficult for he and Julia to have a shared Shabbat experience because both of them work on Shabbat, Marc at a shul in Brooklyn and Julia at a shul out in Sag Harbor.

Good job, team. Good panel.

By the way, two years ago, it was a panel on differing denominational views of Halachah, moderated by Leon, including:

  • David Ellenson (the head of the Reform seminary)
  • David Hoffman (a member of the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards)
  • J.J. Schacter (Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University)
  • Dan Ehrenkrantz (the head of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College)

Last year’s, which included Morris, Ingber and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, was about something else. Again, the topic ended up being irrelevant to the fact that these people are having a conversation in front of an audience. I wrote more about that panel here.