L’dor Vador (From Generation to Generation): The Open Door of Reform Judaism

September 7, 2023Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Lizzie Frankel

A year into our friendship, we sat down to talk about what drew us together. Although we come from different generations - our age difference is 45 years and there will be 32 years between our ordinations as rabbis - we share certain similarities: Midwestern roots, introversion, career choice, and employment by the URJ during our student years. We are also both queer women whose wives are Jews by choice. We both appreciate the Reform Movement's ongoing support of queer couples and Jews by choice.

As we talked about our connections, we found ourselves looking to the past as much as the future. While the first Reform temple opened in Seesen, Germany in 1810, we looked even farther back to the Talmud's moving story of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai telling Rabbi Yehoshua not to despair despite the loss of the Temple. He said, "Do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like sacrifice. And what is it? Acts of kindness" ("Avot d'Rabbi Natan," 4:5).

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's subsequent move to Yavneh, where he gathered learners and founded a school in the Diaspora, led to a new form of Judaism. In this Judaism, study and deeds of chesedChesedKindness (lovingkindness) replaced animal sacrifice and grain offerings as embodiments of what it meant to be Jewish.

We reflected on more recent history and found similar inspiration in the legacy of Rabbi Alexander Schindler (z"l), one of Lisa's teachers. From 1973-1995, Rabbi Schindler served as president of the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the URJ's former name). He urged our Movement to take deliberate steps toward including interfaith families, Jews by choice, Jews of patrilineal descent, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and people of all ethnicities, which we still strive to do today. He also increased opportunities for lifelong learning, encouraging the creation of the Reform Movement's first Torah commentary. He helped establish ARZA and ARZA Canada, deepening connections between Reform Jews and Israel.

What powerful precedents for opening the door to Jews of various backgrounds and practices! The values of lovingkindness and creativity echo across the centuries, present in the people and events that most influence Reform Judaism today. As we look toward the future, these are the values that guide us. We strongly believe in a Judaism that honors tradition and transformation, drawing upon ancient wisdom to change and adapt to modernity.

Here's where the difference in our ages reveals new hope for the future: Lisa's years in rabbinical school were fraught with uncertainty about a future for a lesbian rabbi. However, the allyship she found in working with Rabbi Schindler and so many others really did result in changes that today benefit Lizzie and her peers. Thanks to those changes, Lizzie has been able to put her energy into Jewish futures by welcoming explorers of Judaism into the URJ's online Introduction to Judaism classes, serving as a student rabbi for Jewish elders at a retirement community, and studying innovative leadership through the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

We're never finished, of course. An open door can still be opened wider. Yet, what a blessing it is that one of us can look back and one of us can look forward to working in a Movement that calls us to remember our past and learn from everyone ("Pirkei Avot"  4:1). As we continue our efforts to open our tents, tables, and hearts, we recall how Rabbi Schindler put it so long ago:

"I want to reach those seekers after truth who require a religion which tolerates - more than tolerates, encourages - all questions. I want especially to reach the rootless and the alienated who need the warmth and comfort of a people known for its close family ties, a people of ancient and noble lineage. "

At the threshold of the High Holidays and a new year, may the celebration of the URJ's 150 years invite us all to treasure the blessing of such an exquisite tradition.

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