Same Union, Different Name at Biennial

By Ami Eden

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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MINNEAPOLIS — In recent years, the leaders of Reform Judaism have instituted a slew of changes geared toward transforming worship in their synagogues and strengthening the religious observance of their followers. But, until last week, one thing had remained the same, the name of the movement’s congregational arm: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

At the time of the union’s founding in 1873, the name reflected an ambitious goal of bringing all of America’s Jews under one congregational umbrella and an assimilationist urge to drop the label “Jew.” But, as one union leader said, today it is easier to be known as a Reform Jew than an American Hebrew, and it is clear that denominationalism has become a fact of synagogue life in America.

So, at the urging of the organization’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and its board, delegates to the union’s biennial convention last week in Minneapolis approved a new name: Union for Reform Judaism. An overwhelming majority approved the change, though several delegates voiced objections during the preliminary debate. Chief among them was the concern that the name failed to include the word congregations, an odd omission for an organization whose primary responsibility is to represent more than 900 Reform synagogues in North America. Supporters of the change pointed out that the new name would include the tag line: Serving Reform Congregations in North America.

What no one mentioned during the debate was that the name “Union for Reform Jewish Congregations” had once been considered but was rejected on the grounds that the initials URJC could be interpreted as suggesting a “Christological message.” Five previous attempts to change the name — in 1946, 1957, 1973, 1985 and 1995 — were unsuccessful. One proposal in 1946 would have had the organization change its name from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to the Hebrew Union Congregations of America.

A Time to Sing (in Hebrew)

One Reform leader noted with irony that the movement’s early leaders took Hebrew out of the prayer service and put it in the union’s name; the current generation of movement leaders, on the other hand, have taken Hebrew out of the union’s name, but put it back in the prayer book.

Sure enough, the most popular weekday morning service appeared to be the one advertised as an all-Hebrew affair, an apparent first for the biennial. Other popular options were billed as odes to the evolving musical styles found in Reform congregations. In a sign of just how deeply the movement’s liturgical and musical revolutions have taken hold among its leaders, almost all of the services appeared to incorporate Hebrew and contemporary musical styles.

Yarmulkes continue to be a popular option for a majority of male worshippers and many women as well. There also appeared to have been a spike since the 2001 biennial in the number of people wearing prayer shawls, though such worshippers still constituted a distinct minority. Phylacteries, meanwhile, continue to be a rare biennial sight.

The most well-attended service, by far, was the Friday night one held at the city’s convention center, which appeared to attract most of the 4,500 biennial participants. Many in attendance voiced dismay over the unfortunately cylindrically shaped ark, but one observer noted it seemed an appropriate choice considering the events near the end of the weekly Torah portion, specifically those occurring in Chapter 17 of Genesis.

Following biennial ritual, participants broke for dinner after the Friday night Sabbath services and returned for a spirited song session led by several of the movement’s most popular cantors and musical rabbis. In another tradition of sorts, musician Debbie Friedman performed Saturday night.

People of the Book

Texts and musical guides were the popular choices at the stand operated by the UAHC Press. According to Ken Gesser, head of the press and its music publishing arm, Transcontinental Music, holiday guides that came with musical CDs sold especially well. Eric Komar, a project director at Transcontinental who released his debut album earlier this year, said the most popular musicians appeared to be the ones who had figured out a model for incorporating mainstream musical styles and deeper religious messages.

Biennial delegates were introduced to “Mishkan T’filah,” the new prayer book, or siddur, that is expected to be published in 2005 by the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. Draft copies of the siddur were used at Sabbath services. A key feature of the prayer book is its layout: Rather than offer congregations multiple services to choose from, each two-page spread features a standard prayer on the right, accompanied by alternative versions and readings on the left.

As with previous Reform prayer books, the full version of the Shema prayer is not included, with the middle, theologically problematic paragraphs cut out. The full version was being considered, but many rabbis objected.






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