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Question 18.2.1:
History: How did Reform Judaism start?


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...

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

  2. Found the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873

  3. Found Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875

  4. 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.

Reform has become a large force in America. Did it succeed in Germany, where it started? The short answer is that Reform in Germany succeeded to the extent that it legitimized the tinkering around the edges of religious tradition. For example, a mixed choir and the introduction of "modern" music in worship by way of the organ were some of the early reforms that were introduced in the first decades of the 19th century. By the 1830s and 40's some rabbis were beginning to test the limits of these changes in several conferences—Breslau being very important. But the European system was that the "official" leadership of a religious community was sanctioned and controlled by the secular government. And the secular governments, in order to maintain the status quo, recognized the conventional Jewish rabbinic leadership and these were, as they had always been, the Orthodox. Appointments to head up individual synagogues were at the discretion of the community-heads almost always Orthodox. That is why fertile ground for real change could not occur until German Reform came to America with a strong tradition of the "seperation of church and state." In the Jewish community, very few rabbis would even come to the America until after the 1840s. Here, then, each congregation was autonomous and led by lay leaders. When more liberal-minded rabbis did begin to come, they were free to innovate and change. They were free both from the hidebound system of Europe and the power was vested, not in a closed rabbinate, but in freer thinking lay leaders. So to answer the question, Reform in Germany succeeded in opening up the possibilities of change, but real change required the more fertile ground of America in which to take root and to grow.

In Australia, Reform began here in 1929, and now has congregations in all the major cities in Australia, New Zealand and even in Southeast Asia and China. In Australia, about one third of the Jews describe themselves as "Progressive" (international-speak for Reform), one third " Orthodox" and one third would be secular.

[Much of this adapted from "The Jewish Almanac", Richard Siegel and Carl Rheins]

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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