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Reform Jews Return to Traditions

May 26, 1999

PITTSBURGH (AP) _The governing body of Reform Judaism, the biggest and most liberal branch of American Jewry, on Wednesday endorsed a return to traditional practices such as wearing yarmulkes, keeping kosher and praying in Hebrew.

Many Reform rabbis said the 324-68 vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis confirms what they have seen in synagogues: a yearning for a return to some of the old ways.

``In our generation, we do not know our history,″ said Rabbi Deborah Zecher of Great Barrington, Mass. ``This brings us back to our history.″

The platform is not an enforceable set of commands. It is a set of guidelines only.

``It’s not as though they pass it at noon and people are going to go running to their kosher butcher,″ said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. But he added: ``We’ve put down on paper what we stand for. I’m tired of the stereotype that reform Jews are negative Jews.″

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has 1.5 million members, but the total number of Reform Jews is difficult to estimate because many aren’t associated with a synagogue.

Reform’s founding platform, the product of a meeting in Pittsburgh in 1885, rejected many Jewish traditions as ``entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state″ and a hindrance ``to modern spiritual elevation.″

Many traditions observed by Conservative and Orthodox Jews _ such as studying Hebrew, following Jewish dietary law and wearing prayer shawls and skullcaps _ are shunned by Reform Jews.

Ellis Rivkin, professor emeritus of Jewish history at Reform’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, said that a trend toward more traditional practices has become more noticeable among younger rabbis.

``There is a kind of security that (tradition) brings when the external world is in an insecure state, and when Jews are threatened by the assimilation process and the high rate of intermarriage,″ Rivkin said.

The rabbis worked until late Tuesday heatedly debating the set of principles, then postponed their vote to allow for more discussion Wednesday.

Prompting much of the debate was a section on intermarriage. Some participants were concerned that the section could be interpreted as condoning intermarriage, when their intent was instead to welcome non-Jews who are willing to convert.

Rabbi David Aaron of Hebrew Union College, an opponent of the platform, said it was ``pop culture theology″ made up of strings of jargon.

Rabbi Aaron Peller, who was not a voting member but a guest and adviser from Panama City, Panama, said the point of drafting new principles was to open a dialogue and take a stand.

``Some of us cover our heads, some don’t,″ Peller said. ``That’s exactly what I think Reform is all about _ individual autonomy.″

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