What is the History of Reform Judaism?
Judaism has been evolving ever since it began. It is evident within the Pentateuch itself, while the Prophets added a radical edge to the Law of Moses. The dominance of rabbinic interpretation after the first century led to a more monolithic form of Judaism, although it also engineered major changes in the beliefs, practices and development of the faith.
Reform Judaism began in Germany, where the need for religious change had been heightened by the sudden emergence of the Jewish community into society at large after years of isolation. Jews had been cut off from wider social and intellectual life both by the confines of the ghetto and by numerous discriminatory laws preventing them from playing a meaningful role in European life. The collapse of the ghetto following the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars brought a rush of new knowledge and opportunities. Whilst some Jews reacted by hiding themselves away from this new world, others by converting to Christianity, and others by abandoning all faith, a large number sought to harmonise tradition and modernity through Reform Judaism. The first synagogue was established in 1810 in Seesen.
British Jewry, by contrast, had experienced no such social and cultural isolation and Reform Judaism in Britain started for entirely different reasons. The trigger was the desire of a number of Jews who belonged largely to the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of Bevis Marks in the City of London, but resided some distance away in the West End of London and requested permission to hold prayers in a branch synagogue more locally. However, the Bevis Marks authorities objected - fearing the loss of wealthy members. The result was that a group of twenty-four families decided to act independently and establish what became known as the West London Synagogue of British Jews. It was only at this point that they also decided to take advantage of their new freedom to exercise changes in religious matters also.
The birth of the second Reform synagogue - in Manchester in 1856 - was almost completely independent of West London, and, like its genesis, was brought about by local factors.
The seeds of the subsequent growth of Reform did not occur until the 1930s, thanks to the immigration of refugees from Germany and elsewhere on the Continent, many of whom were Reform, and either swelled existing Reform congregations or led to the birth of new ones. Even more important was the arrival of a large number of Reform rabbis who were able to serve the new communities and provide a level of religious leadership to which the Reform movement could not otherwise have aspired.
Each of the Reform synagogues was independent and there was no formal contact between them until 1942. Meeting on 4th January 1942, the six existing Reform congregations (Bradford, Glasgow, Manchester, North Western, The Settlement, and West London) formed the Associated British Synagogues, principally in order to meet the need for religious education for children. The benefits of joint action quickly became obvious, and the A.B.S. began to tackle a wide range of other topics, from nurturing new communities to establishing a Beth Din to deal with status issues. In 1946 the organization changed its name to the Association of Synagogues in Great Britain, reflecting a greater consciousness of being a national movement with a common purpose. In 1958 the movement became formally known as the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (R.S.G.B.), to reflect their Reform character, by which time it had increased to sixteen congregations.
Another landmark came in 1980 when the R.S.G.B. established its own premises, first in Swiss Cottage and then in the spacious grounds of the Manor House in Finchley, the Sternberg Centre - where it still resides today - making it the largest Jewish community centre in Europe.
Developments during this period included the establishment of a youth movement and association of guilds - as well as major revisions of the Prayer Book, foundation of a rabbinic seminary, Leo Baeck College, and the admission of women into the rabbinate. In 1981, the first Reform Jewish Day School was founded, Akiva.
In order to reflect these developments from being an association of synagogues to a national religious movement, in 2005 the R.S.G.B. became the Movement for Reform Judaism.
This text is an edited extract from: 'Tradition and Change: A History of Reform Judaism in Britain 1840-1995' by Anne Kershen & Jonathan Romain, Vallentine Mitchell 1995.
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