New Jewry

Embracing reform in Montana's Jewish communities



For followers of the Jewish faith, the high holiday season began the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 15, with Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year 5765. The high holiday season will conclude with the breaking of a day’s fast at sundown on Saturday, Sept. 25, or Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and celebration. This season, however, Jewish communities in both Missoula and the Flathead Valley will gather in the wake of major change, as both—Har Shalom in Missoula and Bet Harim in Flathead County—have recently voted to become members of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Bet Harim joined the Reform Judaism movement in June. Har Shalom voted to join on Sunday, Sept. 12, and must now finish the paperwork of the application process before officially becoming a URJ affiliate. In both communities, the decision arrived after years of study, according to members.

Reform Judaism traces its roots to Germany’s 19th-century Enlightenment, but the movement didn’t flourish in the United States until 1978, when Rabbi Alex Schindler began a program of outreach aimed at “Jews-by-choice” and interfaith families, says Rabbi Richard Address, director of family concerns for New York City-based URJ.

Address, a rabbi whose passion for Judaism seems rivaled only by his love of the Philadelphia Eagles, led high holiday services for Bet Harim this year, welcoming the community into the fold of URJ. Rabbi Address explains that the difference between traditional, or Orthodox Judaism, and Reform Judaism is that “Orthodox Judaism evolved with a point of view that the Torah was authored by God and revealed to Moses. It’s the concept of divine revelation. Part of being a Reform Jew is the understanding that the Torah is a product of people writing it over several centuries, reflecting the political, religious, economic and social context of the time…So the difference is that the [Reform] view of the Torah allows for a wider level of interpretation in many ways.”

Indeed, Reform Judaism’s interpretations have led to a number of positions shunned by Orthodox Judaism. Reform Jews, for instance, welcome women rabbis, women cantors and female synagogue presidents, as well as inter-faith families, even if a family member doesn’t wish to officially convert. Reform Judaism also emphasizes a fourth tenet of Judaism—not just God, Torah and Israel, but also Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world through social action.” In addition, Reform Judaism has been on record in support of the inclusion of gays and lesbians since the ’60s, says Rabbi Address, noting that that principal now extends to the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

“Our challenge is to create a spiritual family for the coming generation that is open, inclusive, pluralistic and sacred,” Address says. “No one view dominates.”

This inclusiveness was appealing to Mary Lerner, a board member at Bet Harim in the Flathead, but she says that doesn’t mean just anyone can become a Reform Jew.

“It’s important to us that the reform movement is inclusive of mixed marriages and mixed families,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s meant to be a world religion.”

Rabbi Address concurs.

“It must also be based on a strong foundation of the sacred text,” he says. “If it’s not rooted in the text, it’ll blow away.”

Before its Sept. 12 vote, Har Shalom asked URJ’s Pacific Northwest Director Rabbi David Fine exactly what URJ affiliation would entail. Most liked what they heard, apparently, as more than half of the Har Shalom community showed up, and only four people voted against URJ affiliation, according to Har Shalom President

Toba Winston.

“We just feel we can thrive better with the support of URJ,” Winston says, noting that the national organization can help congregations secure learning materials and even new, young rabbis.

Missoula’s current “nomad rabbi,” Gershon Winkler, who leads most holiday services for Har Shalom, told Winston that he is comfortable with the congregation going the reform route, Winston says.

“We’ve just opened doors, not closed any.”

Neither Har Shalom nor Bet Harim have very large congregations, at least compared to many of Western Montana’s Christian denominations. Because of this, Rabbi Address took time during his Erev Rosh Hashannah service to stress the importance of building community to the approximately 60 Jews and supportive non-Jews present.

After singing the traditional Avinu Malkeinu prayer for peace, Address said that the community must open itself to all those willing to embrace Judaism.

“If you can treat all people equal,” he said, “you will throw open the doors to this community in a world that is exactly the opposite…You can’t be Jewish by yourself. It doesn’t work. You can’t be Jewish alone, and any community that exists will be built on the relationships and friendships that are formed.”

Though Montana Jews may still be a rarity, it’s clear that in both Missoula and the Flathead, community leaders are making efforts to come together. And any expanding, active community of people working together is good news to Timothy Drowne with the Flathead County Agency on Aging. Drowne isn’t Jewish, but he attended Rosh Hoshanah services because his job entails finding a place for elderly citizens who have no family left to care for them. A strengthened Jewish community, Drowne figures, gives him one more place to look to for help.

On the morning of Friday, Sept. 17, Rabbi Address winds down Rosh Hashanah services with an audience-participation dialogue on the oft-debated Old Testament tale of Abraham and Isaac. About 120 miles away in Missoula, Rabbi Winkler blows into the Shofar to conclude services.

“Contrary to what most people assume,” wrote Rabbi Winkler in a holiday message, “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not about trembling in the face of future uncertainty with fear, but rather dancing in the face of future uncertainty with faith.”

In joining with progressive Judaic traditions and embracing the Reform movement, Western Montana Jews may now have one more reason to join that dance.

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