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I Am a Proud Reform Jew

In the fall of 1955, Rabbi Bertram Korn stood up at Rosh HaShanah services to deliver an extensive sermon on the state of KI. He spoke of the synagogue expanding its space, a full and active membership, the great impact KI was having on its surrounding community. The congregation was about to move to its Elkins Park location. The world was no doubt a drastically different place in 1955. KI was a different place too in myriad ways. And yet… The similarities are also abundant. It was a time of transition for our beloved synagogue then, just as it is now. The world felt often unstable and unsettling then, just as it does today.

The congregational community of 1955 was, like we are today, grappling every day with a rapidly changing world. The KI family of 1955 saw its synagogue as a place of safe haven and support, as we do today.

In his sermon, Rabbi Korn spoke of the moment in KI’s history when we became a Reform community. He noted that KI was essentially Orthodox for the first eight years of its existence. And when the synagogue voted – in 1855 – to enter the Reform movement, it became only the fifth Reform synagogue in the United States. KI came to the Reform movement not because it was popular clearly, but because, in the rabbi’s words ‘they were willing to endure recrimination and unjust hostility for the sake of principle. This was, for them, the beginning of a great adventure; the creation of a vital, living faith for Jews who could not be coerced into doing and thinking and believing and praying what their fathers did and thought and believed and prayed, simply because it had always been done that way.’

It was a drastic and dramatic shift for the synagogue, one we feel to this very day. I am proud to be a Reform Jew. I stand, as we all do, not only on the broad shoulders of Rabbi Korn, but the Reform movement’s earliest leaders: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Rabbi Stephen Wise, KI’s first ordained rabbi, our own David Einhorn and, in much more recent years, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Ours is a movement that has sought to lift up the downtrodden, bring a Judaism of vitality and relevance to the fore, read and re-read tradition through every possible lens: science, literature, music, anthropology, history and law. We were on the frontlines amid the Civil Rights movement as we were during the AIDS epidemic, as well as the fight for Russian Jewry, the rescue of Ethiopia’s Jewish population, the raising up of the LGBTQ community and the strong attitude of welcome to interfaith families.

I am also proud of the Reform movement when it comes to Israel. While the earliest Reform Jews balked at the very premise of Zionism, today we are a congregation that loves and supports Israel in a great plethora of ways. We travel to Israel, learn about Israel, pray for peace in Israel and are not afraid to say what needs to be said about Israel, especially when Israeli leadership challenges our understanding of Jewish decision-making.

This past week we welcomed Gil Hoffman, executive director of Honest Reporting, a media watchdog that ensures Israel receives fair and balanced treatment in the press. He spoke to a giant crowd eager to glean the latest news, how we can best be allies and what the future might hold in store for our beloved Promised Land. He spoke of holding onto hope in spite of it all. He reminded us to keep educating ourselves and encouraging others to read and learn about Israel. He challenged us to consider where and how we give our tzedakah, especially when it comes to those colleges and universities that have made their priorities clear over recent weeks. He reminded us that Israel needs us – all of us – as we are so vastly outnumbered: a mere 15 million Jews in a world of over 7 billion. He assured us that this tragic war will in fact come to an end and hopefully soon. He told us that he still believes in a peaceful future.

Each Friday night we sing the words of Shalom Rav, praying for peace in Israel and around our fractured world. We sing the prayer to a tune long loved by the Reform movement. In this way we do what our movement has always done: sing and pray, believe and come together, hold onto hope and move forward – whether in 1855, 1955 or 2024 – toward a better tomorrow.