V. Judaism in America
The contemporary American Jewish community is descended largely from central European Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century and, particularly, from eastern European Jews who arrived between 1881 and 1924, as well as more recent refugees from, and survivors of, the Holocaust. The multiple forms of Judaism in America—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—have resulted from the adaptation of these Jewish immigrant groups to American life and their accommodation to one another. Institutionally, Judaism in America has adopted the strongly congregationalist structure of American Christianity. Although affiliated with national movements, most congregations retain considerable autonomy.
A. Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism, the first movement to define itself, was largely German at the outset. In America, it was influenced by liberal Protestantism and particularly by the Social Gospel movement. Its national institutions, all founded in the 1870s and 1880s by Isaac M. Wise, are the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), and the Hebrew Union College, the oldest surviving rabbinical school in the world (which merged in 1950 with the more Zionist-oriented Jewish Institute of Religion). Once the bastion of religious rationalism, the Reform movement since the 1940s has put more emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and traditional religious culture. Its orientation remains liberal and nonauthoritarian. The Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, ordained its first woman rabbi in 1972, and the Reform movement has worked to increase the participation of women in religious ritual. In the year 2000 Reform rabbis voted to affirm gay and lesbian unions. While supporting same-sex unions, the CCAR, which passed the resolution, left it to individual rabbis to decide whether to perform such ceremonies and what kind of ritual to use.
B. Conservative Judaism
The Conservative movement embodies the sense of community and folk piety of modernizing eastern European Jews. It respects traditional Jewish law and practice while advocating a flexible approach to Halakah. Its major institutions, founded at the turn of the century, are the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). An offshoot of the Conservative movement is the Reconstructionist movement founded by Mordecai M. Kaplan in the 1930s. Reconstructionism advocates religious naturalism while emphasizing Jewish peoplehood and culture. Reconstructionists began to ordain women rabbis in the 1970s, and in 1983 the JTSA voted to admit women to its rabbinical program and ordain them as Conservative rabbis. Outside of the US Conservative Judaism and its official association is called Masorti.
American Orthodoxy is not so much a movement as a spectrum of traditionalist groups, ranging from the modern Orthodox, who try to integrate traditional observance with modern life, to some Hasidic sects that attempt to shut out the modern world. The immigration to America of many traditionalist and Hasidic survivors of the Holocaust has strengthened American Orthodoxy. No single national institution represents all Orthodox groups. Among the synagogue organizations are the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and Young Israel (“modern” Orthodox) and Agudas Israel; among the rabbinical groups, the Rabbinical Council of America (“modern”) and the Rabbinical Alliance of America; and among the rabbinical schools, Isaac Elchanan Seminary at Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Theological College (“modern”) in Skokie, Illinois, and numerous small European-type yeshivas (talmudic academies). The Synagogue Council of America is a forum for discussion and joint action among these movements.
D. Significance of Israel
American Judaism has been profoundly affected by the Nazi destruction of European Jewry and the founding of the modern state of Israel. The Holocaust and Israel are closely linked in the perceptions of most contemporary Jews as symbols of collective death and rebirth—profoundly religious themes. Israel has a religious dimension, embodying Jewish self-respect and the promise of messianic fulfillment. All movements in American Judaism (excepting the ultra-Orthodox sectarians) have become more Israel-oriented in the past decades. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have been striving to achieve legal recognition and equal status with Orthodoxy in the state of Israel, where marriage, divorce, and conversion are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, which is backed in the government by the important National Religious Party.
V. Judaism in America