2nd Day Rosh Ha’Shana: Reform Judaism

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

Boker tov, and again, Shana Tovah!

As some of you may already know, in June I was accepted as a member into the Central Conference of American Rabbis, or in short – the CCAR, which is the Reform Movement’s Rabbinic Organization.

Applying for membership was a major goal I set out to achieve after my Rabbinic ordination. Being accepted is a proud milestone both personally and professionally. My spiritual journey began about eighteen years ago. By being officially accepted in the Reform Movement’s Rabbinate, my journey has come to fruition.

So today I am going to discuss Reform Judaism, our “parent organization.” I hope that I’ll be able to explain why being a Reform Jew is so crucial for my identity as a human being, but above all, my hope is that you, my beloved Temple Beth Tikvah congregants, will be inspired to continue strengthening your own spiritual connections with our ancient tradition while utilizing non-judgmental, inclusive Reform values, as tools.

From my own personal perspective, Reform Judaism is the bridge between the life of one, unfulfilled secular Israeli woman who finally had the guts to leave Israel when she was 30 years old, and the life that I am blessed to live today, as a fully ordained Rabbi and Cantor, serving a Reform Congregation in the United States of America. Reform Judaism has helped me to reclaim an incredibly rich tradition that I was not able to take part in, nor experience, until that change I chose to make back in 1995.

But first, a bit of a background about Israeli culture and Reform Judaism in Israel.

Here is a shocker: In Israel, most people are actually secular, in Israeli terms of course. Jews in Israel identify as being Jewish because we serve in the Israel Defense Forces, our army; we celebrate Jewish holidays (usually not in strict conformity with halacha; Jewish Law), and we speak modern Hebrew. An Israeli who can read the Hebrew of modern literature—comic books, trashy magazines and newspapers—can also read our Torah and most fragments of the dead sea scrolls.

When Israel was established as a new state in 1948, a new and different Jewish identity formed for the newly created Israeli population. Halachic Judaism was rejected and the Yiddish language was spoken almost in hiding, because a new breed of Hebrew-speaking, non-shul going Israeli Jew was becoming the mainstream.

Many of us Israelis, however, practice certain aspects of Judaism such as having a Passover Seder or fasting during Yom Kippur. It would not be uncommon, for example, to see a secular family who light Shabbat candles, say the blessings over Challah and wine, have a Shabbat dinner together, and then the parents drive their children to the movies or Friday evening dance clubs.

As a young Israeli teenager, my favorite hangout on Friday evenings was the disco at the Techniyon in Haifa, my birthplace and hometown.

What all this means is that, unfortunately, Reform Judaism is not practiced by most Israelis. It is not part of the mainstream Israeli culture or religious affiliation. In fact, most Israelis reject and dismiss Reform Judaism. They refer to us as “those crazy American Hippies who are worse than the goyim,” or even worse, “Reformistim? Ma zeh hadavar hazeh? Lo shamati aleichem” (Reform Jews? What is this thing? Never heard of you.)

Many young couples would rather not get married at all than have a Reform Rabbi officiate at their wedding. OUCH.  I felt this pain of rejection first hand, when my oldest nephew Tomer asked me to marry him and his fiancé Eden. Then, I got the news that he had his excitement deflated, by the objections of family members who passionately rejected the idea of his female Reform Rabbi auntie officiating the young couple‘s ceremony. Eventually, he succumbed to family pressure, as did my plan to go to Israel to perform the wedding.

Tomer ended up marrying his sweetheart in a small, non-Jewish civil ceremony in Denmark . With no family, no friends, and not even his deeply disappointed Auntie Rabbi Meeka.

Sadly, Reform Judaism has not yet been able to relax the resistance of Israelis to everything religious in nature. Because Orthodoxy rules religious life in Israel, living a Jewish secular life is a necessity for most Israelis. They don’t need “synagogues” or Jewish Community Centers to come together with other Jews to celebrate life cycles, or one another. They live, eat, speak, dress, drink, sleep, dance, and play Jewish – 24-7-365.

At some point in my life, lighting Shabbat candles while singing—what I found out later on to be the wrong melody for the blessing—was simply not enough. I needed more ways to connect spiritually with SOMETHING. I still don’t know what to call that “something.”

Reform Judaism taught me how to utilize tools I was born into—like being fluent in Hebrew, and combine them with tools that I have gathered during my Jewish education here in America for the past fifteen years. Orthodoxy on the one hand or secularism on the other simply could not provide me with all that I was yearning for. Reform Judaism has been the bridge between the two polarities.

And speaking of polarities, here is a paradox for you: the one component that all Jews around the world have in common is…. (I asked congregants)….

The Torah.

But our Torah is also the major component that separates us. Each of the Jewish denominations around our world interprets our Torah from a different perspective. Have you ever heard the phrase “70 panim laTorah” the Torah has 70 facets?” The Talmud teaches us in Sanhedrin 34a about the concept of pluralistic interpretation; in other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of our Scripture can be correct — even if those interpretations contradict one another!

Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah came directly from God at Har Sinai, Mount Sinai. All we can do is try to understand it ; a task entrusted to the Ancient Rabbis or Our Sages, whom modern Jewish clergy often quote in our sermons.

The so-called “authentic” understanding of the Torah was condensed into “halachah,” Jewish law, and since God is the lawgiver through the Torah, then God’s literal words must be obeyed.

So while Orthodox Jews believe in a literal interpretation of God‘s decree at Mt. Sinai, Reform Jews believe the Torah is a creative expression; a divinely-inspired attempt to understand our world and our lives through experiences of God or godliness. While Torah is a sacred document, Reform Jews believe that the Torah is rooted in the past, written by human beings like you and me. We can even sometimes detect the historical circumstances under which certain sections were written.

We strive to continue the process of helping Judaism evolve by coming to our own interpretations and understandings of what it means to be a mensch; a good and decent human being.

Reform Jews also recognize that Jews in various places around the globe have developed various customs and understandings; again, proof for us that Judaism is not and never was monolithic, or unified.

We therefore do not feel superior to, or think we possess THE answer to “what it means to be a real Jew.‘“ We encourage everyone to ask questions and make their own decisions based on knowledge acquired through continuous education.

Toward the goal of continuous education here at Temple Beth Tikvah, we established a strong and diverse Ritual Committee. The committee carefully evaluated the possibility of replacing the outdated TBT Siddur with the Reform Movement’s official Siddur, Mishkan T’fila (I showed the book)

This magnificent book, which literally means a Dwelling Place for our prayers, entered full circulation for Reform congregations exactly ten years ago, in 2007.

Like others at Temple Beth Tikvah, when I was first introduced to this prayer book some eleven years ago, I had a hard time with the bulkiness, weight, and overall size of the book. Being accustomed to the previous Siddur, the smaller Gates of Prayer, I felt that I did not have enough strength in my arms to hold Mishkan T’fila! But like millions of other users, I got used to it over time.

I not only got USED to it, but this prayer book has become my own personal “soft pillow for shedding tears of joy, grief, anger, and inspiration” kind of prayer book. Mishkan T’fila includes so many inspirational readings from ancient to modern eras, that in an almost miraculous way I always find a blessing, prayer, contemporary


reading or traditional quote that makes me exclaim “wow!” It helps me to connect to that sacred, spiritual word-less and name-less space within my heart and soul.

“All beginnings are difficult,” taught the great Rabbi Ishmael of the Talmud. Change is challenging, and a change from something to which we have grown intimately accustomed can be quite unsettling.

Temple Beth Tikvah has been using its own Siddur for the past eighteen years. This book from the previous century gave our congregation comfort, and solace, and a sense of familiarity.  But times have changed. We are well into a new century.

True to its recommendation for continuous education, Reform Judaism has grown, developed, and has been working diligently to incorporate lost traditions, while opening a wide door for modern spirituality, and yes, accessibility to Jewish mysticism as well.

There are those who look to a prayer book to reflect in its language and tone the lives we aspire to live. The words of prayer should uplift, inspire, sanctify, and elevate. But for others, confronted exclusively with a traditional Siddur, they feel that Siddurim, prayer books, are irrelevant; that they have nothing real, meaningful, or spiritual to offer.

As Rabbi Stuart Kelman, the Dean of the Gamliel Institute wrote, “Every generation needs to create its own prayer book to express, in its own idiom, its unique relationship with God.”


Siddur Mishkan Tefilah enables us to have both the ancient tradition and the modern idiom. The book is so bulky, because it reflects the efforts of clergy and laypeople dedicated to including more Hebrew, while meeting the needs of a diverse population. People want  more expressions in English, in order to understand the meaning of the songs and prayers.

Mishkan T’fila reflects the  “the old” and “the new“ together, on one page, to remind us that only by embracing our past in the light of the present – can we prepare for a stronger, more vibrant tomorrow.

Judaism lasted for so many thousands of years, because some of us have been holding on to the familiar, as well as our past, while others have been embracing the new and the unfamiliar. Neither can exist without the other, which is why I consider our new Siddur, a keeper of the light of our ancient people, as well as the light to guide future generations.

And speaking of new traditions, one of the small but mighty changes I would like to propose here this evening, is actually to our women.

But I’ll start with a question to our men:

Raise your hand, how many of you are wearing a kippah and/or tallit this morning? And how many of you women present here today, are wearing a kippah and/or tallit?

I am asking because one of the major changes I went through when I first discovered Reform Judaism was to give material expression to my reawakening Jewish spirit.

Working as a teacher at my first congregation, Temple Beth El in Santa Cruz, California about nineteen years ago, I saw that their female cantor at the time was wearing a kippah while she led services. I had never seen this before I came to the US, and it looked so odd to me. But Cantor Paula Marcus encouraged me to try it out, so I gave it a shot.

I will admit, it felt very strange at first. But the possibilities of wearing colorful kippahs and the opportunity to match them with my clothes was pretty exciting, and eventually wearing a kippah became a part of my “preparation for prayer.”

Next, I was inspired to try out wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), which felt even stranger. But I didn’t want to stand out by NOT wearing a kippah and tallit when I co-led services with the Cantor and Rabbi at Temple Beth El, so I purchased my own first tallit.

In the exuberance and excitement of my rediscovered, reclaimed Judaism, I bought THE most colorful kippah and tallit that I could find at the time. It reflected the invigorated, joyful rekindling of my soul’s spiritual fire.

I have been trying to teach our young students that wearing a kippah upon entering the sanctuary is available to everyone! I have been encouraging our girls to try on a kippah—and post Bat Mitzvah—to continue to wear a tallit when attending a service.

So I invite you, women and men: if you have not tried wearing a kippah and/or tallit yet, please feel free to do so at any time from now through the end of our High Holidays. A gentle reminder that no, our high holidays don’t end with Yom Kippur. We also have Sukkot, then the Big Hurrah of Simchat Torah, so you have a whole month to give it a try!

For your convenience, if you don’t have a kippah or tallit of your own – we have tallitot and kippot available to you to borrow, right outside our Sanctuary. Besides yourself, no one else will know you haven’t tried one of these before.

Upon trying it out, ask yourself: “Is wearing a kippah (or yarmulke) a custom that is meaningful to me? Is it connecting me spiritually to something greater than my verbal ability to express, or do I feel nothing and can do without?” Remember. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to experience our beautiful rituals. 70 פנים 70 Facets applies also to all our customs: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and all the other wonderful ways to experience our magnificent Judasim.

Please don’t worry about messing up your hair or clothes; we are here to be together as an inclusive family, for the rest of the High Holy Days, and as an inclusive family we don’t judge one another for the way we look or dress—right??


I’ll end my sermon here this morning with a short poem written in our New Siddur, on page 235 called If We Can Hear, by Rabbi Richard Levy, a professor at Hebrew Union College:

“If we can hear the words from Sinai

Then love will flow from us.

And we shall serve all that is holy

With all our intellect and all our passion and all of our life.

If we can serve all that is holy,

we shall be doing all that humans can

to help the rains to flow,  the grasses to be green,

the greens to be golden like the sun,

and the rivers to be filled with life once more.

All the children of God shall eat, and there will be enough.

But if we turn from Sinai’s words,

and serve only what is common and profane,

making gods of our own comfort or power,

then the holiness of life will contract for us;

our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words Into our passion and our intellect,

And bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes.

Let us write them in mezuzot upon our doors,  And teach them to our children.

Let us honor the generations that came before us,

keeping the promise for those yet to be.”


Yom Tov, and Shana Tovah.

May we all be blessed with many opportunities to bear witness to the wholeness of life, Hayom harat olam. May we be brave this year, and open to reformations, and positive changes. Hayom Harat Olam – May we each reach out to the world and try to embrace it, like a parent embracing a child, as God embraced each one of us, God’s children of Sinai.



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