Reform synagogue and the mansion of Jakub and Anna Hertz, 2–4 Kościuszki Avenue, Łódź, ca. 1900. Photograph by Bronisław Wilkoszewski. (University Library, Łódź)

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Reform, Religious

The movement for religious reform in modern Judaism began in Central Europe around the beginning of the nineteenth century as a response to the confrontation between traditional Jewish thought and practices and the values and demands of a modernizing state, society, and culture. The transformations involved both new conceptions of Judaism that were thought to be more in harmony with idealistic philosophy and liturgical reforms motivated by both aesthetic and ideological considerations. From German-speaking Europe, Jewish religious reform spread eastward to Hungary, Bohemia, Galicia, Russia, and Poland. Although differing from German Jewry, where modernized forms of Judaism had become dominant by the second half of the nineteenth century, East European Jewries were to varying degrees also affected and divided by the trend to adjust Judaism to new realities.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were living in the countryside, scarcely touched by the European or Jewish enlightenment. However, increasing urbanization over the course of the century brought growing exposure to values that were in conflict with traditional Judaism. Although Hungarian Jewry contained within it staunch opponents of change, such as Mosheh Sofer (1762–1839), who declared all religious innovation prohibited and opposed Jewish political integration as harmful to Jewish self-preservation, it also produced champions of religious reform of both moderate and radical cast.

The first of these was Aharon Chorin (1766–1844), who served as the rabbi of Arad. In 1818, when organizers of a worship service in Berlin sought rabbinical support for innovations that included some use of the vernacular in prayer, organ accompaniment, and the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, they turned, among others, to Chorin, who wrote a lengthy approbation on their behalf. He criticized the Berlin reformers only for not engaging in daily worship, a practice that thereby effectively limited the collective expression of Judaism to Sabbaths and holidays.

Reform Synagogue, Czernowitz, ca. 1915. Construction was completed in 1878; the synagogue was destroyed by German and Romanian forces in 1941. (YIVO)

Chorin’s advocacy of religious reforms had begun shortly after he arrived in Arad in 1789. In a relatively new Jewish community dominated by merchants, the erudite Chorin was able to gain support for his own reforms as he advocated them regularly in his writings and introduced them into the local synagogue. From relatively moderate proposals, such as declaring sturgeon a kosher fish, Chorin moved on to more radical suggestions such as permitting worship with uncovered heads and traveling in a train on the Sabbath. In Arad he introduced modifications in the religious service intended to express his belief that Jews should regard Christians as their “brothers.” These changes included a prohibition on spitting at the mention of gentiles in the ‘Alenu prayer, pounding on the floor at the mention of Haman’s name during the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim, and the chanting of Kol Nidre at Yom Kippur since the abrogation of vows contained in its text was sometimes taken by non-Jews as evidence of Jewish untrustworthiness. Unlike the later, more radical religious reformers in Hungary, Chorin believed that alterations should be based on the Talmud and authorized by an official body of rabbis. To this end, he favored the reinstitution of the ancient Sanhedrin. However, Chorin’s reforms encountered severe opposition on the part of other Hungarian rabbis, who repeatedly forced him to recant his ideas, only to have Chorin return to them later. In 1842, two years before he died, the synagogue in Arad introduced organ accompaniment, the first in Hungary to do so.

Chorin’s contact with the Reform movement in Germany was unusual among Hungarian advocates of change. The progress of religious reform in Hungary outside Arad was far more influenced by the so-called Viennese rite, developed in the Austrian capital by the preacher Isaak Noah Mannheimer- (1793–1865) and the synagogue composer and cantor Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890). It was characterized by decorum, aesthetically pleasing music, edifying sermons delivered in the vernacular, and a slightly abbreviated liturgy. Although it differed from prevalent customs, the new service did not violate Jewish law.

The Viennese rite came initially to Pest shortly after the Hungarian city’s strictly Orthodox rabbi died in 1826. As a new form, it was not embraced by the community synagogue, but was adopted by a private prayer group of younger people called Ḥesed Ne‘urim or Jungen-Schul (Young People’s Synagogue). In the course of time, the group’s mode of worship became so attractive that it was accepted as the second community synagogue alongside its more traditional counterpart, with the moderate community rabbi Löw Schwab (1794–1857) giving moralistic sermons in the one and old-style homilies in the other. From Pest the new rite spread outward to other Hungarian communities, including Kanischa and Pressburg (Bratislava), the former also installing an organ. A confirmation ceremony, taken over from Christian practice, was introduced in Eperjes in the north and Lugos (Rom., Lugoj) in the south.

The moderate character of reform in Hungary was overshadowed briefly by a far more radical variety that flowered in Pest around the time of the 1848 revolution. In July of that year, a group of Jews from Pest, taking their cue from recently created radical Reform groups in Germany and composed disproportionately of professionals and wholesale traders, formed the Central Association of Hungarian Israelites. Their religious services, held on Sunday mornings, were characterized by women sitting on one side of a central aisle instead of behind a barrier in the balcony, organ accompaniment, no head coverings, prayers recited almost entirely in German, and sermons stressing universal moral themes given alternately in German and Hungarian. Closely associating themselves with the Magyar revolt against Austria, the more than 300 families constituting about one-tenth of Pest Jewry hoped the revolution would bring them greater equality but rejected the demand of the Magyar leader, Lajos Kossuth, that equality be made conditional upon religious reform. With the failure of the revolution, the Austrian government in 1852 forced the association to disband, prompted in large measure by the persistent opposition of moderates such as Rabbi Schwab and the leaders of the Pest community. During the few years of its existence, it had briefly drawn a significant number of the growing community of religiously indifferent Jews from Pest back into more active, albeit highly universalistic Jewish identification.

The religious battles waged within Hungarian Jewry in the second half of the nineteenth century were between Progressives, later designated Neologs, and the strictly Orthodox. Issues included whether the reader’s desk could be moved from the center of the synagogue to the front, the use of a choir, whether the barrier in front of the women’s section should prevent the sexes from being able to see one another, and the permissibility of conducting weddings inside the synagogue rather than in the courtyard. In 1868, a few months after Jewish emancipation, the government called a congress of Hungarian Jewry, the intent of which was to create a single community structure. However, when it became apparent that the Progressives represented the dominant influence in the congress, the Orthodox withdrew, leaving Hungarian Jewry organizationally divided. Among the measures discussed at the congress was the proposal to establish a modern rabbinical seminary for Hungarian Jewry analogous to that created in 1854 in Breslau. Long delayed, it finally came into existence in 1877. Following World War II, it remained as the only rabbinical seminary in Eastern Europe, attracting students from the USSR and its satellites while upholding the moderate traditionalism of Hungarian Neology.

Bohemia and Moravia

The influence of the moderate Viennese rite was most strongly felt in Bohemia, and especially in its provincial capital of Prague. Jewish merchants from the region visited Vienna and sought to reproduce its externally modern but ideologically traditional service. In the late eighteenth century, Prague had been the center for a moderate form of the Jewish enlightenment. Disregarding the prohibition against instrumental music in the synagogue, which was intended to differentiate Diaspora practice from that of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, at least two synagogues in Prague had instituted organ and other instrumental music as part of the service welcoming the Sabbath and holidays. Played by a Jew, the apparently portable instruments, which were probably the same as those used in wedding processions, fell silent before the beginning of the evening service, thus avoiding the violation of Jewish laws pertaining to Sabbath rest.

Peter Beer. Engraving, early nineteenth century. (The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

The desire for a more decorous, moderately reformed religious service, following the model of Vienna, Pest, and Pressburg, first gained expression in Bohemia in the 1830s, principally in Teplitz and Prague. In the former, a “regulated” service was introduced in 1834, followed by similar rites in such towns as Brandeis, Neubidschow, Schwarzkosteletz, Bömisch-Leipa, and Gitschin. In Prague, a group of wealthy merchants and industrialists, along with the Bohemian Jewish educator and historian Peter Beer (ca. 1758–1838), created the Society for the Improvement of Israelite Religious Worship. However, in the Bohemian capital the organization encountered severe opposition on the part of the leading rabbi of the city, Shemu’el Landau (d. 1834), who opposed allowing the group, whose members he regarded as indifferentists, deists, and schismatics, to hold services in one of the community synagogues. Only in 1835, after his death, was the group able to conduct a festive inaugural service at which the Prague-born Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), at the time serving as district rabbi with his seat in Teplitz, gave the dedicatory sermon.

For a brief time, the rabbi of the Society for the Improvement of Israelite Religious Worship was the great Jewish scholar Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), but his conflict with the local rabbinical authorities and apparently also with the lay leadership, as well as his longing for the more familiar atmosphere of Berlin, led him to return to Germany, making way for the very moderate reformer Michael Sachs (1808–1864), who was given the status of a community rabbi and thus was allowed to perform such functions as wedding ceremonies. Sachs also introduced a confirmation ceremony for boys to mark the completion of a course of study in the Jewish religion, and somewhat later he brought a few German hymns and prayers into the services. In keeping with the abandoned Prague tradition, an organ accompanied services before the entry of the Sabbath on Friday evenings and also on the joyous holidays of Hanukkah and Purim.

Sachs’s efforts were abetted by his ability to establish a cordial relationship with the new scholarly senior rabbi of the community, Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (1790–1867). The Society’s synagogue gained status as one of the nine community synagogues. Its membership grew, but remained modest, in 1837 reaching 280 families in a community that numbered about 9,000 Jews. In the 1840s, moderate religious reforms that were similar to those of Vienna and Prague spread further, reaching even the community of Lundenburg in the more traditional neighboring Moravia.

In twentieth-century Prague, decorum, organ music, and sermons in both German and Czech characterized services in the larger synagogues of the city. However, religious reform in the Czech lands lacked both clear ideological components and the support of strong educational institutions. On the eve of the Holocaust, a highly secularized Prague Jewry was far removed from any significant commitment to Jewish religious belief and practice.


The Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, which had its origins in the German cities of Berlin and Königsberg, spread to Galicia via Vienna, laying the foundation for religious reform. The first institutions receptive to the new openness were schools in Tarnopol, Brody, and Lemberg (L’viv) that taught secular subjects; only later were the ideas incorporated into synagogue rituals.

Progressive synagogue, erected 1888, Łódź, Poland, ca. 1920s. Known as the Great Synagogue, its construction was overseen by the wealthy Jewish factory owner Israel Poznański. (YIVO)

In Tarnopol, the central figure of the Galician Haskalah was Yosef Perl (1773–1839). As early as 1813, he established a modern private school in his home and two years later a synagogue, which increasingly took on the character of the Vienna rite. In 1836, Perl began to give sermons in German, making him the first modern Jewish preacher in Galicia. After his death, the synagogue employed a cantor, who had studied with Sulzer in Vienna, to conduct services in clerical garb along with a choir. The proponents of modernization were often called “Germans” because they wore Western rather than Polish garb and were influenced by Western values. Their opponents in Galicia were largely Hasidim who rejected both educational and religious reform.

The conflict between the two factions became most fierce, and ultimately violent, in Lemberg, a community of about 30,000 Jews. Here the rabbinate had been in the hands of Ya‘akov Orenstein (1775–1839), a learned and wealthy opponent of even the most moderate facets of reform. After his death, Jewish followers of the Enlightenment, who were known as maskilim, took over leadership of the community with the support of the government, establishing a modern school in 1845 and a “temple” a year later. The origins of the temple went back to 1840 when a group of 15 Jewish physicians, lawyers, bankers, and merchants consulted Rabbis Mannheimer in Vienna and Sachs in Prague about setting up a less traditional worship service in Lemberg. Their goals were moderate: the service was to be in Hebrew and would not omit standard rituals except for a few prayers associated with the minor holidays. Specifically, they rejected ideological changes and believed in retaining the expression of national aspirations contained in the liturgy. The reforms they wished to implement were sermons on ethical topics and the hiring of a modern cantor. These changes would appeal to the youth and the secularly educated who felt estranged from the traditional synagogue. The group succeeded in gathering funds for a building, and in 1843, upon the recommendation of Salomon Sulzer, they appointed Abraham Kohn (1807–1848) to be both principal of the school and rabbi of the temple.

Kohn was scarcely a radical reformer. Born into poverty in a small town in Bohemia, he had received his rabbinical certification from the strictly Orthodox rabbi Shemu’el Landau in Prague, and remained scrupulously observant. Unlike most German Jews, he held Hasidism in high regard, arguing that it had brought new life to Jewish worship. The enlightened, he believed, could learn from the religious enthusiasm of the Hasidim. The only specific reforms that he advocated in Jewish life were the abandonment of the custom of married women to cut off all their hair (his own wife had kept her hair) and the High Holiday ceremonies of tashlikh (getting rid of one’s sins by casting them into a body of water) and kaparot (transferring them symbolically to a chicken while twirling the fowl over one’s head). He condemned the latter customs as superstitions contrary to the spirit of Judaism. In the temple, he left the liturgy intact except for altering medieval prayers that called for vengeance against gentiles. He also introduced a confirmation ceremony for both boys and girls, an act his opponents regarded as tantamount to apostasy.

It is likely that Kohn, as a moderate reformer who went out of his way not to antagonize his opponents, would have been successful in his endeavors had he, a relatively unlearned “German” supported by a minority of the community, not been given the post of district rabbi, succeeding Ya‘akov Orenstein, and led the struggle to eliminate government tax on kosher meat and candles, for which his opponents possessed a lucrative concession. When these occurred, however, religious and material motives combined to bring about his demise. In the chaotic revolutionary year of 1848, during which he supported the Polish side against the Austrians who were favored by the Orthodox, his opponents undertook a campaign against him that began with words and continued with increasingly severe acts of violence. Finally, a poor goldsmith, whose precise connections with the Orthodox leadership remain unclear, entered the kitchen of Kohn’s home and poured a huge dose of arsenic into the soup kettle. A few days later, Kohn and his younger daughter were dead. Ironically, the topic of his final sermon, which spoke out against neglect of the poor, had been “Thou shalt not murder.” With his death, the reformers lost the district rabbinate. Nonetheless, their “progressive” or “German” temple continued to function, and between the world wars it continued to serve a thin segment of urbanized Polish Jewry.

Crowds leaving after services in the Great Synagogue (German Temple) on Spacerowa Street, Łódź, Poland, 1929. This Reform synagogue, one of the largest buildings in the city, was built in 1883–1887. (Amateur film shot by American Jewish travel agent Gustave Eisner.) (YIVO)

Religious reforms came to the Jewish community of Kraków later than elsewhere in Galicia. Yet there, too, the more acculturated Jews established a temple in the late 1850s, with a service modeled on the reforms found in Vienna and Prague. It placed women worshipers behind a less opaque barrier and introduced a German sermon and choir, but did not adopt organ music. Although its adherents were split between Polish and German factions, the 130 members in 1871, many of whom were doctors of law or medicine, had in common their self-identification as a new secularly educated elite within the community, which through the temple declared its independence of the regnant Orthodoxy. In the course of time, the temple community in Kraków, unlike that of Lemberg, assumed a more Polish than German character. It, too, continued up to the time of the Holocaust.

Galician Jewry also produced theoreticians of religious reform. Although Naḥman Krochmal (1785–1840), the leading philosophical spirit behind the Galician Haskalah, did not espouse liturgical reforms, he did, in the spirit of the leading German Jewish reformers, understand Judaism to be a religion historically interactive with its environment and rising from externals toward higher levels of spirituality. Far more radical in his views was Yehoshu‘a Heshel Schorr (1818–1895). A highly controversial figure residing in Brody, he maintained contact with the German reformers while waging a lifelong battle against the absolute authority of Jewish sacred texts. In polemical essays printed in his Hebrew periodical He-Ḥaluts, Schorr argued that the Talmud did not possess the status of revelation and hence contemporary Jews were free to differ with its teachings. He admired the ancient rabbis for their willingness to alter biblical provisions; it was their descendants with whom he differed, for they canonized the Talmud.

For a time Schorr excluded the Pentateuch from the critical and often sarcastic treatment he accorded later authoritative Jewish literature. But in the course of time, his growing acceptance of biblical criticism led him to reject the divine status of the Written Law as well. Like the more radical of the German Jewish reformers, he came to believe that sanctity rested in the spirit, not in the letter of sacred scripture. However, unlike the Germans and in keeping with religious reform in Galicia generally, Schorr highly valued the Hebrew language, wanted to maintain the Sabbath on Saturday, and considered circumcision as emblematic of Jewish peoplehood.


Religious reform was most successful in countries in which Jews either enjoyed a high degree of equality or had realistic hopes of achieving it. Such was not the case in nineteenth-century Russia, where few Jews could identify with a government that to a greater or lesser degree during the century had placed restrictions upon them. In the tsarist empire, religious reform was neither widespread nor radical. A variety of factors, external and internal to the Jewish community, combined to keep innovations within very limited boundaries.

Reform was also most successful in Protestant countries, which valued the idea of religious reformation. Neither in Orthodox Russia nor in Catholic Poland was the church associated with modernization. Like the state, the church in these countries rejected religious change as undermining its authority. Thus religious reformers in the east, unlike their counterparts in Germany, could not point to the example of a church that was coming to grips with new scientific discoveries or the results of historical criticism. Nor did Russian Jewry develop an effective secularly educated rabbinate. Although rabbinical seminaries that included some secular studies were established in Vilna and Zhitomir, their graduates were only rarely able to gain the confidence of the Jewish masses.

The vast majority of Russian Jewry remained strictly Orthodox in belief and practice, whether they were Hasidim or their rationalist opponents, the Misnagdim. In both cases, the religious leadership insisted upon their followers’ isolation from external intellectual influences (the maskilim, who did argue for exposure to European culture, were more interested in educational than religious reform). Finally, whereas Jewish identity in countries to the west—and also in Hungary—came to focus upon religion expressed in universalistic fashion as ethical monotheism, with the exclusion or diminution of national elements, in the multiethnic tsarist empire Jewish national differences could more easily be tolerated.

Thus, toward the end of the century, secular expressions of Judaism emerged that would have been difficult to sustain in the culturally less diversified nations of Western Europe. Moreover, whereas in Germany idealist philosophy, especially Kantianism, could be linked to a religious Jewish identity that stressed the centrality of morality, Jewish moral values in Russia, as articulated for example by the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am, could be placed in the framework of an agnostic positivist philosophy, outside the purview of the synagogue.

Even though religious reform in Russia was very much a minority phenomenon, it was not entirely absent. It manifested itself both in reforms that altered the ambience of the synagogue and in proposals for making Jewish law more flexible than it was allowed to be under the rigorous decision-making authority of the contemporary rabbinate. Although it rarely reached the countryside, by the last decades of the tsarist empire there were synagogues reflecting Western aesthetic values in virtually all cities that had large Jewish populations.

Cantor Pinḥas Minkowski (back row, sixth from right) and the boys’ choir in the Brody synagogue, Odessa, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

The initial impetus to religious reform in Russia came from the west. As Jews from Galicia moved to Russian cities, they brought with them a preference for a dignified decorous service that, though not in opposition to Jewish law, nonetheless aroused opposition because it departed from reigning custom. In 1841, a new house of worship called the Brody Synagogue was established in Odessa by Galician Jews who had moved into the relatively new Jewish community in this commercial, cosmopolitan city. Here customs that were deemed out of keeping with the sacred space of a house of God, such as the sale of synagogue honors, were abolished; certain recondite medieval prayers (piyutim) were dropped from the liturgy; the music was rendered in a harmonious fashion; and moralistic German-language sermons were given on a regular basis. In the course of time these reforms were expanded, notably by the addition of organ music to accompany the worship.

Among the Odessa maskilim, the most articulate proponent of religious reform was Joachim Tarnopol (1810–1900), a wealthy merchant very much influenced by the course of religious reform in Germany, which he proposed as a model for Russian Jewry. Writing during the period of political hopefulness in the first years of the reign of Alexander II, Tarnopol argued, as did the German reformers, that the synagogue must be made more attractive to a younger generation that was forsaking it at a time when non-Jewish society seemed to be opening itself up to them.

To the north, in Vilna, a second initiative was undertaken by a group of maskilim for whom a reformed religious service was one expression of their enlightenment. In 1847, they created a modern synagogue, which they called Tohorat ha-Kodesh (Purity of Holiness). Its preacher, who spoke in Hebrew or Yiddish, was the prominent maskil  Avraham Dov Lebensohn (1794–1878). Those in attendance included an unusually high proportion of both younger and older women, who filled the women’s section to overflowing. A second modernized synagogue, intended especially for students, was created shortly thereafter in the building of the city’s newly founded rabbinical seminary.

A somewhat more far-reaching reform was undertaken in Riga, where the young Max Lilienthal (1815–1882), a German-born rabbi who was later called upon to assist in Count Sergei Uvarov’s ill-fated effort to reeducate Russian Jewry, served for a brief time as rabbi and preacher. In 1840, Lilienthal introduced a confirmation ceremony for girls who had completed a course of instruction in a catechism composed by the German Reform rabbi Solomon Herxheimer (1801–1884). As part of the ceremony, both mothers and fathers were called upon to bless their daughters. Lilienthal also officiated at wedding ceremonies of an egalitarian nature, where reciprocal vows were exchanged. His concern for greater religious equality for women would later be taken up by Leon Mandel’shtam (1819–1889), the first Jew to study in a Russian university. Among Mandel’shtam’s proposals for religious reform was his suggestion that women not only be taught Torah but also become subject to some of the same religious obligations that Jewish law required only of men.

Rosh Hashanah greeting postcard depicting a Reform and an Orthodox Jew shaking hands. The Yiddish verse reads: “‘German’ [Reform Jew] or Hasid, rich or poor, / Be brotherly and shake hands! / May you be inscribed for the new year— / Whoever or whatever you are!” Published by Verlag Jehudia, Warsaw. (YIVO)

Religious reform came, as well, to the Polish portion of the tsarist empire. As early as 1802, a banker from Germany established what became known as the German shul in his home in Warsaw. Much later, in 1843, the maskilim of the city completed the construction of an impressive synagogue. Its service was accompanied by a choir and featured sermons given by a German rabbi. Consisting mainly of a culturally and socially distinct group of transplanted Jews from the West, the congregation had little influence on the larger community. For later generations, however, the German character of the constituency increasingly gave way to a Polish orientation; eventually Polish replaced German as the language of sermons. Toward the end of the century, a few Warsaw Jews, whose spokesman was the journalist Szmul Hirsz Peltyn (1831–1896), favored a more radical reform. Peltyn, an enthusiastic Polish patriot and idealist, argued for removing passages from the liturgy that dealt with the sacrificial service of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and with the coming of a messiah who would bring all Jews back to the land of Israel. It was largely through Peltyn’s efforts that a circle of about 150 Warsaw Jews, despairing of the prospect for further reform within the Great Synagogue of the city, began to meet privately during the 1880s to explore the possibility of more radical steps. However, they lacked the energy and wherewithal to give practical expression to their ideas. Thus religious reform in Warsaw, as elsewhere in the tsarist empire, remained very moderate by the standards of German and later American Jewry.

The other dimension of religious reform in tsarist Russia was the dispute over the application of Jewish law. Unlike in the West, where the rabbinate had been thoroughly shorn of its powers, in Russia rabbis continued to possess considerable authority to affect Jewish personal lives. Some of the most prominent Russian maskilim devoted themselves for a time to arguing for greater flexibility and leniency in the interpretation of the Halakhah. Mosheh Leib Lilienblum (1843–1910), like Aharon Chorin in Hungary, believed in the possibility of a reformation of Jewish law based on Talmudic precedent. In a series of articles published in the Haskalah periodical Ha-Melits, Lilienblum called upon the rabbinate to take the initiative to make the law more responsive to the needs and concerns of daily life. However, Lilienblum’s proposals aroused more opposition than assent. Disillusioned and increasingly falling under the influence of more radical currents, Lilienblum soon abandoned his efforts as he drifted toward positivism and eventually Zionism.

More persistent in his advocacy of Jewish legal reforms, the Haskalah poet Yehudah Leib Gordon (1831–1892) met with similar frustration and disappointment. He, too, held up the Talmud as a model of religious adaptation and argued that without timely religious reform, more radical measures might become necessary to prevent alienation and permanent rifts within the Jewish community.

Given the increased outside pressure on Russian Jewry during the reigns of the last two tsars, a moderate and mediating solution to the conflict between Judaism and modernity, such as that advocated by Lilienblum and Gordon, could not resonate. The largely aesthetic reforms in the “choir temples” of the larger cities could not provide a popular bridge between a resilient orthodoxy and an advancing secularism.

The Twentieth Century

The militantly antireligious materialism of the Soviet regime associated modernity with atheism and stifled religious reflection. In Communist Russia, religious reform was not an option. In interwar Poland, synagogues with slightly modified rituals continued to serve the more acculturated Jews in such cities as Warsaw, Lwów, Kraków, Łódź, and a few smaller towns, in some cases persisting until the Holocaust. However, an effort in 1929 by the international body of the Reform movement, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, to extend its constituency to Poland floundered upon the reported lack of interest in a religious interpretation of Judaism among those secular Jews who were drawn to Jewish culture.

A female cantor leading a Reform congregation, Hineni, during a Friday night service, Moscow, 2003. Lacking a synagogue, the congregation assembled in the House of Culture of Automobile Workers. Photograph by Karl Schatz. (© Karl Schatz)

An unprecedented opportunity for religious reform in Eastern Europe developed following the shattering influence of the Holocaust, the pride-instilling creation of the State of Israel, and, most significantly, the demise of communism. The revival of interest in Judaism, which began in the late 1960s, developed into a desire to recover Jewish roots, a process that became much easier to implement institutionally in the 1990s. An increasing number of younger Jews who had grown up without Jewish knowledge or observance and were in many cases not halakhicly Jewish or were intermarried began to turn to educational and religious institutions sponsored by Conservative and Reform Judaism that blossomed in the various states of the new Eastern Europe. Stressing Jewish culture along with religion, synagogues associated with the world Reform movement sprang up in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and Tallinn. In the former Soviet Union—in Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine, as well as Russia—tens of thousands of Jews became affiliated firmly or loosely with a network of about 70 mostly Reform-associated congregations and circles stretching all the way to Birobidzhan. The first of these congregations, Hineni, was established in Moscow in 1990. These congregations have been served by a small modern rabbinate composed largely of Jews who were themselves born in Eastern Europe and trained in the West. In Moscow there has been a program sponsored by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, training activists for positions of spiritual leadership in communities where Progressive rabbis are not available. Programs include educational seminars and summer camps for youth. Financial and other assistance has come from congregations in the United States. Although the Reform and Conservative movements remain small and embattled in the former Soviet Union, their gender egalitarianism, liturgical flexibility, and greater readiness to accept converts and partners in mixed marriages represent a more thoroughgoing expression of religious reform than had characterized Eastern Europe at any earlier time.

Suggested Reading

Michael Beizer, “Religious Reform: An Option for the Jews of Russia in the First Quarter of the 20th Century? Example of St. Petersburg-Leningrad,” in Proceedings of the Twelfth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division B, pp. 199–208 (Jerusalem, 2000); Julian J. Bussgang, “The Progressive Synagogue in Lwów,” Polin 11 (1998): 127–153; Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, “The Jewish Reform Movement in Transylvania and Banat: Rabbi Aaron Chorin,” Studia Judaica 5 (1996): 13–60; Stephen D. Corrsin, “Progressive Judaism in Poland: Dilemmas of Modernity and Identity,” in Cultures and Nations of Central and Eastern Europe: Essays in Honor of Roman Szporluk, ed. Zvi Gitelman et al., pp. 89–99 (Cambridge, Mass., 2000); David Ellenson, “A Disputed Precedent: The Prague Organ in Nineteenth-Century Central-European Legal Literature and Polemics,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 40 (1995): 251–264; Aleksander Guterman, “Ha-pulmus be-kitvei-‘et yehudiyim be-polanit bi-devar tikunim be-dat (1861–1885),” Gal-Ed 10 (1988): 41–63; Hanna Kozińska-Witt, Die Krakauer Jüdische Reformgemeinde 1864–1874 (Frankfurt a.M., and New York, 1999); Michael A. Meyer, “The German Model of Religious Reform and Russian Jewry,” in Danzig, between East and West: Aspects of Modern Jewish History, ed. Isadore Twersky, pp. 67–91 (Cambridge, Mass., 1985); Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1988); Mikhail Polishchuk, “Was There a Jewish Reform Movement in Russia?” Shvut 8.24 (1999): 1–35; František Roubík, “Von den Anfängen des Vereines für Verbesserung des israelitischen Kultus in Böhmen,” Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik 9 (1938): 411–447; Michael K. Silber, “The Historical Experience of German Jewry and Its Impact on Haskalah and Reform in Hungary,” in Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, ed. Jacob Katz, pp. 107–158 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1987); Michael K. Silber, “The Social Composition of the Pest Radical Reform Society (Genossenschaft für Reform im Judenthum), 1848–1852,” Jewish Social Studies 1.3 (Spring 1995): 99–128; Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil?: Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (New York, 1988).