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History

Cincinnati is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North America. What exactly does that mean?

brown brick temple with two spires as seen from the northwest, with afternoon sun on building
Tana Weingartner
/
WVXU
The Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati is where Rabbi Isaac M. Wise founded the institutions of Reform Judaism.

Cincinnati's Jewish community is celebrating 200 years of communal life. The Queen City played a pivotal role in the development of the Jewish faith outside of Europe, becoming the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North America.

WVXU's Tana Weingartner spoke with Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, dean of Hebrew Union College, about that history. Here's their conversation:

Tana Weingartner: Let's start with the basics. What is Reform Judaism?

Rabbi Jonathon Hecht: Reform Judaism started in the 1800s as a movement of liturgical reform and an educational reform in Germany. The idea was that we wanted to make services shorter, to use the vernacular, and also to change the education process to make it more in keeping with modern educational principles.

TW: So what do we mean when we say that Cincinnati is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North America?

JH: Those ideas of trying to liberalize and to change and adapt Judaism to make it fit into the modern world that started in Europe also came to the United States with immigrants who were arriving here, and who also were interested in changing it - making their Judaism fit into their their new lifestyle in these newly adopted countries.

TW: Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise — who is he and why did he create this movement? Why is he considered the father of Reform Judaism?

JH: Isaac Mayer Wise was one of a number of rabbis who were interested in making these changes in these traditional synagogues that they came to in America. Before coming to Cincinnati, he was the rabbi in Albany. Some of the introductions that he was introducing in the congregation were were not welcomed. And so from Albany, he came here to become the Rabbi of the temple, which is called B'nai Yeshurun. It's the second temple that was founded here in Cincinnati, and that temple now bears his name, Isaac M. Wise Temple.

In 1853, he became the leader here and began introducing some of those liberalised reforms in the worship service, and he began building institutions that are the core institutions of Reform Judaism that continue to today. He founded, in 1873, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which was trying to bring together a number of these congregations that were trying to institute reforms in their traditional worship.

Then in 1875, he founded Hebrew Union College here in Cincinnati in order to train rabbis to serve these congregations and to serve congregations of all different types. There was no such thing as Reform until years later as people began reacting to these changes. That's when Conservative and Orthodox Judaism began.

Then in 1889, he founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the professional organization of reform rabbis to this very day.

So if you think about it, the three major institutions of Reform Judaism today, all founded here in Cincinnati, continue to today and have global reach all starting here in Cincinnati, which is why this is the birthplace of Reform Judaism.

TW: That was going to be my next question. How has this movement changed Judaism in general worldwide?

JH: The structure of having an organization of synagogues, having a seminary that supports the movement, and having an organization of professional rabbis, has been replicated by the Conservative and the Orthodox movements in this country. So not only have Reform Judaism and Cincinnati had an impact on this important development in America, but it also has impacted world Jewry, even people who don't agree with the things that we're doing.

TW: Thank you so very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

JH: You're welcome. Pleasure to be here.

TW: Rabbi Jonathan Hecht is dean and director of the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College right here in Cincinnati.