Whither Reform Judaism

When did we stop caring about Jewish identity? When did we stop caring about Jewish continuity? And why?

When I entered HUC-LA in the fall of 1968, the very first weekend featured an informative seminar on officiating at interfaith marriages. The panel consisted of the eminent Rabbi Max Nussbaum, z’l, of Hollywood Temple Israel, and two others.

Rabbi Nussbaum persuasively represented what was at the time – by a vast margin — the majority position of CCAR rabbis. He explained why he does not officiate. His role, he emphasized, was to create Jewish families and promote Jewish identity.

Another panelist, from the surrounding LA area said he would officiate if the intention of the couple was to have a Jewish home and Jewish children. In other words, he would officiate at an inter-marriage if he felt it would create a Jewish family and foster Jewish identity.

The third position was so outlandishly unusual at the time that they had to import a rabbi all the way from Baltimore to represent it. He stated, “My condition for officiating at a marriage ceremony is that a couple asks me to.”

Little more than half a century later, it seems that this “third position” has become almost mainstream. The evidence is in the online advertisements that many of our colleagues’ post proclaiming themselves eager and happy to perform weddings not only for interfaith couples but in cooperation with clergy of other faiths.

How did we get from where we were in 1968 to where we are today?

One reason is that there are fewer Jews affiliating with congregations, and therefore fewer congregations hiring rabbis. HUC-JIR’s goal in the 80’s, 90’s and to this day seems to be to create as many Reform rabbis as possible without concern for what the job market can carry. The result is that more of our colleagues must find new and creative ways to earn a livelihood. Without question wedding officiation can be a viable avenue.

Then, as has been frequently observed, there is the relatively recent phenomena of “Rabbi Mills,” online “seminaries” offering quick and remote learning processes leading to “ordination.” These “rabbis” in my observation rarely impose conditions on marriage ceremonies they are asked to perform. 

We must also consider the evolutionary development of Outreach. When he first introduced the term in 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z’l, was very clear: “We oppose intermarriage, but we embrace the intermarried.” Rabbis who worked for the UAHC (which became the URJ) were forbidden to officiate at interfaith ceremonies.

In relatively short order the tension between those two legitimate values – opposing intermarriage while embracing the intermarried — proved difficult if not impossible to maintain. Increasingly, congregations demanded willingness to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment.

When, despite my unwillingness to officiate at interfaith marriages, I was invited in 1986 to assume a pulpit in Nashville where my predecessor of 25 years officiated, colleagues from around the country contacted me to ask, “How did you do it?” I doubt I could “do it” today.

Rabbis who changed their position and announced their willingness to officiate reported the joy with which their congregations greeted their decision to become “open-minded” on this important question.

In the wake of “audacious hospitality” recent statements by Reform Rabbis decry any concern with “Jewish identity” and distance themselves from the once universally accepted notion that it is preferable for Jews to marry Jews.

Increasingly too, Rabbis consider it fine for member families to raise their children as both Christians and Jews. Consequently, they willingly perform baby naming or brit milah ceremonies for children who will also be or have been baptized. 

Before long, I fear, the increasingly strong push by many will cause HUC-JIR to welcome as candidates for ordination students with non-Jewish partners. As one younger colleague has shared with me, “It’s not a matter of, “If,” but, “When.”

Some colleagues who believe in these wide-open door innovations happily report upticks in involvement and their ability to reach increasing numbers of Jews. They see these developments as keys to a viable Jewish future.

Since the direction of our movement seems irreversible, I hope they are correct. But I have my doubts. “In The Origins of the Modern Jew Michael Meyer describes Moses Mendelsohn’s effort to live as an Orthodox Jew in the European world of his day as, “an ephemeral solution.”

The prevailing attitudes that are becoming predominant in our movement strike me similarly as an ephemeral solution only.

I cannot see allowing non-Jews to serve as Temple officers, ceasing to talk about the desirability of endogamous marriage, giving Hebrew names to babies also being raised as Christian, or of HUC students with non-Jewish partners becoming rabbis as being in the best interests of Jewish life.

The Story of Balak and Balaam reminds me that no outside force will ever destroy us https://findingourselvesinbiblicalnarratives.net/2015/07/02/before-you-sing-mah-tovu-again-please-read-this-parashat-balak-numbers-222-259/

Although present trends in our movement cause me to worry, that we may destroy ourselves, I cling to hope that we will not.

Despite all we have endured through history, the Eternal One has seen fit to keep our ancient Covenant intact and viable. So, I pray those moving Reform Judaism in the United States in its present direction are wiser than I am. And if they prove not to be, I pray that God will look to the indisputable loftiness of their motives and guide us through the error of their ways.

An Inspiring Journey*

Stefanie and I at her 100th birthday party

Born in Breslau in ’21

To begin an inspiring 

100-year run.

And now, surrounded

By so much love

Century Two has

Just begun.

As a child your art

Showed promise and flair,

You won a contest

Run by Luft Air.

You were to soar

Up over the city

But you could not go

And that was a pity.**

An idyllic childhood

The Nazis disrupted

Fating you with

Youth interrupted.

From Spain to Swiss land

And so many chores

It wasn’t fair

You had to scrub floors.***

When you left Breslau 

For Barcelona

Could you imagine

You’d land on Wawona?****

With Uli, Vickie, 

And my Lawdie, Lawdie

At age 42

Along came Miss Claudie!*****

Sons-in-law, grandkids

The numbers kept mounting

Six great grands you claim, 

And yes, we’re still counting!

But we could not know

That in more recent years

Your story would reach

Many hundreds of ears

Of youngsters in Germany

Whose lives you inspire

To strive, persevere

And climb ever higher.

Your journey, your struggles

Your triumphs your tears

Put a face on sad history

And make cloudy things clear.

Part of your legacy,

A gift we shall treasure

Are the lives that you’ve touched

In ways beyond measure.

German teens will reflect

On what happened then,

And because of your story

Vow, “Never again!”******

Yes, Steffi, you’ve had

A remarkable run

But the impact of your life

Has barely begun!

*Stefanie Steinberg, my wonderful mother-in-law, celebrated her 100th birthday recently. Here is my poetic tribute to her on that occasion. She is a celebrated artist whose paintings and collages adorn with great pride the homes of her children and grandchildren.

**At age ten, Stefanie won an art contest sponsored by Lufthansa airlines. The prize was an aerial tour of the region of Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) where Stefanie was born and lived until she was 14. Unfortunately, she became ill the night before she was to fly and could not claim her prize.

***In 1936 the family fled the Nazis to Barcelona, Spain. After the Spanish Civil War broke up Stefanie lived in a Kinderheim (orphanage) in Switzerland, where, yes, she had to scrub floors.

****Wawona is the name of the Street where Stefanie has lived since 1961 in San Francisco.

*****Stefanie and her husband, Uli (1915-1990) became parents of Vickie and then, by surprise, 15 years later of Claudia.

******An exhibit recounting Stefanie Steinberg’s life and experiences has been the basis of lessons Vickie and have taught beginning in 2014 in several German high schools where students identify with Stefanie and what she went through.

From Fear to Faith

For the first time in nearly two years Vickie and I are away from Sanibel and in San Francisco visiting our older two children and their families.  

Soon, we shall travel to Connecticut to reconnect meaningfully with our youngest and his growing clan. What a blessing it is to feel safe to travel and be with those we love! 

Recently, after a delicious vegan Chinese meal from one of San Francisco’s many wonderful Szechuan restaurants, I opened my fortune cookie and read: “Success is not a destination. It is making the journey.”

Such wisdom from a fortune cookie!

The cookie’s message reminded me of one of my favorite prayers written by, serendipitously, the late San Francisco Rabbi Alvin Fine, who – also serendipitously – was Vickie’s rabbi as she grew up.

Rabbi Fine wrote:

Birth is a beginning 

And death a destination 

And life is a journey

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age…

From defeat to defeat to defeat

Until we see that victory lies not

At some high point along the way

But in having made the journey…

How quickly the time has gone by! 

While I hope I have made the journey “from childhood to maturity” there is no question I have made the journey from “youth to age.” I must also acknowledge that at 75 I am closer to my “destination” than to my journey’s “beginning.” How did it happen so fast?

Wasn’t it yesterday that our children were babies crawling around on the floor?  Now our three are full-blown adults and have made Vickie and me grandparents eight times with a ninth on the way.

As I watch them play and interact with one another, I count my blessings and replay in my mind a flood of scenes from my past. I recall things I thought about and did when I was their different ages.

Without question, my life has had it share of “high points along the way” as well as its share of “defeats.” But thankfully, my journey continues.

In that regard Sanibel has been a source of untold inspiration.  Every day I see and marvel at people much older than I, who continue to live their lives with purpose and meaning. They are learning new things cultivating new hobbies and pursuing ones that have been meaningful for them over the years with great vigor and enthusiasm.

As I continue my journey, I pray to move – and I pray that all of us can move — in Rabbi Fine’s words:

From offence to forgiveness

From loneliness to love

From joy go gratitude

From pain to compassion

From grief to understanding

From fear to faith.


I first met her in the spring of ’98.  Congregation Beth Israel needed a new Cantor, and she came to interview. I was the new rabbi and part of the committee assigned the task of selecting my new pulpit partner.

Pamela sang well, but it was her spiritual essence that captured me.  Some of the committee members preferred the voice of one of the other interviewees. But the murmuring of my heart became a drumbeat: Pamela, Pamela, Pamela.

I had not planned to insinuate my opinion too heavily into the deliberations.  After all the lay people engaged the Cantor and she would be there to lead – not simply work with me – as our prayer leader.  Plus, I had not yet been there a year. I should express myself in a low-key way. 

But I felt my very future was at stake.

And so, I was insistent. 

“The other Cantor also has a fine voice,” I acknowledged, “but I have thirty plus years of pulpit intuition calling to me that Pamela Siskin should be our Cantor.”

 Looking back, I am so glad I was assertive.  More importantly, I know everyone else in the congregation is as well.

We worked together for thirteen years.  Her voice, her spiritual presence, and her work ethic all inspired me.  And that just speaks to her role on the pulpit.

Off the pulpit, she was if anything, even more amazing. She came to my office shortly after she arrived and announced, “We have to have a program for Seniors,” and she proceeded to outline an ambitious agenda including a discussion, a luncheon and a program.

“Great,” I said. “Let’s do this once a month.”

“No,” she answered, “we shall do this every week.” And she did. Under her direction SAGE (I always forget what the letters stand for) became the best senior program I have ever seen. It drew an enthusiastic crowd every week. It was a centerpiece of the lives of those who attended.

I marvel at Pamela Siskin’s creativity and musicianship. Purim, under her direction, became a “third High Holy Day” at Congregation Beth Israel.

One of the most joyous experiences for me in my retirement congregation in Florida was when Cantor Siskin guest-starred in our 2018 Purim celebration.

Most recently, one of Pamela’s dear cantorial friends has fallen on hard times. But it is no surprise to me that Pamela is spearheading a major fund-raising effort to help her out.

Looking back over my career at age 75, I gratefully count many blessings.  High on the list has been the privilege of sharing a pulpit, many confidences and my innermost hopes and dreams with Cantor Pamela Siskin.

Dick Goldberg

May 11, 2021 – Temple Isaiah

Just last Thursday, when I called him on Rita’s birthday, I told Dick that his place in the history of Temple Isaiah was comparable to the place of Babe Ruth in the history of the New York Yankees. Baseball was just one of many loves we shared.

I think the analogy is apt. Dick continued to play an active role in the workings of this congregation even though he has lived two hours away since 1994.  That was the year Dick left his position as Associate General Counsel and Vice President of the Rouse Company to further his distinguished career in Real Estate Law as a partner in the Ballard-Spahr law firm in Philadelphia.

The climax of Dick’s legal career came with his election as president of the American Collège of Real Estate Lawyers. In March of 2018, Dick received the Frederick S. Lane Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. 

Dick retired from the practice of Law in 2011 but kept very busy in the ensuing years as an adjunct professor at Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law. In addition, Dick lectured and taught Continuing Legal Education Classes across the country.

Yes, Dick enjoyed a truly distinguished professional career, but he spent so much time and energy as a volunteer in the Jewish and general communities that I marveled that he found time to practice Law at all.

In Philadelphia he served as President of his condominium association and the Center for Art and Wood. He was also a very active member of the Franklin Inn Club.

Although he gave time and energy to many activities, there is no doubt at all that Dick’s most passionate community interest was Temple Isaiah.

Dick and Rita came to Columbia a few weeks before I arrived on September 1, 1973, and our lives have been closely intertwined since then. He served as President of the Howard County Jewish Council and then as Temple Isaiah’s president. During that time, we met for lunch weekly and often at other times as well.

I learned so much from him, and I have never met a more dedicated volunteer.

Dick and his beloved Rita were married well over 50 years. Their precious son – their one and only – Andy tragically died in March of 2009. Rita died in the spring of 2018.

After she died, I wrote: “No more poignant definition of the word, ‘Alone,’ comes to my mind than Dick without Rita.”

But Dick bravely and purposefully carried on. He continued to devote himself to community activities and he continued to devote himself in many ways to the welfare of this congregation.

Almost all of us in this room and on this Zoom, have spouses, children, or siblings.  While he cherished the love of Rita’s sister Ellen, and his cousins, Jodi, and Stacey, for Dick, Temple Isaiah was his family. He loved this congregation and with good reason.

The leadership of Rabbi Axler was a great joy to him. His warmth, wisdom and menschlikeit inspired him.

I also cannot count the number of times Dick recalled to me with gratitude the support and comfort he received from Rabbi Panoff in the days preceding and following Andy’s tragic death.

And the Temple returned his love. His birthday Aliyah at the end of April brought him joy. And he was very proud to be, as he put it, “the only two-time Congregants’ Hour speaker in the history of the congregation.”

For Vickie, our children and me, Dick’s death is a very personal loss. Vickie finds it hard to imagine not being able to pick up the phone and hear his voice ever again.

As a little boy Leo reveled in his overnights at Dick and Rita’s. He told me, “Dad, you never had a greater supporter than Dick Goldberg.” When Leo decided to study to become a rabbi at age 42, Dick remarked, “My only surprise is that it took him so long.” Dick zoomed into some of the study sessions and services Leo conducted at his student pulpit in California. Indeed, Just as Dick was a great help to me on my rabbinical path, so has he been to our son.

Sarah Jenny, we like to say, was pushed out of the womb by the matzah balls Vickie ate at the second night Seder we shared at the Goldberg home on April 12, 1979. “He’s gone to be with Rita,” Sarah said when she heard he had died.

Dick gave Ben valuable advice when he left the Financial Planning firm for which he worked and went into business for himself.

As Vickie noted, “The Goldbergs have known us all our married life and have shared every important milestone with us including our children’s B’nai Mitzvah and their weddings. We were so honored to be part of their intimate 50th wedding anniversary dinner. It is hard to imagine life without them.”

For me Dick remained a friend and confidante until his last days. In our last conversation five days ago, Dick wistfully noted how true he found my words: “The definition of ‘Alone,’ is me without Rita.”

I think Dick endured that “Aloneness” as long as he could. Now, I think, and I hope, Sarah is right. They are together again, Dick, Rita and Andy, all healthy, strong and full of life:

At his Bar Mitzvah, on the Shabbat during Sukkot in 1982 Andy Goldberg read from the Torah these words from the book of Exodus that God addressed to Moses: “I have singled you out by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” (Exodus 33:12)

As the Eternal One welcomes Dick to his Eternal home, I imagine God addressing him with those very words: “I have singled you out by name, and you have found favor in My sight.”

Rest in peace, Dick! You are not alone, anymore.