For many years, Baltimore native Susan Wolf Dudley prayed by herself in her Pikesville residence with an old Reform siddur, or prayer book.
“After a while, I was lonely and sad, and I arranged to rent a room so others could join me,” she says.
Dudley started the Classical Reform Temple, with the first service ever at Pikesville’s Grey Rock Mansion drawing more than 100 people. The group promotes rationality, understanding and inclusion in its approach to what is generally known as classical Reform Judaism.
The Classical Reform Temple is a congregation without walls. For 18 years, the group has hosted free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the auditoriums of Pikesville and Owings Mills high schools, using a service created from the Reform movement’s old Union Prayer Book. Services generally last an hour and are led by members of the community.
For the first time, the Classical Reform Temple’s High Holiday services will be held this year at Martin’s Valley Mansion in Cockeysville, and all are welcome. Among those who will be in attendance will be Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, director of UMBC’s Hillel, who will be available to worshipers for weddings, funerals and other occasions.
Jmore recently spoke with Wolf Dudley and lay leader Donn Weinberg about the Classical Reform Temple and its mission.
Jmore: Explain the objective and essence of the Classical Reform Temple?
Dudley: Judaism is an ancient religion that remains relevant today and was the origin of monotheism in the world. Classical Reform modified many traditions that did not make sense in the modern world.
Our approach to Judaism is that we must be educated and informed about what our prayers mean and why we observe. In other words, ours is a rational approach to the worthwhile messages of Judaism. If something doesn’t make sense, we don’t observe it.
What does a typical High Holiday service at the Classical Reform Temple look like?
It’s free and you don’t have to reserve seats. We have generations of families attending services together. We hire a policeman to keep us all safe.
In the past, we’ve had between 500 and 1,000 people observe the High Holidays with us in the Classical Reform tradition. The Shema is said in Hebrew; the Kaddish is in Aramaic. In English, we read our words of thanks and praise to the One God.
At the conclusion of our Rosh Hashanah prayers, we sing Ein Keloheinu and Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and we hand out candy. At Yom Kippur services, we have a cellist who plays Kol Nidre. It’s exquisite.
What’s emphasized in the services?
We focus on living fairly, kindly, justly and thoughtfully. I hope people can finally understand what Judaism stands for. For us, it is not about cloaking oneself in holiness — by way of dress or diet or performing ancient rituals — and by avoiding the company of those who do not hold the same beliefs.
Donn, What about this approach resonates with you?
Weinberg: I’m a Jewish person who has never enjoyed the typical synagogue services. They take too long, they are extremely repetitive and mostly in Hebrew, which I don’t understand. Even when I read the translations, I found it very unsatisfying.
When Susan put together a one-hour service for the High Holidays — all in English — I found it meaningful. It emphasized ethical aspects of Judaism and the kinds of people we should be as Jews. And the Classical Reform Temple service avoids all of the repetition you would normally see.
It’s meaningful for the modern American Jew.
This year’s Classical Reform Temple services will be held at Martin’s Valley Mansion, 594 Cranbrook Rd. in Cockeysville, on Rosh Hashanah, Sept 30, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and on Yom Kippur, Oct. 9, from 1 to 2 p.m. For information, contact Susan Wolf Dudley at email@example.com.
Anna Lippe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.