Today, the first day of the Jewish New Year, Benetta Mansfield begins her delicate mission. A new board member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Mansfield gets to sit on the stage during the High Holy Day services. From there she can watch the congregation, keep an eye on them, make sure they don't veer in the wrong direction.
For Mansfield, wrong means going too far back to the past. That's been her fear ever since last May when leaders of Reform Judaism dropped a theological bomb, adopting a new "Statement of Principles" that steers American Judaism's most progressive and popular wing back toward traditional rituals.
For Mansfield's family, the document came at exactly the wrong time. Over the past decade, the 47-year-old lawyer and her two children have been slowly embracing Judaism more closely as a central part of their lives. But her husband, Nick Nichols, is Irish Catholic. This year, for the first time, she asked him to convert. And while he is deciding, she wants everything to stay perfectly still. So for that and other reasons, she doesn't want her synagogue turning too traditional right now.
"As a board member I have more of a say on what happens," she said. "I can be one more voice arguing that everyone should feel included."
The so-called Pittsburgh Platform went through years of massaging and drafts before being approved by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in a ringing 324 to 68 vote. It gently encourages Reform Jews to embrace practices once thought as the exclusive domain of their more conservative counterparts: studying Hebrew and the Torah, moving to Israel, recognizing the sacredness of the Jewish Sabbath by resting and praying on Saturdays.
The document does not comment on two especially sensitive issues: keeping kosher and intermarriage. And like most mandates in Reform Judaism, it is not binding; each congregation can interpret it as it wishes.
Still, its message is unmistakable for the 1.5 million of America's 6 million Jews who belong to a Reform synagogue: Judaism is more than a cultural identity, and membership no longer guarantees a low-pain threshold. As Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana, the document is calling them to a fresh start, to find more ways to set aside time in their settled secular lives to venerate God.
Can you make it to synagogue Friday night and skip the movies? Will you take your kids out of the Saturday soccer league? How about Haifa instead of Aruba for your next vacation?
Among observant Reform Jews, the document stirred mixed emotions.
Mansfield couldn't help but fear that it would be only a matter of time before intermarriage became unacceptable.
"We've grappled a lot in this family with this whole interfaith thing. We've really struggled to find something we all felt comfortable with," she said, heating up dinner in the family's sunny Arlington kitchen. "At some point we decided it's better to raise the kids Jewish than to raise them as nothing, but anything that makes it more conservative pushes us to the edge. I don't want to say it's wrong, but it's definitely wrong for us at this time."
It was right, though, for Cal and Barbara Klausner -- another Rodef Shalom family and close friends of the Mansfield-Nichols family. For them, the Pittsburgh Platform was an affirmation of where they and thousands of other Reform Jewish families already have been headed for at least a decade: back to a more meaning-filled observance of their faith.
"Reform Judaism has been moving toward becoming more traditional," said Barbara Klausner, 46, as she set the dining room table in their Arlington home with a fresh loaf of challah and a bottle of red wine for the weekly Shabbat candle-lighting, "and I think the rabbis felt they had to make that clear."
As they shared the braided bread, each child recounted the best thing that happened to them that week. Sam Klausner, 10, said with a shrug that nothing in the past few days had topped his election as school treasurer the week before. Hannah, 13, announced she had gotten an award for "Most Enthusiastic" in her French class. Curly-haired Josef, 2, transfixed by the candle flames, said little.
After a quick dinner, the family was off to services at Rodef Shalom. There, Rabbi Emeritus Laszlo Berkowits, 71, who founded the synagogue in 1962 when Reform Jews hardly ever wore skullcaps, sits next to Senior Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, 35, who always wears one. But he is untroubled by the return to tradition.
"We have recovered some of the treasures put away for the time being and it's the younger generation who's doing it," he said. They seem, he added, "more appreciative of the symbolic power of ritual observance."
Despite their different reactions to the Pittsburgh Platform, both Mansfield and the Klausners emerged from similar religious backgrounds. Raised by parents who tried to hide their Jewishness in order to pass in a Christian America, they all slowly rediscovered their religious roots as adults.
Cal Klausner, 49, a certified public accountant, was raised by nominally Jewish parents who were not affiliated with any synagogue and never educated him about his faith. Barbara's mother was a Holocaust survivor from Austria who came to the United States after World War II.
"When she came here, all she wanted was to blend in," said Barbara Klausner, adding that she grew up with a "watered down" and "very American" kind of Reform Judaism.
For her part, Mansfield was born a "red-diaper baby" to communist Jews in Chicago who had no use for God. To her parents, being Jewish was merely a cultural identity.
On afternoons, the children attended a Jewish Field School, a socialist version of Hebrew school. There they learned about Jewish culture and history, and unlearned any belief in God. Mansfield's younger sister had to beg her parents to let her stay home from public school on Yom Kippur, the most sacred of Jewish holidays, so she wouldn't feel humiliated in front of the rest of the Jewish kids.
Later, when their father died, the children insisted on a Jewish funeral. As the rabbi gave the standard eulogy about a lifetime commitment to God, Mansfield recalled, their mother yelled out "never, never, not a day in his life."
Finding the Faith
Both the Klausners and the Mansfield-Nicholses began to reconnect to Judaism the way most baby-boomer parents do. During the mid-'80s, both couples heard that Rodef Shalom had a good nursery school and decided to enroll their daughters. If the family joined the temple, they would get a discount. By then, the congregation counted about 600 families.
Soon the girls started coming home telling stories about Jewish holidays like Purim and needing help with their Hebrew homework. The parents were forced to face how little they knew. Benetta Mansfield enrolled in Rodef Shalom's Judaism 101 and Cal Klausner started taking Hebrew classes.
Symbolically, the Klausners sealed their commitment to a different life than their parents' during what Cal recalls as an "extremely emotional" day in 1994.
With a score of other adult Jews, he was confirmed in a bar mitzvah. Watching him that day was his mother-in-law, a living symbol of Judaism's ability to endure. Referring to the moment in the ceremony when the Torah is passed from rabbi to grandparents to parents and then to the person celebrating the bar mitzvah, he observed that "until I was bar mitzvahed, I didn't feel I was the right person to pass Judaism from grandparents to my children -- it completed a link between generations."
Like the Klausners, the Mansfield-Nicholses also had been making more room for God over the past decade. As the synagogue became a more integral part of their lives, the question of Nichols's conversion was inevitable.
"Why would you want to convert?" Briana, 16, asked her father. He doesn't really have an answer, not yet. He left Catholicism because he felt the church was too political, too conservative for his tastes. He feels comfortable at Rodef Shalom, thanks to an odd situation: When the synagogue was choosing a new rabbi, the board was split. Nichols, who runs his own corporate crisis firm, was asked to guide them.
He was at Rodef so often people at the synagogue got to know Benetta as his wife. But faith is a more profound decision than casual friendships. "If I were anything, I would want to be Jewish," he said. "But I'm not sure if I want to be anything."
While he is deciding, his wife feels the worst thing that could happen is for the synagogue to become less inclusive.
"If they said you're not a good Jew unless you keep kosher I would feel uncomfortable," she said. "If it became so religious non-Jews felt uncomfortable, that's where I would draw the line."
Passing on the Tradition
In the wake of the Pittsburgh Platform, the religious future of the Mansfield-Nichols household is murky.
"No one can define my Judaism," said Briana, opening the Mansfield-Nichols dinner table talk on a note of teenage defiance. "I would put my foot down at someone saying because you drive on Yom Kippur you can't be Jewish. You are what you consider yourself."
"But I think it's important to keep up traditions," said her mother. "I wouldn't mind keeping Shabbat. I like lighting the candles."
"Think about it, Mom. You can't do work, you can't use the car," answered Briana, ever the realist.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far."
"And I couldn't go out on Friday night."
"Now that would be good."
Briana can be this flip because she takes her religion for granted. For all her rebellious talk, she and her brother are reflexively, naturally Jewish. She's been roaming the foyer of Rodef Shalom since she was 2 years old, and this year she went through her confirmation, a second willful commitment to Judaism.
Last June, Adam had his bar mitzvah. Posing for pictures in the sanctuary, he was as relaxed as any 13-year-old who is about to read a foreign language in front of 100 people can be. One of them was his grandmother, the former communist, who had come all the way from Chicago in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank, ready to play her role in a dashing pink suit.
The services began, and one by one the potential hurdles melted away. Adam's father didn't know the words to the songs, but he played his part with grace. His Torah portions were carefully chosen to avoid highlighting the obvious. "And now my child, I pray that you will always be worthy of this inheritance," he read, while his wife took the passages that mentioned "our people."
Then came the central part of the service, when the child reads from the Torah for the first time and takes on the duties of a man. The moment signifies the passing of generations, "the transmission of heritage," as it says in the program.
As symbols often do, this one muted all the distinctions -- the Catholic father, the communist grandmother -- and united the family in their new chosen future.
"It is a central part of our custom to recognize that the grandmother's generation helped Adam to reach this day," said the rabbi. The grandmother was wheeled onto the stage, and Adam thanked her in the most emotional moment of the morning.
And just as she did at a funeral years earlier, Adam, on this day he became an adult, reset the family's spiritual compass.
Judaism in America
There are about 6 million Jews in America. Their denominations break down as follows:
"Just Jewish" 24%
SOURCE: American Jewish Committee Annual Survey