Reform Judaism emerged by the late 1700s in Europe. Historically, Christians and other faiths around the world had discriminated against Jewish people. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, some nations began to relax restrictions on Jews and provided them with more economic, social, and political opportunities.
Orthodox Jews believed that Jews must follow traditions that had existed for centuries. By relaxing Judaism's rules, many Reform Jews believed that reluctant Jews would be more likely to remain true to Judaism. Reform Judaism created a less structured and more open version of the Jewish faith.
Reform Jews encouraged rabbis to conduct services in the language of the people rather than in Hebrew. They also introduced choral singing into services. They replaced the Bah Mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony and abandoned circumcision as a religious practice. Reform Judaism also permitted women and men to sit together in the same pews in a synagogue. Other traditional Jewish practices also were changed. Reform Jewish rabbis concluded that people should choose for themselves which religious practices to follow. Instead of establishing a strict religious dogma, Reform Jewish rabbis advocated freedom of choice.
One of the most prominent Reform Jewish rabbis of the nineteenth century was Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, Ohio. Wise created a common prayer book for followers of Reformed Judaism. In 1873, Wise formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This organization initially united thirty-four Reform Jewish congregations together under a national body. In 1875, Wise established Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. This institution was the first Jewish seminary in the United States and trained rabbis in the Reformed Jewish tradition. Wise served as the college's first president as well as a teacher. He also helped establish the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In the 1880s, approximately ninety percent of the synagogues within the United States belonged to the Reform tradition. In the nineteenth century, Conservative Judaism had arisen as an alternative to both Orthodox and Reform Judaism. In the twentieth century, it became second only to Reform Judaism in the number of its American adherents.
In 2001, the three major branches of American Judaism were Reform Judaism with about 1.1 million adult adherents, Conservative Judaism with about 940,000 adult adherents, and Orthodox Judaism with about 300,000 adult adherents.