Activism for progressive Judaism: Can we do better?

by Maskil on January 22, 2009

During the latter half of 2008, The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) lent its support to two important online petitions (e-petitions) on behalf of member unions. In both cases, the response from progressive Jews worldwide was less than rousing.

In the first case, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) attempted to gather signatures to support seeking official recognition and a state salary for Rabbi Miri Gold, of Kibbutz Gezer in Israel. This is a potentially ground-breaking case, as a positive outcome would set the precedent for official recognition of progressive rabbis across Israel, and hopefully lead to an improved status for progressive Judaism there.

In the second, the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ) is attempting to gain access to the King David Jewish day schools network for Netzer, the Reform youth movement. The King David schools should be a resource for the entire SA Jewish community, but have instead been hijacked by the Orthodox majority there.

Progressive Judaism claims to be the largest stream within Judaism worldwide (with 1.7 million adherents). Progressive Jews are presumably largely computer literate, and have in the past overwhelmingly supported initiatives on behalf of anything from Climate Change action to the genocide in Darfur. Despite these factors, however, only 3,500 signatures had been gathered by end-November 2008 for the IMPJ e-petition (against a target of at least 10,000). In the case of the SAUPJ initiative, only 538 signatures (against a target of 500) have been added to date. In order to be truly effective, the first needs to be supported by tens, if not hundreds of thousand of signatories, while the second would have carried far more weight if endorsed by thousands rather than hundreds.

These results are disappointing, to say the least; perhaps even shockingly so. What went wrong with these two initiatives, and how can we ensure that future efforts receive the support they deserve from progressive Jews worldwide? To my mind, there are two factors to be addressed:

Attitude

I think we’re seeing an example of the barber’s children going with hair uncut. Progressive Jews have simply adopted so many causes, that there’s no drive or energy left for something closer to home. Charity doesn’t have to begin at home, but it should also not be neglected.

Not neglecting our own issues is doubly important in the case of those relating to Israel. I believe that progressive Judaism will always be taken less than seriously and will always find itself in a defensive posture, until it receives official recognition and equality in the Jewish State.

We need to take the approach that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and simply not accept second-class citizenship or a lesser status for progressive Judaism anywhere in the world, but particularly not in Israel.

Approach

To ensure an effective response to issues such as the two above, the initiative still needs to begin with a union (e.g. IMPJ, SAUPJ or URJ), but should then be adopted and coordinated by the WUPJ.

The issue and call to action (e.g. an e-petition) should be communicated to all progressive Jews worldwide, either by the WUPJ, the union, the congregation, or a combination of all three. The issue (including links to the appropriate online petition, donation page, etc.) should also be communicated through the official websites, blogs and e-newsletters of all these bodies. Members should also be encouraged to forward the material to their own “e-brigades” (something we all have).

We should also try to standardise on a single online petition site for all WUPJ-backed petitions, preferably one that allows us to create a dedicated area for all related petitions.  Someone adding their name to one petition could thereby be made aware of others of interest to progressive Jews.

Issues relating to privacy policies, etc., should be addressed by all progressive unions worldwide before the next such initiative, to ensure that no union is unable to support a petition due to privacy or related concerns (this seems to have been a problem regarding URJ support for the IMPJ e-petition).

Such a combined “bottom-up” and “top-down” approach should prove more effective in both reaching and motivating the widest possible audience when these initiatives are undertaken in future.

In conclusion, progressive Judaism is facing many challenges, opportunities and threats worldwide. Where armchair activist tools such as electronic or online petitions can help us to meet those challenges, the WUPJ and all its member unions and congregations should present a united front and a coordinated approach.

Altneuland: The Haredisation of Jewish Education in SA

Cafe Birkenreis: Stand Up for Reform Judaism in Israel!

Cafe Birkenreis: Netzer effectively banned at King David Schools

Israeli Congregational Rabbi Seeks Further Support For State Recognition

(An earlier draft of this post was published on the Reform Judaism blog.)

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