A manifesto for progressive Judaism worldwide

by Maskil on 20 May 2008

The European Region Conference of The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) was held in Vienna on March 13 through 16, 2008. Rabbi Joel Oseran (Vice President, International Development) delivered an address to the conference that deserves to be far better known than it is. In fact, I believe it needs to become something akin to a manifesto for Liberal, Progressive and Reform Jewish communities worldwide.

The (presumably complete) text of Rabbi Oseran’s address can be read here or here, and I would encourage you to do so. A couple of highlights for me:

More Jews are living today in Europe than at any time in the past half century. Jewish communities throughout Europe are in the dynamic process of reconstituting their religious, cultural, social, educational, and, yes, even national identities.

And on the most personal, human level, we see tremendous movement before our eyes as well. Not a day goes by in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany and elsewhere across Europe when someone – not aware of having Jewish roots, not identifying as a Jew – doesn’t suddenly begin to question his or her identity, begin the personal search for religious meaning, posing the question: I want to know more about what it means to be Jewish – I just might be Jewish myself? More and more Jews – some according to Halacha, some according to patrilineality, some according to memory, some through being told by others and some through sheer intuition – more each day are thirsting for Jewish knowledge and connection. Sharing one common denominator – wanting to understand what it all means.

The last challenge I wish to stress may seem strange indeed to include but, in my opinion, it is at the heart of our problem. We liberal Jewish leaders in Europe have so deeply internalized our minority status, our meager numbers, our limited resources and our shortage of rabbinic leadership, that we simply do not ultimately believe in ourselves, in our message, or in the urgency of our action. Too often too many of us are content with the status quo. Too often, too many of us fail to realize that Jews across Europe need us, are waiting for us, are searching for a modern religious connection to their Jewish hearts and minds.

When I was in Budapest I saw clearly the powerful Neolog traditional denomination, absolutely uncontested as the religious leaders of the community, with their rabbinic school, rabbinic association, beit din, synagogue structures and what have you – all backed by the mighty Mashihitz structure. Everywhere you look, if it is Jewish and religious, it is probably Neolog. But when you ask, how many of Budapest’s Jewish community is involved in any way whatsoever with organized Jewish Neolog life, the answer is, perhaps, five percent. And the same is true throughout Europe in community after community where Orthodox majorities are so prominently positioned. When you look deeper into the matter, you see clearly that the Jewish people are not looking to find their religious, spiritual answers from orthodoxies, whether Chabad, or Hassidic, or even Neolog. Jews all over the world are not all that different actually. Whether in New York, London, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Sydney or Budapest, modern Jews are searching for appropriately modern yet traditional ways of reconnecting to their Jewish hearts and minds. If we are able to present ourselves as a viable, serious option, with the key building blocks I mentioned previously, we will be over-subscribed because that is where Amcha is and wants to be.

The following remarks were not part of Rabbi Oseran’s address, but I thought them “quoteworthy”:

As we concluded this most successful conference, it was clear to all that there is much work remaining on our European agenda. We must more effectively reshape our European Region administrative and programmatic capabilities to respond to the growing needs of our European movement. We must dramatically increase our financial resources to support the emerging communities that play such an important role for all Jews in Europe. We must do better in connecting our European Region to other World Union constituencies, primarily those in Israel and North America. And we must redouble our efforts to ensure that Progressive Judaism becomes a fully and officially recognized member of all European Jewish communities.

These are certainly ambitious challenges that we must take on if we are to succeed as the world’s leading Jewish religious movement. The Vienna conference left us all encouraged that we are indeed ready to work for our future as members of a proud Jewish heritage.

While the progressive streams of Judaism may not be in a position to compete with organizations such as Chabad head-on in terms of funding, we need to understand and act on our appeal to a great many of those looking for answers. Most would prefer their Judaism without the excess baggage of family dynasties, holy men and miracle workers, superstition and worship of dead rabbis as the Messiah. Most would prefer a Judaism that does not require the sacrifice of reason, conscience and the benefits and pitfalls of living in an open society. Most would prefer a Judaism that does not require the wearing of outlandish 17th or 18th century Eastern European costume. Most would prefer a Judaism that does not require Israel to be transformed into a corrupt, backward theocracy, or a country that assassinates its own leader in the name of retaining some part of the Land of Israel. For all of those, the progressive streams of Judaism can provide an answer.

While the article refers to the progressive movement in Europe, it has relevance for all Liberal, Progressive and Reform Jewish communities worldwide. We are all in a position to help those looking for spiritual answers, either as members of a developing congregation, or as members of more privileged communities in a position to help bootstrap those on the periphery.

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