120 years in the creation: Progressive Judaism offers a home for unaffiliated Jews

Image credit: zeevveez from Jerusalem, Israel, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Lianne Kolirin

Leaders of the newly branded Progressive Judaism hope their collaboration will engage some of Britain’s thousands of unaffiliated Jews.

Earlier this week Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism announced they were joining forces to become a new movement.

Progressive Judaism is fronted by Rabbi Josh Levy, newly appointed chief executive of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Charley Baginsky, chief executive at Liberal Judaism.

In an interview with the Religion Media Centre, the pair outlined their vision for the organisation, which they believe will be more diverse, creative and dynamic. Together, their network comprises 83 communities totalling about 40,000 members and across Britain and even in to Europe, with congregations in Dublin and Copenhagen.

They hope their reach can expand further, by appealing to the many thousands of unaffiliated British Jews. “One of the really important challenges facing the Jewish world at the moment is the number of people who are not yet engaged with Jewish life in the way we would like,” Rabbi Levy said.

According to their data, up to 75,000 UK households include a resident who identifies as Jewish — but who are not members of a synagogue.

Rabbi Levy said: “We believe the Judaism we offer is a Judaism that should speak to them because of its intellectual honesty, its diversity, its inclusivity, its non-dogmatic nature. We want people to access that and we will do that better by doing that together.”

The union brings the UK in line with most other countries, including the United States and Israel, which operate with one united Progressive Jewish movement, they say.

Just don’t call it a merger.

Rabbi Baginsky said: “In Hebrew we talk a lot about the roots of words and we end up with merger as this kind of submerging of identity or a meshing together and losing something.”

Members are not being asked to adopt new practices or beliefs, change their services or the names of their synagogues, they insist. “We love talking about partnership, about collaboration, because it really goes to the heart of what our vision is which is about thriving, growth, confidence, opportunity — as opposed to submerging or loss,” Rabbi Baginsky added.

Though the announcement was made this week, the topic has long been debated while the two strands have long agreed on issues such as egalitarian services and same-sex marriages. “This is a decision probably about 120 years in the making and also three months in the making and also a whole series of decisions that are still to come,” Rabbi Levy said.

“The last time there was a conversation about bringing these two organisations together was in 1984 and there were substantive differences which made it much more difficult for them to have that conversation,” Rabbi Levy said. “A lot of those differences have been resolved and there’s much more interconnectedness between the two movements.”

Those differences, Rabbi Baginsky explained, were mainly about status — how Judaism is inherited — as well as the status of mixed-faith couples.

The last big difference, according to an opinion piece the pair wrote for the Jewish News, “fell in 2015”. They wrote: “Since that date both our movements have been able to recognise the Jewish status of those with one Jewish parent, without asking them to undergo conversion, irrespective of the gender of the parent.”

There were also cultural differences, Rabbi Baginsky said. “Liberal Judaism has traditionally been the smaller movement and so there were differences in the way it saw itself — it was always slightly concerned about being taken over by a larger movement. Reform Judaism was very confident as well and didn’t necessarily need to be in partnership with another movement.”

She added: “When organisations grow up in the way that ours did, side by side, they grow up in their own image and sometimes you need a moment in time to allow you to see that actually those things that seemed insurmountable — or important to be different — don’t have the same status any more and that there are other things that become more pressing. And we’re in that moment now.”

Rabbi Levy added: “The world has changed around us a great deal and I think we’re much more comfortable with the multiplicity of voice and diversity and creativity that actually is our offering to the world.”

Last year the Institute for Jewish Policy Research released a study predicting that 40 per cent of Britain’s Jewish population will be Haredi — or strictly Orthodox — by 2040. This may in part explain why the progressive side of the faith have joined forces.

“People are living in a time when hope is really important and excitement and a confidence that there will be a vital Jewish expression for their grandchildren and generations to come,” Rabbi Baginsky said. The aim, according to Rabbi Levy, is to “better resource and support” their communities.

Meanwhile the events of recent years also helped to expedite the process, he said. “The pandemic helped to see each other differently and to recognise how much we have in common in terms of the creativity of our response, the openness of our approaches and also as in so many other places in the charity sector, the importance of working together in order to maximise impact.”

Together, progressive Jews make up about 30 per cent of those affiliated to UK synagogues. Rabbis from both strands train at the Leo Baeck College in north London and often work across both settings.

Messages of congratulations have flooded in from all over the world, the two rabbis said. “We’ve had wonderful messages from all areas of the Jewish world: the Sephardi community, the Federation, the United Synagogue, Masorti — all have sent us really good wishes and that they are looking to continuing to work with us in the way that they have until now, but with even more vibrancy,” Rabbi Baginsky said.

“I think the Orthodox world are delighted for us. We have a very good relationship in the UK and there’s a real recognition that good expressions and creative communities, is good for the Jewish world. It means Judaism is alive and well and growing and confident across the board.”


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