A LOOK BACK – A LOOK AHEAD

CONNECTIONS 2017

A LOOK BACK – A LOOK AHEAD: 30 YEARS OF HISTORY WITH THE WORLD UNION FOR PROGRESSIVE JUDAISM

By: Rabbi Joel Oseran

 

It has been my great privilege to have been a part of the leadership team of the WUPJ for the past 30 years or essentially one-third of the history of the organization. I joined the WUPJ in 1986 and during the course of these past 30 years the pace of change in the world at large has been unprecedented, impacting as well unprecedented changes in the Jewish world. Who could have imagined in 1986 the dramatic fall of communism and the opportunity for renewed Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for millions of Jews denied their freedom for over half a century? Who could have imagined the unparalleled growth of Reform Judaism in North America these past three decades which has positioned Reform Judaism as the largest and most influential Jewish denomination by far in this key region of the world? Who could have imagined 30 years ago that Jewish life in Asia would be burgeoning with a model Progressive congregation in Hong Kong and growing Progressive communities in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and Bangkok. And no less dramatic, who could have imagined in 1986 that the percentage of Jews in Israel 30 years later who identify with Progressive/Traditional Judaism would reach nearly 10%.

What lessons have I learned over the 3 decades of my service to the WUPJ? My appreciation to the Connections Program Committee for inviting me to share my answer with you:

 

Lesson #1: The Importance of our Message

It may be so simple that we forget to acknowledge this lesson – but I have seen over and over again how important the message of Progressive Judaism truly is for Jews around the world. It was our message not our budget which attracted the Jews of the FSU and Eastern Europe to Progressive Judaism since the fall of the USSR. Can we even imagine a Jewish world today without our Progressive Jewish insistence on the Prophetic voice and spirit, the imperative of social justice and Tikun Olam, the absolute equality of women in all spheres of Jewish life and leadership, the commitment to Jewish scholarship even as we respect the many truths we have learned from all sources of knowledge, and our passionate commitment to Israel as our People’s democratic and pluralistic national homeland? As the dark shadow of an increasing intolerant and fundamentalist ultra-Orthodoxy spreads across the world, the promise of an enlightened, humanistic and value centered liberal Judaism has never been more needed.

 

Lesson #2 : The Centrality of Israel- The Importance of a Strong Jewish Diaspora

The lesson we Jews learned too late to save 6 million of our extended family members during the Holocaust is the message we must internalize deep into our consciousness today: the State of Israel is the one and only ancestral homeland of the Jewish People whose doors will always be open to welcome us home. The Jewish People are rooted in the soul and the soil of the land of Israel (a phrase I learned from my teacher and mentor Rabbi Richard Hirsch) and our very future is inextricably grounded in creating a modern Jewish national, democratic and pluralistic Jewish state on this homeland.

I was privileged to have served the World Union these past 3 decades working out of Jerusalem which was and continues to be the center of the Jewish world’s relief and rescue operations for Jews in need throughout the world. In the 1970’s (still a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR) I met refuseniks in dark, dreary parks in Moscow and Kiev fueling their spirit and hopes for freedom. That effort was rooted and orchestrated out of Jerusalem. With the World Union, I met those Jews who stayed behind in Moscow and Kiev, Minsk and Odessa. Working out of Jerusalem and in cooperation with other Jewish international and Israeli governmental bodies, I helped plant the seeds of Progressive Judaism for hundreds of thousands of “Family Members” emerging into the light of religious freedom. Together with talented Israeli Progressive rabbis and teachers, we published Progressive Prayer Books in Russian, we translated the Plaut Modern Torah Commentary into Russian, we established the largest Jewish youth movement in the FSU (Netzer Olami).

At the same time, it was the Reform Jews in North America, the UK and other WUPJ centers worldwide whose dedicated efforts and generous spirit enabled the Jerusalem based work to thrive. Without World Union leadership (rabbinic and lay alike) and resources (human and material) from the Diaspora, the revival of Jewish life in the FSU and Eastern Europe would never have taken off as it did. Without WUPJ generous support for emerging Progressive congregations in Asia, Latin America and Israel, thousands of Jews would remain disenfranchised from their Jewish roots and identity.

The Israel-Diaspora bond is a key to appreciating the growth and development of Progressive Judaism in Israel and its fundamental importance for the future of Jews everywhere. Over these past 30 years we have learned that in order for the State of Israel to fulfill its mission as the Homeland for the entire Jewish People, we must ensure that all Jews, from every background and religious orientation, are recognized and given the same equal opportunity to observe and practice their Judaism. The WUPJ is headquartered today in Israel and is committed to the development of Progressive Judaism in Israel because the very future of the Jewish People rests upon an Israel which is democratic and pluralistic.

 

Lesson #3 – Progressive Jews Must Believe in Themselves

I share this third lesson with no small measure of regret. Even as I know how committed and passionate many Progressive Jewish leaders may be to the cause of Progressive Judaism, in general there are far too many Progressive Jews who are insufficiently knowledgeable about their Jewish tradition, far too ambivalent about the legitimacy of Progressive Judaism and too easily prepared to relinquish control over Jewish communal affairs to the Orthodox establishment including Chabad.

Let me be perfectly clear – as a religious pluralist, I have no argument and actually much respect for our Orthodox brethren who firmly believe in their Halachik grounded approach to Jewish life. But this respect must be mutual – and we in the Progressive movement can not remain silent when our liberal Jewish approach is discriminated against by Jewish communal bodies across the globe. We must have the courage and the self-confidence to demand our equal share of Jewish communal resources. We must passionately believe in our own way – for how can we expect others to grant us our fair share if we ourselves are hesitant in believing that we are truly deserving.

Progressive Jews must fight this fight together. Those on the front-lines of the fight must believe in the justice and legitimacy of the battle. Those comfortably away from the front lines must have no less passion and concern for the justice of the fight. If we fail, regardless of where we live, to believe in the indisputable necessity and legitimacy of our Progressive approach to Judaism we will fail to become a beacon of light for the vast majority of Jews alienated from their religious tradition and searching for their way back home

 

Lesson #4 – We Need More Progressive Rabbis in the World

One of the lessons I learned early on in my work with the WUPJ and which has been confirmed year after year is the simple truth – the greatest single handicap we face in our WUPJ is not lack of funding, nor the shortage of synagogue buildings, nor the lack of recognition by the Orthodox establishments. The greatest single obstacle impairing our ability to reach more Jews and help them return to Judaism is the shortage of rabbis. It is often the simplest solutions which go overlooked.

We often joke that there is practically no corner on the globe where a Chabad rabbi is not hard at work (generally with his wife and small army of children) building Jewish life and community. But let me be perfectly clear. Chabad rabbis rarely succeed in changing people’s minds about Jewish ideology and ritual observance. Most Jews who find their way into Chabad Houses around the world, have not been “converted” to Orthodox Judaism. They rather have become “believers” in Jewish community, in Jewish fellowship, in a less bureaucratic, organizational Judaism often-times coupled with high price tags. The rabbi is there to welcome you in – to engage you with Torah, to feed you, and to be there for you in times of need. And when this happens enough times, you are there for the rabbi as well, regardless of whether you actually share the rabbi’s theological or ideological position.

I have seen in the WUPJ that wherever we have capable rabbis leading congregations – we have successful growing communities. But our Progressive movement does not view the recruitment, training and employment of rabbis as a supreme goal. We separate completely the training of rabbis from the employment of rabbis. Our seminaries are responsible for recruitment and training – our congregations are responsible for employing the graduates. It is similar to law schools, medical schools, business schools and other professional training schools in the world.

Rabbis however, are needed wherever there are Jews – not wherever there are congregations which can afford to pay the rabbi’s salary. First comes the rabbi – then comes the congregation. If we expect future generations of Jews around the world to remain committed to Judaism, we must provide Progressive rabbis to lead the way in Israel, Europe, Latin America, Former Soviet Union and every other region where there is a shortage of Progressive rabbis. This is the lesson we all must learn if we expect Progressive Judaism to be a viable religious option for the Jewish people in the future.

 

Lesson #5 – The Power of One

Perhaps the most inspiring lesson of all which I have learned over my 30 years of service to the WUPJ is the lesson I call – The Power of One. The power of the single individual to make a difference – oftentimes against all odds. We have become far too disillusioned by the apparent complexity of the world. We often buy into the malaise that the “little guy” has no chance against the big system. That social change is beyond the reach of any single individual. That we are simply impotent to make a difference unless we have behind us money, power and numbers of supporters.

But then I remember how our Progressive movement congregations around the world have come into being. From Tyumen , Russia  to Shanghai, China;  from  Rome , Italy  to San Jose  , Costa Rica , from  Recife , Brazil ,  to Rosh Pina , Israel. City after city – it only takes one to create a community and inspire others to join in. It has been my privilege over the years to have worked with so many of these “Ones” – these committed, dedicated souls who are passionate about their Judaism and the need to create community.  It is just amazing what one person can do – we say in Hebrew, one who is a “Meshuga L’Davar” one who is “crazy for something”. So often, real change in the world can take place because one person puts his or her mind to do it.

I have also learned over the years how instrumental just one donor can be to ensure our ability to implement critically important projects around the world.  I have been blessed to know so many of these Ones – individuals whose unassuming generosity fuels a particular project of special meaning to them and importance to the WUPJ. And more often than not, these Ones become friends as well as donors – they inspire not only the professionals but other lay leaders as well to become another One where it matters the most.

As I look back over my 30 years with the WUPJ, my greatest pleasure has been getting to meet these Ones – these amazing leaders, these committed donors – these inspirational friends who together make up the family of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.