The growth of the Charedi and secular sections of our community identified by the recent JPR community survey has been much remarked upon. Much less noted has been growth by almost a third of those identifying as progressive.
These figures hide a huge “churn”. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the ability of Liberal Judaism – in the words of a once famous beer advertisement – to reach the Jews other denominations cannot reach.
The trend is confirmed by the increase in the number of Liberal Jewish communities. In the past few weeks we have seen new Liberal communities established in Suffolk and York, bringing the total number to 40. Over 300 people attended our largest ever biennial conference last weekend.
Membership numbers are up, engagement is growing and finances are robust. But the impact of Liberal Judaism is not just about numbers.
Over the years, Progressive Judaism has broken numerous taboos, appointing the first women rabbis, the first openly LGBT rabbis, providing mixed-faith blessings and welcoming the children of such couples on an equal basis, regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.
Why? Not to annoy more traditional sections of the community nor to modernise for modernity’s sake, but because we believe Judaism must be about positive action, not bloodlines.
It was not enough for Liberal Jews to bless same-sex couples in our synagogues. We put our values into action by playing a leading role in the campaign that has led to the introduction of equal marriage legislation for everyone. It is therefore a matter of great pride for us that one of the country’s very first same sex marriages was blessed by a Liberal rabbi.
It is the same compulsion to put Jewish values into action that has led us to become the first Living Wage certified synagogal movement in the country, for our communities sign up for Fairtrade goods and for our synagogues to go Green.
I realise that this is a manifesto which may alarm other sections of the community. I hope that they will understand that, whatever our disagreements, they are “for the sake of heaven”.
Our biennial conference last weekend was entitled “Radical Roots – Relevant Responses”. Judaism has always been a progressive religion, even within the Orthodox tradition, such as the transition from patrilineality in the Torah to the matrilineality generally followed today.
Progression is present in the rulings of rabbis through the ages which have constantly sought to reinterpret halachah to ensure its relevance to the modern world.
The challenge that Liberal Judaism has accepted for itself and which, during my five years as its chair, has shaped my actions, is to offer a form of Judaism which “opts in” to the modern world.
But we cannot opt in at the expense of opting out of the Jewish community. That is why I have made it a key tenet of my approach that -whatever our disagreements – Liberal Judaism plays its full part in the communal world. We can only exercise influence where we take a seat at the table.
So, as I enter my last year as chair, these are the challenges I set for Liberal Judaism: first, we need to collaborate better within our own Progressive community – Liberal and Reform. Already, we represent over a third of affiliated Jews; the more we work together, the stronger our voice.
Second, we need to provide support for our young people that is premised not on what we are against – fighting antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiment – but what we are for – the positive role of Judaism in society at large.
And third, we need to resist the temptation to see the Jewish community as a continuum from strictly Orthodox to secular, with Progressive Judaism somewhere along the route. Instead, Progressive Judaism has the potential to offer the “third way”, which enables Jews, wherever they live and however they identify with their religion, to continue to be fulfilled as both Jews and participants in the wider world.
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Liberal leader advocates federation:
Rabbi Julia Neuberger moves to West London: