By Andrew Keene
In a world that is increasingly more global and interconnected, the value and importance of a global progressive Jewish movement is more important than ever. The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the international umbrella organization for reform, progressive, liberal, and reconstructionist communities around the world, spanning 50 countries, and representing nearly two million individuals.
Our mission is to ensure that wherever Jews choose to live, there should be a vibrant and meaningful non-orthodox option. As our world changes, Jews move. Sometimes this is for reasons such as anti-Semitism, but in most cases it’s because of economic opportunities, study, or adventure. We seek to ensure that any Jew who wishes to practice Judaism with a progressive approach has the access and ability to do so. We do this by building communities, nurturing leaders, and inspiring the next generation of Progressive Jews.
I served as NFTY’s North American President during the movement’s 75th anniversary year. During that year, I had the opportunity to spend time in the UK, learning from and leading with RSY-Netzer, one of two reform Jewish youth movements in the country. The experience opened my eyes to what vibrant progressive Jewish life looked like outside of my North American bubble. While the music, programming, and traditions were different than that in NFTY, the values of progressive Judaism that inspire a love for Jewish life, commitment to Israel, and desire to repair the world, were undeniably the same.
Several years later I found myself on a plane from Philadelphia to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I was about to start my term as a member of the Executive Board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. While I had experienced progressive Jewish life outside of North America before, the next few years would be a learning experience no university, course, or presentation could prepare me for.
Immediately, I was struck by the duality of progressive Judaism. In every region outside of North America, progressive Judaism is a minority within a minority. Said otherwise, progressive Jews are a minority because of our Jewish identity within the wider religious world, and a double minority within the Jewish world because of our progressive affiliation. With this comes incredible opportunity, and at times what seems like unsurmountable challenges.
As I enter my fourth year in this role, having co-chaired the organization’s international conference, it is clear to that the value of a global movement is the ability to solve and address critical challenges facing our communities to best position the movement for continued growth and sustained relevance. Questions we need to answer include: How to train rabbis in their native language to serve progressive communities in countries like Russia and Argentina? How do we create global standards for progressive conversion to Judaism? How do we start and grow communities in Asia with significant ex-pat populations? How do we instill a sense of k’lal Yisrael, global Jewish citizenship, in our movement’s young people? These are just a few of the reasons a strong and successful global movement, and the WUPJ is more relevant and important than ever.
2018 is an important year for the progressive Jewish world. The movement itself celebrates 200 years since its founding in Germany, and Israel celebrates its 70th. Nowhere is the mission and complexities of the progressive Jewish movement more pronounced than in Israel. Since its founding in 1926, the World Union has sought to start and support new communities around the world, Israel included. The first reform community in Israel was established in 1958, and in the following 20 years the World Union would become instrumental in the growth and incorporation of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. This also includes the move of the WUPJ’s formal headquarters to Jerusalem in 1973 on a campus now shared by nearly a dozen affiliates and partners of the Reform Movement. 50 Israeli Reform communities later, the challenge of progressive Judaism in an orthodox-run society is an ongoing battle, and in many ways, mirrors challenges the Reform Movement faces around the world.
These two critical milestones allow for the opportunity to pause. We pause to look back at the incredible accomplishments of the progressive movement, and the miracle of the modern state of Israel. We also pause to recalibrate and look forward. In the 3000+ year history of the Jewish people, the Reform Movement is a mere blip on the timeline. It is incumbent upon us, as leaders of the movement of all ages, experiences, and backgrounds to ensure that our movement is stronger, more relevant, and more meaningful than ever before. Our global movement is far more than the sum of its local parts, and it is crucial our movement become even more globally-minded than ever before. While our communities are spread out among 50 countries, our strength comes from our shared values and purpose, and for me it is an honor to contribute to the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s pursuit of this mission.
Andrew Keene is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was an active member NFTY-Northern. Andrew is an alum of the URJ Kutz Camp, served as the North American President of NFTY, before studying entrepreneurship at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Andrew now serves as an Executive Board Member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism where his portfolio includes youth and young adult initiatives. Andrew also is a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.