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Appeal of Progressive Judaism Set Forth at Paris Conference

The Progressive Judaism movement in France is relatively small. But despite its numbers — some 3,000 families total — members of this community felt emboldened to further their goals as they hosted a recent international gathering of Progressive leaders here.

“We must say loud and clear that there are several ways of being Jewish,” Alexander Adler, a French historian and Journalist, told the conference. “If France is a mover in the new Europe, then its Judaism must play the same role, and this means its Progressive Judaism.”

The gathering was the 27th international convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the umbrella organization for Reform, Liberal and Progressive synagogues in more than 30 countries around the world, including Israel and the United States.

Noting the growing number of adherents to progressive Judaism around the world, particularly in the former Soviet Union, speakers concurred that the strength of the movement derives from its commitment to social action.

“Social action must perpetuate the collective mission of Jewish peoplehood,” Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of WUPJ, said in his address to the conference.

“When some of our leaders place the universalistic message of Judaism over the Particularist concerns of Jewish peoplehood, they err tragically,” he continued.

“The Jewish people is the barometer by which to measure humanity. Therefore, our destiny as a people is inseparable from the human condition, even as concern for all humanity is a vested Jewish interest,” Hirsch said.

Speaking of how Jewish groups at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum differ, Hirsch said, “To be a Liberal Jew is to know that there are no easy answers and no simplistic solutions.”

Hirsch berated some American Orthodox rabbis, calling them political and religious extremists who claim to “know all the answers.”

“There is only one way — their way — to which they ascribe divine endorsement,” Hirsch said.

Referring to the stance of some Orthodox rabbis regarding the Middle East peace process, he said, “We totally reject the position of American Orthodox rabbis, sitting in the security of New York, who protest against possible withdrawal from any inch of occupied territory and who are prepared to risk every drop of Israeli blood in defense of halachah, God’s law, to which they claim exclusive rights of interpretation.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the outgoing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, tackled the thorny issue of interreligious marriages.

“We make an effort to hold out a hand to interfaith couples, but nothing is further from the truth than believing we encourage them,” the rabbi said.

He said that “an essential part of our resources and our programs” are devoted to strengthening Jewish identity and culture.”

“But we live in an open society,” Schindler added. “We are trying to gather together. We do not want to banish our children. We want to hold out a hand for them so that they remain within Jewish life.”

He stressed than Progressive Jews should not compromise their beliefs, which are based on clearly expressed values.

The challenge is particularly great for places such as Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, where, in the past decade, dozens of progressive Jewish communities have been established, leaders here said.

Religious schools, summer camps and leadership training programs are flourishing throughout these regions.

“Our challenges and our chances of succeeding depend upon the position we will occupy in the Jewish world,” said Donald Day, president of the WUPJ.

“For the World Union not to be a poor relation, one must help it, restructure it and renew the operating rules that define our organization,” Day said.

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