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Reforming Europe Progressive Judaism Sees Rebirth on Continent Where It Was Spawned

August 7, 2006
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Sarah Rubenstein, an American fashion designer living in Florence, recalls with bemusement an incident she feels conveys the perception of Reform Judaism in Italy. A rabbi from her adopted synagogue, Shir Hadash, one of only three Reform congregations in Italy, was attending a Chanukah party incognito at the Great Synagogue of Florence last year. The 19th-century landmark, like all synagogues in the country, must be Orthodox in order to be recognized by a state-sanctioned body as a legitimate religious organization.

“The people at the party told our rabbi we were holding Catholic mass on Sunday,” recounts Rubenstein, an effervescent 32-year-old from Oklahoma who laughs without apparent bitterness at the obvious misrepresentation.

“This is the message they were getting from their leaders. And secular Jews in Italy, they think we’re doing who knows what, something really strange; they have no idea what progressive Judaism is in the first place.”

That mindset appears to be the norm throughout much of Europe, which ironically is the birthplace of the Reform movement. Unlike in America, where Reform Judaism now predominates, the progressive religious streams in much of Europe have long been virtual non-entities.

Their proponents contend they have been institutionally marginalized to the point of disenfranchisement. Their critics argue that they are a U.S.-style import without mass appeal that goes too far in welcoming non-Jews into the fold.

“We are the largest international group of Jews, but we seldom get a seat at the table in Europe,” Steve Bauman, chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, lamented during a recent speech here before a gathering of Reform Jews from across Europe. “We remain the best-kept secret in the world.”

As it turns out, however, that cloak of obscurity may be lifting if recent developments in Europe are a harbinger of things to come.

In early June, for example, one of two progressive congregations in the Czech Republic, 120-member Bejt Simcha, was tentatively recognized as a legitimate organization by that country’s Jewish umbrella group, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.

That watershed decision, to be finalized in September, followed an even more significant development — the wholesale legitimization of Reform Judaism in Germany, where the movement originated in the 19th century.

The Czech ruling effectively ends a decade of contention during which Prague-based Bejt Simcha, because of its non-Orthodox orientation, was denied the political and financial advantages that are critical to the long-term survival of some European congregations.

In contrast to the United States, where self-funded congregations are the building blocks of Jewish life, European Judaism has for centuries been controlled by government-recognized bodies known as “communities” that determine what form of Jewish practice is considered legitimate. These communities, which attempt to speak on behalf of all Jews in a given country, are often allotted money by the state that helps pay for everything from synagogue construction to care for the elderly.

Bejt Simcha will now have access to that funding and the political clout that comes with it. The ruling clearing the way for official recognition of the small congregation is an acknowledgment that some of the Czech Republic’s disaffected Jews might now find non-Orthodoxy a preferable route for embracing their faith, according to Tomas Kraus, the federation’s executive director. “After the end of communism, we needed to get back to basics, and followed the Orthodox model, but we have matured enough to offer something more,” he says.

The battle over the status of progressive congregations like Bejt Simcha, according to Kraus, could in fact determine the future of Judaism in Europe.

“The Czech situation is a laboratory,” he says. “What we are here dealing with on a very small scale, every community is dealing with on a larger scale. By making the conditions not so strict, more Czech Jews will identify as Jews.”


Bejt Simcha, which survives in part on grants from various organizations, has been led since 1980 by Sylvie Wittmann, 49, who helps fund the congregation through proceeds from her well-known firm, which books tours of Jewish sites in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Europe.

As a practical matter, official recognition of the congregation means Bejt Simcha can afford a part-time rabbi and move from the basement of an apartment building to one of Prague’s majestic synagogues that were built as far back as the Middle Ages.

Morever, the Bejt Simcha decision, Wittmann says, will help decentralize and democratize rabbinical oversight in the country.

“This position of an Orthodox chief rabbi who decides everything for everyone is something right out of the shtetl that Eastern Europeans brought to Central Europe after World War II,” she says. “If the federation wants a chief rabbi to eat dinners at the Parliament and speak to politicians on television, fine, but when it comes to recognizing our conversions, he should keep his opinions to himself.”

It remains to be seen whether a Czech- or German-style endorsement of pluralism will be replicated in other European countries such as Italy, Austria or Hungary, where Reform is still not recognized as a religious movement.

Riccardo Di Segni certainly hopes not. The chief rabbi of Rome and one of Europe’s most respected religious leaders, Di Segni says the Czech scenario is exactly what Italy does not need, because, he says, Reform Judaism condones intermarriage and other practices that do “damage to the life of our community,”

In contrast to America, progressive Judaism in continental Europe, like Orthodoxy, abides by the halachic rule recognizing matrilineal descent as a proof of Jewish identity. But its more inclusive stance regarding non-Jewish spouses, the ordination of female rabbis and the stringency of conversion practices places it beyond the norm even among those mostly secular 1.6 million European Jews who reside outside the former Soviet Union.

As exemplified in Italy, the prevailing European approach to Judaism, Di Segni says, is governed by a longstanding informal compromise that says regardless of an individual Jew’s level of religiosity, “the formal institution has to be Orthodox.”


Europe today has an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 progressive Jews associated with some 130 congregations scattered through 15 countries located outside the former Soviet Union. The progressives account for roughly 3.6 percent of the total European Jewish population. In comparison, approximately 38 percent of America’s estimated 5.2 million to 6 million Jews identify as Reform, the country’s chief liberal denomination.

The vast majority of Europe’s progressive Jews live in the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, France and Germany also have well-established congregations. Like the British model, they originated in response to congregants’ requests for shorter services, the inclusion of an organ or choir and the recitation of prayers — in part, at least — in the country’s native language.

Progressive Judaism was growing in popularity in Europe in the early 20th century, but the Holocaust and its aftermath promptly short-circuited that trend. The Continent’s Holocaust survivors, seeing unity as the key to communal survival, chose Orthodoxy as the guiding principle in their re-emerging communities — if it wasn’t already.

Today that means that although European Jews like Rubenstein can earmark a percentage of their income tax to support the Jewish community, none of that money will find its way to the progressive congregations to which they belong.

The two progressive congregations in Hungary face similar barriers to acceptance.

One of them, Szim Salom in Budapest, has a full-time Hungarian-born rabbi and about 200 members in a country of an estimated 100,000 to 130,000 Jews, most of them unaffiliated.

Szim Salom’s congregants meet in a rented apartment bloc where neighbors’ complaints about their activities are sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism. The congregation does not have access to the estimated $15 million the government gives each year to the Association of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the country’s main religious umbrella group, which last year rejected the congregation’s membership application.

“They are excluded, it’s true,” acknowledges Peter Feldmajer, president of the Hungarian association. “That is the decision of the rabbinate.” The rabbinate’s decision, according to Feldmajer, was based on the supposition that “a Reform Jew is not a Jew.”

This exclusion prevents Szim Salom from funding programs that might attract some of the area’s many disenfranchised Jews, according to Rabbi Joel Oseran, a vice president of the World Union.

Outreach is critical in Hungary and other former Eastern bloc countries, where the Jewish population has been decimated due to the Holocaust, Communist repression of religion and intermarriage rates that now reach 90 percent.


France, with the largest number of Jews on the continent, roughly 600,000 to 700,000, has a lively progressive presence in Paris, although outside the capital, attracting members to progressive congregations has been a challenge. Stephane Beder, president of the Federation of French Liberal Jews, acknowledges that the progressive approach is alien to most French Jews, many of whom are Sephardim with traditional backgrounds.

“If you go to city authorities and ask for land for a synagogue, it’s not uncommon for the city to say, ‘We were told by the Consistoire that you are not real Jews,’ ” says Beder, referring to the nearly 200-year-old organization that governs all aspects of religious life in France.

But complaints about exclusion ring false to Manek Weintraub, a Polish-born member of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or CRIF, the largest social and political Jewish organization in France.

Progressive groups, Weintraub says, now hold prominent positions in his group and otherwise “play a leading role in French Jewry.” He notes, for example, that a progressive-initiated Holocaust Memorial Day ritual involving the public reading of the names of French concentration camp deportees has become widely accepted, despite initial opposition from “the Jewish establishment.”

Discussing his own views on religion, the secular Weintraub typifies many Europeans. “I hadn’t been to synagogue for about a decade, and I went to a liberal service in Paris,” he says. “Hearing all that French, I felt like I was in a church.”


As progressive congregations in Europe seek equitable treatment in the form of enhanced political clout and public funding, the World Union is considering adopting aggressive legal and public-awareness tactics, an approach that has proven fruitful in Germany. A longstanding impasse was resolved recently when the Central Council of Jews in Germany recognized that country’s progressive congregations.

Following that decision, victorious World Union leaders officially greeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marking the first time representatives of the organization had met with a German chancellor. Merkel pledged her government’s commitment to nurturing the growth of a pluralistic and diverse Jewish community that represents all denominations.

Jonathan Joseph, a progressive Jew from the United Kingdom and president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, says if progressive Jews on the Continent want legitimacy, they should take a page from the American playbook and actively engage politicians.

He noted that the progressive movement has no foothold in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, but at least two Orthodox groups have set up lobbying offices there, including the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Comparing Chabad’s fund-raising success with the progressive movement’s, Joseph asks pointedly, “Why aren’t secular Jewish businesspeople supporting the Reform movement’s growth?”

In addition, Joseph and others believe that progressive Judaism in Europe will benefit from a more symbiotic relationship with its American denominational counterpart. American Reform congregations gave $6.9 million to projects worldwide last year. In contrast, though, Chabad last year gave $69 million to Jewish causes in the former Soviet Union alone, where the money is being used for health facilities, education and cultural programs for Jews.

On a much smaller financial scale, consider the experience of Rubenstein in Florence, whose congregation adopted the self-help model in its search for money to pay for a rabbi. One of Shir Hadash’s members wrote to an uncle in America “who she had never been close to, not expecting to hear anything,” Rubenstein says, breaking into a grin. “The uncle sent a big check, and when we found out, we all nearly cried.”

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