Every four years, Progressive Jews from around the world would pilgrimage to Jerusalem to learn with and from each other and to forge personal connections with the holy land. Though framed as a conference, the experiences at CONNECTIONS transcend the usual workshops and networking, as it truly serves as medium for fostering a sense of belonging among participants to both Israel and the Jewish people.
In 1973, the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the global organization for which I serve as President, moved its headquarters from bustling Manhattan to historic Jerusalem. Less than 12 years later, we established Beit Shmuel-Mercaz Shimshon complex as our international headquarters in Jerusalem; the campus of which is shared with the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Hebrew Union College – Jerusalem Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). This was, of course, intended as a statement, that Progressive Jews root themselves in the center of the Jewish world.
To me, Jerusalem represents the true essence of Progressive Judaism. Just as Jerusalem is at once a link to our past and a conduit to our vibrant economic and cultural future, Judaism must use its vast inheritance, our rich history, to propel Judaism ever forward. As a movement, we must root ourselves in Jerusalem in order to become a unified movement for inclusion, equality and unfettered progress that can really impact change.
By hosting our biennial conference, CONNECTIONS, in Jerusalem every four years, we reaffirm this statement that we made over four decades ago: That Jerusalem is unifying for all Jews and that the “City of Gold” is the epicenter of the Jewish World both symbolically and spiritually – an epicenter that embodies our anxieties, our commitments and our hopes for the Jewish future.
It is specifically in Jerusalem that we bring together Reform Jews from all over the world to assert together, in a magnified voice, the right of Jews to practice Progressive Judaism wherever they choose to live.
This year we are bringing together over 450 lay leaders, rabbis, students and congregants from Progressive, Reform, and Liberal communities from 30 countries. And, for the first time ever, a quarter of those delegates will be “home grown,” proud Israelis with wisdom, experience and inspiration to spare.
Our conference will mark the first time Progressive rabbinic students from all Reform rabbinic training institutions, including the major Progressive seminaries in North America, Germany, Israel, the FSU and the United Kingdom, will gather to learn together. This reflects our strong belief that Judaism will become even more global in the 21st century, requiring 21st century rabbis and leaders to actively engage with the rapid-fire changes of our world.
And what will we DO at our conference? Celebrate new milestones and make new statements, of course. To open the conference, the leadership of Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California will present a 500-year-old Torah scroll, a European treasure dating back to the 1500s that survived the Holocaust and has resided in their synagogue for the last several decades, to the leadership of Kehillat Sheket, the only Deaf congregation in the city of Minsk in the Republic of Belarus.
The study of Torah is central to all of our congregations, and the acquisition of a Torah scroll is a time for great celebration. This ceremony in Jerusalem is intended as a physical demonstration of Jewish continuity, as we are sending this Torah “home” to be used and cherished by an active congregation, as a well as a statement that no one group of Jews ‘owns’ Torah. For that matter, no one group of Jews owns prayer or our holy places either.
Indeed, both of our unifying forces, the Torah and Jerusalem, belong to us all. No one group has the right to decide upon the “authenticity” of other Jews and ban them from areas in our holiest of cities, and every group has the responsibility to advance Jewish unity and the accessibility of Jerusalem to all.
It is the Reform Movement’s mandate to connect all Jews with our rich tradition, and we must remain vigilant in this endeavor, doing everything in our power to drive home the centrality of Torah, especially in light of the large numbers of young Jews who are disengaging rapidly.
The presence of almost 100 young adults under the age of 30 at our conference demonstrates our commitment to shape the future of our movement and of Judaism itself with Jews of all ages, levels of ability and religious origin. We recognize the role that the next generation must play in order to keep Judaism vibrant and relevant. We cherish their participation and leadership.
It is fortuitous — and also quite fitting — that the World Union’s 90th anniversary coincides with celebrations for Jerusalem’s Jubilee year. Throughout our history, Jerusalem has evolved and Progressive Judaism has found brilliant ways to innovate at every turn. The milestones that we have achieved to date, those that we plan to mark with great fanfare during our conference as well as those that lie ahead, speak to the strength, vision and staying power of our global movement.
Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander is the President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the international umbrella organization of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements. The WUPJ represents 2 million Jews and 1,200 synagogues in 40 countries around the globe. The organization will be hosting the 38th annual CONNECTIONS conference in Jerusalem from May 17-20: www.wupjconnections.org.