by Lea Mühlstein, rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue
Spending five days with 5,000 Progressive Jews and the vice president of the United States of America is a rather special experience for a Jew from England, especially one raised in Germany.
So when I attended the biennial conference of Liberal Judaism’s American sister movement, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), in Orlando, Florida, alongside Liberal Judaism’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Danny Rich, the main question on my mind was whether it was really worth the time and money.
In true rabbinic style, I would say: “It depends.” There certainly is no better place for British Liberal and Reform Jews to go to learn best practice than at the URJ biennial. However, whether the things showcased there will pass the test of cultural translation into the UK context can only be evaluated, at the earliest, in six months’ time.
The overarching focus of this American biennial was on audacious hospitality – welcoming those on the margins be they unaffiliated Jews, intermarried Jews, gender non-conforming and transgender Jews or simply Jews whose skin is not white. The passing of a resolution supporting and advocating for the rights of transgender and gender non-confirming people in American Reform congregations was greatly celebrated with the slogan “making our priorities clear”.
It made international headlines, from The New York Times to The Guardian. While much work has also been done on the topic in the UK Progressive Jewish community, in particular through Liberal Judaism’s Twilight People project, a clear public statement of this nature is still to follow in our country.
Similarly, while the attitude to intermarried families has evolved in the UK, in far too many congregations such families are still treated as second-class members rather than being celebrated as part of the heart of the community.
The URJ is also at the cutting edge when it comes to the use of technology in services. It might not fall obviously under the term audacious hospitality, yet it allows greater access to those who struggle with the traditional prayer book or are unable to attend synagogue in person. Another area in which we can learn from the USA is in the training of lay leadership that is provided in many congregations there.
At the end of the session the Brits in the room looked at each other and agreed that we couldn’t think of a single UK congregation that took leadership training that seriously.
The URJ biennial showed clearly that American Reform Judaism is leading the way. As US Vice President Joe Biden put it, regarding the social action work of the URJ: “Where you lead, the rest of the nation eventually follows.” And I’m sure the rest of the Progressive Jewish world will follow too…
• Lea Mühlstein is rabbi at Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue