Issue #398

Issue #398 – 2 December 2010 / 25 Kislev 5771









The leadership of the World Union for Progressive Judaism has announced that CONNECTIONS 2011, the World Union’s 35th international convention, which will be held next February in San Francisco, will feature a variety of study opportunities throughout the convention.

These sessions will include a beit midrash, which will run throughout the conference and offer text-based study led by scholars-in-residence that focuses on topics presented as part of the conference’s daily program. Shabbat morning services will be followed by a Torah study lunch in small groups. In addition, there will be a program called “Learn and Think,” offering an evening of inspiration in which delegates come together and enjoy a unique study experience.

These events will be led by leading rabbis and educators from across the Progressive and Reform Jewish world, including Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, Prof. Steve Cohen, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, Rabbi Elliot Kleinman, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur, Rabbi Danny Rich and Rabbi Prof. Marc Saperstein.

In addition, keynote addresses will be delivered by Rabbi Dr. Tony Bayfield, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Rabbi David Saperstein and Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie.

CONNECTIONS 2011, whose theme is “Building our Jewish Future,” will be held February 8-13, 2011, at the Westin San Francisco Market Street Hotel. Registration is now open. To register or receive further information, click here.

Scenes from study sessions at previous World Union international conventions

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Some 85 rabbis, Jewish educators, community professionals, lay leaders and youth gathered in Moscow October 29-31 for a leadership conference marking two decades of Progressive movement growth and accomplishment in the former Soviet Union, as well as two centuries since the establishment of Reform Judaism in Germany. It was also the first gathering of its type to be held at the new Moscow Center for Progressive Judaism.

The program was based on the Limmud concept. ”Each participant was encouraged to choose topics that he or she found most interesting,” explains Rita Fruman, of the World Union’s FSU department in Jerusalem. Aside from coordination by Fruman, the gathering was organized and run entirely by FSU-based movement staff, a fact not lost on Rabbi Joel Oseran, the World Union’s vice president for international development.

“Back in the early ‘90s, we used to schlep with us from Israel all the equipment and supplies we needed for the gatherings, and we, rabbis from abroad would teach every session,” says Oseran. “It was a time in the development of Progressive Judaism in the FSU when those from outside, with knowledge and resources, contributed to those inside, who had a passion to learn and create their own Jewish community. Now, there was not a single ‘outsider’ needed to teach or lecture – the entire educational program was conducted by rabbis and teachers within our own movement!”

Alex Kagan, the World Union’s director for the FSU, gave a sobering, yet inspiring, picture of current development.

“The economic crisis did not escape us,” Kagan told conference-goers. “At the beginning of 2009, we faced a most difficult dilemma – who and what to cut. It was a new reality as a result of foundations and donors ending their support as they found themselves in a very difficult financial situation. These changes resulted in the cutting of the FSU budget by 40% in 2009.”

The cutbacks, Kagan said, affected office staff, programs and projects, and the end of support for several inactive communities.

“I acknowledge that there were a number of times we faced the dilemma of ceasing activity in the larger centers, and even in whole countries,” he added, although this did not take place owing to the “loyalty and assistance of World Union donors.” Yet this is one cloud that had a silver lining. “The need to cut once again raised questions regarding the need for and efficacy of various projects and activities, forcing us to prioritize.”

In the end, he said, no important programs were affected. Lay leadership took up the challenge. Local fundraising increased. Congregational dues were set, and fees were established for such activities as camps and seminars, and even for the recent conference.

“We believe,” Kagan explained, “that this is a very important step in developing self-sufficiency in our communities. Perhaps additional cuts will need to be made and there will be some unpleasant surprises. Looking back, I can confidently say that a crisis does advance development. Had this not happened, we would have had to invent it!”

Perhaps the most noteworthy development in the FSU in the past few years has been building purchases and renovations in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Minsk, with current efforts being aimed at procuring property in Kyiv. This push had a direct bearing on the conference, said Oseran. “We were guests no longer in someone else’s halls and classrooms. We were our own masters in our own castle”

Looking ahead, he added, there is still work to do.

“We can all take great pride in the knowledge that Progressive Judaism has come into its own in the FSU – and it has done so within the span of just 20 years. We have the appropriate Jewish message for the future. We have outstanding messengers in place and more being trained each day, and we have facilities to support them. We have a world movement firmly committed to see the job done. It is an inspiring picture, evoking pride and passion. Yet it is a picture still in the making – unfinished, incomplete, waiting for new dimensions, hues, shapes and configurations to be added along the way.”

Participants in the 20th anniversary leadership conference listen intently to a speaker.

Rabbi Joel Oseran (right) and Alex Kagan had highly upbeat assessments for the growth and future of Progressive Judaism in the FSU.

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By Rabbi Joel Oseran, Vice President for International Development

Thousands of Jewish youth from around the world take part each year in the successful Birthright Israel experience – a 10-day educational touring program in Israel offered free of charge in order to strengthen the participants’ personal connection to the Jewish homeland. Having become a well established program, little notice is given to Birthright groups in Israel, and the word “historic” now has little relevance.

That all changed, however, when a group of 23 Progressive Jewish youth came to Israel last August the World Union-affiliated congregation Neve Shalom in Paramaribo, Suriname, located on the northeastern coast of South America. This was the first time that youngsters from Suriname participated in Birthright. And to add to the “historic” nature of the visit, the group was privileged to tour the newly reconstituted Tzedek V'Shalom synagogue, which had been transported from their own community in Paramaribo to the Israel Museum beginning in 1999, and reassembled piece by piece by the museum staff.

This particular Birthright tour was the brainchild of Rabbi Haim Beliak , an American Reform rabbi who had served at Neve Shalom for several months during a recent sabbatical. Beliak, a childhood friend of mine from Phoenix, Arizona, understood the importance of sending the community’s youngsters to Israel and set about to find a way to make it happen. The obvious (and affordable) solution was to go through Birthright, but it had no previous tradition of working with Suriname. Here is where the Reform movement came in – with institutional support from the North American Federation of Temple Youth of the Union for Reform Judaism, together with the World Union and its Anita Saltz International Education Center  – and a decision was made by Birthright to extend additional financial support to bring the group to Israel. Rabbi Beliak also had to raise additional funds to first fly the youngsters to Miami, from where they’d depart for Israel.

Gadi Ben Dov, director of short-term Israel programs for the URJ, was responsible for the Suriname group’s Birthright program and cooperated extensively with the World Union office in Jerusalem. Shortly after arriving in Israel the, youngsters came to Beit Shmuel for a warm welcome by World Union vice president for operations Shai Pinto, Saltz Center head Rabbi Rich Kirschen, and me. That very day, several members of the Progressive congregation in Amsterdam were visiting Beit Shmuel, and we had the opportunity to link up the two groups. (Neve Shalom has strong historic connections to Dutch Jewry and to the country’s Progressive Jewish community.) The role the World Union plays in making connections among members of its worldwide family truly came alive that day!

The highlight of the Suriname group’s time in Israel was certainly its visit to the Israel Museum, where members were able to enter the reconstructed Tzedek V'Shalom synagogue, originally built in 1736. Thanks to the museum staff, the group received VIP treatment during its tour of the Museum. When it approached the Suriname synagogue, which had been placed along the museum’s newly created Avenue of Synagogues, you could feel the excitement and emotional charge.

Although these were youngsters, many nevertheless remembered growing up inside its walls, and as they entered the synagogue area, with its sand-covered floor (as is the tradition in the region), polished wood and impressive chandeliers, its imposing presence was overwhelming. Many literally broke down in tears, and some embraced friends for needed support. It was clear that the sight of this synagogue evoked profound emotions. The question I kept asking myself, however, was whether these were tears of joy or sadness.

When I asked the participants, the answer was both. For some, the fact that their synagogue was dismantled and transported to a far-away place had been a traumatic event; it symbolized the end of an era, and they mourned that end. For others, though, the reconstructed synagogue was a sign of the permanent impact it would have on the Jewish people, for it is a piece of beauty – their piece of beauty – to be shared with all, and this was cause for joy. 

In a letter of thanks to Rabbi Beliak for initiating the project, Jules Donk, president of the Suriname congregation, wrote: “You were the engine behind this project, which I think is the most important thing that happened in our community for the last 50 years. Maybe even longer. Their lives have been changed forever with this project.”

Sometimes, although not often enough, the work we do comes together with a near-perfect outcome. The Suriname Birthright tour to Israel was one such moment. It showed how a determined rabbi, supported by his world movement and the generous spirit of Jewish organizations, could ensure that 23 deserving young Jewish teenagers could have their Israel experience like all other kids. And it showed that Israel sits in an unparalleled place in the center of our Jewish world, preserving our people’s history and ensuring our future.

Young Progressive Jews from Suriname have an emotional reunion with a familiar synagogue.

The Suriname group poses in the interior of the reconstructed synagogue at the Israel Museum.

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The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has opened registration for the 8th installment of Riding4Reform, its five-day, 300-mile bicycle trek across Israel held each year to raise much-needed funds for its many education and social programs.

The next Riding4Reform will take place March 6-10, 2011. It will start in Modi’in with a send-off by members of Kehilat Yozma, the city’s vibrant Progressive congregation. The route will meander south and then east, ending at Masada. Most of it will involve off-road riding, for the most part along easy and moderate trails, although there will be several steep ascents and descents. According to the organizers, this year’s event will offer additional trails for riders with more experience and ability.

To register or learn more about Riding4Reform, click here.

Riding4Reform takes participants through some of the most scenic areas of Israel.

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The leadership and staff of the World Union offer their sincerest condolences to their colleague, Rabbi Joel Oseran, vice president for international development, on the death of his mother, Jennie Oseran. May her memory be for a blessing.

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January 13-19, 2011 – Annual conference of Netzer Olami, Jerusalem

February 7-13, 2011Connections 2011, San Francisco

March 6-10, 2011 – 8th annual Riding4Reform bicycling fundraiser for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Israel

March 15-18, 2012 – Biennial Conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Amsterdam

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