When leaders from Liberal, Progressive and Reform congregations in Europe, North America and other parts of the world gathered in Berlin in August 1928 to convene the first World Union for Progressive Judaism international conference, little could they have imagined that in less than a century the World Union would become the largest Jewish religious movement in the world, with over 1.7 million constituents in 42 countries.
Two years earlier, in 1926, the World Union had been established in London, under the dynamic leadership of Lily Montagu, its honorary secretary, and Claude Montifiore, its first president. The mandate of the newly formed organization was to unite into a permanent Union the various progressive Jewish movements already in existence in various countries of the world, and to establish a movement presence wherever there were Jewish communities prepared and committed to undertake such a challenge.
There is little wonder that the World Union’s first international conference took place in Berlin. Germany was the birthplace of Reform Judaism, having nourished since the 18th century such preeminent Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger and others, who laid the foundations for a respected and recognized Progressive movement in Judaism.
Out of Europe, the pioneer leaders of Progressive Judaism spread the message of the movement to the far corners of the world: Australia, South Africa, Latin America and, of course, North America.
The Reform movement in North America, having been built upon German roots, has been from its inception a stalwart constituent of the World Union. A year after Rabbi Solomon Freehoff became president of the World Union in 1959, the administrative offices of the organization were moved from London to New York.
The North American Reform movement is today the largest and most dynamic Jewish movement on that continent, and has contributed generously, both materially and through leadership, to the success of the World Union over the decades.
In 1973, with the growing commitment to building a Progressive movement in Israel, the organization moved its international headquarters to Jerusalem under the leadership of its executive director, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. In 1976 the World Union became the first international Jewish religious organization to affiliate with the World Zionist Organization.
The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, an affiliate of the World Union, has created numerous synagogues and community centers, kibbutzim, kindergartens and schools, a youth movement and a religious action center which has championed the cause of social justice and equal rights for all Jews and non-Jews in the State of Israel.
Rooted in the soul and soil of the Jewish People, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, under the current leadership of Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, has grown into a strong, internationally recognized umbrella body which promotes the ideological/spiritual message of liberal Judaism and provides institutional and financial backing for emerging Jewish communities seeking to identify with Progressive Judaism.
One of the most dramatic examples of the World Union mission in action is the dramatic renewal of Jewish life in the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) after a century of oppression, discrimination and extermination. Following the fall of communism, the World Union helped establish over 70 Progressive congregations in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, as well as a dynamic Netzer Olami Zionist Youth movement, academic training institutes, seminars and youth camps. A growing number of indigenous rabbis – ordained by Progressive seminaries such as Leo Baeck College in London, the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in North America and in Israel, and the newly established Abraham Geiger College in Berlin – serve a diverse population that is enthusiastic about rediscovering and expressing its Jewish identity.
When Argentina faced an economic crisis of devastating proportions that forced the closure of synagogues and schools and left tens of thousands in the Jewish community in poverty, the World Union, in partnership with the local Progressive movement, rallied world Progressive Jewry to render vital humanitarian and educational assistance.
The Progressive movement thrives in Australia, New Zealand and Asia under the auspices of the Union for Progressive Judaism, with 20 affiliated congregations, two day schools, an active Netzer youth group, frequent conferences and leadership support.
The Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL) was born in February 1998 in Costa Rica. As an affiliate group of the World Union, the UJCL currently serves dozens of Jewish communities in the region that would otherwise remain ignored and isolated, and focuses its efforts on youth education and activities.
As Jewish life began to return to Europe after the devastation of the Shoa and oppressive regimes, so has the involvement of the World Union intensified in establishing and strenghtening Jewish communities. Progressive Judaism is experiencing tremendous growth in Germany (primarily due to the influx of Jews from the FSU) and as a result of important advocacy efforts of the World Union, the German Jewish establishment has entered a new phase of cooperation and support for Progressive Jewish institutions in the country. The newly established Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, which is training a new generation of liberal rabbis for work in Germany and in other communities in Europe and in the FSU, is testimony to the fact that Reform Judaism has come full circle from its inception in Germany to playing a vital role in the future of Jewish life in Europe.
The World Union stands as one with Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist Jewish communities today around the world to ensure the future of the Jewish People.