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Progressive Judaism: the Un-"official" Alternative

Progressive Judaism: the Un-"official" Alternative

When my husband and I visited Vienna several times in the 1990s, the gemeinde (official Jewish community) would not publish the schedule of services at the Progressive Congregation Or Chadasch in its communal newspaper or even allow the congregation to buy an ad. 

I thought about Vienna when I read an article currently being distributed by the JTA and printed in many local Jewish newspapers that paints a picture of the "bleak future" of Danish Jewry.  The article is by Ben Harris, who also blogs at JTA as "The Wandering Jew," where he frequently writes about the bleak future of small Jewish communities in the U.S.

In reporting on Danish Jewish assimilation, Harris fails to make a crucial connection between two facts of Jewish life in Europe: 

  1. Religious activities are state-supported with a religious "head tax" that is distributed by the government to the religious communities.
  2. The Jewish "community" is controlled by and defined as the Orthodox Jewish community.

Just as in Israel, the Orthodox community claims its rights as the only authentic Jews.  Progressive or Liberal or Reform Judaism does not merit support or even recognition.  Over the years, the World Union for Progressive Judaism has gone head-to-head with governments, particularly Germany, over funding.  Some progress has been made there.

In Copenhagen - as in Munich, Milan, Vienna, Barcelona, and many other European cities, as well as in the FSU - there is an active Progressive community, but one has to search for it with great determination. 

In these places with state-supported synagogues and Hebrew schools, Jewish children are taught that there is only one kind of Judaism.  They see - at public events where the leaders of the Jewish community have a role - only Orthodox rabbis.  Adherence to Orthodox Judaism is sanctioned and institutionalized by nothing less than the state.
In these cities and countries, then, is it so surprising that these young people see the only alternative to practicing Orthodox Judaism as leaving Judaism?  Only if they have been fortunate enough to have stumbled across some Progressive Jews, they may find their way to a new minority community and, as we have seen over and over again, find their own sacred place.

As for visitors/tourists who are searching for signs of Jewish life, a website listing synagogues or Jewish activities in Copenhagen - such as - does not include Progressive Jewish organizations. 

When I mention a Progressive congregation in St. Petersburg or Florence, my friends say, "We visited the Great Synagogue on our Baltic cruise" or "I remember that beautiful synagogue in Florence."  I respond, "Reform Jews aren't allowed to use those beautiful buildings for their Services."

Harris's article, by the way, does not mention Copenhagen's Congregation Shir Hatzafon.


Published: 1/07/2010

Categories: Jewish Life Around the World, Israel
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