Q&A Rabbi Daniel Freedlander: WUPJ supports liberal Jews

Rabbi Daniel Freelander

This past September, Rabbi Daniel Freelander was appointed the new president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the international umbrella organization of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism. WUPJ serves 1,200 congregations in more than 45 countries. Formerly vice-president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, Rabbi Freelander was in Toronto last month to meet with leaders of the local Jewish community, including UJA Federation, and to speak at both Temple Sinai and Holy Blossom Temple. The CJN spoke to him about the dynamics of Reform Judaism internationally, religious pluralism and the Canadian Reform movement.

What does your role as WUPJ president entail?

The focus is working with progressive and Reform congregations worldwide. There are 850 Reform congregations in North America and about 350 elsewhere in the world. In the U.S., about 42 per cent of affiliated Jews are affiliated with Reform congregations (compared to roughly 28 per cent Conservative and about 10 per cent Orthodox). In the rest of the world, the balance is quite different. In most countries, the established Jewish religious group is Orthodox, and Reform is often the second-largest. (The Conservative movement is stronger in South America, but not as much in Britain or Europe.) Our portfolio is to build progressive congregations and to make sure there’s a progressive Jewish alternative [to Orthodoxy or the Conservative movement] in every major Jewish community.

Are there countries that you feel need a boost in progressive Judaism?

Absolutely. There are places that have nascent Reform communities that need help getting organized and finding rabbis, like Bangkok, Shanghai and Tokyo – places that don’t necessarily have a financial need, but require organizational or spiritual help, such as guidance in locating a rabbi, prayer books, schools. This is in contrast to places like Belarus, Ukraine, Russia or parts of Poland, where [due to political circumstances] it hasn’t been natural for Jews to gather in organized synagogues. There, there’s really only Chabad and Reform, there’s no modern Orthodox or Conservative options. So, we’ve been creating infrastructure of community workers to bring people together at early childhood centres or adult centres. Some of these are evolving into progressive congregations. Over the past 15 years or so, the WUPJ has put many millions into building community centres and synagogues, training rabbis and paying rabbinic salaries and training and hiring community workers in the former Soviet Union and parts of eastern Poland. 

In those places, we’ve needed to raise funds for these things until those communities can afford to do so themselves.

In European countries, there’s often an official Jewish community representative recognized by the government. For the Jewish community, it’s often a chief rabbi, and the Reform congregations are often outside of that structure. In countries like Germany, they’ve been receptive to Reform. In other places, less so.

I can’t emphasize enough how different every country is.

In what ways is Canada’s Reform movement distinctive?

I’m not an expert on that, but going on perception, I’d say the Reform community in Canada is far more traditional in ritual practice and religious decisions than the Reform community in the United States. It’s also probably less liberal. It’s still a liberal group, but its predilections are distinctly Canadian, and in my mind, that means more traditional or conservative than American [religious decisions].

What would you say are the main factors that contribute to this phenomenon?

Reform Judaism in Canada, while it emerged in the early 20th century, didn’t really grow in a big way until after World War II. The whole classical Reform period, [which took place in the United States] from the 1880s to the 1930s, never really took place in Canada. So Reform Judaism is older and more Germanic in the U.S. Canadian Reform Judaism has a much stronger eastern European influence. The U.S. didn’t see much immigration after World War II, while Canada did, and the Holocaust and Israel played a much more central role in Canada than in the United States.

Is a commitment to social justice part of the WUPJ’s mandate?

Yes. Our two big social justice pieces are: 1. Protecting religious pluralism – making sure Jews can practice in any way they want, regardless of where they live. So we spend a lot of energy practising non-Orthodox Jewish rights. We’re really sensitive about the fact every Jew should have the opportunity to pray as he or she sees fit.

2. We see ourselves as the progenitors of the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah, meaning we look at the greater world and try to work within the framework of the larger society to move things forward. For example, our South African Reform congregations, which funded a series of early childhood centres in black townships to help raise literacy levels, or the food bank programs run by our Australian Reform congregations. We feel that we serve human beings, not just Jews. We want our members to see themselves as part of a larger world community, not separate. We have an obligation to make things as positive as they can be in the larger community. In apartheid days [in South Africa], a lot of the white leadership involved in the anti-apartheid movement came from the Reform leadership.

In which places are restrictions placed on Reform or progressive Jews?

In Romania, for example, the government only wanted to grant not-for-profit status to Orthodox congregations, to groups associated with the country’s official “Jewish Church,” if you will. So, Reform congregations there couldn’t get non-profit status. We’ve had some successes there. We had to work with the government. It’s been a long battle, and requires us to educate non-Jewish political leaders in the varieties of Judaism.

In Poland, the Orthodox Jewish establishment owns and operates all the Jewish cemeteries in the country. They wouldn’t recognize Reform conversions to Judaism so wouldn’t allow the burial of Reform converts in the Jewish cemeteries. That’s not a government issue, but it’s an issue we’re fighting.

What sorts of issues does the WUPJ address in Israel?

In Israel, we have a strong affiliate: the Israeli movement for progressive Judaism. They have a full staff of their own and are a rapidly growing, with 60 congregations. We helped create and fund them. We still fund many of the rabbinic salaries in Israel. We’ve created a network of synagogues there that are pretty much self-sufficient, or are getting there.

What was the purpose of your recent Toronto visit?

I came to thank the Toronto-area congregations who have been very supportive of the WUPJ – especially Holy Blossom Temple and Temple Sinai, which have helped fund rabbinic salaries in Israel and elsewhere. I also went to meet with our prime supporters, who helped build significant congregations in Israel. The new chairperson of the WUPJ is Canadian, Carole Sterling. She’s the first Canadian in 20 years to be the organization’s international chairperson.

What, primarily, do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as WUPJ president?

Specifically, I’d like to accomplish the creation of new congregations in places where we know there are critical masses of non-Orthodox Jews, but where the latter haven’t organized yet. I was, for example, thrilled to work with new congregations in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bangkok, where liberal Jews have been for years but are finally wanting to get organized. There’s also a new Reform congregation in Rome that has just emerged, and several in North America. Getting these new congregations on their feet is a very high priority.

The second area is the former Soviet Union. There, Jews commonly become associated with synagogues through their children, which is the reverse of what we have in North America. In the former Soviet Union, young people will go to Jewish summer camp on scholarships, which are really about indoctrination in Judaism. The kids will come home very excited, and the parents won’t know what they’re talking about. We offer family camps so that the whole family can experience the joy of intensive Jewish living, 24/7. These kids will become the leaders of the new congregations.
In Belarus and Ukraine, congregational leadership tend to be in their 30s or 40s, so it’s very different from the typically older lay leadership in North American and even Israel, where parents try to convince their kids to get involved [in synagogue life]. In Belarus and Ukraine, it’s the reverse, and I find that very exciting. That’s where we’re investing a lot of resources, to youth access.