Celebrating 90 years of our global movement

20 April 2016 – 12 Nisan 5776

Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein
20 April 2016

Researching for a session I was to present at this weekend’s excellent Biennial Conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ) in London, I became increasingly aware that it was the founders of our Liberal movement that played the key role in the establishment of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) 90 years ago.

Progressive Judaism can trace its roots back to 1810 in Germany and, in the following decades, established itself in that country, France, America and England. Though, we should record that Liberal Judaism in the UK was only founded in 1902. The West London Synagogue, set up 62 years earlier, was certainly non-Orthodox, but at that stage was still very conservative.

It took until 1914 for the Germans to attempt to form an international body, when they invited representatives from the above communities to attend their annual conference. It was unfortunate timing, for the beginning of the First World War led to cancellation.

Hardly surprising that it took some years for the idea to be resurrected and it was the founders of Liberal Judaism in London, Lily Montagu and Claude Montefiore, together with the dynamic first rabbi of their congregation, Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck, who decided to invite representatives from existing communities to discuss the idea of a global movement.

Lily Montagu personally sent out the invitations and more than 100 people came to the first meeting in July 1926. From the United States Dr Julian Morganstern, president of Hebrew Union College; from Germany Professor Ismar Elbogen and Rabbis Max Dienemann, Georg Salzberger and Brunno Italiener – Leo Baeck could not come but sent a paper to be read out. There were several delegates from France and Sweden, as well as Dr Leah Jhirad from Bombay (now Mumbai), where a community inspired by “Miss Lily” had been established taking the then name of our British movement: Jewish Religious Union.

The gathering was a great success and indeed led to the establishment of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Two contentious issues had to be settled. Firstly, should it be called Liberal or Reform – the former used by the Germans, French and British, the latter by the more numerous Americans. And so Progressive became the compromise, a designation that still puzzles the Americans to this day.

More serious was the debate about Zionism. Claude Montefiore, president of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS), was strongly anti-Zionist and resisted the subject being discussed fearing it might scupper the object of the conference. However two leading Zionists – Rabbi Stephen Wise from America and Rev Maurice Perlszweig, who was the assistant minister at the LJS (must have been some tension there over this subject!) – insisted on raising the matter. Rabbi Mattuck, who was chairing the conference, allowed them to speak but then ruled that as the subject was not on the agenda, no decisions could be made and the issue would have to be discussed at a subsequent meeting.

The first formal conference took place in Berlin in 1928 – at which Lily Montagu spoke in German – and they then occurred almost biannually, except during the years of the Second World War. Looking through reports on these conferences, I detect a continuing antipathy to Zionism from some quarters, even at the 1946 event in London.

This approach changed when the World Union moved its headquarters to New York in 1953, and subsequently to Jerusalem – where it still resides.

Finally, as well as earnest discussion in 1926, there were also social gatherings: a garden party on Shabbat afternoon at the home of Rabbi and Mrs Mattuck in Hampstead Heath, Monday night at the home of Lily Montagu’s sister Henrietta Franklin and finally a garden party at the Roehampton home of Claude Montefiore.

The first office of the World Union for Progressive Judaism was in Lily Montagu’s West Central Club and, when that was bombed out in the Second World War, she moved it to her home, the Red Lodge at 51 Palace Court, Bayswater. She worked tirelessly to expand the World Union almost until her death, ably helped by her secretary Jessie Levy, and with the intellectual support of Mattuck.

So the World Union for Progressive Judaism owes its founding to the founders of our Liberal Movement. There was a time when much of its leadership came from LJ and, as a vice president, I would like to see Liberal Jews more directly involved in WUPJ though its European arm. It is interesting and exciting work – contact me if you wish to have a greater involvement.

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