Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Connections 2017 conference in Jerusalem. Joined by rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, rabbinical school students, and representatives from NETZER and TAMAR, the worldwide organizations for Jewish youth and young adults, respectively, this international convention gathers together Jews “me’arbah kanfot ha’aretz,” from the four corners of the globe, for four days of learning, prayer, and engagement. It is the only meeting of its kind, bringing together over 450 progressive Jews from 30 countries. Here we were, in Jerusalem, having journeyed from Australia and Austria, Brazil and Belarus, Canada and the Czech Republic, the United States and the United Kingdom, just to name a few. And though they did not have to travel quite as far, there was also a strong, enthusiastic contingent from the progressive synagogues in Israel, as well as from the IMPJ and IRAC.
Attending this conference and hearing about the great strides we have made as an international movement, one could not help but swell with pride. From the opening of a new seminary in Moscow, the continued success of WUPJ camps, to thriving Jewish communities in places where the practice of Judaism was previously prohibited or discouraged; we have come so far! Undoubtedly, liberal Judaism has positively impacted the lives of so many across the globe. We are truly a global community of faith.
During this exciting and informative conference, we had the opportunity to hear from three different Members of Knesset, who each gave their perspective on the happenings in Israel. We heard from innovators like Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Arava Power Company, Israel’s leading solar energy company, as he works to tackle the issue of climate change. Another highlight was a presentation from David Birnbaum, the CEO of Sodastream, who gave a thoughtful message on what it takes to succeed as a leader, while also speaking about his company’s achievements in creating a work environment that employs Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, and Palestinians.
And yes, you may have heard we made a little history together. Early on Thursday morning, we gathered together at Robinson’s Arch and held a beautiful worship service, the highlight of which was celebrating the b’not mitzvah of 13 women from South America. And, if that was not enough, we then marched together, Torah scrolls in our arms, to the outer plaza of the Western Wall. Detained briefly by security, they let us pass, and we, an egalitarian, progressive community, were able to read Torah together and conclude our service, thankfully without incident. What a moment! And, speaking of important progressive milestones, we also experienced another “first,” as we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat at Jerusalem’s “Tachanah Rishonah,” the First Railway Station, which is now a thriving cultural and culinary hub. What made this evening so powerful is that it was the first time that eight progressive synagogues from the greater Jerusalem area came together for a Shabbat service. As we prayed, sang, and danced together, 1,000 strong, we couldn’t help noticing how many people stopped to join us in joyously welcoming Shabbat.
For me, this conference is the ultimate expression of Jewish peoplehood. Though hailing from different countries and, in some cases, divided by language, we are nonetheless united by our shared faith and our progressive values. We share the same ideals, the same dreams, the same vision for the future. And, as anyone who participated in Connections 2017 could tell you, that future is bright!
I invite all rabbis, cantors, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders to learn more about the WUPJ and consider getting involved. Let’s all work together to support Reform Judaism across the globe, building progressive Jewish communities and nurturing future Jewish leaders, so we may continue moving from strength to strength!
Rabbi Joshua Lobel serves Congregation Beth El in Missouri City, TX and is a member of the WUPJ’s International Assembly.