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What is Progressive Judaism in Great Britain all about? What is it like to be Jewish in Great Britain? How is it different from being Jewish in North America?

Adam Langleben / Jewish Living / June 10, 2007

June 10, 2007

Week 117

24 Sivan 5767
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iTorah: Jewish Living

What is Progressive Judaism in Great Britain all about? What is it like to be Jewish in Great Britain? How is it different from being Jewish in North America?
By Adam Langleben

Progressive Judaism in Britain is a very vague term, because in Britain, we have two progressive movements: Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism. Liberal Judaism is most similar to what you all know to be Reform Judaism in North America. However, Liberal Judaism represents only a little over 1% of the Jewish community of Britain. Reform Judaism in Britain is still progressive at its core, but is slightly more traditional in its values and practice. An example of this difference is that British Reform Judaism currently does not accept patrilineal descent to define who is a Jew, while Liberal Judaism does. Reform Judaism is quite a lot larger than Liberal Judaism, having about an 18% stake in British Jewry. There are 280,000 Jews in Britain.

The key problem in the Jewish community of Britain is how much control the Orthodox community has over institutions. I went to a Jewish high school; in Britain there are around 15 Jewish high schools, most of which are free and paid for by the government. At present, more than 50% of all Jewish children in Britain attend Jewish day schools. The Orthodox community runs all of these schools, and Jewish children of patrilineal descent are turned away by almost every one of them, thus separating many Progressive Jewish children from the wider Jewish world.

Being Jewish in north-west London is rather different to being Jewish in the rest of Britain. In north-west London, there are dozens of synagogues in every area. Almost every area of north-west London has large numbers of Jews and kosher food is available from most supermarkets. Being a Jew outside of north-west London is more difficult, as I am experiencing every day in the city of Leeds. As most Jews live in one area of London, most non-Jews from other places in Britain have never met a Jew before in their lives. In Leeds, many people I have met had strange ideas of what a Jew was before they met me. Some people were under the impression that all Jewish people wore black cowboy hats and took vows of silence to never speak to anyone who was not Jewish. Many also believed in the good old Jewish conspiracy theory: that Jews controlled the planet—however I think after meeting me, many of these people now realize that I do not control everything.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Britain, coming both from the far left of British politics, a faction that dislikes Jews because of Israel, and the situation in the Middle East; British Member of Parliament George Galloway is one of this group. Anti-Semitism also comes from the far right of British politics, with Britain’s fascist political parties. The British National Party, a racist Nazi party in Britain, for example, did extremely well in national elections in the past week.

So far I have covered what it is like to be Jewish in Britain: on the whole, very pleasant and safe, even though outside political forces are making things more difficult.

Now, as a Reform Jew in Britain, things are going well; the Reform Movement is growing at a very good rate, and recently unveiled a plan called the 2020 Vision. This plan envisages the Reform Movement becoming the mainstream form of Judaism in Britain by the year 2020. RSY-Netzer, the youth movement for Reform Judaism has been growing at a record rate. One hundred twenty seven chanichim (participants) aged 16 will be going to Israel this summer on our annual Israel tours.

These are all feats inside the Reform Movement. For progressive Jews in an Orthodox controlled Jewish world here in Britain, there are still many things that need to change in order for me and other progressive Jews to feel completely comfortable. However, I do feel that it is changing for the better and the hope is that in a few years, progressive Jews here in Britain will be in a much happier situation, much like in North America.

  • What is the difference between Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in the UK?
    As I mentioned earlier, in Britain we have two strands of Progressive Judaism. Liberal Judaism is almost identical in terms of belief and practice to Reform Judaism in North America, while Reform Judaism in Britain is generally more conservative. Until recently, some Reform synagogues in Britain still did not allow women to participate fully in services; however now every Reform synagogue in Britain is fully egalitarian. The Reform siddur is not yet fully egalitarian in terms of the liturgy, while the Liberal Movement’s siddur has been fully egalitarian for many years. The Reform Movement in Britain currently is compiling a new fully egalitarian siddur, to be completed by early 2008. Reform Judaism in Britain also believes fully in the dietary laws of kashrut, although most synagogues have vegetarian only kitchens, as non-Orthodox synagogues cannot obtain a kashrut certificate from the Orthodox rabbinic authorities. To find out more, please take a look at the links provided in this iTorah.
  • Why is anti-Semitism growing in Britain and Europe?
    Anti-Semitism is on the rise not only in Britain, but also throughout the whole of Europe. This is down to several issues currently effecting Europe. First is the rise of the far left of politics, namely, the Socialist political parties in Europe, which actively accuse Israel of being a racist Jewish state supported solely by Britain and the United States. These groups also are highly critical of the war in Iraq and they often try to win public support to unite people against Israel by using the current war in Iraq as an excuse. These groups often align themselves with Islamist terror organizations in Europe, an example being the Islamist Hizbut-Tehria, which has several links to Al Quieda and had a hand in the terror attacks in London in 2005. They also often work with the Islamic organizations in Europe, as there is an extremely large population of over 82 million Muslims who live inside Europe.

    Then, we have the far right, being Nazi like organizations that seem to be gaining more and more popularity. These organizations often hide their anti-Semitic views as they are not popular, but because of the huge number of immigrants Britain has been accepting in the last few years, the far right has won many votes as many working class Britons are angry that immigrants are coming to Britain and taking jobs, which they deem to be rightfully there for white British people.

    As Jewish citizens in Britain, we often try to help immigrants settle, as we know from our own history, what it is like to immigrate to new countries.
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Adam Langleben is 20 years old. He is a lifelong member of North Western Reform Synagogue, otherwise known as Alyth, in the North West London suburb of Golders Green, the heart and major demographic concentration of the British Jewish community. Adam is a freshman pursuing peace studies and international relations at Leeds Metropolitan University in the north of England. Since the age of nine, he has been a member of one of NFTY’s sister movements in Britain, RSY-Netzer. He is a boger (graduate) of the Shnat-Netzer gap year program in Israel and is about to take up his new job as RSY-Netzer northern fieldworker for the United Kingdom. He has been a madrich (leader) at four RSY-Netzer camps and had the fantastic opportunity to attend the NFTY Convention and URJ Youth Workers Conference in Philadelphia this past February. He is very excited to be a rosh toran (head of logistics) this summer at RSY-Netzer’s Atid summer camp, which is to be held in Snowdonia, Wales.
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