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Saturday, August 23, 2014

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There’s more to world Jewry than Israel and America

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Rabbi Dow Marmur

At a conference last month on the theme of “Winds of Change,” held at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a session was devoted to “Israel and World Jewry.” Two of the three panelists and the moderator were olim from the United States, while the third, though born in Israel, had worked as a rabbi in America.

None of the speakers mentioned any Diaspora country other than the United States. The 1-1-/2 million-plus Jews in Europe and thriving Jewish communities in Latin America and Australia weren’t even on their radar.

In an attempt to widen the scope of the discussion, I intervened to say that I’m a product of four Jewish diasporas, none of them American. My purpose was to alert the panel to the fact there are Jews who live neither in Israel nor the United States yet are very much part of world Jewry. Like a listener in Uruguay who made a similar point via the Internet, I was virtually ignored.

Canadians are familiar with American provincialism. At conferences on this continent, Canada is often listed between California and Colorado, because most organizers like to think that, at least as far as the Jewish community is concerned, Canada is little more than another American state.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Israel, with an entourage that included many Jews, Israelis had some intimations of Canadian Jewry, but they, too, tend to look at the non-American Diaspora, and particularly Europe, as inhospitable to Jewish life and only relevant as a potential source of aliyah. Most of what they know seems to come from reports of anti-Semitic incidents there. 

By contrast, Jews in Canada, perhaps because they’re also on the outside, have good reason to care about the warm winds of change in all of world Jewry. 

Take, for example, Germany, the birthplace of virtually every modern religious stream in Judaism. Because of immigration from the former Soviet Union, there are now some 120,000 Jews in the country. In order to serve and develop non-Orthodox Judaism, the Abraham Geiger College was established about 15 years ago. Named after one of the founders of liberal Judaism in the 19th century, it trains rabbis and cantors for home and abroad.

It isn’t the first liberal institution of its kind in Europe. In 1956, the Leo Baeck College came into being in London. It’s named after the legendary liberal rabbi who led German Jewry during the Nazi period before he was sent to the Therezienstadt concentration camp.

Thanks to Leo Baeck College graduates, the Reform and liberal movements in Britain have become important and integral parts of Anglo Jewry. Some alumni are now also spiritual leaders abroad, including Germany. At one point, four of them served different congregations in Canada.

Recently, a sister institution to Geiger College came into being to train professionals for Conservative communities in Germany and elsewhere. And now the two colleges have been linked to the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam near Berlin. The school, established last November and funded by the German government, is arguably the first of its kind in the world and telling evidence of another very strong wind of change in world Jewry.

The German schools are reaching out to non-Jews. Their academic director, Admiel Kosman, a respected Israeli poet and scholar, recently told the weekly Der Spiegel that “we are training rabbis for the whole society, not just for the Jewish community.” He stressed that just as Jews have much to learn from other faiths, so do Germans have much to learn from Judaism and that he’s committed to “openness on a lot of levels.”

Because the founder of the Hartman Institute, the late Rabbi David Hartman, had been the spiritual leader of a congregation in Montreal before making aliyah, the institute has strong links to Canada in addition to its base in the United States. But though it’s concerned with Jews everywhere in their relation to Israel and is also engaged in contemporary theology across religious divides, it doesn’t seem to have yet taken sufficient notice of what’s happening outside Israel and North America.

Perhaps one day, all who care for winds of change in the Jewish world will pay due attention to the full gamut of contemporary Jewish life, for – to paraphrase the Canadian bank slogan – it’s richer than you think.

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