‘More an ecosystem than a movement’ – Masorti Olami, our worldwide organisation [February 2016]
By Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Those of us who are active in Masorti communities in the UK rarely think about the Masorti movement in other countries. The truth is that the Masorti/Conservative movement is a large international organisation with hundreds of thousands of members in countries all around the globe. In some parts of the world we are the largest religious movement and give the tone to the Jewish community as a whole.
The International Masorti Movement is a group of independent organisations that share an approach to Judaism and core values. We are more an ecosystem than a movement. This is different from the Reform Movement which is centralised and has hierarchical structures. There are advantages and disadvantages to our approach. The big advantage is that our movement can contain a huge amount of diversity. This makes the movement attractive to the many people who engage with Judaism in a variety of ways. The disadvantage is that with no central organisation we frequently lack coordination or direction, and sometimes one part of the movement works against others parts of the movement. That is the reason that every few years the senior leadership from around the world gathers together in Israel, to discuss broader policy issues, to share insights on developments in the Jewish world and to dream together about the things that the movement could achieve.
The most recent of these meetings took place at the end of February at Kibbutz Tzubah, in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem. At this meeting, senior lay and professional leaders of the movement in North and South America, Europe and Israel got together to share ideas and to learn from each other. Sessions included updates on issues concerning the State of Israel and the World Zionist Organisation. We learned about developments in the different countries and the challenges different parts of the movement were facing. We also studied with the scholar in residence, Rabbi Bradley Artson from the Zeigler School in Los Angeles, which is one of the important institutions for training Masorti Rabbis in the world today.
For me, the most interesting parts of the weekend were the meetings with leaders from other countries to discuss the trends in the Jewish world. The most interesting conversations were with the executive director of the United Synagogue of America, which is the umbrella body of Masorti/Conservative communities in the United States and Canada. I do not always turn to the United States for inspiration on how to run our movement because there are many cultural differences between us. But this time I had the feeling that they were five years ahead of us in thinking about the challenges we face. One example of this was a discussion about the role of central organisations and national movements in the movement. In Europe we tend to think that it is important to grow communities from the bottom up, and that a lot of power needs to be given to the grassroots of an organisation. However, in America, in recent years, they have started to move in the opposite direction. They have noted that for many people in the younger generation, the first place they turn when looking for information or for engaging with the broader community is their smart phone, their tablet or their computer. That means that an organisation needs to spend a lot of time and effort thinking about their digital presence. Therefore, the United Synagogue of America is now putting resources into the digital gateways into the Masorti/Conservative world. This isn’t only a matter of providing information, but also finding ways for people to engage with their Judaism online in a meaningful way. This can only seriously be done confidently by a large central movement. That means a shift in power between the grassroots and the central movement, where the central organisation needs to be given resources once again.
There was some interesting discussion on the demography of the Jewish world. Here in Europe we have a very local focus and we are sometimes exasperated by other Jews who only see things from the point of view of Israel or America. However, I was reminded many times of the fact that over 80% of the Jews in the world live in either Israel or America, and it is not really surprising that the Jewish world has such a focus. Also, we love to look at things from the point of view of religious Jews, thinking that they are the most important part of the community. However, somewhere between 80-85% of Jews in the world are secular rather than religious according to any definition, be it Orthodox, Masorti or Reform. As a matter of fact, the Jewish world is much more concentrated than we think, with more than 50% of all the Jews in the world living in only five cities: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Los Angeles and New York. It is always useful to study some statistics to help put things in proper perspective.
Putting things in perspective is a big part of what the weekend was about. There is a danger in our day-to-day work that we get bogged down by small details and an endless stream of items that relentlessly appear on our to-do lists. Every now and again it is important to step back from those details and to have a look at the bigger picture. It is important to remind ourselves what our work is really about. It is important to remember our vision of a tolerant and liberal Judaism, which is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition.
We live in a troubling world, where violence is increasing and religious extremism has become a real threat. Is it important every now and again to remind ourselves that the Masorti movement, with its tradition of understanding and tolerance, its willingness to engage with our religious tradition, its opposition to fundamentalism and religious extremism, serves as a bulwark against extremism, and is actually a very precious thing. Perhaps the most important outcome from my weekend at kibbutz Tzubah was the realisation of how important the Masorti movement really is.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.