*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Liberal CEO; and Rabbi Josh Levy, Reform CEO

19 April 2024

‘This is a wonderful opportunity to embrace the diversity of voices and views in our movements’

The Liberal and Reform movements are exploring a union to be known as Progressive Judaism.

JL: We were both born into Progressive Judaism, and also made conscious decisions. I went on a journey, exploring other parts of Judaism, and then decided that Progressive Judaism was the right form of religious life for me.

CB: In my early adulthood, I spent three years in Israel, with Judaism as part of my everyday. Back in the UK, I wanted to make Judaism part of my everyday here, too — and found that Progressive Judaism matches my value system, my integrity, and the way I live.

CB: As Progressive Jews, we have a unique approach to how we balance commitment to our textual tradition with our commitment to moral freedom and our sense of engagement with our place in wider society.

JL: You can become Jewish in two ways. You can inherit Jewish status from the generation above — in Progressive Judaism this can be from your mother or father, biological or adoptive parent, so long as you’re brought up as Jewish. You can also convert to Judaism. We welcome those who are seeking a religious space that’s right for them, whether they’re already Jewish or approaching Judaism.

CB: Something that sets Progressive Judaism apart is our full inclusion of mixed-faith couples and families, with non-Jewish members able to retain their own faith or no faith.

JL: Different parts of the Jewish world have different approaches to conversion, but all of us have shared features — such as learning, showing sincerity, and commitment.

JL: It’s not an easy thing for anyone to commit to Jewish life, but we seek to meet people where they are, and help them to come into Judaism if they want to.

CB: We believe that Progressive Judaism has a twofold purpose: to be a force for good in the world, playing an active role in shaping a society that reflects our Jewish values; and to transform and strengthen Jewish life in this country so it’s rich, inclusive, and innovative.

CB: We believe that we can best achieve this as one united movement, now representing one third of all Jews who are affiliated to synagogues in the UK — and we’ll be better able to reach out to all who identify as Jewish, but have not yet joined a community.

JL: This year, we’re working to develop a vision of a new movement and build a proposed infrastructure for the new organisation. The boards of trustees of the two current movements will then decide whether to recommend this co-creation to their communities. If they agree that unification is the best way to fulfil their charitable purpose, they’ll then bring the final decision to the memberships of the two movements.

CB: The intention is that this final decision will take place at the end of 2024, or the beginning of 2025.

JL: The practical issues are ones associated with any charity merger, and especially of two organisations which have members: logistical and legal.

CB: There will be challenges, but we’re already seeing benefits in our communications and how we speak about ourselves. Then, theologically, there’s also the wonderful opportunity to use this to think about who we are, and embrace the diversity of voices and views in our movements.

CB: Britain is the only place in the world in which there is not one single Progressive Jewish movement. We want the generations that come after us to enjoy a rich and innovative Progressive Jewish life: one with thriving communities, a strong public voice, excellent leadership pipelines, clear articulation of who we are and what we believe, empowered and supported clergy. This move to unite Liberal and the Reform Jews at this time will help deliver this for generations to come.

CB: In the six months since 7 October, our commitment to Zionism has been strengthened. We mourn all those who were lost, grieve for families displaced, fear for those sheltering from rockets, and call for the immediate release of hostages taken by Hamas.

JL: At the same time, we continue to believe in Palestinian self-determination. We refuse to give up on the idea of a two-state solution, however hard this might be. This is the only possible pathway to an enduring peace.

CB: The Zionism that we aspire to is a religious Zionism, one that comes from within our religious world-view. Our Zionism is not just about Israel’s borders but its behaviours. Israel, as a Jewish state, reflects on all the world’s Jews and Judaism itself; so it must seek to be a Kiddush ha-Shem: to sanctify the name of God through its actions.

JL: Pesach this year will naturally be overshadowed by events in Israel and Palestine — the continuing sense of pain, suffering, and trauma for all those caught up in it, a continued concern for the well-being of the hostages and for their return. Also, the challenging conversations we’re all having within families and communities about what it means to be Zionists at this time when we’re in relationship with what is happening.

JL: My answer to the question about when I first felt a calling to the rabbinate is always . . . I will tell you when it happens. I’m not being facetious, because being a rabbi is a constant conversation. It’s not straightforward to be in the world of religious leadership. For me, it’s not a simple calling that you get once, and then step into, it’s part of a constant conversation and re-decision.

CB: I love being part of a tradition that doesn’t take trust for granted, and wrestles with the big questions that we face: a tradition that you sit in uncomfortably. I like the discomfort and the argument. I could certainly imagine not being a rabbi — for a long time my career was running a bar in Israel — but I couldn’t see myself as anything other than a Progressive Jew.

JL: Whatever I was doing in life, I would still want to be part of a praying community and a Progressive Jewish community — as it fundamentally reflects my values and my form of religious life.

CB: I remember being in conversation with my grandmother, who wasn’t Jewish, talking about God. I remember really thinking that God sits in my relationship with her. The first time that it crossed my mind that I might be a rabbi was at my bat mitzah. Then I quickly thought, “That’s a stupid idea,” and didn’t revisit that for a long time.

JL: I love prayer and study. I really do. I love praying in community, and I love studying Jewish texts. Both give me great joy. The divine presence dwells among us when we pray and study together.

CB: The thing that makes me angry is, in the past, we maybe haven’t lived up to our potential to fully get the Progressive Jewish voice out there in the UK — meaning that the diversity of what it means to be Jewish hasn’t always been represented.

JL: I try not to do anger, as it’s a stupid emotion, although I find that some of the oversimplified ways we speak about religion and faith generally are difficult — as they alienate people from a very thoughtful, robust, and scholarly space.

CB: On a personal level, being with our families makes us happy. On a work level, we have the blessing of seeing people having rich, thriving, religious lives. We feel genuinely blessed to witness that.

JL: In bringing two religious groups together, you need a listening ear and an open heart. A willingness to work collaboratively requires us to be open to working with someone else. The key is a very strong sense of purpose and mission. We know that this task is about being effective and doing the work well rather than parochialism or competition.

CB: The more we collaborate, the better it can be for the world as a whole.

JL: The sound of people singing together in joyful prayer is special to me.

CB: I love the sound of kids in a service. I like a shul full of children, whether they are praying or playing.

CB: If I was to be locked in a synagogue with someone for a few hours, I’d choose my grandmother. She was my journey to God and the sense of wrestling with religion. She never saw me become a rabbi; so I would love to spend one more day with her now.

JL: I’d love to have a deep encounter with some of the early sages to understand their approach the development of Midrash and Talmud.

Rabbi Baginsky and Rabbi Levy were talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

They have helped to draft this statement: liberaljudaism.org/2024/04/a-reflection-six-months-on-from-7-october

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)