Reform Jews in the United States have very little awareness of what it’s like for their co-religionists in other parts of the world. Buoyed by their numbers and influence in this country — more than one-third of American Jews identify as Reform, compared to 19 percent Conservative and 10 percent Orthodox, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study — few Reform Jews here appreciate the fragility of Reform Judaism in most other countries, where a handful of affiliated congregations exist on the margins of largely Orthodox Jewish communities.
That’s not so in Britain, where nearly 20 percent of affiliated Jews belong to the Reform movement, but it does hold true for the rest of Europe, said Miriam Kramer, the London-based chair of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, the European branch of the World Union for Progressive (Reform) Judaism. With a world population of 1.9 million members, 1.5 million of whom are in the United States, Reform Judaism still struggles for acceptance in most countries nearly two centuries after its founding.
“North American Reform Jews don’t know about the World Union. There’s a reason for that — because you’re by far the largest affiliated movement, you don’t need the World Union,” Kramer told me last week in San Francisco.
Kramer, by profession an art historian, spends much of her time visiting outposts on the Continent, often to buttress new and growing congregations. She was on a weeklong tour of the Bay Area this month for a very different reason: to spread awareness of this world support group among a population that isn’t overly interested.
And those who are interested, who showed up to hear her speak at half a dozen Reform congregations last week, often have a distorted view of the Jewish reality in Europe. I asked her about the questions she gets most often from Bay Area audiences, and she sighed.
“North America, I’m afraid, is fixated on anti-Semitism in Europe,” she said. “Of course there is anti-Semitism, but it’s not how we are defined, and it’s not the main thing going on with Jews in Europe.”
Some of the local congregations wanted her to focus on European anti-Semitism in her talk; she declined. “I don’t have rose-tinted spectacles, but it’s not the mass exodus that’s depicted, even from France,” she said. “Jews have a future in Europe. If I didn’t think that, why would I be doing what I do?”
Yes, she continued, French people — not just Jews — are leaving the country, but it’s as much for financial reasons as the feeling, among Jews, that they’d “be better off elsewhere.” The “punishing tax regime in France,” she said, has pushed many wealthier French citizens to move abroad.
Many of them are going to Britain. London is now the fourth-largest French city by population in Europe, she told me, following Paris, Marseille and Lyons. London’s Liberal Jewish Synagogue — part of the Reform movement — now has a French rabbi on its rabbinic team, and in late January, for the first time, he conducted Friday night services in French.
It’s not a one-way move, however. Like many Brits, Kramer and her husband have a country home in France, not far from the Chunnel train that makes day trips between London and Paris a part of many people’s lives. This kind of cross-pollination brings the Jews of Europe in closer contact with each other, firming up connections.
While the Reform movement worldwide is still heavily influenced by its Anglo roots (founded in 19th-century Germany, the movement caught on most strongly in America), Kramer notes a recent flourishing of Reform congregations in new places. In Spain, for example, from one congregation a decade ago, there are now six, and the Reform community is set to welcome next year the first native-born rabbi since the Expulsion in 1492, when Cordoba-born Haim Casas completes his rabbinical training in London.
Kramer urges Bay Area Jews to visit Jewish communities when they travel abroad. She’s disappointed by the small number who say they do so, comparing it to Jews from other countries who make those visits as a matter of course.
“It’s about human connections,” she said. “To be aware that your minhag [custom], my minhag, are not the only minhag. Yes, we’re all Jews, but there are so many hues.”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.