It's right to unite! Reform and Liberal leaders hail the benefits of merger

Movement CEOs Rabbi Josh Levy (Reform) and Rabbi Charley Baginsky (Liberal) tell the JC: 'This is an idea whose time has come'


Uniting Reform and Liberal Judaism will raise the profile of the Progressive movement and give it a bigger national platform, leaders from both traditions have told the JC.

In a joint statement announcing the potentially historic development this week, Paul Langsford, co-chair of the larger Movement for Reform Judaism, and Liberal Judaism chair Ruth Seager said that it would “mean that our reach, our voice and ultimately our Judaism will be stronger”.

A unified organisation would bring together some 40,000 Jews in more than 80 congregations, representing around 30 per cent of synagogue-affiliated Jews in the UK. Reform and Liberal synagogues will retain their individual identities.

Although previous attempts to form a federation have failed, the two professional heads now charged with realising the plan said they were confident it enjoyed widespread support.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said Rabbi Josh Levy, principal rabbi of one of the biggest Reform communities, Alyth in Golders Green, who was this week revealed as the new MRJ chief executive after a near year-long search. “It is something that has been spoken about for a long time. But now we have a unique opportunity to do it.”

“Our task is to make sure we deliver it,” said Liberal Judaism’s chief executive, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, who has been in discussions for months with Rabbi Levy about the plan, which was made public on Monday.

Previously, the tone of unity talks was “about how do we put two different things together and stop one being stronger than the other. Our starting point this time was to look at the possibilities — and how much more quickly we could get there together.”

In meetings, Liberal Judaism members had told her that they had wanted it to happen but never thought it would in their lifetimes.

Rabbi Levy said his own community was so excited by the prospect that from the beginning of April, Alyth was releasing him for two days a week during his notice period to work on the plan.

Over the past 20 years, the religious differences between the two movements, particularly over Jewish status, have significantly narrowed. “The similarities between us are greater than they ever have been,” Rabbi Levy said.

But both rabbis stressed that the vision was to build an organisation that could still embrace diversity. “We are not asking anyone to stop identifying as a Reform or as a Liberal Jew,” Rabbi Levy said.

Rabbi Baginsky believed that “Covid changed the agenda. What it enabled us to do was to share and collaborate in completely new and different ways to see what was going on in other communities and to break down a lot of those boundaries. The most important thing is that it taught us that we can change and adapt - and do it quickly.”

During the pandemic, the two movements suffered a noticeable fall in income. MRJ’s revenue dropped from £3.56 million in 2018 to £1.83 million in 2021 and LJ’s from £1.88 million to £1.40 million in the same period (although the suspension of youth tours to Israel and other activities was a factor).

But Rabbi Levy emphasised that the incentive for joining forces was not financial. “This is not about saving money on the photocopier,” he said.

“There is much more interaction between Reform and Liberal colleagues than there has ever been - and rabbis moving between synagogues. There is much more openness and collegiality and conversation about needs. This just feels like the natural next step.”

A unified movement would enable Progressive Judaism to be more effectively represented, Rabbi Baginsky added. One person had told her this week: “‘I want to make sure that when I turn on the radio, when I turn on the news, and see Judaism spoken about, it is being spoken about by someone who represents me’. We can do that much better together.

The two will begin working on a detailed blueprint for unification. “We think 18 months to two years is a reasonable time frame,” Rabbi Levy said.

Although under “no illusions it is going to be straightforward”, reaction over the past past few days had shown “a real appetite for this and that’s been very heartening”.

One of Reforms most senior rabbis, Jonathan Romain, felt “it has always been one of the great mysteries of British Jewry as to why they have two Progressive movements. They not only share the same values and largely have the same practices. Their rabbis are trained at the same institution, Leo Baeck College, and many of them have served congregations in both movements.

“There has been talk of combining into a new entity for many years and the arguments for doing so are now overwhelming. There is obviously a lot of consultation about practical details to be undertaken, but, assuming it goes ahead, I am sure we will look back and say ‘why on earth did it take us so long to achieve?’”

For Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of the Liberal Ark Synagogue in Northwood - who chairs the worldwide Progressive movement, Arzenu, to which both Reform and Liberals belong: “The impact of our movements can be amplified when we work together closely, as we have been doing regarding our relationship with Israel and our joint concerns.

“As a Liberal rabbi, who previously worked in a Reform synagogue, I look forward to supporting this important process and hope to contribute to a successful outcome.”

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