Pioneering and inclusive: 120 years of Liberal Judaism

Movement CEO Rabbi Charley Baginsky reflects on its development and future


In 1902, Liberal Judaism, then known as the Jewish Religious Union, held its first public service at the Great Central Hotel in Marylebone Road.

Now, as our movement reaches 120, like Moses at that same age, we find a Liberal Judaism whose eyes are not dimmed and whose energy is unabated.

I am humbled by all that we have achieved in that century-plus.

At Liberal Judaism, we talk a lot about the stories that have shaped our Jewish journeys and I have been asking people for their recollections. I have been wowed by both the scale and scope of the replies.

One thing remains constant in answers ­— that as our motto suggests, Liberal Judaism really is the “Home for your Jewish story”.

There are those who had never found a place to be Jewish before encountering a Liberal community — maybe because of their status or sexuality; because their partner had not been welcomed or because their needs or life choices were misunderstood.

Then there are those for whom being a Liberal Jew meant coming home for other reasons —the deep spirituality and intellectual rigour of the community, the music and liturgy, or even just finding a synagogue in an area where previously none had existed.

That Liberal Judaism’s founders included a young woman, Lily Montagu, was quite something in 1902 and we have continued to lead the way on inclusion.

From the outset, services have been fully egalitarian with men and women sitting and praying together, and with liturgy in English as well as Hebrew, so that everyone can follow.

In the 1950s, Liberal Judaism officially recognised equilineal descent — that anyone with a Jewish parent is considered Jewish if so brought up.

Twenty years on, along with Reform Judaism, we began to have women rabbis — Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger at South London Liberal Synagogue was our first. Women led in lay and professional positions too and that strong female leadership continues today.

The trend that is spreading within the Jewish community for conversion of individuals for reasons beyond marriage was precedented by Liberal Judaism. The acceptance of mixed faith blessings, now including from under the chupah, has meant we have a wide range of active and engaged converts, as well as mixed families who feel welcome.

We have also broken new ground on LGBTQI+ rights and inclusion. Our Covenant of Love: Service of Commitment for Same-Sex Couples was introduced in 2005 to coincide with the introduction of civil partnerships and was the first of its kind in the world.

In addition, we were at the forefront of the successful campaign to ensure equal marriage in the UK and followed that up by becoming the first Jewish movement anywhere to offer ketubot especially written for same-sex couples and those preferring a non-binary or gender neutral format.

Inclusion also means finding Jews wherever they may live. Setting up communities in York and Lincoln — scenes of appalling pogroms against our people — is a source of pride and we also see Liberal Judaism thriving in Wessex, Stevenage, Suffolk, Edinburgh and Dublin.

During the pandemic, we have been able to be responsive in ways others could not as we were already streaming services, sharing resources and moving to online meetings to engage constituents outside London.

We are more than a network of synagogues. We can collaborate, share best practice and lift each other up. Our youth movement, LJY-Netzer, has been equally pioneering.

When other places decided that conversations were too difficult to have, they had them. When other places rejected young people because their inclusion needs could not be understood, they trained themselves and welcomed them.

All through the pandemic they have run online events. As soon as they could, they organised in-person camps and events but never forgot those unable to attend.

To mark the 120th, we will be holding our first online fundraiser over 36 hours in the spring hoping to raise £500,000 to continue our work. We will then be getting together in May for our Day of Celebration.

There will also be a series of Education Hub sessions, open to all, based around our movement’s history, and a memorial service in honour of the much-loved Rosita Rosenberg, the first female chief executive of Liberal Judaism and co-author of the definitive history of our movement.

The anniversary initiative I am proudest of is Open House Shabbat, which will see Liberal communities all around the country holding services during 2022.

These will all be on different weekends and will allow each community to open their doors — whether in-person or online — to the rest of the Liberal Jewish world and beyond.

In his 120th year, Moses stood on the edge of the Promised Land and refused to abandon his ideals.

We know that it can be hard to change even the smallest thing. But as Liberal Jews, we have always been committed to making our world a little better because we are in it.

Over the years, we have championed inclusivity and the sense that Liberal Judaism is a home to every Jew or aspiring Jew.

We have also taken the jump from being an outlier to being recognised as a valid religious choice for the engaged Jew and a vital part of British society.

Now is the moment to recommit and create the Liberal Judaism that can continue to lead into the next generation.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive