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Is there such a thing as Reform Judaism outside North America? What are European Jews? Reform? Orthodox?

Is there such a thing as Reform Judaism outside North America? What are European Jews? Reform? Orthodox?
Answer By: 
Rabbi David Lilienthal

Yes, there certainly is Reform Judaism outside North America. Reform Judaism is actually a product of the European Enlightenment of the late 18th and the 19th century. This was the time when the walls of the ghettos were broken down and the Jews slowly entered the society around them as citizens with "full" civil rights. There were Jews who chose not to do so, but to stay in self-created new ghettos with invisible walls; these are the ultra-orthodox Jews of today who do not mix with society more than absolutely necessary.

Reform came to America halfway during the 19th century, brought by European immigrants. By the end of the century, Reform broke up into two parts, when the Conservative movement was founded. If you are interested, look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut's two sourcebooks The Rise of Reform Judaism which deals with the European background, and The Growth of Reform Judaism which deals with the American continuation, both published by theWorld Union for Progressive Judaism. Another excellent book is Michael Meyer's Response to Modernity.

Today, Reform exists in Great Britain where it is organized in two movements, the Reform Movement which is slightly more traditional, which arose out of the British Sefardi community in 1840, and the Liberal movement which is more like American Reform, which arose out the the Ashkenazi community in 1905. Almost the opposite development from the the US, interestingly enough.

Further there are Reform communities in Holland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Czechia, and strong movements are now growing all over the Former Soviet Union and in Germany. You also find Reform in all centers in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and in South America like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Curaçao, Aruba. These communities are joined together in the World Union for Progressive Judaism with its headquarters in Jerusalem, and in Arzenu (ARZA International), which is the Zionist political arm of the Movement, representing it in the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. You can find all the countries listed on the WUPJ website, with links to many of the communities' own homepages.

Reform also has a number of communities in Israel, where the growth of the Movement is made very difficult by the political system, where by it is hampered in most ways of performing the functions of most congregations and excluded from all government funding which in Israel normally pays for all rabbis and buildings and other expenses. Any ARZA representative in your neighbourhood can tell you more, or look at the IRAC website.

You should know that the Reform communities outside the US tend to be more traditional in several respects than is the American movement. This is partly due to the fact that the Conservative movement has very few constituents outside the Americas, for historical reasons. The Reform communities elsewhere therefore caters to a broader spectrum of Liberal views. When in Holland, for example, Conservative Jews tend to find themselves more "at home" than American Reform Jews.