Fall 2007

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Fall 2007

A Worldwide Masorti Movement Takes Shape

gesaMany critics often deride Conservative Judaism as fundamentally a North American phenomenon. After all, the movement's key institutions — the Jewish Theological Seminary, Camp Ramah, USY and more than 700 synagogues — are all in the United States and Canada. Others, acknowledging that there are more than fifty Masorti communities in Israel plus the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, nevertheless dismiss the movement as at best "bi-continental".

However, recent events in other parts of the world give ample testimony that the Conservative/Masorti Movement is indeed a world movement, fulfilling the claims made by the name of its international association: Masorti Olami, literally "World" Masorti.

Charged with the responsibility for supporting the growth and development of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in all parts of the world outside of North America and Israel, Masorti Olami recently celebrated the formal establishment of Masorti "Amlat" (Masorti Latin America) and Masorti Europe, the two newest continental organizations that substantiate Conservative Judaism's claim to be a world movement.

Masorti Europe brings together Masorti congregations located in a dozen different countries speaking nearly a dozen different languages, from Nice's Maayane Or to Kiev's Kehillat Armon. A meeting of European Masorti representatives earlier this year saw congregational leaders from across the continent meeting in Nice for 48-hours of davening, discussion, deliberation and celebration as the congregation's new synagogue building on Avenue Shakespeare was dedicated.

Ironically, although Positive Historical Judaism (the precursor to the Conservative Movement) had its origins in mid-19th century Europe, the tragic and traumatic events that engulfed Europe during the 20th century had the effect of wiping away all earlier traces of a centrist Halacha-oriented Judaism. As a result, when young Jews began searching in the last couple of decades for a moderate alternative to the established rightwing-oriented Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and a radical form of Progressive Judaism, on the other, they had to import Conservative/Masorti Judaism back to Europe.

A case in point: earlier this spring in Germany, the fastest growing Jewish community in the world, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who was installed as the first woman and first Masorti rabbi of the historic Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin, was trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Schechter Rabbinical Institute in Jerusalem.

The problem now facing Masorti communities in Europe is how to create centralized institutions and programs that will service all, despite the differences in language and national character. The founding of Masorti Europe, with a joint Bet Din, an association "Marom Europe" for young adults and, coming in November, a new London-based Academy for Liturgy to train shlichei tzibur goes a long way in the right direction.

In contrast to Europe, where Masorti Judaism is a late arrival to the Jewish scene, in Latin America, Conservative Judaism has been the dominant form with the arrival to Buenos Aires in 1958 of the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Meyer, the energetic charismatic disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel, brought his vision of a congregation dedicated to the principles of social activism and spiritual uplift to a continent hungry for religious innovation.

Meyer's congregation, Communidad Bet El, became the model for the scores of other Conservative synagogues in Argentina and throughout Latin America. With its own day school, youth group and summer camp, Bet El was a wholly self-sufficient community. Any sense of a movement among these independent synagogues came solely from an appreciation of common ideology and practice.

This kind of Conservative "movement" might succeed in a time of economic prosperity. However, with the economic upheaval on the continent, and particularly in Argentina, in the late 1990's, such independent institutions — congregational day schools, camps, youth groups, etc — became luxuries that few synagogues could now afford. Hence, the task before Masorti leaders in Latin America has been to bring these like-minded synagogues together in order to share resources and programs and to create centralized institutions and services that would be able to maintain themselves and realize common aspirations.

Fueling, in part, the growth of Masorti Judaism in Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world, such as Australia and the former Soviet Union, has been the availability since 2002 of funds from the World Zionist Organization. Today, as a result of success in 2006's Zionist Congress elections, MERCAZ representatives sit on the allocations committee of the Pinkus Fund, while splitting with the Reform Movement the annual WZO budget, currently $750,000, for "spiritual services for the non-Orthodox".

But helping the growth of Masorti Judaism around the world is not a one-way street. Because of their strong connection with Israel and Zionism, these new Masorti communities become new and important sources of MERCAZ votes in local Zionist elections for the Zionist Congress. For example, at the 1987 Zionist Congress, of the 27 elected MERCAZ delegates, all but 6 were from North America. Twenty years later, at last year's Congress, more than 30% of the 55-person delegation was from Latin America or Europe.

As Dr. Stephen Wolnek, President of MERCAZ USA, stated: "The more that these Masorti communities around the world grow, the stronger our total MERCAZ representation and, thereby, the greater our power and influence in the WZO and Jewish Agency. By supporting the growth of Masorti Judaism around the world, we ultimately help ourselves."

For more information about Masorti Olami and the location of Masorti congregations around the world, contact the office at 212-678-5319 or visit the website

(MERCAZ USA thanks Dr. David Breakstone, International Vice President, Masorti and MERCAZ Olami, for his help with this article.)


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