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Thursday 10 April 2008

Report - The World Union European Region Conference in Vienna

The World Union European Region Conference in Vienna, March 13-16, 2008:
A Milestone Gathering With an Eye to the Future
by Rabbi Joel Oseran, Vice President, International Development
It was a historic gathering of over 250 participants from Progressive,
Liberal and Reform communities across Europe, the former Soviet Union,
Israel, and even North America and South Africa. It was a statement as
well – coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss, the
horrific forced exodus of Jews from Vienna in World War II, and
recalling the tragic destruction of European Jewry during the Shoah. As
such, this particular conference of the European Region of the World
Union in Vienna symbolized the resiliency and power of the Jewish spirit.
For the World Union leadership in Europe and around the world, the
Vienna conference was an ideal opportunity to meet, review our recent
achievements and consider the challenges facing our organization. The
pre-conference sessions included meetings of the World Union's Executive
Board and International Assembly, during which we enjoyed the
hospitality of our Progressive congregation in Vienna, Or Chadasch.
Concurrently, there was a most successful gathering of Progressive
rabbis from Europe, the FSU and Israel to study together, discuss issues
of common concern and strengthen ties of collegiality that are so
important in a part of the world where Progressive rabbis often work
alone and under most difficult conditions.
The grand opening session of the conference took place at the impressive
Vienna City Hall, an imposing gothic structure situated along the famous
Ring Road. Participants were welcomed by Sonja Kato, an official of the
city's municipal government who spoke about the importance of Jewish
life in the past and present, referring directly to the infamous
Anschluss, the need for tolerance, and respect for diversity and pluralism.
My colleague and friend, Rabbi Michael Marmur, dean of the Jerusalem
campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, delivered
the keynote address. Michael was simply sensational in his presentation
of the unique message of Progressive Judaism in contemporary society,
contrasting our approach to those of other Jewish religious and secular
attempts to deal with modernity and tradition. His address was both
thoughtful and humorous – a combination that only he could pull off with
such aplomb.
Workshops included discussions on program initiatives across Europe;
ways to promote Progressive Judaism in congregational settings; Israel,
Zionism and anti-Semitism; the work of the World Union in the FSU (all
of our FSU rabbis were present); study in Israel through the Saltz
International Education Center; and a number of other topics related to
our movement in Europe. An impressive exhibit was on display throughout
the conference in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Union
Liberale Israelite de France, known as the Rue Copernic Synagogue – the
first Progressive congregation in France.
An additional highlight of the conference was the celebration of key
rabbis in the European Region who had earned special recognition from
Leo Baeck College and Abraham Geiger College. Rabbis Tony Bayfield,
Andrew Goldstein, David Goldberg, Harry Jacobi and Edward Van Voolen
were all presented with citations by Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire of Leo
Baeck College recognizing their 25 years in the field of rabbinic
service. Rabbi Andrew Goldstein was recognized as a senator of Abraham
Geiger College by its rector, Rabbi Dr. Walter Homolka.
These presentations were not only a fitting tribute to the rabbis, but
an important milestone in the history of Progressive Judaism in Europe.
No religious movement will succeed without strong rabbinic leadership to
sustain it and lead it into the future. Recognizing outstanding rabbis
with whom our European Movement is blessed, and the existence of
effective rabbinical seminaries to train rabbis for the future, served
to reassure us that we not only have a noble past but a promising
future, as well.
As is customary at our European Region gatherings, the conference
concluded with the Annual General Meeting, which was particularly well
attended. Rabbi Dr. Andrew Goldstein, Chair of the European Region,
reviewed the region's progress and identified a number of critical
challenges that will occupy much of our movement's agenda in the years
to come. Business matters included the welcome of Bet Orim in Budapest
as the latest affiliate of the ER; the conclusion of Katarina Seidler's
tenure as vice president; the election of Lauren Rid from Munich and
Jonathan Wootliff from Prague as new vice presidents; the conclusion of
Leslie Bergman's term as vice chair and Alex Dembitz of Hungary being
elected in his place.
The conference also marked the close of Linda Kann's tenure as staff for
the European Region and Exodus 2000, the program that twins Reform and
Liberal congregations in Britain with Progressive congregations in the
FSU. Many tributes were bestowed upon Linda for her dedicated service to
our European movement, along with well-wishes for success in her future
leadership roles for our movement.
We also extend our sincere appreciation to all the volunteers of
Congregation Or Chadasch in Vienna, and to its president, Dr. Theodor
Much, for helping to organize such a wonderful gathering.
As we concluded this most successful conference, it was clear to all
that there is much work remaining on our European agenda. We must more
effectively reshape our European Region administrative and programmatic
capabilities to respond to the growing needs of our European movement.
We must dramatically increase our financial resources to support the
emerging communities that play such an important role for all Jews in
Europe. We must do better in connecting our European Region to other
World Union constituencies, primarily those in Israel and North America.
And we must redouble our efforts to ensure that Progressive Judaism
becomes a fully and officially recognized member of all European Jewish
These are certainly ambitious challenges that we must take on if we are
to succeed as the world's leading Jewish religious movement. The Vienna
conference left us all encouraged that we are indeed ready to work for
our future as members of a proud Jewish heritage.


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