By Andrew Keene, former NFTY president
There is an entire Jewish world beyond the United States. In some ways it is comfortingly similar and in others strikingly different. It is our obligation as American Reform Jews to be part of a larger conversation and a larger movement, one that spans over 50 countries (and growing) and touches the lives of nearly two million people. We do not know what the future holds for each of us and there is tremendous strength in knowing that wherever we are, wherever we travel, and wherever we might one day live, there is a Jewish community rooted in the same core values that prompted us to live intentionally reform Jewish lives.
Two years ago this week, I left home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for London, England. After a series of conversations that started at the URJ Kutz Camp, this trip which at first seemed like a far-reaching goal, was about to become a reality. That year, I was serving as the North American President of NFTY and it was a priority of my NFTY Board to begin to rejuvenate our relationship with Netzer Olami, the worldwide progressive youth movement. I felt that it was nearly impossible to be a part of this movement without experiencing how it takes forms in other places. Five months after first conceptualizing visiting another Netzer snif (Hebrew for branch), my friend (and former NFTY regional board member) Jonah, and I embarked for our week with RSY-Netzer, one of two Netzer branches in the UK.
I was expecting to both share pieces of American progressive Jewish life and NFTY and also to learn from RSY-Netzer to take back skills and lessons to my peers in the states. What I did not expect was to be completely transformed by the experience. Five short days at a pristine campsite in Lichfield, United Kingdom opened my eyes even wider to what being a progressive Jew really means. I was captivated by which traditions, melodies, and skills transcended continents and youth movements, but more so by the pieces of my Jewish life that I assumed everyone experienced that really stopped at the water’s edge.
Two years later, this experience in London is without doubt a defining piece of my Jewish journey and identity. I carry with me fond memories of late nights spent perfecting programs, endless cheers, and the unique opportunity to work and learn side-by-side with my British counterparts, all equally committed and determined to create vibrant progressive Jewish community in the UK.
Since my time with RSY, I have been blessed by the opportunity to connect with the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). In May 2015, I started my term on the Executive Board at the WUPJ Biennial in Rio de Janeiro. For the second time, my concept of what “global Judaism” meant was entirely redefined. This time, it wasn’t just Americans and Brits, it was progressive Jews from every corner of the earth- each with distinctly different challenges and opportunities. The same commitment to creating vibrant progressive Jewish communities I found in London, here too was unwavering, and for many, tested in ways American Jews cannot fathom.
This coming April, just over two years since the conclusion of the RSY-Netzer event I attended, I am excited to return to London, this time with a cohort of NFTY Alumni. For one week, we will experience London and global Judaism in a completely new way. The first few days will comprise of seeing the sites of London including pieces of Jewish importance and meet with leaders of the London Jewish community to discuss “klal Yisrael” “The Jewish Peoplehood.” The second component will be attending the biennial conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ) which promises to be an exciting conference drawing participants from all over the world. The conference will celebrate the 90th anniversary of WUPJ and create a Shabbat experience par-none. Learn more about the trip here.