Jews in Cambodia East Asian Jewry on the rise, WUPJ president says during Louisville visit

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, greeted by Temple Shalom Rabbi Emeritus Stan Miles following Freelander’s talk on Friday, April 5. (photo by Richard Goldwin)

Jews who attended a recent conference of Asian congregations in Singapore came from some exotic places – including Phnom Penh.
That’s right, there are Jews in Cambodia – a place better known for the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
Today, Phnom Penh, its capital, is yet another of the growing business centers in Asia, and a chavurah of nine regulars, plus tourists and visiting businessmen, meet in someone’s apartment for services.
They are a sign, said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, that something is happening in that part of the world: Jews are moving there and putting down roots.
“We have 10 times more Jews in Asia now than we did 20 years ago,” said Freelander, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents 1.8 million Reform and Progressive Jews around the globe. “The economy is booming in all these places; businesses are booming. Therefore, Jews are moving there.”
Progressive Jewish communities, large and small, are established in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Bali, Myanmar, and Phom Penh.
While Freelander can’t say if Asia will become a center of Jewish life in the 21st century, “I know that the Jewish demography of the world will look different than it does now.”
He also knows that Jews move. They always have, and they always will.
Freelander, 67, brought this message to Louisville as a scholar-in-residence for The Temple and Temple Shalom from April 5 to 7.
He highlighted burgeoning Jewish communities elsewhere, including Spain, Portugal and Germany – all scenes of historic Jewish genocide.
He also described a bizarre trend in Eastern Europe where Poles and Czechs, with no Jewish ancestry, in countries with surging anti-Semitism, are converting to Judaism.
“I just can’t explain why; I have no theories behind it, but it’s a fact,” Freelander said. “There’s a curiosity about Judaism; they teach Judaism in the universities; people study Bible and Jewish texts and at some point, they decide they want to convert.”
Freelander sometimes gets pushback from prospective donors, shocked that the WUPJ nurtures Jewish life in the lands of the Holocaust and Inquisition. But he tells them it’s not his place to say where Jews ought to live.
“We have an obligation to help support them, to have their own strong Jewish community, their own strong congregations.”
Support means providing these communities the resources they need to thrive.
For instance, Freelander, in his sixth year as WUPJ president, has built a network of progressive seminaries to train rabbis where communities are taking hold. Rabbinical schools now exist in Russia, Germany, Great Britain and Argentina.
Dropping American-trained rabbis in far-flung communities just doesn’t work, he said. Neither does bringing students from other lands to American seminaries. After ordination, they just don’t go back.
“If you want rabbis in Europe, you have to train rabbis in Europe,” Freelander said. “You can’t take English speakers, drop them in and hope that they’ll learn the language because you need to know the culture.”
He also is encouraging North American congregations with more Torah scrolls than they need to send some to emerging congregations on permanent loan.
“There are enough usable Torahs in the world; they’re just not in the right places,” Freelander said. “There are too many significant size congregations with multiple Torah scrolls And there’s too many small groups that don’t have or can’t afford a Torah scroll, so we try to nudge our healthy and wealthy North American congregations in places in other parts of the world to share the wealth.”
The WUPJ has its own camping network and young adult movement. It supports Zionist youth groups, though it stops short of pushing Jews in Europe, Asia, South Africa or South America to make aliyah.
“We have to be careful not to suggest that aliyah is the optimal fulfillment of a Jewish life,” he said.
He also cited the need to train lay leaders around the world.
Founded in 1926 in London, the WUPJ represents Progressive congregations in Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Poland, Puerto Rico, Russia, St. Thomas, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States.
Asked how Jews in other lands see American Jews, Freelander said, “there’s a great deal of jealously” of the resources Reform congregations here have, including synagogues, seminaries, endowment funds and political clout.
In many parts of the world, he said Reform/ Progressive Jews are in the minority and are dependent on government funds, often controlled by Orthodox Jews, for their support.
“You’re a minority within a minority,” he said. “They feel sometimes oppressed or ignored or undervalued.”
But he said American Jews are “by and large oblivious,” to the co-religionists abroad.
“American Jews really see Jewish communities in Europe or around the world the same way they look at their own community,” Freelander said. “They try to compare apple and apples and its apple and oranges.”
Security, for instance.
“Until Pittsburgh, we didn’t have very tight security in our congregations here, but American Jews will go to France or will go to Belgium or will go to some place in Italy or Germany, and won’t be able to get in because they didn’t call in advance or they don’t have their passport with them,” he said. “The whole security thing mystifies them, that Jews have to be, not in hiding, but behind locked doors. We’re getting a little taste of it now.” He called Jews in other lands “heroes.”
“They’re sort of like the people that helped create the [first] congregation here in Louisville 175 years ago. For the first 10 or 15 years, it wasn’t easy being Jewish here. They weren’t sure that the neighbors wanted them around, but they felt a great need to be Jewish. These [Jews in other countries] are volunteers; they’re not professionals. The first 10 or 15 years are very important.”

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