Listen: ToI Podcast'We feel that every modern Jew is a Jew by choice'

Activist, politician, rabbi: Sergio Bergman takes the helm of Progressive Jewry

Social justice champion and former Argentine environment minister is ready to take on Israel’s Orthodox status quo and fight for recognition of 1.8 million Jews he now represents

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’s AMIA Jewish Community Center spurred Sergio Bergman, then a recently ordained Reform rabbi, into a new vocation. The tragic event that took the lives of 85 and wounded hundreds became the impetus for Bergman’s 26-year-and-counting dedication to social activism.

It is a path that eventually led him to Argentine national politics, and now Bergman is continuing his social activism in a new role: as the Israel-based president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The aftermath of the 1994 bombing was “really traumatic, but also a turning point in my life,” Bergman related on The Times of Israel Podcast from his Buenos Aires home under coronavirus lockdown.

Although the third of his four children had just been born, he said that after he saw his wife and child safely home from the hospital he spent the next 10 days in the morgue, identifying members of his Jewish community so the families could bury them and begin official mourning.

Weeks later, realizing that next to nothing was being done to bring the perpetrators to justice, he co-founded the Memoria Activa foundation, which until today protests at the Supreme Court, a few doors down from the first synagogue of the Argentine Republic.

The tragedy, he said, caused him to start praying with his feet and begin a life of social activism. He realized it was time “to move from inside the institution and the synagogue to the street,” where he developed leadership skills. He quickly also gained an awareness that Jews, as equal citizens of the country, “are really commanded to work inside the society and to pursue the same values that all the people want to achieve.”

Firemen and policemen search for wounded people after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA in Spanish) in Buenos Aires, 18 July 1994. (ALI BURAFI/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Bergman’s pursuit of social justice eventually took him from his synagogue’s pulpit to politics, first local then national. After quickly gaining the attention of new president Mauricio Macri, Bergman was appointed Argentina’s Environment Minister — a post he held from 2015 to 2019 when the government changed.

For Bergman, spirituality and social activism are deeply connected: The Jewish pursuit of justice and tikun olam (repairing the world) are biblical commandments.

An August 2017 photo of former Argentinian minister of Environment and Sustainability and ordained pulpit rabbi Sergio Bergman. (Titu Becher)

“We need to connect what we read or how we pray in our community and to go out into society, to raise our voice with other people, to share our common vision… Jewish values,” said Bergman. “The tradition gives us the roots and the values to face new contexts, new generations, how we can translate in actions our values and to be relevant to our children and our youth.”

The World Union for Progressive Judaism in made up of over 1,200 Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist, and Progressive congregations, which represent a total of 1.8 million Jews. Bergman calls it a network, a platform for sharing the traditions and message of Liberal Judaism, which is: “To be faithful to our traditional roots and also to be open-minded to interpret and recreate our tradition in the different contexts all around the world.”

The tradition gives us the roots and the values to face new contexts, new generations, how we can translate in actions our values

Originally the organization’s headquarters were in the United States, but today they are in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel, a step taken in the 1970s to demonstrate the movement’s commitment to the Jewish state.

The Israeli secular community is on Bergman’s radar and he hopes to position the movement as a bridge to help its members explore their Jewish culture, civilization, and traditions.

“I think that we need to have a very clear and positive approach to Judaism and that means I need to work very hard to change the mind of a lot of secular Israelis that feel that if you are religious, that means the only way that you have to be religious is to be Orthodox,” said Bergman.

Illustrative: Rabbi Ayala Samuels leads worship with congregants of Tfillat Ha’adam in the Israeli beachside city Caesarea. (Israeli Reform Movement)

“Judaism is a culture, we have different ways to live Judaism. And I want to bring and also build a bridge between secular Jews and non-religious Jews, to ask them how we can keep our identity in different approaches,” he said.

Reform Jewry is often vilified in Israel, where political and religious leaders openly say it’s a step away from leaving the Jewish people. The Reform movement is often denigrated for its support and outreach with intermarried families.

We don’t agree that a pluralistic and democratic state should have a monopoly and the extortion of the Orthodox establishment

“We feel that every modern Jew is a Jew by choice,” said Bergman. “We need to change the minds of people who think Progressive Judaism is like Judaism ‘lite,'” he said, or a step out of Judaism, versus a window of opportunity in.

“It’s so important for us to change the status quo in the State of Israel because we don’t agree that a pluralistic and democratic state should have a monopoly and the extortion of the Orthodox establishment,” said Bergman.

Speaking as the seasoned pragmatic rabbinical politician he is, Bergman said, “The only solution is not theological… I think it is political, then we need to become involved in politics and to raise our voice, and to translate this voice into votes.”

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