Mavericks Inside the Tent look at the progressive Jewish movement in South Africa and its impact on the wider community. One of the most striking omissions in historical writing about the South African Jewish community has been attention to the Progressive Jewish movement. This study demonstrates that no history of South African Jewry is complete without an understanding of how this often undervalued and misunderstood minority – small in number but large in influence – has impacted the wider community.
Jewish life, and Jewish institutions, have been shaped in surprising ways by the presence of Progressive Judaism, a movement that has presented a constant challenge to Orthodoxy for some 90 years and been a harbinger of change and innovation in many areas of Jewish life.
Progressive Jews, also known in earlier days as Liberal or Reform Jews were the first in South Africa to hold batmitzvahs, the first to include women in executive positions on synagogue management committees, the first to launch large-scale outreach programmes in the African townships. They pioneered interfaith initiatives, were the first to open their doors to ‘Jews of colour’ and some of their rabbis spoke out strongly against apartheid, at personal cost.
Fifty years ago, Progressive Judaism was proving so successful that it seemed destined to rival Orthodoxy in numbers. Why did that not happen? This history explores the ideological disputes, personality conflicts and lost opportunities that derailed the Progressive movement, as well as its fraught relationship with Orthodoxy. It shows how Reform Judaism developed over the years into a modern movement that is more traditional in its religious practices yet more radical in its values.