Progressive Judaism started its formal existence as a movement in 1926 when leading Liberal, Reform, and Progressive Jews in North America and Europe met in England to discuss common interests. At the urging of Lily Montagu, they decided to unite and form the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Local movements retained their prior organizational structure and identity but now had a new umbrella organization which they used to support one another and coordinate efforts to support congregations in regions where Progressive Judaism was not yet well established. After World War II, the WUPJ also worked to rebuild the decimated progressive congregations of Europe.
Zionists within the progressive movement are represented by Arzenu, a Brit Olamit (political party) within the World Zionist Organization. A Zionist Youth movement, Netzer Olami has affiliations with both the WUPJ and Arzenu.
In the first half of the 19th century, reform-minded Jews in Germany identified with the name "Reform". Early rabbinic reformers, such as Abraham Geiger, had no desire to start a separate movement. They identified with the term "reform" and periodically met in synods, but did not formally organize into an independent denomination or rabbinic association.
The laity was more impatient with the process of reform. When the German government authorized the establishment of officially recognized separatist congregations, radical lay people in Frankfurt and Berlin formed their own congregations. In 1842 a radical group of lay people in Frankfurt formed the ReformFreunde (Friends of Reform). In the summer of 1845, a group of lay people in Berlin, lead by Sigmund Stern formed the Association for Reform in Judaism and held High Holiday services using a liturgy designed by the association. In 1850 the association renamed itself the Jewish Reform Congregation of Berlin.. This attempt at congregational separatism, however, failed to flourish. No other official congregations were established and prominent reformers, such as Abraham Geiger, refused to serve them.
By the final quarter of the 19th century, the reform process slowed down to the point that younger members of the community accused their reform minded elders of being a "ham-eating orthodoxy".. The next generation of reformers coalesced around a new name: "liberal".. This time attempts at organization gathered momentum and gained rabbinic support. In 1898, German liberal rabbis organized into the Union of Liberal Rabbis in Germany. In 1908 the liberal laity organized into the Union for Liberal Judaism in Germany. Within a year had over 5000 lay and rabbinic members belonging to some 200 communities. In the 20th century, the predominant terms in continental Europe are either "Liberal" or "Progressive".
As in Europe, there were significant disagreements among the reformers over the role of tradition. In 1883 a banquet was planned to celebrate the first graduating class of rabbis from Hebrew Union College. The more radical element planned the banquet with a menu containing shrimp. Soon after this banquet, known as the Trefa Banquet, intensified the conflict between the radical and conservative reformers. The conflict further inensified in 1885 when a fierce debate broke out between Kaufmann Kohler and Alexander Kohut over the nature of reform.
In response to debate, Kohler called a conference of reform-minded rabbis in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Isaac Meyer Wise, the rabbinical head of Hebrew Union College, presided over the conference. The conference produced the Pittsburgh Platform. This platform was highly controversial and an organizational split between those more and less conservative. In 1887 a separate rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded. In 1889, the more liberal rabbis organized under the banner of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In 1901, conservative rabbis organized as the Rabbinical Assembly. Ten years later, in 1913, conservative congregations banded together under the banner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
In the 1930s, a third stream of non-orthodox Judaism began to develop in the USA - Reconstructionist Judaism. Initially reconstructionist congregations belonged either to the Reform or Conservative movement - Mordacai Kaplan was deeply opposed to the formation of yet another American Jewish denomination. In 1955 the Reconstructionist Fellowship of Congregations was formed. This organization allowed reconstructionist congregations to share common concerns but required members to be dual affiliated with either the US Reform or Conservative movement. In 1961 the dual affiliation requirement was dropped and Reconstructionist Judaism became a full fledged third denomination on the American scene.
Thus, in the USA as in the UK, the reformers gathered under multiple denominational banners, today known as Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism. Despite the organizational split, US Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews have a common appreciation for democratic pluralism and the on-going historic process of change. In a US context, the term "Liberal" refers to this common vision, as contrasted with orthodoxy. Common concerns and grassroots connections are also evidenced by interdenominational mailing lists such as Mail. Liberal-Judaism.
Prior to World War I, the US Reform, UK liberals, and their counterparts in continental Europe planned a meeting to discuss common goals. The meeting finally occurred after the war in 1926. The attendees debated the relative merits of "liberal" and "reform". Satisfied with neither, they settled on "progressive" rather than "reform" or "liberal". They also formed an organization using this common name, the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
The more conservative half of the UK reform movement, UK Reform did not participate in these initial meetings. However, it later joined the WUPJ in 1930. In the USA, both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism belong to the WUPJ. The US Conservative movement, has never participated in or join the WUPJ
Countries whose progressive community developed post 1926, generally identify with the name "Progressive". This includes all of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, etc), South America, the Former Soviet Union and Israel. Many of the European communities rebuilt after World War II with the help of the WUPJ also consider "Progressive", rather than "Liberal" or "Reform" their primary identity.
Because the progressive movement believes in the continuous integration of Jewish tradition and non-Jewish insights, the specific beliefs and practices of Progressive Judaism have changed over time. The commitment to personal and congregational autonomy also means that standards of belief and practice can vary widely from region to region, from congregation to congregation, and even from individual to individual. Given this diversity, historian Michael Meyer prefers to characterize progressive Judaism by certain dynamic tensions. They include, but are not limited to: continuity versus reform, authority versus autonomy and universalism versus particularism.
The intellectual roots of the reform, liberal, reconstructionist, and progressive Judaism lie in what is commonly called the Reform movement in Judaism.
Rabbis, cantors and communal leaders for the world-wide progressive movement are trained in one of three rabbinic institutions: Leo Baeck College, Abraham Geiger College and Hebrew Union College. While all three train rabbis for the world-wide progressive movement, each has a different regional focus: The Abraham Geiger Colleg focuses on providing leadership for communities in Germany, Central and Eastern Europe. Leo Baeck College, located in the UK, focuses on leadership for the UK Reform and UK Liberal. Hebrew Union College, with campuses in the USA and Israel, trains rabbis and communal service leaders for work in North American Reform and Israeli Progressive congregations. It also provides a year in Israel program for students at the Leo Baeck College and Abraham Geiger Institute.
Regional organizations that are members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism include: