Sunday, 12 July 2015

Thoughts on a Sabbatical In Jerusalem



It wasn't a surprise that the Minyan I went to on Friday night was very special. It was always going to be very special.
But since it was special I'll share a little.

Rabbi Tamar Eldad Applebaum is a graduate of the Masorti Machon Schechter, she's a native born Israeli and trying to create a new, Israeli, form of Jewish life. Come as you are, labels don't matter. The tunes are a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi, with a little bit of Carlebach, no more. The Nusach - the words - include a range of Piyutim - ancient Hebrew poetry. Rabbi Tamar was wonderful, glowing with a love of humanity and Judaism, the singing was wonderful, and it did feel like something new. My enjoyment was helped by having so many of my heroes in the community. Alice Shalvi, Art Green, Moshe Halbertal, David Roskies ...


But as I went chasing after my daughter, who had wandered off across the area outside where the kids were playing into another of the buildings in mini-campus. It stuck my head around the corner. It was another Minyan, looking very Orthodox, lots of orthodox looking men, and a Mechitzah down the middle of the room. But the prayers were being led by a woman. It was the Baka Egalitarian Minyan, just getting on with things. And then on Shabbat morning I was at Shira Chadasha, still doing its thing which is either a bit radical or a bit safe depending on your perspective - but lovely all the same. Admittedly Baka is at the forefront of the progressive traditional  Jewish world, but there is movement here. What was once radical is becoming normal. And from Baka to the rest of the world.

Friday, 26 June 2015

On Jews, Muslims, Enemies and Friends



Several weeks ago we were approached by a number of Muslim students at Westminster College who wanted to meet a Jew. They never had before. We arranged for a group to come and join us at New London on Sunday. They learnt and engaged with our own children. It was profoundly moving. One of the exercises they engaged in together was based on our study of the Cairo Geniza. It turns out that a Synagogue outside of Cairo contained not only an extraordinary collection of scraps of religious significance, but also an extraordinary array of materials that paint a picture of life in Cairo in the first centuries of the last millenium, and particularly the relationship between the Muslims and Jews.
We invited our students, and those from Westminster College to create documents to go into a mythical Geniza that would document the life of Jews and Muslims in London, today. It was, perhaps, a little idealistic, naive, perhaps, but hopeful. They were more excited to meet the other than afraid, more committed to exploring the similarities than pouncing on the differences and all committed to speaking of a commitment to peaceable co-existence. So there is hope. That's good.

Members will also, I am sure, be aware of this announced Nazi-sympathetic march in Golders Green planned for next Shabbat. That's not good. The Campaign Against Antisemitism (with members of New London prominent among them) are working to have the march banned, and planning a rally at which Jews and non-Jews will be able to stand in dignified defiance, unity and pride in opposition to the language of hatred of the Nazi-sympathisers. There is information about the CAA protest on their [Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/campaignagainstantisemitism]. There is an alliance of organisations, including the Board of Deputies and Hope Not Hate, leading a campaign 'Golders Green Together' seeking to show that we are, as a society at every level enriched by our diversity and plurality.

Not enough members will be aware of the Council for Christians and Jews new campaign to encourage Jews to 'engage in reflection' on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. It's a terrifying tale of bullying, and worse, right across the region with the awfulness of ISIS being particularly striking. The campaign is titled with reference to a Mishnaic teaching, 'If not Now When?' But the part of the teaching that most strikes me is the preceding line, 'If I am only for myself, what am I?' With the question left hanging, suggesting that to be a true member of the human race we have to do so much more than stand only for our own self-interest. For more information on this campaign click [here - http://www.ccj.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/If-Not-Now-When.pdf]

There are possibilities for harmonious peaceful co-operation between different races, creeds and peoples. And when such harmonies are created it's deeply moving, and better for us all. And then there those who would wish to oppose such harmony, and they must be opposed. Despite our relative cosy lives there is still much more to do.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy


Thursday, 4 June 2015

A Note From Incoming Head of Youth at New London Synagogue - David-Yehuda Stern

Dear Parents/Carers,

It is with great pride and tremendous excitement that I am writing to introduce myself as your new Head of Youth at New London Synagogue.

I have long been familiar with New London’s unique place in British - and indeed World - Jewry and over the years have experienced firsthand the warmth and vibrancy of this community.

I have been working and volunteering in Jewish organisations for over 17 years, developing and delivering numerous successful education programmes. I grew up in an observant, Orthodox Jewish home where my parents instilled in me a love for my religion as well as the knowledge to navigate it. I spent a number of summers studying in Israel and upon returning to the UK for university became interested in progressive forms of Judaism. After graduating I spent a year at Yeshivat Hadar - a traditional egalitarian Yeshiva on the upper west side of Manhattan.

I currently serve as Head of Education at Alyth, one of the largest communities in Europe. Other roles I have held include Social Action and Sustainability Coordinator at JW3, Jewish Social Responsibility Manager at UJIA and Head of Jewish Education at Noam, the Masorti Youth Movement’s summer camp in France.

I have a passion for seeing young people grow and flourish and I believe that where Judaism is concerned, people best attain knowledge through experiential learning that animates the Jewish tradition, and inspires meaningful connection. As a community that fosters Jewish identity we have the unique challenge of building both knowledge of but also an emotional and spiritual connection with Judaism amongst our youth. I am committed to the inclusion of children of all abilities and will work to empower our educators and youth leaders with the necessary skills to meet the diverse needs of the community. Furthermore, for synagogue-based education to work, I believe the whole family must be engaged. There is a beautiful midrash in which God, addressing the Israelites at Mount Sinai, tells them that, “Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you." However, children are not the only guarantors of the Torah and together all of us can ensure that Judaism continues l’dor va’dor (from generation to generation). I understand that this is an exciting time for New London and that the community continues to attract and welcome many new young families. Building on this success, I look forward to working together so that we can continue to build a space that inspires and encourages young people and their families to explore and nurture their Jewish identity.

New London’s vision to remain true to the central tenets of the Jewish faith whilst embracing change where appropriate match my own personal belief. I am convinced that for Judaism to remain powerful and meaningful it must have the solid base of tradition in combination with the confidence to evolve.

Head of Youth will not just be a professional commitment but a personal one as well, and I look forward to becoming a leading member of the community. My wife (Robin), daughter (Aviva) and I look forward sharing in New London’s successes and very much look forward to meeting you in the near future.

Warmest Regards,

David-Yehuda (“DY”) Stern

Monday, 1 June 2015

A proposal on the role of women in services at New London Synagogue - for the attention of the General Meeting of 15th June 2015

·         On Torah Reading

New London Synagogue shall move to institute egalitarian Torah reading on alternate weeks. This includes offering aliyot, opportunities to reading from torah and haftarah, standing sagan, shamash, hagbah and gelilah to both men and women; such services to be referred to as Torah-egal.

We shall begin with one in six Torah-egal services for the next six months, in addition to scheduled egalitarian BM celebrations. The frequency of Torah-egal services shall be increased to be monthly and then fortnightly in six month intervals. The issue shall be revisited at the end of a 24 month period commencing on the date of this meeting (15th June 2015). The nature of that revisiting shall be in line with the constitutional processes of the Synagogue.

While regularity and clear communication regarding scheduling is important, the Rabbi and Services Committee shall have leeway to alter the schedule of Torah-egal Shabbat services should, for example, a run of egalitarian BM celebrations or the fall of Festivals make such alteration in the best interests of the community.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah and the services of Simhat Torah shall be Torah-egal in the coming year. The other Tishrei Festivals shall not be.

Services for future Yomim Tovim shall be either Torah-egal or not on a similar timetable to Shabbat services with the precise dates and details a matter for the Rabbi and services committee.

 

·         On Seating Arrangements

New London Synagogue shall schedule an infrequent series of services where mixed seating, as well as separate seating, shall be available on a ‘normal’ Shabbat. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. The issue shall be revisited at the end of a 24 month period commencing on the date of this meeting (15th June 2015). It is however envisaged that we will retain substantial separate seating areas into the future. The scheduling and exact delineation of seating areas shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive more broadly and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with egalitarian services (as below). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall not offer mixed seating.

 

·         On Prayer Leadership

New London Synagogue shall schedule an infrequent series of Shabbat morning services which can be led by women as well as men. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. When bringing in new service leaders, of either gender, our goal shall be to maintain the professional, skilled and dignified nature of our services in the tradition of Minhag Anglia. It is envisaged that we will remain a community led, in prayer, by our Cantor for the vast majority of services into the future. The issue shall be revisited at the end of a 24 month period commencing on the date of this meeting (15th June 2015). The scheduling and exact delineation of what shall be led by women shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive and in continued consultation with the community and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with mixed-seating services (as above). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall be male-led.

 

 

On the Role of Women in Services at New London Synagogue - A Discussion Paper with Recommendations

Consultation

In preparing this paper I’ve reviewed the contributions made at the special Open Meeting on the role of woman in December 2014, over 70 responses shared with me by email and at other meetings and the 250 responses to the Synagogue’s recently held survey, looking at both qualitative and quantitative data. Julian Futter and Lauren Sager-Weinstein have allowed me to correlate the responses to the survey with the demographic profile of those sharing these responses. I am grateful for their efforts. I have also discussed the issue with the Services Committee, Executive and Council. This is the third time I have been part of a formal consultation on this issue at New London –the January 2007 EGM took place during my first week as Rabbi of the Synagogue and a second consultation and EGM was held in 2009-10, under my Rabbinic leadership. I do feel I have gathered a reasonably accurate picture of the feelings of the community on this issue.

 

I want to record my enormous admiration to all those who have shared their thoughts on this often divisive issue; we have spoken passionately, thoughtfully and, almost without exception, gently. That is considerably to our merit.

 

The Voice of the Tradition

A fuller review of my understanding of the Jewish legal principles regarding women and Torah reading can be found here[1], regarding women and prayer leadership here[2] and regarding mixed seating here.[3] What follows is a much reduced summary.

 

In the time of the Talmud the reason women did not receive aliyot was that it was considered an affront to the ‘honour of the community.’ That phrase encapsulated the reflection of the social realities of communities in ancient times – a full engagement with the sources makes that clear. Clearly, in a contemporary society, this concern no longer exists. Members opposed to allowing women to read from the Torah suggest that as traditional practices have become embedded, they should now continue to be followed, regardless of any question of honour.

 

The notion that there is something about a woman which means that her voice should not be heard is an unsustainable position for us, as members of New London Synagogue. As a matter of Jewish law I hold that there is no technical role played by a leader of prayer that cannot be fulfilled by a woman – again, see the fuller treatment for further information. Therefore the decision as to who to call as a leader of prayer belongs to the community. The Talmud instructs us to call only the most appropriate (lit. hagun) to serve as prayer leaders. The question for us as a community is; does a person’s gender trump all other considerations of what might or might not be hagun?

 

Separate seating arose in connection to an idea that women were considered a distraction for men – who were held to have primary responsibilities for public worship. It has subsequently been justified as providing a particular environment in which both men and women can find greater connections to prayer separately than by being together. The question of whether the desire for increased spirituality (or decorum, or the appeal of coming to services) is better served by having mixed or single gender seating is hotly debated.

 

New London’s ‘traditional’ nature, and particularly the nature of the inheritance we receive from our founder Rabbi, Dr Louis Jacobs of blessed memory, has been much fought over, particularly in the Open Meeting. There are members, long-term students of Rabbi Jacobs, for whom our founding Rabbi’s teaching is one of conservativism and rejection of the need to ‘move with the times,’ and equally such students for whom Rabbi Jacobs stands for a rejection of the comfortable in favour of the what must be deemed reasonable and the belief that Judaism must never be rendered immune from development. Both viewpoints, of course, contain much that is true.

 

The Voice of the Community

In this paper I’m focussing on the data from the survey since these results match very closely the more general picture that emerges from other consultations (noting many members completed the survey, took part in the Open Meeting and also shared their feelings on the issue privately).

 

The survey asked, on the role of women, whether members felt the Synagogue had ‘gone too far already,’ ‘should not change,’ ‘should make some change short of becoming fully egalitarian,’ or ‘should become fully egalitarian.’ The raw data has been correlated against a range of other data as below – gender, age, length of membership, previous affiliation and frequency of attendance at services. ‘Even’ suggests that there is no bias towards the specific demographic among those giving the respective answer.

 

Answer

%

Gender

Age

Length of membership

Prev

Affiliation

Freq attendance

Too far already

9.4%

Male 2:1

Even

Even

7:1 orthodox:

others

Even

No change

27.2%

Even

Even

Even

4:1 orthodox:

others

Even

Increased role

20%

Even

Even

Slightly skewed towards 3-5 years

2:1 orthodox:

others

Even

Full egal

43%

Male 2:1

Even

Even

1:1:1 orthodox:

reform:

masorti

Even

 

There is no significant bias towards any age, gender or frequency of attendance at services.  However the more likely a member is to have joined NLS from an orthodox Synagogue, the more likely they are to want reduced roles for women. And the more likely they are to be ‘new-ish’ members the more likely they are to want some change short of full egalitarianism.

 

The quantitative responses to the survey do not reflect a number of comments shared in the survey and elsewhere from members who would prefer ‘full egalitarian’ for themselves, but knowing the feelings of other members, and the historical practice of the community, articulate a wish that the community does not move to full egalitarianism at this time, usually citing concerns lest a rift should develop.

 

In comments received, and especially at the Open Meeting, the dominant concern of those who wanted an increased role for women was around reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot in the main service. In part this is because service leading is technical and services in the mikdash[4] are most often led by our Cantor (as opposed to the general membership) and there is very broad support for that to continue. In part this is due to the particular way in which restricting women from reading from the Torah and receiving aliyot is connected to matters of cavod - honour.

 

Some members have suggested that the drive towards increased participation among women is coming from members who grew up abroad. The survey records members who feel we have gone too far are divided between British and foreign born 72%:28:% while members who want full egalitarian services split between British and foreign born 75%:25%.

 

I have not done extended demographic work on the issue of mixed seating. Responses to the survey were as follows.

 

I don’t want to see any change in current seating arrangements

35 %

I wish to see some area for mixed seating, but want to preserve some areas for separate seating.

38 %

I wish to see full mixed seating in the main synagogue

27 %

 

If there was a mixed seating area I would sit in the mixed area

 

Yes

54%

No

46%

 

Many members, both using the comments section of the survey and in other communications, have pointed out that the particular architecture of New London allows for a separate men-only section on one side, mixed seating in the middle and a separate women-only section on the other side. Indeed we have done this on two occasions for egalitarian Bnei Mitzvah celebrations successfully. The question of what to do about seats that members have reserved for many years in the expectation of being located in a single-gendered seating area is complicated.

 

Many members opposed to further change on the issue have argued that the status quo should be considered a privileged position, either through its sheer force of existence, or as a result of being the practice of our founding Rabbi. I give consideration to the nature of this claimed-privilege below.

 

The Voice of This Rabbi

I have my own views on these matters, which I suspect are generally known. That said my role in this debate is not to serve as an advocate for my own position. Nor, however, do I accept that my role is one of adding up the votes on each side, and declaring the side with the tallest stack the winner. It’s more complicated than that. I’m wrestling with questions of ownership and leadership.

This sacred community does not belong to me as a personal possession. The community doesn’t even exclusively belong to its current members. It belongs in a complex weave to God and the traditions of our faith as understood through the rabbinic tradition - as well as the current membership, our future membership (whatever that may look like!) and our past membership (to include our founder Rabbi). This means that no single person’s personal proclivities, mine included, can be allowed to dominate even our internal deliberations, let alone the public debate. They must be suppressed behind an overarching desire to do what is right for the community even at the expense of our own ideals. In part this is about, at the very least, accepting outcomes that differ from our personal agenda. It also means that we must all work to ensure the unity and togetherness of the community, even as we engage in these emotive discussions. Again I commend all those members who have noted the importance of this in their responses.

 

However this ‘weave’ of ownership creates particular challenges. How does one balance the passionately articulated desire of a founder member of the community – a past Chairman – for no further change on this issue against the equally passionately articulated desire of a 12 year old girl who wants to be able to continue to read from the Torah after her one-off Bat Mitzvah exemption? On the one hand we must, as a community, focus on our future. On the other hand I am struck by the almost hurt tone of a member of longstanding who could not understand why someone wanting something different from the clear historical practice of this community would consider joining New London.

 

On the last occasion I engaged in this matter, in 2010, I aimed a proposal at what I considered the community’s sweet-spot; causing minimal discomfort to those did not want change while offering some provision to those who did, most notably around the issue of Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies where pressure was particularly strong. The paper also imposed a three year moratorium on future discussions on the subject. That both did and did not work. The paper received significant majority support at General Meeting and the balancing act has proved doable. We have done exactly as we said we would. On the other hand no-one was ‘fooled.’ Members who felt, then, that we had gone too far remain anxious. Members who wanted more roles for women remain frustrated. The proposal which went to the last EGM was also inflexible. On the one hand it gave clarity, but on the other hand it meant that it was impossible to gain an experience of regular Shabbat morning services featuring elements of egalitarianism and/or mixed seating – these only being available for Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.

 

At this time I feel it is important for us as a community to be more honest and to look further into the future. We need to be clearer about what we wish to become. Looking at the data received in these past months, and reflecting on the changes that have been manifest in the eight years since the EGM in 2007, it’s hard for me to imagine our future lies in restricting the role of women to peripheral parts of the service. In early 2007 the question ‘should any change be made’ was rejected by a single vote. Taking the figures of the survey as a guide (figures which are broadly matched by comments shared at the Open Meeting and otherwise) a very substantive majority (63% in the survey) now want an increased role for women. Some of that shift is due to membership growth, but there are also a number of members of long-standing who have changed their position in the past years. I was particularly struck at the Open Meeting by a founder member who spoke of watching his grand-daughter read from the Torah on her Bat Mitzvah and re-evaluating his position, even in his seventh decade.

 

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the next generation of New London Synagogue members (my own children, hopefully among them). For over 50 years we have waited for well-intentioned members of Anglo-Orthodoxy to come to our doors. The flood has never materialised. We have attracted refugees from orthodoxy, pushed away or rejected for one reason or another. But we have largely not proved attractive to those wishing for ‘just the same’ as the contemporary United Synagogue with added intellectual honesty. In fact the largest streams of refugees from the contemporary United Synagogue are drifting either in search of more extreme closed-mindedness or because of frustrations around a reduced role for women! We attract neither group. Our future does not lie in attempting to be similar to the United Synagogue.

 

We live in a society where ‘questions’ around the role of women are simply no longer questions for the vast majority, and particularly the vast majority of younger members of our society. It is assumed that men and women have equal roles and by retreating behind a veil of a religious exemption from the mores of our time, we find ourselves increasingly at odds with our society – that’s an odd experience for New London Synagogue. I attended the Noam Training Camp in the summer of 2014 and one of the undergraduate youth-leaders asked which Synagogue I served. ‘New London,’ I responded proudly, ‘Oh, the sexist one?’ came the response – charmed I’m sure. Short, God forbid, of the rise of religious fundamentalism on these shores I do not see this trend reversing.

 

Our future lies in two directions.

The first generation of New London children largely drifted away, we have to do better with our own youth. Members of the BM class at our Cheder have shared their opinions on this issue with me. They are committed to an egalitarian Jewish life and opposed to their (our) own Synagogue’s practice. That’s unsustainable.

We also must do more to be attractive to new members, to include refugees from orthodoxy and Reform as well as those who have no current Jewish point of connection or home. We are, to an extent, attractive already – and there are those among our new members who find us comfortable because of the reduced role of women – but I don’t want us to be attractive because we are cosy. I want our future membership to be drawn to New London because we are courageous in encountering the challenges of the age, intellectually honest about our beliefs and committed to engaging with our faith in a traditional manner, even if we are doing things that are less traditional.

 

That said questions about the privileged position of current practice do weigh heavily on me. We celebrated our 50th year last year and I was touched, again and again, by the sacrifices so many made over so many years to have the kind of services they wanted enshrined somewhere in Anglo-Jewry. I believe some will find change that happens slowly easier to accept than they fear, but I know many will not. Also, despite all the Open Meetings and surveys, I don’t feel any of us have an accurate sense of what a more egalitarian service, or mixed-seating, would feel like, on a regular basis – outside of our current experience with BM celebrations. The proposals I am making are an attempt to explore that in the context of a majority position looking for more opportunities for women to have regular aliyot in the mikdash, while retaining a strong non-egalitarian praying community for those who wish for that.

 

Proposal

I make the following proposal for the consideration of the community;

 

·         On Torah Reading

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will move to institute egalitarian Torah reading on alternate weeks. This includes offering aliyot, opportunities to reading from torah and haftarah, standing sagan, shamash, hagbah and gelilah to both men and women.[5] I refer to such services as Torah-egal.

We shall begin with one in six Torah-egal services for the next six months, in addition to scheduled egalitarian BM celebrations.[6] The frequency of Torah-egal services shall be increased to be monthly and then fortnightly in six month intervals. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. The nature of that revisiting shall be in line with the constitutional processes of the Synagogue.[7]

While regularity and clear communication regarding scheduling is important, the Rabbi and Services Committee shall have leeway to alter the schedule of Torah-egal Shabbat services should, for example, a run of egalitarian BM celebrations or the fall of Festivals make such alteration in the best interests of the community.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah and the services of Simhat Torah shall be Torah-egal in the coming year. The other Tishrei Festivals shall not be.

Services for future Yomim Tovim shall be either Torah-egal or not on a similar timetable to Shabbat services with the precise dates and details a matter for the Rabbi and services committee.

 

·         On Seating Arrangements

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will schedule an infrequent series of services where mixed seating, as well as separate seating, shall be available on a ‘normal’ Shabbat. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. It is however envisaged that we will retain substantial separate seating areas into the future. The scheduling and exact delineation of seating areas shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive more broadly and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with egalitarian services (as below). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall not offer mixed seating.

 

·         On Prayer Leadership

As a substantive change to the form and conduct of services we will schedule an infrequent series of Shabbat morning services which can be led by women as well as men. There shall be eight such services over the next 24 months, in addition to egalitarian BM celebrations. When bringing in new service leaders, of either gender, our goal shall be to maintain the professional, skilled and dignified nature of our services in the tradition of Minhag Anglia. It is envisaged that we will remain a community led, in prayer, by our Cantor for the vast majority of services into the future. The issue shall be revisited at the end of the 24 month period. The scheduling and exact delineation of what shall be led by women shall be determined by the Rabbi in consultation with the services committee and executive and in continued consultation with the community and shall largely but not exclusively overlap with mixed-seating services (as above). Services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this coming year shall be male-led.

 

What Will Services Be Like Under the New Proposals?

These changes, while substantive, do not affect the vast majority of what goes on a Shabbat morning.

Aside from egal-BM celebrations and the rare occasions when we trial areas of mixed seating and egalitarian prayer-leadership, there will be no difference between current and proposed services during Shacharit or Musaf. During the Torah service the leadership of that service will continue to be male (and predominantly Cantor) led. On alternate weeks all the Aliyot and associated honours will be taken by men. On alternate weeks, perhaps, three or four Aliyot will be taken by women with, perhaps, one or two associated honours. On some alternate weeks there may be some women who will leyn, but we don’t have a vast cadre of women, or indeed men, able to read the longer Aliyot we read in the mikdash. While I hope more members, of both genders, will develop the skills needed to leyn, the experience of listening to the reading of the Torah will not change dramatically from what is experienced currently, even on Torah-egal weeks.

 

Services in the Hall

Currently we offer two kinds of service in the hall; the Minyan Chadash and a non-egalitarian service when there is an egalitarian service in the mikdash.

Some have suggested the Minyan Chadash, or the Kiddush Hall more generally, should be the outlet for those who wish for egalitarian services in the mikdash. That has always been disputed both by those who appreciate the Minyan Chadash as a participative and more informal environment than services in the mikdash, and also by those who wish for egalitarian services in the mikdash which, for reasons of both architecture and clergy-presence, has always had a different place in the heart of members than the Hall. In theory I see no reason for the support of the Minyan Chadash to be impacted by more egalitarian services in the mikdash. In practice we have, at the present time, a limited number of lay members able to read from the Torah – especially the longer aliyot that feature in the main service and that means, in particular, scheduling of leyning in the mikdash shall be sensitive to the needs of the Minyan Chadash. This will receive the attention of the relevant professional and lay leaders.

 

The non-egalitarian, or traditional, services that have taken place in the Hall when egalitarian services have taken place in the mikdash present a different challenge. They have not attracted the constituency of members they were designed to attract. We have struggled to make a Minyan on some occasions, relying on pre-service ring-arounds and availing of the good will of members who would rather be in the egalitarian service both as service leaders and participants. It is not clear to me that these services should continue, and certainly I don’t advocate we look to create a permanent weekly non- Torah-egalitarian service. But I would be interested to hear more from members whose needs are met by this service as to their suggestions as to what should happen.

 

These proposals recognise that, for the majority of members, this is an issue about services in the mikdash. As one member put it to me, because we can’t deal with this issue using separate spaces we have to deal with it at separate times.

 

A Concluding Thought

I don’t feel triumphant making these recommendations. I know they will cause pain to a significant minority of members about whom I care deeply. That makes me deeply sad. I have spent many, many hours trying to work out the best recommendations I can make for the future of this community I care about so deeply. This is as good a job as I feel I have been able to do.

 

In particular I plead with all membership, particularly those whose feelings are not reflected in the recommendations made above, for understanding and patience. Being part of a community always makes calls on our ability to tolerate views other than our own. I am aware that calling for toleration in the context of the recommendations in this document is not an easy ask. But I do so call. I have to. It’s not just I don’t want to lose any member from this community, it’s also that we are about so much more than the gender of the person who reads from the Torah. New London is, and will continue to be, a community for people who are prepared to wrestle at the meeting point of tradition and modernity. And while there will always be discomfort in the meeting place of two such mighty opposing forces, there is so much more that binds us; a love of traditional liturgy, the dignity of our services, the sense that this is a community ‘for people like us;’ with our enquiring minds, our passions and our sense of justice and decency. I hope your love of this community and the approach to Judaism we represent, even as we consider such a dramatic step, will allow us all to continue to walk together into our future.

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 



[4] In this paper I use word mikdash to so describe the Synagogue’s main prayer space, to distinguish services held there from those held in the Hall.

[5] I have written a responsa on the matter of women and the Cohen and Levi Aliyot, it can be read at http://rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/on-aliyot-for-daughters-of-cohenim-and.html. It may be women will not regularly perform Hagba’ah.

[6] There will be an egalitarian BM celebration on 4th July. The BM celebrations on 17th October and 21st November will be Torah egalitarian. The BM celebration on 5th March may be egalitarian. There are no other egalitarian BM celebrations planned before Pesach 2016.

[7] Any changes are the responsibility of the Rabbi in consultation with Services Committee, changes deemed substantive by the Chair need the agreement of Council and membership at General Meeting.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Why do Jews eat dairy products at Shavuot? It's a love thing.

The classic Jewish food of Shavuot is cheesecake (or smatana in my family), in any event – something dairy. Why? It’s not something specified in the Torah. But the classic Rabbinic answer is that the Jews knew there would be something in the revelation of Shavuot about meat, and not knowing what it would be, not wanting to start off a relationship with God post-revelation on the wrong foot, they were extra careful.

It’s a touching idea.

 

Perhaps the most beautiful series of Midrashim around the giving of Torah are those that compare this moment to a wedding, between God and the people of Israel with the Torah serving as the Ketubah –revelation is understood as love. The blessing said daily just before the Shema includes the wish that we should ‘understand, comprehend, and fulfil all the words of Your Torah in love.’ The blessing has the word love as its first and last word. And this is the key to the ‘decision’ to eat meat – the decision to be extra careful.

 

Relationships are based on care, on the decisions we take to ensure that those we love, those we wish will love us, will not be hurt by actions. When in love we take the initiative in actions that keep the possibility of hurt far away. If you are falling in love, you turn up early for a date. You floss. You check whether the trains are running before you head off on some romantic bank-holiday trip together. Love, between God and Israel, or between Israelites – or any human – is taking a step before being asked to so do. Love is not rocking back, arms crossed over the chest, waiting to be impressed. Love takes a leap, a risk, an open heart, a willingness to experience that which we don’t entirely know.

 

So my request, this Shavuot eve, is leap a little, step forward a little, try a little.

We have a wonderful Tikkun Leyl evening planned. You can come later even if you haven’t booked the dinner. We have services throughout the Yom Tov, and there is much to experience. You might even fall in love with Torah and its creator,

 

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach,

 

Friday, 8 May 2015

Thoughts on Democracy - On Election Night

I voted.

I took my three year old daughter with me to the polling station early Thursday morning. I spent the short walk to the polling station trying why it was so important we didn’t go straight to school. My daughter didn’t look particularly impressed. Let me try a more adult audience.

 

The Jews of Britain were given the vote in 1858 - just over 150 years ago. Actually the story is more multi-layered than that. There was an attempt to give Jews the vote in 1753, the Jewish Naturalisation Act was passed – but the legislation was followed by such an uproar that it was repealed a year later.

I’m never impressed by the claim that the ancient Greeks invented democracy. The notion that every human, regardless of race, gender, religion ... deserves a say in the leadership of the societies in which they live is not the democracy of ancient Greece. Too many supposed democracies limit suffrage in one way or another and, as Jews, we should always be nervous and police the most universal definitions of suffrage. The notion that we should all get to play our part in choosing how are to be led is a fragile one and protected better in this country, in this week, than in many many other times and places.

 

After services tomorrow we are going to discuss our member Peter Pomerantzev’s terrific book on contemporary Russia – Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. In many ways it’s a story about the meaninglessness of the term ‘democracy,’ as applied to life in Russia. There are elections, sure. But the culture of leadership is not that of a country governed, in Lincoln’s glorious phrase, ‘by the people, for the people.’ And that is, principally, because not enough of ‘the people’ cared enough about raising their hands to protest against the dereliction of a commitment to civil society when the tough guys and the well-placed guys grabbed what they could grab. By the way, it’s going to be a great discussion. Do come, even if you haven’t read the book.

 

As a Jew the most interesting element of democracy, for me, is not the picking of the winner, but rather the necessity of checks and balances. A democracy needs a constitutional framework to implement the allocation of power – and its removal. It also enshrines the notion of difference – proper democracies value difference. I love the term ‘Loyal Opposition’ – it suggests that disagreement and difference are not the same as treachery. That’s great news if you do things differently, and tend to disagreement, as so many Jew do.

 

Of course democracy is flawed. This has been written before the result of Thursday’s election are known. But, dear God, we are grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this time, and in this country, and we should never take such fortune for granted,

 

Shabbat shalom

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

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