Exactly one hundred and fourteen years ago, on the 24th of September 1900, toward the end of Rosh Hashanah services at Reform Temple Beth El on 5th Avenue at 72nd St in New York City –this was before the merger with Temple Emanuel– Emeritus Rabbi Dr. Kaufmann Kohler, announced that he wished all members of the congregation who desired their deceased family member’s names to be mentioned in the upcoming memorial services on Yom Kippur should send a list of such names to him.
After he sat down, Rabbi Samuel Schulman rose from his seat, walked to the front of the pulpit and said that he was the one who would read the memorial services, and that the names of the deceased to be announced should sent to him at his residence…. There was much whispering among the congregation, many of whom remained after the service and discussed the affair in small groups.
So what was the issue? Was it the fact that this was the first time that names of the deceased would be read out loud at Yizkor services? Or was it the clash of two titanic rabbinic egos, each vying for control of the honour of taking such a well-attended service? Kohler was, three years later, appointed to head the Hebrew Union College, and highly regarded as one of the key articulators of Reform Judaism both in Germany and in the United States. In fact, he was deemed too radical in Germany and had to leave for the United States, a baggage-free zone for radical reform Jews, if he was to be employed by a synagogue.
Samuel Schulman, born in Berlin, may have been the lesser of the two when it came to published scholarship, but he has been credited for having been the first to use publicly the term ‘Melting Pot’, when it came to describing America as the place where the different nationalities and customs of immigrants were fused into one new identity, in a sermon given on Passover 1907. The term was really popularized, however, when writer Israel Zangwill employed it as the title of his play performed in 1908. Rabbi Schulman was known for his long support for the welfare of poor Jewish refugees, regardless of whether they were religiously orthodox or not. Very much a believer in the American-dream, he remained an outspoken anti-Zionist even in the 1930s.
Long forgotten figures and differences serve as a perspective, perhaps, of the really terribly modest Jewish communal goings-on here in HA3 and its neighbouring postal codes. On Rosh Hashanah, it is often seen as traditional to examine questions of a more communal and societal nature while on Yom Kippur to address spiritual and ethical issues regarding our individual behaviour. Since attendance will be much larger tomorrow, I think I’ll save the possibly more controversial questions for the morning.
Tonight, let’s have a brief look at our synagogue community as those attending tonight might well include a proportionally higher percentage of those committed to being actively involved.
This is the fourth time we have held our High Holydays services since we sold our building on Preston Road after having been based there for some sixty years. Four times? It’s a well-rehearsed routine already.
After the initial senses of emotion –of excitement as well as a sense of loss— the time since our move to Bessborough Road has being one of increased confidence through greater cooperation with Mosaic Reform and Hatch End Masorti Synagogue. We share the same religion school and the same publications. There is a ‘Mosaic Board’ where our machers can waste more hours reviewing minutes of past meetings with other machers.
I can’t remember the last time someone came up to me asking mournfully, ‘How long can we possibly carry on before our community is finished off?’ Of course, given the Jewish demographic of this part of London we are declining but we are extremely solvent financially and we are not sitting isolated in some corner asking when we should dissolve, casting our remaining members to the four winds.
Instead, we are a vital part of a new three-way community. It would be four-way but for the continuing political and personal differences between the two reform communities, one having broken away from another over twenty-five years ago. Despite some very different substantive and stylistic understandings, the rabbis of all four communities maintain close contact so at least, among ourselves, the differences are kept well in perspective when it comes to working together on religious and educational activities.
In terms of our religious activities, our upstairs Shtiebel continues to be a setting much loved by our members. Synagogue attendance is steady and our bimonthly contemplative services are proving to be very attractive to both regular and occasional attenders. People are welcoming the opportunity for a quieter and less routinized way to reflect on the week and to welcome the day of rest and renewal. I am particularly grateful for the involvement of our talented member Esther Aronsfeld in working closely with Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton and me to offer something of real relevance to our members’ spiritual lives.
On Shabbat mornings, our regular service routine continues but imbued with touches of spontaneity and humour. Our worshippers may be elderly and seeking reassurance and comfort but certainly enjoy the opportunities for a bit of warmhearted corny humour and the sharing of opinions concerning very real spiritual questions and theological doubts.
I am much supported in this aspect by the members of the Rites and Practices Committee each of whom offers a distinctive approach to services when I am away. Our shared kiddushim afterwards, have come to be viewed as important opportunities to engage socially with Mosaic Reform worshippers. Both communities greatly prefer their own ritual minhagim but we do like, increasingly, to mix afterwards. Besides, the fish-balls are better now. It is also fascinating, as a microcosm for the entire cross-communal project, getting the timings more or less right. If one community waits for the other, are people patient or not? What level of bureaucracy is necessary to make sure that we arrive at the same time? But, on the other hand, should one community truncate their service just to satisfy the other community? As a rabbi, what’s more important: taking services in a non-mechanised rigid way and being responsive to pastoral needs or worrying more about the timing of the ceremony of the fish-balls? It’s an exercise in balancing competing demands and, indeed, a microcosm for the entire project of cohabiting and the need for flexibility and humour on the part of all concerned. We are getting there, slowly, in this respect. It will take a lot more time; when it comes to the individual histories of our communities three or four years isn’t terribly long when it comes to balancing a new layer of concerns.
From a four way –not merely three way– communal perspective, the biggest achievement is the religion school known as HaMakom which is home to some seventy children and more than twenty-five adults and teenagers on staff. In a few weeks, we begin the third year of this huge project. As well as gaining economies of scale that offer financial savings, the main benefit is that our children have more social opportunities than previously. I especially enjoy teaching the Kabbalat Torah class together with my colleague Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton and this year is the first time that we have welcomed a Mosaic Reform student to the class. I hope that, one day, Kabbalat Torah, a liberal-Jewish invention, will be considered by all the communities as a wonderful opportunity for teenagers to gain an adult Jewish identity based on critical reasoning and a universal concern for others.
This last year Kathleen and I offered lively sessions concerning the weekly Sidrah and the widely –even wildly– varying approaches to Zionism. We plan to get these pre-Shabbat morning sessions going again after the High Holydays. I have especially enjoyed opportunity to challenge set ways of thinking as we have explored new ways of considering Torah text and views about establishing a Jewish homeland. This last year, I led a very successful Jewish heritage journey to Denmark and members of HWPS and Mosaic Reform participated. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore little-known aspects of our Jewish heritage as well as to get to know each other better over the best smoked fish most of us have ever tasted. This next year I am working on two very different trips for the members of all the Mosaic communitiies: in April 2015, a journey to Marrakech. This colorful and chaotic city – and parts of the Atlas Mountains– was the setting to an extraordinary mixing of Jewish, Muslim and pagan cultures that is still reflected today. The architecture and gardens offer a respite from the noise and crowding that reminds me of the Alhambra.
In June, there will also be a trip to Warsaw, Lodz and Treblinka. Much has changed in Poland in recent years and, in addition to seeing physical traces of the Holocaust, we will witness a mini-revival of Jewish life. The trip will be geared to both adults and our KT students. I have been to Poland many times since the early 1980s and I am looking forward to seeing the positive effects of increasing integration with the west, both economically and in a growing acceptance of diversity.
All of these learning activities are stimulating and thought provoking. I always find it strange that we refer to ourselves as ‘the people of the book’ but so few members of our communities actively participate in worship, study and other ways of exploring our heritage. We are hardly unique in this respect but that is of little consolation.
But, especially sadly, our least supported activity has to do with social action. Only a handful of our members choose to be engaged actively with our efforts on behalf of either Jews or those in the wider world, locally or far away. As part of the larger entity, Mosaic, there is discussion of growing commitment to social action. For example, upping our interpersonal engagement with the local poor and with support to refugees. On an interfaith and international level, our continued commitment to Eco-Peace Friends of the Earth Middle East will attract more involvement, too.
In the Times, there was an article this week about the relative growth of Jewish progressive movements. The United Synagogue membership may be in free-fall. But the growth of the so-called two extremes, Haredi and complete non-affiliation, outpaces everything.
We have made huge, huge changes in the last few years. We have sold our building, moved in with another community and we are going in with two other communities to try to secure a future.
Rather than arguing about reading names at Yizkor services or who deserves the honour of doing so, we are choosing life and a forward looking vision. Our council will, in the not so distant future, propose that we change the name of our community to something along the lines of ‘Mosaic Liberal’. This will symbolically emphasize our choosing life, as a community, and our ethos of open hearted inclusion, reason and ethical concern for the world around us. Let us strive to grow our forward-looking vision while continuing to look after each other.