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‘It is a wonderful honour to accompany people through their lives’

Rabbi Miriam Berger writes exclusively for the MRJ website as she leaves Finchley Reform Synagogue after 18 years:

What does a brand new, just ordained Rabbi do when they step into their first pulpit… and the community is functioning pretty well without a full-time minister?

There weren’t lots of balls to catch when I walked into my first job at Finchley Reform Synagogue (FRS), so I set about phoning the whole community. I made the calls on the premise of wanting to wish people a Shana Tova, but what I was really doing was trying to put myself in relationship with each and every member.

Rabbi Miriam Berger presented with a farewell gift
Rabbi Miriam Berger presented with a farewell gift

I knew not everyone would be regular shul goers and not everyone would think to turn to their Rabbi when they needed support, but, right from the outset, I was simply inviting them to be in conversation with me and those wonderful conversations have lasted almost two decades.

Being given Semicha doesn’t make you a Rabbi, nor does a job in a synagogue, the way people see you, relate to you and the part you play in their lives is what truly makes you their Rabbi.

And so it feels poignant to be leaving after 18 years, in Hebrew gamatria (where each number is represented by a letter) 18 translates into the word “chai”, “life” – and it has been a lifetime.

In that time I have stood under the Chuppah with my former Bnei Mitzvah students, and given baby blessings to their children. It is a wonderful honour to accompany people through their lives and my role has felt like the greatest of privileges.

A goodbye dinner gave the FRS community the chance to celebrate Rabbi Miriam
A goodbye dinner gave the FRS community the chance to celebrate Rabbi Miriam

FRS will always be more than a community which I served as Rabbi. It is mine and my family’s Jewish home and that is why it’s such a gift to remain Rabbi Emerita – while giving me the time to bring the new venture, which it inspired, into existence.

I founded Wellspring following my experience of second pregnancy infertility and the role the mikveh played in changing my perspective on the hand I had been dealt, but it also comes from what I have seen in the pastoral support I have offered members of the community.

I am really struck by the anger, hate, sadness and sense of injustice that some people carry around with them because of challenges they have faced in their lives. How happy we are is rarely based on what we have experienced but rather how we have responded to those experiences.

Wellspring will not stop awful things happening in people’s lives but will make sure everyone can be supported through them and will accompany them as they open new chapters.

A congregant whose husband had recently been diagnosed with a terminal and degenerative illness once said to me; “how can I mourn the cruises that our retirements were meant to be filled with when he is wondering if he’ll be able to dress himself in a few months?”

She was able to express the honesty of the losses we all suffer at moments like this but few of us feel witnessed and supported through them.

It is my hope that Wellspring will be a place of support, companionship and ritual at the moments when life steers us off course.

  • Read about the FRS events held to celebrate Rabbi Miriam here.
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