130 participants from 12 communities attended Northern Chagigah in Sheffield over the weekend of 27-29 November. They created a joyful, fun, uplifting, spiritual, family-friendly gathering celebrating Reform Judaism, as Sherry Ashworth from Manchester Reform explains.
Chagigah means celebration, and the communities of Reform Judaism have so much to celebrate right now, it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s go for the beginning of the weekend, as I arrived at Kenwood Hall in Sheffield, collected my welcome pack and sought familiar faces at this biennial gathering of the northern Reform communities. As this was not my first Chagigah, I knew that very soon all our different communities were going to merge into one big community, but at the beginning, it all feels a bit strange.
That process of merging began in the Kaballat Shabbat Friday night service, when Rabbis Fabian Sborovsky and Esther Hugenholtz (Menorah and Sinai) led us in a musical, service, binding us together in tunes and reflections. Dinner also helped – and can I just say how lovely it is to have after-dinner conversations with people you feel so comfortable with, even if you don’t know them properly. We Reform Jews do have something special going on. After dinner there was music again (thank you, Shir Chadash) and also a rare treat – some of our rabbis sharing their own personal stories. I can tell you there’s not a corner of the world Rabbi Fabian has not visited, Rabbi Esther fell in love through an organisation called EuroJews and Rabbi Barbara Borts can sing Allan Sherman’s ‘Hello Mother, Hello Father’ from memory. Student Rabbi Kath Vardi was a kibbutznik and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner claims to still be a teenage rebel. You heard it first here!
From the breaking of the dawn on Shabbat there were activities on offer. I found out about Jeremy Dable’s trip to Calais, before going to my choice of Shabbat service – a text-based, spiritual service with discussion. And it was quite a spot-hitter! There was also a musical and a learning service. And afterwards we all came together for Torah with Laura with Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner – always unmissable.
Shabbat afternoon is also for rest and relaxation, but some of us gathered together for an impromptu reading of Sheffield-educated Jack Rosenthal’s The Bar Mitzvah Boy. What a brilliant play! Then – more sessions, too many to list – and then our guest speaker, the wonderful Edie Friedman from JCORE, addressed us all. After dinner, those with initiative and energy partook in one of the most ingenious quizzes devised by mankind (well, actually it was devised by Caroline Kessler from Menorah.)
Sunday morning – more inspirational sessions – but I am conscious I am not doing Chagigah justice. It isn’t just about the learning and the meetings – it’s about friendship. The in-between conversations we all had made up the glue that holds us all together – it’s amazing how much we all have in common. At Chagigah, there’s no such thing as a lonely Jew! And I haven’t mentioned RSY-Netzer and their high-octane sessions for the kids, and the crèche, and the crafts, and, and, and!
The worst thing about Chagigah is that is has to end. But does it?
This year, things are rather different. There’s a real desire among the northern communities to work (and play) together more closely. There’s strength in numbers, and so much enrichment in comparing and sharing. All the northern communities, both big and small, have much to give each other. But do we have the money to turn this aspiration into a reality?
Yes we do!!
Because Reform Judaism has awarded grants to four projects in the north, and all of them will carry on the Chagigah spirit. One is to ensure our smaller communities get input from rabbis and musical experts. The second is to bring vastly increased RSY-Netzer provision with frequent events for all youth in the north – watch this space – it really is happening!
There are also two big learning projects. One is to develop the online learning available together with small group learning so we can continue studying alongside our new friends. The other is to set up the RJ Institute – a programme for training congregants to take services or parts of services, so we can help our rabbis and help each other out. This institute will also train us to lead educational sessions and increase our knowledge and confidence in Hebrew, in our liturgy and our scholarship. You will be hearing a lot more about these projects in the very near future.
In one of the concluding events, a member of Sinai commented she had not seen so much energy and excitement in the northern communities for a very long time. And I would agree absolutely. While we all love our own individual synagogues and communities, it’s so good to remember and experience the fact that we are also all Northern Reform Jews. As the chair of Reform Judaism, Robert Weiner, drew the Northern Network meeting to a close, you could tell he was jealous of us!
We are lucky in our people – our rabbis, our leaders and the wonderful Sarita Robinson, our Northern Community Partner, who has brought so much connection and fun to our communities – Northern Chagigah is her baby! But we are also lucky in having each other. The weekend ended with a storytelling session from the amazing Shonaleigh Cumbers, who entertained us with a tale about Luck and Wisdom. And here in the north we have both!