The Movement for Reform Judaism at 80
Loud, Proud, and Progressive
In truth, it all started with a row. Following an argument that was lost. The West London Synagogue, which had pioneered Reform Judaism in the country failed in a bid to persuade the Board of Deputies to open up their sponsorship of teaching to non-Orthodox sections of Anglo-Jewry.
West London had already been operating its own educational programmes but, as highlighted in the minutes of the first meeting, ‘a broader association with other Jewish communities would (they argued) be great value for the common good.’
However, history records that the BoD would not budge, and the proposal was refused.
Attendee Mr. E.L. Mendel from the North Western Reform Synagogue was furious. He’s quoted as saying: ‘The unhappy result of the negotiations with the Board of Deputies was largely due to the failure of Reform Synagogues to speak with a united voice.’ And he concluded: ‘The BoD rejected the offer of co-operation; we must be prepared to carry out our scheme on our own.’
And so, on the 4th of January 1942 at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, Bradford Reform Synagogue, Glasgow Progressive Synagogue, Manchester Congregation of British Jews, North Western Reform Synagogue, St George’s Settlement Synagogue and The West London Synagogue created ‘The Association of Synagogues of Great Britain.’
The Founders saw no need for the label ‘Reform’ in the original name. Their aim was to establish a Synagogue where ‘a revised service may be performed at hours more suited to our habits, and in a manner more calculated to inspire feelings of devotion.’
This was agreed in wartime of course when Anglo-Jewry was divided between German Jews and Portuguese Jews. They wanted to discard names indicating, as they put it, a connection between ‘natives of Great Britain professing the Jewish religion’ and the ‘countries from which our ancestors immigrated’.
Above all else was the concern for children. The war had largely put paid to formal religious education and three classes were identified. The evacuees of the six synagogues, the large number of youngsters who received no religion lessons, and other refugee children from progressive homes. They concluded that ‘if the Movement is strong enough financially and morally to carry through a plan there would be no need to go back to the Board.’
Today, we can only wonder what those original 26 delegates would make of the current MRJ. Our 43 active communities are established throughout the country. We have the Leo Baeck College. The busy Sternberg Centre in London which houses our rabbinical court amongst other things, not to mention our full and part-time rabbis and clergy, lay leaders, and hardworking synagogue members who together now oversee a formidable organisation. We have progressed way beyond the original hope of creating a religious autonomy with a distinct identity.
To amend the goal of Phileas Fogg, we have become recognised around the world in 80-years!
I am delighted to wish the Movement for Reform Judaism a well-deserved Mazel Tov on its eightieth anniversary. Throughout its eight decades of existence, the MRJ has inspired tens of thousands of members of our community to take great pride in our religion, while ensuring that the beauty of our tradition effectively embraces the new insights and understanding revealed within each generation.
I take great pride in the fact that my children’s’ great-grandfather, Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, was a key founder and the first Director of Studies at the institution which he recommended be called Leo Baeck College, after his rabbinical mentor in Germany.
“When the representatives of Synagogues across the country met at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on the 4th January 1942, the outcome of the Second World War was far from clear. The people who sat down at that table could not have known whether the British Jewish community would survive the conflagration that engulfed our people elsewhere in Europe. But to fail to plan for the future is to announce that one has given up hope – and the leaders of what was originally known as the Associated British Synagogues, now the MRJ, knew that hope is a key source of strength to the Jewish people.
“My best wishes to the Movement, its Rabbis and its congregants. May the MRJ go from strength to strength for many years to come.”
Our movement began with a meeting at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, in the midst of the Second World War. It was a time of emergency for everyone in the UK and for the Jewish community a period of growing fear and uncertainty. Yet here was a group of twenty-six people, including eight women, from six synagogues – Bradford, Glasgow, Manchester, Alyth, Settlement and West London – determined to create a better future through cooperation, combined strength, and a unified voice.
Their focus was on providing religious education for children in a time of emergency – including child evacuees from our congregations, those receiving no teaching and refugee children from ‘progressive’ homes.
Crucially, this need became more acute because of failed negotiations with the then Orthodoxly minded Board of Deputies and our own previous failure to speak with one united Reform voice.
What lessons might we want to consider from this first conference, which created what was then called “The Association of Synagogues of Great Britain,” that are still relevant to our Movement today?
Covid is not the Second World War, but it is a worldwide pandemic beyond society’s and our communal experience. Times of emergency are times when we should work in unison in a spirit of cooperation and mutuality to fashion a more relevant and improved Jewish experience for our members and future generations.
Thankfully, the uncertainty we experience today is not the same kind of existential threat that loomed over us during the Holocaust. Nonetheless the threat is still real. Today’s society, empowered by social media, is more polarised and exhibits many concerning behaviours, such as rising antisemitism. Therefore, we must continue to play our part in countering this threat and building our confidence in being Jewish through our Reform values; promoting equality, inclusivity, and diversity. Tikkun olam, repairing the world, has never been more relevant and important.
The Movement for Reform Judaism only has meaning and value today if we align our interests and work together in mutual support and cooperation, as those six synagogues did in 1942. Our commitment as Movement trustees is to help realise this goal through communication and dialogue, openness and transparency, working in partnership with all 43 communities. If we can build our agenda for progress together and make our voice strong, our Reform values will give us renewed relevance, focus, impetus, and impact – importantly retaining and growing membership.
In Pirkei Avot, 5:23, it speaks of becoming 80 – ben sh’monim lig’vurah – an age of superadded strength. Let us commit together to build and deliver the superadded strength of an effective and purposeful Movement and meet the challenges of 2022 and beyond.
The 26 delegates, including 8 women, 2 German, 1 American born and 1 British Rabbi could not have imagined that their successors as leaders of the communities that those communities would number 43 and that Reform Jews today number around 20,000 men women and children.
They came together in the Midland Hotel in central Manchester as the host community had seen its building in Park Place utterly destroyed in the Blitz.
Today that community along with all our metropolitan and provincial communities stand proud as our Rabbis, Cantors and voluntary leaders give voice to our values as Reform Jews and together we continue to maintain a strong and important religious presence in England, Scotland and Wales.
‘Shemonim li-Gevurah 80 is for strength’, so says Pirkey Avot. In our troubled times it is helpful to think of the great strides that our movement has made.
I gave the Jubilee Conference Lecture for the 50th Anniversary at Harrogate in 1992 as Chairman of the Assembly of Rabbis. My subject was what later came to be called Relational Judaism. For me it was relationships. I gave it the simplest of titles: I and Thou, He, She and It, We, You and They.’ Pronouns since have taken on a greater significance in broadening our empathy to be more inclusive in our relationships.
I gave examples of how, in RSGB as it then was, we express relationships in new dynamic ways from simple things like calling up couples together to share the Torah berachot, to reciprocity in our ketubah documents, and gender inclusivity in some of our liturgy. All this was just beginning at that time. How far we’ve come in 30 years!
How we relate to each other in matters of Jewish status was key at that time. The previous year the Assembly of Rabbis had recognised the conversion of children of Jewish fathers where the mother was not converting. In my lecture I argued the case for Inherited Status through the father without conversion. This is now our practice. I was privileged to be involved in the planning process.
Looking at relationships on a movement scale I harked back to the first meeting at the Midland Hotel in Manchester which founded the Association of Synagogues of Great Britain. The agenda revolved around education in a threefold way: the education of our children evacuated from blitzed cities, for others who received no religious education and who might be responsive to our teaching and for refugee children from progressive homes. That was war-time. In the battle against the pandemic, we again bravely strive to keep the learning going. Furthermore, our sensitivity to refugees has broadened in a way we could not have imagined 30 years ago, although Rabbi Hugo Gryn, zichrono livrachah, predicted that this would be the Century of the Refugee.
My work over the past four decades has been at Manchester Reform. My family roots are at West London Synagogue where my father Alan Silverman, alav hashalom was administrator for 23 years. West London also celebrates the 170th anniversary of its consecration in January this year, Manchester had a rocky relationship with the movement in the 50’s but bounced back. The best celebration for me would be for West London to do the same. Then we can go from strength to strength!
A few days ago, we noted the 86th anniversary of the world’s first woman rabbi, Regina Yonas, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Compared to her bravery, courage and service to the Jewish people, my soon to be 47 years in the rabbinate feel to be as nothing.
I have just been so lucky to have been born when and where I was, after the war, in freedom and at a time when women were regularly encouraged to go to university and enter the professions, and also allowed to be a wife and mother.
I had and have a family who supported me, Rabbis Marmur and Gryn who persuaded Leo Baeck College to admit me and the Reform Movement who has given me a religious home for so much of my working life, in West London, North West Surrey and now the Beit Din, (not forgetting my wonderful stint at the Liberal Community at West Central).
I have had the privilege of a lifetime of work that I have (mostly!) enjoyed…and very few can say that. To my colleagues, both Rabbinic and lay, to my students and my teachers…and sometimes they were both…to members of my communities, I express my gratitude and may the Reform Movement grow from strength (Gevurah) to strength.
Don’t be fooled by mention of the 80th birthday. Yes, it is a significant anniversary, but it implies that Reform is a noun, whereas the reality is that Reform is a verb.
The last eight decades have not been static, but a fast-moving march through the life of British Jewry. It has not just grown from six congregations to forty-four, but constantly re-evaluated what it means to be a modern Jew, marrying the best of the traditions of the past with the insights of today.
Do not take this for granted. Before 1942, it did not happen. After the initial burst of reforming creativity, Reform lost its momentum, which is why the Liberal movement started in 1902 to carry on the process of adapting to new circumstances.
We have not made the same mistake again and Reform has been highly successful in navigating the delicate balance of being rooted in tradition but responding to change. Whether it be introducing inclusive language in our prayer book, accepting diversity in sexual identity, championing the need to protect the environment, reaching out to mixed-faith couples or welcoming those with Jewish heritage who were previously shunned, Reform has been constantly pro-active. Reform is a verb.