I love going to movement and synagogue conferences, weekends, chagigahs, call them what you will.
My first was back in the 1980s. I’m a veteran of Harrogate, back when the Movement for Reform Judaism was called RSGB (Reform Synagogues of Great Britain) and we flocked to the Majestic Hotel – where you would find Rabbi Hugo Gryn (of blessed memory) sitting in the sun on a Shabbat afternoon in Harrogate’s Valley Garden.
Why I love conferences has little to do with the programmes – although they give us the necessary purpose, structure and learning.
For me, it’s all about those shared conversations and new friendships. It’s discovering what Progressive Judaism looks and feels like in say Oxford, Kent or Edinburgh. It’s understanding that community comes in different forms, modelled and inspired by individuals who have found a common commitment to Progressive Jewish values.
As a first timer to a Liberal Biennial, I was asked on several occasions what struck me. Here’s what I said:
• I felt warmly welcomed and included.
• The atmosphere was very friendly.
• Everyone was straightforward, unpretentious and seemed comfortable in their own skins.
• I was with like-minded people with whom I had shared values and ideals.
Essentially, I felt at home; that I belonged in this setting and at this wonderful gathering.
In truth, it’s what I thought and expected. Otherwise, I’d got things horribly wrong!
In fact, it was even more than I hoped for. The conversations and experience taught me that Liberal and Reform Jews have so much in common and are so similar. Yes, we have variations in practice and minhag, but no more than we have within our own synagogues and movements. We all fall under the same inclusive ambit of Progressive Judaism and have so much that is mutual, to share and to celebrate.
And that’s exactly what exuded from every pore of those gathered in sunny Daventry. An undiluted enthusiasm and positivity at the prospect of creating one unified Progressive Movement.
It would be wrong to suggest there weren’t questions and a chewing over of the answers Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Rabbi Josh Levy, Ruth Seager and I gave in our sessions and in the informal mealtime and breaktime chats. Not a doubt seemed present, more a desire to be sure we get it right this time.
There’s no going back, we must make it work. This opportunity is too great.
We can give British Jews – affiliated, unaffiliated or lapsed – a modern alternative to mainstream Orthodoxy and a presence, heft and voice we have only dreamed of before.
Over the weekend I had some 30 to 40 different conversations with rabbis, lay leaders and congregants. I listened and learned. I wanted to know who you were and what your Liberal Judaism is.
I felt right at home amongst you and was excited by your passion and commitment. I left more confident than ever that we are on the right journey.