Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner gave a major address to the Board Of Deputies plenary last Sunday, 19 January. The address spoke to the entire Jewish community, transcending movements, setting out a vision of how we can nurture Jewish life in times of enormous change.
This is just one example of our work promoting Reform values and ensuring that these values have an impact on the national Jewish debate. Rabbi Laura was very warmly received by the packed plenum and Laurence Brass, Treasurer of the Board, paid tribute to her in his vote of thanks noting that “she is a golden thread running through the Jewish community.”
This feels familiar or – more accurately – familial.
I never expected to follow my father and grandfather here. It’s both a personal and a professional privilege to speak at this Plenum. I was brought up as part of the Board family and have been recently welcomed back into it, working with my outstanding colleagues Joseph Moses and Rabbi Natan Levy and alongside the dedicated team of the Board’s lay leaders.
I value the Board because it is our prime democratic institution, expressing different voices and views that reflect the vitality and diversity of our community.
Just like any rabbi, my role is to build and sustain our community. This is what I want to talk about today – how we nurture our changing community.
Today’s daf, folio of Talmud in the global cycle of daily Talmud study, considers the fabrics of artefacts in the Temple, then the prime leadership institution of the Jewish world. The fabrics in the Temple, had threads consisting of 4 strands of gold, which ran through the purple and blue fabric to connect them so strongly that they couldn’t unravel easily.
As with the thread, so with us. The Jewish People were resilient in times of calm and times of storm, in Golden Ages and dark eras. We remained intertwined, with golden threads woven through our actions.
Resilient, able to adapt ourselves to vastly different circumstances.
I believe that we are now at one of those critical, pivotal moments in our history. It’s sneaking up on us.
Thank God, it’s not a physical disaster but what is happening in many diasporas is an upheaval that threatens our cohesive fabric, that continuity, those very same threaded links.
What do we know about what’s happening? We need to look at the demographic patterns to understand what’s happening to us; to anticipate its impact and urgently to consider the interventions in communal life that we must take the lead on. And we need to do this urgently.
My most recent jolt has come from America, where trends often originate before flowing across the Atlantic.The Pew Centre’s ‘Portrait of Jewish Americans’, completed last year shows two things: that American Jews love being Jewish and that Jewish identity is changing radically (and in my eyes, not for the better).
The percentage of adults who say they are Jewish by religion has nearly halved in 60 years. The percentage of intermarriage is rising swiftly, now accounting for well over half of couples – a 50% rise in one generation. Jewish identity of second generation families who have intermarried is far weaker than previous generations. So what we thought would happen but hoped wouldn’t – has.
How different is Britain? Like America, we are also undergoing a remarkable change. Our population is officially stable, but only because our growing Haredi population counterbalances our diminishing non-Haredi population. Haredi communities can double in size every 12 to 15 years and will probably be the majority of the Jewish world as a whole by 2050.
In terms of age, we are relatively old when compared to the general population, but we have a large surge of younger Jews. Although the Haredi sectors are less than 15% of the total Jewish population, nearly a third of Jewish children under 5 years old are born to Haredi parents.
We are two very demographically distinct Jewish populations with very different demographic trajectories with very different needs going forward. These differences are anything but insignificant. This demographic reality will have profound implications for issues such as the provision of communal services, representation and inter-denominational dialogue. So we need to take every single Jew into consideration when we review priorities and allocate resources, when we think about education, housing and poverty related issues.
At the other end of the spectrum, we are becoming an older community, and must tackle all the issues that raises. Having reached the tender age of 50 only last year, I speak from a purely theoretical standpoint, you understand. But on a communal level, we now count among us more people having to cope on their own requiring more care. We can be so proud of our communal care programme, but we must ensure we sustain this, especially as this present generation of children will probably be poorer than the last.
Our long term thinking must also consider the radically different nature of the “millennials” in our community. These are people born before the millennium, people aged between 14 and 32. Millennials’ attitude to authority and institutions is vastly different to our own. Having three Millennials in our family, I can confirm this! Millennials – our community’s next leaders – don’t necessarily buy into institutional authority (such as rabbis or synagogues) as their parents did. If we want them to be an energetic part of our communal spaces, they require far more of a say in designing our communal spaces if we want them to be an energetic part of those spaces.
That old mantra “they’ll come back when they’re ready” is no longer true. They don’t. Not until we can all provide answers to their repeated question: “Why should I bother being Jewish?” For many a millennial, being Jewish in Britain today is expensive, hierarchical and institutional. So many of our communal organisations consider themselves open and inclusive, yet to a millennial, the door seems firmly shut. We must work hard to engage them in a way they want rather than what we may deem is right and sufficient.
Elsewhere, a severe lack of affordable housing to buy or rent in areas of dense Jewish populations is preventing many young people from putting down roots until their late 30’s and 40’s. This means the age of marrying gets older and fertility rates fall further, when they are already too low to be sustainable. It’s not old fashioned to admit that getting married early enough and being able to afford child care is a core element of Jewish numerical longevity.
How do we recast our institutions and priorities and respond to this upheaval?
The key is finding points of pressure that can impact on the demographics and characteristics of the community. And we’re lucky, in that we are able to impact on change.
I want to propose 4 strands of intervention to match those 4 strands of gold thread that were woven into the fabrics in the Temple that gave those fabrics depth and beauty and resilience.
The first gold strand is transformational experiences that inspire Jews to want to stay involved – our youth movements provide life long memories; they build enduring social networks and transformational learning and they’re fun. I know there is nothing else like it for connections, knowledge and joy.
What is the necessary intervention? Subsidies for more summer and winter camps; more residential weekends and Shabbatonim – they need to be subsidised so they are not just for the well off. More money to employ Youth and Community Workers to work in communities and centrally.
Israel is a key element of building Jewish experiences – having taught there for 15 years, I know that I can pack more educational punch in an hour in Israel than in a fortnight in Britain. Israel experiences must be properly structured.
Netanya beach may be great, but content-filled experiences within synagogues, clubs, friendship groups are far more impactful. Again – it’s financial prioritisation will impact on this.
The next two strands I call naaseh v’nishma – we do and we then understand. Naaseh – first we need to know what to do and how. So the second strand is about Jewish skills.
Judaism is so knowledge and skill heavy that we lose people who feel too embarrassed to say that they’re unable to perform central Jewish tasks – the brachot, the blessings over candles, saying Shema.
We seem to specialise in raising and maintaining barriers, obstacles. We’re experts in excluding.
What is the intervention? A national project to impact on home-based skills to ensure literacy in 30 basic Jewish skills.
This is about aptitude and attitude – enabling aptitude, particularly in home skills and attitude to take away excluding, elitist, barriers. We need to recognize that the fortress around Judaism is counterproductive to a Judaism that we want. We exclude through our attitudes to conversion which I believe should be far more positive and we exclude through lack of resources into training people in Jewish skills. Disdain does not sustain.
Naaseh v’nishma – we do and we then understand. After skills learning comes the third and final strand – meaning. Again and again, we are told that young adults want to know why? Why be Jewish? We have to find good, spiritual, enriching answers to that question that are beyond the world of Holocaust, Israel, tribalism and tradition. These don’t resonate.
The last gold strand is the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. We need to raise fertility rates–The intervention that would impact on this would be affordable Jewish pre-school centres This enables people to meet the expense of childcare and both parents to work and connects Jewish-Jewish couples and intermarried couples to make long term friendships in a Jewish context.
Keeping students and young adults within our communities. We need more personnel on campus from all denominations for social, cultural and educational events. Let young adults decide what is good for them and empower them to introduce it.
In public policy, we could encourage the government to build affordable housing so that our young people – like others – can exercise the basic right to live in their own home, close to family, cultural and faith institutions. Later in life, accessible and excellent elderly care is a social issue and a Jewish issue.
The Board has a double role – to shamor v’zachor – both protect but also remember, to think and also be proactive.
The Board can be an agent for change for our community. That means not just protecting but initiating. Throughout the Board’s history, there have been times to protect and times to change. We meet here today on the cusp of the latter.
If we get it right, if we don’t wait before acting, if we prioritize as I’ve outlined, then today’s Daf Talmud also shows what can happen. It describes the beams in the Temple being made out of cedar wood standing strong and upright. It says that they are standing for longevity, shomdim l’olam ve olamim – to tell us that they are standing forever and ever – and we can too.
Ken y’hi ratzon.