Our values are even more necessary this coming year.
What was 5778? It was a mixture of challenges and responses. Internationally, we witnessed the continued rise of populism, and a worrying redefining of the meaning of Israel as a “Jewish State”. We saw the sidelining of rights for minorities and hostility towards any expression of Judaism outside the norms of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. We have upheld a healthy tension between our love for Israel and our criticisms of it, and have spoken out against policies like these.
In the UK, the anti-Semitism scandal at the core of one of our major political parties meant that many members of our community went onto the streets to demand the respect we deserve. However, some members of our own Jewish community have not given each other this respect, and instead have unleashed some of the most vile abuse our community has ever seen inside itself.
In 5779, our progressive voices will need to be stronger than ever. We continue to raise ourselves up, strengthen and reaffirm our progressive values and inspiring communities. It is exactly the right time for our message as Reform Jews – our message of equality, the opportunity for change and the proper use of political power.
I’m writing this message from Wales surrounded by some of our 200 inspirational and dedicated RSY-Netzer leaders as they prepare to give hundreds of participants a formative experience on Shemesh, our UK summer camps. This summer, we sent seven packed tours to Israel! We have a great deal to be proud of and reason for confident optimism for our future.
From spending time with our members of all ages, I know that there are pressures from within, as well as externally. Research shows that two-thirds of us will experience mental ill-health in our lifetimes, and the challenges presented by this are hidden in all of our communities. We know that our communities need to be places people can turn to for support and comfort, no matter what is ailing us. This is why 5779 is our first High Holy Days with a dedicated mental health and well-being provision and why we plan, with your help, to do more to look after each other in communities.
These High Holy Days, we are raising tzedakah to support the Communities that Care initiative to keep our Movement at the forefront of national mental health care. At Chagigah, we committed to promoting the NHS’s recommended five steps to mental well-being in our communities and raising awareness of mental ill-health in our society. During the next two years we will continue our partnerships in congregations, enabling us to be safe communities, welcoming and open to all people with mental well-being problems. A national conference on mental well-being and bespoke training with mental well-being experts will provide the highest level of support and training possible for every community. We hope that you and your community will consider supporting our appeal and help to make a big impact on this challenge.
These aspirations rely on our synagogues, which remain the heart of Reform Judaism. This year saw the launch of a new initiative: ‘Money for Values – Re-thinking Synagogues’ Engagement and Finance’. Designed to help synagogues consider new models of financial stability, Money for Values looks at membership models, and fundraising and budgeting that reflect the priorities and values of the community. Our members should feel they are contributing to a Judaism that brings them meaning, rather than feeling that they are buying a product or service.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches us that the world stands on three things – Torah, service and acts of loving-kindness. So too does Reform Judaism rely on our three vital components: our vibrant congregations, our inspirational clergy and the partner in leadership of the central movement structure. 5779 will be the year of the Covenant. The new Reform Judaism Covenant will strengthen our Movement by communities, clergy and Reform Judaism defining ways in which each of us as partners in leadership rely on each other. It will define our commitments and expectations. Just as the relationship between God and the Jewish People enshrined in the Covenant has been central to Jewish history, our Covenant will be central to Reform Judaism nationally.
When we reach the end of one book of Torah and start the next, we say chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – be strong and strengthen one another. As we reach the end of this year and start the next, it is this spirit I hope we capture as we develop our bold initiatives. Now is a time for every part of our Movement to be strong and to strengthen one another. The Reform Judaism Covenant hopes to give us all the framework in which to achieve this. Now, more than ever, we need that strength. Our place in British Jewry and society at-large has never been more critical. The values we bring are an antidote to some of the great challenges around us today. Our voice has never been more important: let’s work together better than ever to amplify it.