A new Reform community was launched at Reform Judaism’s Annual Dinner on 12 September at the London Marriott Hotel Regents Park lauded as “the best ever”. The evening saw moving personal testimonials of the impact of Reform Judaism and the launch of a new community, as Shir Hayim Reform Jewish Community in West Hampstead and the Willesden Minyan announced their merger.
Five different speakers shared how Reform Judaism has directly transformed their lives and communities through support for young people with mental health concerns, young adults, small communities, large communities reaching out to a widespread membership, and those choosing to become Jewish through the Reform Beit Din (religious court).
Lauretta Dives of Shir Hayim spoke of the invaluable support the community received from Reform Judaism during a period of transition and change: “our little community was faced with an ageing and shrinking membership. We were simply not sustainable. We needed to revitalise or close the doors. Luckily, nearby, the Willesden Minyan, which engages with more than 120 people, almost all under the age of 40, started meeting but with no formal structure, or membership or regular meeting place. Proper wandering Jews! With the leadership and great support of Reform Judaism, we started a sort of courtship with the Minyan, led by now Rabbi Daniel Lichman…our two communities have now agreed to join forces. We’re creating our mission, vision, values and a new name”.
Lauretta continued: “Every person who becomes a ‘Builder’ – members engaged in community leadership – is met by two people – our rabbi and a lay leader – and is asked about who they are, who they already know in the community and what they care about, and then supported to find a role in the congregation. New leaders are emerging, taking responsibility and building relationships and this is so exciting and inspiring to us all.”
In a deeply personal address, guest speaker Robert Rinder noted that after a period of spiritual homelessness and alienation with orthodox practice and tradition ”I’ve found my spiritual home in Reform Judaism”. Reform Judaism, he said, has “a message of inclusivity, looking towards the future with a message about the intellectual foundations of Judaism being open and available for everyone. A message that said to me ‘yes you can’ and was totally unconcerned with ‘no you cannot’.”
Reform Judaism, he said, is an example of “what Judaism can be when it seeks to be its very best”.
The evening also saw the launch of ‘Essentials of Reform Judaism’, a new national curriculum for conversion programmes welcoming those who wish to become Jewish. Until now, each synagogue has run their own programme. It was felt important to have a centralised resource that communities can either take off the shelf or adapt to fit in with resources they are already using. Each unit provides the basics everyone should know, an opportunity to look deeper, and ways to make the subject both practical and personal for the students. Those piloting the programme this year included long time educators and new rabbis teaching conversion for the first time.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, Reform Judaism’s Community Educator said: “We are incredibly proud of our Essentials of Reform Judaism programme, saving our hard working rabbis and educators’ time, and ensuring high quality resources and reading for our students, arming them with the tools they will need to begin their Jewish journey, and encourage them in their continued learning beyond”.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism said: “this year’s dinner was much more than a fundraising event. It was a celebration of our values and the partnerships which make our communities so dynamic, engaging and inclusive. I am immensely proud of them and our holy work”.