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8th January 2022 / 6th Shevat 5782


We celebrate a birthday this weekend: 80 years ago, a group of Rabbis and lay leaders founded the Association of British Synagogues, which later became Reform Synagogues of Great Britain and, from 2005, the Movement for Reform Judaism.

As a denomination, Reform Judaism dates back to the late 18th Century, when German Jews founded synagogues where modern science was accepted, and prayers were said in the local language. For the record, in the same years, further east, in Belarus, the Chabad Movement was at its incubation stage. Believe it or not, our brand of Judaism is older than Chabad! The foundation of Reform-oriented synagogues in England - such as West London, Manchester and Bradford - took place later. And only 80 years ago, this synagogue established a joint body, initially to support Jewish education in the time of war, then for broader purposes.

There's an article in this week Jewish Chronicle by my illustrious colleague Jonathan Romain. There you can read the basics about the history of our denomination. But I don't want to talk about history. Instead, I ask you to figure out what a Reform synagogue looked like 80 years ago and compare it with what a Reform synagogue looks like today. Just imagine having two photographs in front of you, side by side.

One is black and white, and it is a photo of a Reform synagogue in the 40s. The other is in colour, and it is a photograph of a contemporary Reform synagogue.

You will see striking differences.

In both photos, men and women sit together, but in the black and white picture of 80 years ago, there still tends to be some sort of separation between genders. For example, there are more women than men in the kitchen, volunteering for the Kiddush. They are called indeed "the Ladies guild". While in the room for prayer, where the service is held, the males dominate. There are no women on the bimah; the Rabbi, the wardens, those who are called to do mitzvot, and those who are called up - they are all men.

Let's look at a more contemporary and colourful photo. We see women called to the Torah, receiving honours, doing mitzvot, acting as wardens and leading the service as Rabbis.

The dress code has also changed. 80 years ago, many men wore the top hat, tallis tended to be smaller, and the Rabbi often wore a clerical collar. Today top hats are out of fashion, the style is more relaxed, and the ladies often wear the tallit. Tallis, on the whole, are more colourful.

The different clothing reflects a difference in backgrounds. 80 years ago, many of us were immigrants, or children of immigrants, who aimed to become proper British gentlemen of the Jewish faith (hence the fascination for top hats). Today we are British citizens and children of British citizens. English society is considerably changed. It has become more egalitarian, more inclusive, and we are happy to share these values. We also do not aim anymore to become "British gentlemen of the Mosaic faith", and we are delighted to wrap ourselves in large tallitot.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if a Reform Rabbi of the previous generations would enter a Reform synagogue of today. Imagine Dr David Wolf Marks, the 19th century Rabbi of West London Synagogue, entering this shul. He opposed leyning the Torah portion because it could lead to grammatical mistakes. He hardly could recognise this place as belonging to his same tradition. And those Rabbis and lay leaders who 80 years ago established the entity that later became the Movement for Reform Judaism? Even they would have some problem fitting in our very egalitarian yet traditional synagogue.

This brings me to a very famous story.

In this story, God brings Moses, several centuries after his death, to listen in to one of the many discussions taking place in the class of Rabbi Akiva - a Rabbi who lived in the First Century of our era.

Moses listens to Akiva, who talks and talks, explains and expands many rules and halachot. But Moses does not have a clue what is going on. What is taught in that class sounds utterly foreign to him. He is completely lost. He does not get what Akiva is saying and cannot understand what he is talking about.

"When Rabbi Akiva arrives at the discussion of one particular topic, his students ask him: "My teacher, from where do you derive this?" Rabbi Akiva replies: “It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai". In the story, we are told that “when Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive". [Talmud Bavli Menachot 29b]

This is the essence of Judaism. The continuity of tradition and its never-ending evolution.

Moses was Moses, the greatest of the prophets and the wisest of human beings. Still, even he would not have been able to understand how Judaism has evolved. And Judaism was the religion he had "founded"!.

But when God tells him that all these rules are rooted in the Torah that he had received on Sinai, in other words, when he is reassured of continuity, then this puts his mind at rest.

So what were the reasons that 80 years ago, different synagogues and different individuals put aside their differences and founded the Association of British Synagogues, which would later become the Movement for Judaism? - And there were theological and ideological differences!

If you read the article in the Jewish Chronicle, you can see the differences in approach between different Rabbis. On one side, the more traditionalists, who do not want to stress the differences with Orthodoxy, on the other side, those who want more autonomy. All of this was somehow complicated by that well-known professional disease of many rabbis - which is a rather cumbersome ego.

But ideological differences were set aside because these founders knew how important it was to provide a Jewish education to our children. It was then a very urgent task, given that many children had been evacuated, often without their families Today, education is where we spend, or rather I should say we invest, a large part of our resources. Education is the reason why many families choose to affiliate with our synagogues. When we are lucky, they remain even after the bar or bat mitzvah of the youngest son (or daughter) is celebrated, done and dusted.

I have never met Rabbi Van Der Zyl, or Rabbi Maybaum, the founders of the Association of British Synagogues. Their students have been my teachers. They were retired (hence they had time to teach at Leo Baeck College). I don't know how these forefathers of Bristish Reform Judaism would have felt had they had the opportunity to enter any contemporary Reform synagogue. But I know that, by recognising how much time and energy we invest in Jewish education, they would certainly feel at ease like Moses in that Rabbinic story. Because their teachings have not been forgotten and because we continue to raise Jewish children and Jewish students as we Jews have done, generation after generation.



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