Do You Agree?

Did we lose our way? What IS the way for US Jewry? Please read below the details of the discussion that took place.

“This house believes that United Synagogue Jewry is losing its way”.

On Wednesday 13th November 2013, Bushey Synagogue was packed with members debating this motion. Those speaking in favour were Sas Ezekiel and Michael Arlington, and against were Geoff Hartnell and Rabbi Richards. Nicole Rothband was the Chairman. In the pre-debate vote the motion was carried by an overwhelming majority.

Sas opened the debate by pointing out that the US Synagogues had recorded the lowest number of marriages since 1992. Linking this to the statistic of the American assimilation rate of over 70%, he claimed United Synagogue Jewry had indeed lost is way. Unless there were changes Jews would continue to leave Central Orthodoxy for other alternatives and in many cases cease being Jewish altogether. US services, practices and customs should be changed in order to attract more people, but without compromising Halachah in any way.

Geoff pointed out that when the US was formed Jewish life in the UK was very different to that of today. The original mainly traditional values of the US stretch back two or three generations. The success and popularity of a number of Jewish schools, primary and secondary, have moved the values to what we see today as Centrist Modern Orthodoxy. Children’s ties are no longer inextricably linked to the Shul and communities only but the broader education system as well. This has led to extensive community-wide celebration of Jewish festivals; public displays of people’s affinity to Judaism; large attendances at adult education programmes; an almost unprecedented access to kosher food and restaurants; and regular contact with Israel: visible testaments that the US is a dynamic and vibrant force in Anglo Jewry. The values of US Central Orthodoxy need to remain intact and passed onto the next generation.

Michael then gave a personal account of his journey from the Reform Movement to Central Orthodoxy via various youth clubs and his personal commitment to learning and doing more each year. Sadly, there are no real inter-Jewish community clubs providing a safe place for Jewish teenagers to meet up anymore. As a result, many of our youth are drifting away contributing to the high inter-marriage rates. Echoing Sas’ opening, United Synagogues should experiment more and become warm, welcoming and relevant to today’s youth.

In closing the formal part of the debate, Rabbi Richards pointed out that our purpose is to follow HaShem’s Midot. We should provide each child with the courage to grow and emulate HaShem. Because of the US commitment to education and learning programmes, they are reaching out to more people than ever. For example, the BLT programme now attracts over 100 people each week. Rabbis are constantly improving their teaching methods and programmes and trying to find more common ground with the lay part of their communities. Acknowledging that there is still much more to do, Rabbi Richards cautions us against too much change simply out of despair. The past 22 years has seen enormous progress with more and more people actively participating and outwardly showing their pride in their Jewish roots.

The floor was then handed over to the audience. In a heated and sometimes emotionally charged discussion two opinions took root. First, as parents we have become lax in actively helping our children to live more Jewish lives. Second, the United Synagogues (and by implication the leadership) should change more and do more to alleviate the high rates of inter-marriage; the non-involvement of the younger generation; and the gradual decline in engagement with the broader Jewish community – of US members as well as other parts of UK Jewry.

In his final summation, Sas pointed out that there shouldn’t be divisions within the broader Jewish community and the United Synagogues should engage more with other parts of the community. We should be striving for a more united Jewry in the UK. This means that we have to find a way to be more relevant without diluting or compromising Halachah.

Rabbi Richards closed by encouraging us not to only focus on what needs to be fixed. We need to recognise the progress that has been made to date. The United Synagogue Rabbis and leadership are going in the right direction, are caring and trying to do the right thing. The motion was carried at the end, but with a reduced majority and increased abstentions.