How to understand Citizens UK membership for a synagogue

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently about whether I think synagogues should join Citizens UK. Yes, they should. Here’s a couple of things I’ve written about it.

This is an extract of my Thought for the Week on 7 May 2015 for the LJS:

When we celebrated Pesach, it seemed to me that my children were really being inducted into the sacred narrative of the Jewish people. I have a similar sense today as we took our children to the polling booth to watch us vote, it was a true induction into the civic responsibility which we as a Jewish community have always taken so seriously and is the bedrock of our freedom, for which so many have fought over the years. When I take groups on walking tours around the East End of London there is always a focus on the Jewish experience of sanctuary, freedom and antisemitism. But just as important as this layer of the Jewish experience, so too is the way that the Jewish community has always looked outwards, with individuals seeking to make their society and world better than it was when they came into it. Whatever the outcome of the election, we all have a responsibility to engage in determining the future of our country, whether voting, being elected or getting involved in civic organisations.

Just under four years ago, I read an amazing interview by Professor Naomi Chazan about her role as President of the New Israel Fund. In the interview (found HERE) she states:

“Allow me to be a professor for a moment,” she says with a smile, and starts to make a sketch. “Above is a line that symbolizes the state, below is the individual. Between the state and the individual there are people who group together to express positions and interests. They want to make their voice heard, realize dreams and advance goals with regard to the state − that is the civil society. When the space begins to fill up with associations like this, tremendous changes occur.”

The civil society is dotted with associations and organisations seeking to make a difference, who work at the nexus between the ‘State’ and the ‘Individual’. In the UK I have recently been working with Citizens UK who brought together communities from across the UK to push non-partisan commitments from all the parties in the lead up to the election. They are doing some very important work and the LJS could bring its own power to bear in the Citizens UK organisation, which would bring with it some incredible benefits and opportunities for the LJS to develop its own sense of purpose. However, we will only get that benefit by becoming a member of Citizens UK in our own right and not riding on the coat tails of Liberal Judaism centrally. Give it some thought and read about their work on Social Care, Immigration, and so on HERE.

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This is the extract from my piece in the LJS’s Annual Report:

In November I attended a training event run by Citizens UK and Liberal Judaism. In it we discussed elements of community organising, social responsibility, methods by which we can achieve change in the world and so on. It was out of this training that I brought the plight of the Syrian refugees and the #Sanctuaryfor1500 pledge to the LJS. I tabled this at our interfaith Chanukkah event and wrote about the campaign in my sermons. Their plight continues to be important and after the election (I’m writing this shortly before) I think we’ll see renewed pressure on the government to bring higher numbers fleeing appalling conditions in Jordan and Lebanon. But more than that, if I could make a request for something as I leave the LJS. Join Citizens UK as a member organisation. They have engaged healthily in criticisms which I have levelled at their methods and yet I have seen first-hand the importance of their work in enabling communities to think and work differently, to look outwards as well as inwards in a way that makes real change, and connects communities together who might otherwise never speak. After the training I wrote a blog post about their methods and other pieces about the changing nature of community work in the 21st century – these posts were picked up internationally by rabbis and religious leaders thinking similar things. Join them, unless that is you’re afraid of making a real difference on issues like social care, immigration and work conditions and are happy to put sticking plasters over the problems, and make well-meaning gestures and empty criticisms without real ideas for change.

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There are some conversations to be had about the way CUK integrate into wider synagogue development. But it’s clear to me, if we don’t fall into the trap of thinking they offer a panacea for the wider issues of Jewish communal engagement (not that they claim that), then it is a positive decision to decide to join. There are some other conversations to be had as a result of the decision to join (notably how we work with community groups that not only hold different opinions to us but actually appear in moral opposition to some of our deeply held principles) – but I think that’s a good thing (to confront the discussion) not something that should stop us joining. After all, welcome to civil society!

(This article has been slightly amended, mainly in structure, on 4 June 2015)

For more about Community development work and CUK – see here

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