21st century communal change, communal trauma

I want to reflect on trauma in the UK Jewish community in the 21st century. The ideas are under developed but began percolating over the summer of work. Because I have been at a baby blessing, a funeral, shiva, three weddings, a stone setting and a memorial service. And there has been a common thread throughout. (Coincidentally, this arose independently of the correspondence between Josh Jackman and Clive Lawton in the Jewish Chronicle in recent weeks.)

The trauma lies in the fissures in the community and the pain, often untold, that is accompanied by these fissures. It was apparent at the various life cycle occasions in conversations with family members from all over the UK that these fissures exist.

Let me begin with setting the scene with a family and their guests at a lifecycle event. A family who are spread through denominational membership of Liberal, Reform, Masorti, Orthodox and unaffiliated. At a very private level, the communal divisions which we erect amongst us at an institutional level just don’t exist.  We may be a tribal lot, tied to our community, but we are also diverse and, on the whole, accepting – a live and let live attitude pervades. Countless times I’m told, ‘Rabbi you led that wonderfully, but rabbi, Reform – it’s not for me, you understand don’t you’…even more frequently at a Liberal synagogue those present might say ‘Rabbi it was lovely and important, because you know they wouldn’t be Jewish at my shul and I was surprised your service is quite like ours…’ We haven’t done enough to say collectively that it is ok to grow up different, to disagree quite fundamentally on the practice and theology of Judaism, but to say you’re part of this family. This is not, by the way, a call to dismantle the denominational infrastructure which has its own place in the community. I don’t want a homogeneous gloop. It is from here, meeting family members from every part of the Jewish spectrum that we then discover the geographical dispersion.

So we move from family to geography – our imaginary family and friends might be dispersed across cities and countries. At the most local, we have London, Leeds, Liverpool. But also Israel, America and probably everywhere in between. Yet, what is really the trauma is not the dispersion – that we Jews are used to. But rather the sadness of the shrinking communities and infrastructure in some of the great Jewish centres of the UK. Cities and towns like Liverpool, Southport, Hull, Leeds all now suffer from a depletion in numbers. Between the Haredi growth (which let’s face it is a community that does not integrate in wider community and society structures) and the magnetism of the South East. And parents and grandparents who have lived all their lives in these once great centres now find their children living elsewhere and, in a surprising twist in the story of the housing market, unable to afford the astronomical property prices in London if they attempt to downsize and move to be near their young family. Women and men utterly committed to their religious life find themselves questioning the future of Judaism in their towns. What would become of the communities and of those ‘left behind’? By the way, this is not a patronising view of the once great communities – they still have amazing communities and in other cities there are also wonderful initiatives. But when you talk to members who have lived through the diminished existence of their city’s Jewish community you can hear the grief.

The trauma is there.

I think this trauma is part of a 21st century self-understanding of being Jewish. The changing geography, demography and denominational affiliations. What does it mean to be a Jew, what is a commitment to Jewish infrastructure, what happens to those ‘left behind’. This and much more seems to be crucial to today. We are traumatised, but invisibly. The grief is of rifts, separation and incalculable inner pain. The external pressure of assimilation and anti-Semitism is (though I’m sure I’ll have detractors) relatively irrelevant. What drives us now is an internal dynamic of belonging and disassociation that we do not quite seem to know how to respond to. At least I’ve not seen any synagogue deal with it.

Josh Jackman’s article in the Jewish Chronicle last week finished by quoting Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism.

‘[She] is very concerned about the implications for the Jewish community, and has been for some time.

“If we want people to be able to live near their families, remain members of their shuls and buy housing, we need to lobby for affordable housing near where Jews live now.

“We need communal planning on housing and working out where the developments should be; we need to lobby the government, create communal schemes for financing and loans, and to work out how we keep Jewish communities together.

She also believes the community must offer an alternative childcare system to help young families.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner says communal bodies have acknowledged the issues, but far more needs to be done. “The focus has been on political concerns – which are very real – but we will do more to sustain Jews by sorting out childcare and housing rather than dealing with outward-facing politics. We really need to focus on that.”

To which Clive Lawton writes in his letter the following week:

“Come on, millennials!…Half-a-dozen young couples or even half-a-dozen singles moving to any one of these towns would not only find themselves inundated with joy and goodwill at their arrival…but bring a few kids along with you and they’ll bite your hand off.”

(By the way, I remember Clive coming to a Veidah (AGM) of RSY-Netzer when I was a movement worker and offering a similar challenge – he suggested if all bogrim join a failing community in a remote Reform community they could effectively become ‘owners’ of the entire community’s assets through control at Council and AGM level).

What interests me is not the cheap housing for Jewish millennials, as suggested by Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner (important as that may be for the quality of life for a relatively affluent group of young adults – I’ll get my violin later). But how do we speak of grief, trauma and communal dismemberment in the 21st century? And more importantly, the great moments of change were frequently identifiable and recognised. This new situation has somewhat seemed to creep up on our community and so we don’t even know that we’re being traumatised or at least haven’t yet identified the experience. There are Jews in every local authority in England and Wales, according to the 2011 census, but the old centres of Jewish life have changed.

Professor David Roskies one of the greatest Jewish Historians of Yiddish literature and literature of destruction, faculty at JTS, wrote in 1999:

“The evolution of the shtetl into a covenantal landscape reaches its logical conclusion in the yizkor books. The literary image of the shtetl, as we have seen, was deliberately fashioned from the very outset to incorporate the shtetl’s demise into its physical landscape, its mythic structure, and its ideological message. The writers — who were the prophets and rabbis of the Jewish immigrant masses — had been pronouncing the shtetl’s last rites for a hundred years. The immigrant experience now confirmed from below what the writers had been pronouncing from above at least since the days of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz: The shtetl is dead. Long live the shtetl!”

Perhaps we need to reimagine the past, mythologise it, in order to move forwards into the 21st century. But we haven’t left these worlds and cities but our worlds have changed…

I’m thinking of commissioning  a project with my work at the Lyons Learning Project to work forward through a piece of thinking about connections and disconnections. What are our stories of when the ties that bind have seemingly delighted and when they seem to have snapped. What is the experience of trauma and how might we respond to it? But that’s for another time…

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ps – I have just returned from Lisbon where the Jewish community is experiencing a similar, yet different, trauma reflecting on its continuity and survival. Seems to me this questions, whilst not existential to the future of Judaism, are not yet satisfactorily asked and responded to in our particular way.

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