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…



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.


175 years – Penny Black and West London Synagogue (my first sermon)

2015-06-05 11.37.12

Shabbat Shalom. It is really a truly great honour and privilege to be standing here this evening with you and speaking from this pulpit. Thank you for the warmth of welcome and to my colleagues for being generous with their time. I am excited to meet so many of you and hope you will not be shy in coming forwards to introduce yourself and hard to offend when I do not immediately remember that we have already met! Michelle, my wife, is also looking forward to opportunities to meet you and our two daughters are thrilled to hear that daddy has a new synagogue for them to visit. But I’m sure you’ll hear and see more about them all in good time.

Now I know tomorrow is going to be a particularly special and magnificent service – I’ve seen the enormous preparation that has been put into it, but let me pick up a theme which might not have been touched on.

Some 175 years ago, actually in May, something new arrived on the scene. It did not have so much a revolutionary impact, but took a growing and changing world and simply moved things on forever. It was born into a world of the Second Industrial Revolution with a world that had ridden the crest of the first massive development of industry and was now on the cusp of the expansion into the drilling of petrol, the internal combustion engine, the radio, and advances in electrical engineering. It is of course, the first ever adhesive stamp – the Penny Black.

As I saw the news of this anniversary flash up in the google doodle last month I thought, ‘What an amazing reference point for West London Synagogue’. The stamp of course has gone through its own changes and developments but actually, what fascinated me was how it was a response to a changing world of communication and how much things have changed since. It’s not that we’re no longer communicating – but that our late 20th and early 21st century has been revolutionised by changes in our sense of where we situate ourselves in the world, how, what and why we communicate and so on.[1]

What we know is that people still need to connect, to fulfil their social need to communicate and build their relationships with one another. We still connect – we just do it differently, over continents with people we meet online or on holiday or family we rarely see, in 140 characters, with apps on our phones equipped with instant cameras and videos. Technology is different, but the human condition and the human need is not so different.

Now if I may dip my own toe into the history of the human condition for a moment. It was some 75 years ago that a young man, recently arrived from Frankfurt am Main, who had left life in Germany in 1933, proved he was determined to join the British army and found himself in the Pioneer Corps down on the South Coast. His background in the family business meant he was partly in the kitchens, but he would eventually serve in a tank in the Kings Royal Irish Hussars when the Kings Most Loyal Enemy Aliens were finally approved for front line duties.

This young man wrote to his rabbi, in a letter, requesting some help. He and a few others wanted to arrange for High Holy Day services for their fellow Jews down, we think in Ilfracomb. This actually followed permission from the Colonel to hold the services in a local church, which he was ordered had to be preceded by a formal parade through town. His rabbi agreed to send him Tallitot, Machzorim and a Shofar, but couldn’t commit to a Torah scroll. In return the young man sent a thank you note and 10 shillings for the expenses. For even such a small amount the rabbi sent a thank you. The rabbi, one Rabbi Reinhart, also sent a High Holy Day postcard to him in September 1944 that read “May it be a year of Victory and Peace”.

You see my grandfather on my mother’s side, whose family joined here after being persuaded by an old school friend, persuaded my grandmother to attend too. He had been granted leave and took my grandmother for Shabbat services – in those days if you had leave from the army of course you attended synagogue! My grandmother, also a German Jewish refugee who were then members of a newly growing Edgware United, describes it as a revelation with the choir, organ and men and women sitting together.

It was here that my grandparents were married. During a small amount of leave in 1944 (leave by that time was highly restricted – D Day which we remember today was but a few months away) my grandfather convinced my grandmother to marry quite hurriedly – and in a sign of romance he kept the telegram from her (that other old fashioned communication method) which read:



It was under the auspices of this synagogue my parents were married too. My parents then went on to be a founding members of the Radlett Reform Synagogue, where I grew up.

But returning to my grandfather, this was a most beloved Jewish home for him and it is therefore an even greater honour to now be serving as one of the rabbis here. And I shall always be reminded of the great importance of duty of the rabbi, even in that simple letter and parcel – enabling Jews to live Jewish lives, empowering them with the skills and tools to practice their Judaism, dare we say, independently of the rabbi but powerfully connected to the chain of tradition and the enveloping world of the People of Israel. That is, in many respects, what I hope my work will also bring to this community – in education and learning for adults. I shall be heard to say two things regularly – if you’re not learning, developing and growing Jewishly in an on-going way, then how can we have the chutzpah to think our children will value it. And secondly, with my grandfather’s example in mind and to adapt a phrase from Citizens UK community organising – ‘we can’t do what you can do for yourselves’, so get learning how to do.

And so 175 years of a synagogue is incredible. But even more exciting is where the next 175 years takes us as a community. That is a remarkable journey and history. Brought into existence in the year of the Penny Black, this synagogue is proof positive not only that the human condition is similar but that as Jews we still need community, communication, a grounding in Judaism and a holding in times of trouble and space for the sanctification of moments of joy. The Synagogue is not a technology like the adhesive stamp, it is the very foundation for human life – community and spirituality. But what is sure is that the next 175 years will probably bring as much rapid change as the last and we will be responding all the time. Thinking of the future you’ll hear more about my work I’m sure and the launch of the Lyons Institute is shaping up for November 2015 to be a very exciting prospect. I am thrilled to be part of the evolution of this wonderful Kehillah Kedoshah – holy community. May God give strength to us all in our yearnings for the future, and let us say: Amen.


[1] The irony was not lost on me that as the Penny Black anniversary was noted, the company Whistl made it’s announcements about redundancies. More than that, my daughter was learning about the postal service in her reception class and her homework was to see a post-box and visit a post-office. Now in the extreme, this is almost a history class, because let’s face it she should have gone to a high-speed internet and mobile phone hub to really know how we send messages these days.