Chanukah in the Square – a call to the JLC, LFA and Mayor of London

I call upon the London Jewish Forum, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Mayor of London to insist that they will only attend and continue to publicise and fund the Chanukah in the Square if a woman speaks and participates in the religious activities – specifically a woman lay leader of the community and a woman rabbi – and that they are listed on the publicity. I urge you to do the same.

I am one of the rabbis of possibly the largest synagogue in Central London. In fact, we’re just a few minutes bus ride away from Trafalgar Square. The senior rabbi and principal rabbi are both women. The current chair of our synagogue is a woman. We have a community musician who leads our services with the rabbis, who is a woman. We are a proud Reform synagogue with a historic tradition of inclusion, of equality and universal outlook. We are leaders in enlightened progressive Jewish thought and fully engaged in the life of London, its residents and its visitors. If you want to be part of a religious community that encourages you to bring your critical faculties with you through the door and a community that has embraced the challenges and complexities of 21st century life, then West London Synagogue, like all Reform and Liberal Synagogues throughout the capital and up and down the country, is the place to be.

Last year (2014) I attended Chanukah in the Square, in Trafalgar Square, and the male dominated, Orthodox rabbinic leadership of the occasion was suffocating. This year there is no woman (rabbinic or otherwise) on the publicity or line-up. Thus the event starts to look like something that elevates an 18th century Jewish sect to be the religious norm and leaves their rabbis, who do not even accept me as a rabbi or some of my members as Jews, as the religious officiants in a public occasion. How can I condone an event organised with Jewish leadership organisations that, for the sake of the self-promotion of the Jewish community in public life, is willing to sacrifice the involvement of some of their most important stake holders and makes 51% of the community seen and not heard – women? And how can I remain silent when the Mayor of London, perhaps through some kind of curious orientalism, unknowingly consents to this veiled misogyny and exclusion of non-Orthodoxy because a black hatted rabbi on a stage and an all-male vocal group is, you know, a bit more ethnic, a bit more photogenic, a bit more authentic?

Last year, after the event, I wrote a letter of complaint privately and relatively quietly and I was fobbed off – a pluralist day school sang with mixed voices, but that’s hardly what I’m looking for. And school children are minors, not communal leaders and rabbis. If Chabad want to do the event on their own, let them go for it, but I don’t expect the London Jewish Forum, JLC (Chabad aren’t even members of the JLC) or Mayor to support it.

In the meantime, my synagogue is hosting a Chanukah extravaganza with live music from Daniel Cainer and Stacey Solomon, with full participation of all and a stunning contribution to London life. It will be an occasion to remember and if you’re interested then look us up and find out about it. West London Synagogue proves that Judaism can be vibrant and meaningful in the 21st century for our members, friends and visitors and West London Synagogue in the heart of London demonstrates that the Jewish community can participate in London life fully embracing the diversity and joy of our wonderful city, at Chanukah and throughout the year.

And as a slight addendum here is the 2013 commitment to end all male panels by the Jewish Leadership Council.

The JC write up of the decision.

And a friend, Matt Plen of Masorti Judaism, writing more recently in the Forward about it.

Advice for senior rabbinic figures that might help broaden the religious participation:

  • Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger – Senior Rabbi of West London Synagogue
  • Rabbi Helen Freeman – Principal Rabbi of West London Synagogue
  • Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner – Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism
  • Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris – Principal of the Leo Baeck College
  • Rabbi Alexandra Wright – Senior Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and Co-Chair of the Liberal Conference of Rabbis
  • Rabbi Jackie Tabick – First UK ordained woman rabbi and convenor of the Movement for Reform Judaism Beit Din.

But there’s also loads of other rabbinic colleagues who could be asked too – I’m sure someone could be found, if they weren’t already so put off by the after thought.


Slideshow at JFS about homosexuality gives cause for concern and hope

Some of my rabbinic colleagues have already responded more fully to the incident of a charity, which promotes an attitude that people who are gay can be ‘cured’, being featured in a lesson at JFS. I do not want to simply repeat what they have said, though it goes without saying that I actually find the inclusion of the charity within any sort of presentation is outrageous. However, here are some of my additional thoughts about the story which featured prominently in the JC.

I think there are three points that I want to make: what seems to me to be a woeful understanding of sound educational principles and concern for welfare of students; the outrage it has prompted is a positive reflection of what I think indicates the dominant open, inclusive and progressive Judaism that a voice in UK Jewry which is slowly becoming more forceful; Liberal Judaism was the pioneer in terms of inclusivity and helping the wider Jewish world become more aware of issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, but must not sit back on its laurels.

Let me take each of these in turn. Regarding educational principles, the statement by JFS seems to betray an utter contempt for the idea that context is everything in education. For a school which prides itself on a high standard of education it is disappointing to see them appear to fail to appreciate that showing a slide of this charity, as has been alleged with no real context or discussion, and claiming it is to ‘leave students with food for thought’ is a specious argument. Some students seem to have been savvy enough to appreciate that the presentation appeared to promote the charity; it is therefore surprising that the head teacher seems to be unable to recognise this same problem. That a school could be so unaware of the impact such a mention could have on the well being of their students, which after all, is of paramount importance in a school seems doubly concerning. Mental health problems for young people who struggle to find acceptance because of their sexuality are a serious concern; a school that undermines a young person’s growing sense of identity in such a way must surely re-evaluate its general level of care for young people.

The positive side of this story, if we can find one, is in the outrage that has been prompted since it broke earlier this week. What I have witnessed is a voice in the Jewish community that is open and inclusive and prepared to be heard. Though we (some of the leaders of the Jewish community) could be accused of being slow to react, I am pleased that it is not only gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews who have spoken out. Movements and movement leaders, rabbis, young people and  JFS alumni have all demonstrated that it is no longer a voice of exclusion, ignorance and homophobia which sets the agenda. That is a sign for hope for Jewish life in this country that welcomes and values everybody.

Lastly, I work for The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, which is constituent synagogue of Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism was the first denomination in the UK to offer a liturgy for same sex commitment ceremonies and has been at the forefront of the campaign for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples who want civil partnership ceremonies in religious buildings. There are many leaders, including rabbis, who have driven this agenda forwards in the last year. What this story at JFS shows us is that we must not rest on our laurels; discrimination, homophobia and ignorance are never far away, even if we accept the school’s account, the fact that charities exist, such as the one which was presented, remains deeply worrying. This is not even an orthodox/non-orthodox issue, thereby placing JFS (an Orthodox Jewish day school) beyond the direct influence of Liberal Judaism. It is an issue for all Jews and, in fact, it is an issue for all of humankind.