Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Reasons to Believe - Second Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This is an endangered species warning. The three times a year Synagogue Jew is, in that term you see on cages in London Zoo, vulnerable.

Not gone entirely, there are some of you here today. You’re very welcome, God forbid I scare you away, but you are an endangered species.

There are plenty of two times a year Jews – Jews who came yesterday and will come again for Yom Kippur.

And there are, and this is the good news, a growing number of ‘more-than-three-times a year’ Jews, certainly attending New London Synagogue. My sense is that if you are here today, you come to shul, let’s say, at least five or ten times a year. My sense is there aren’t many of you here who will come for Yom Kippur and next turn up in a year’s time. There have been Shabbatot during the year when we have been busier than we are today, and that’s unimaginable by the standards of Anglo-Jewry, and certainly New London Synagogue Jewry, a generation ago. If that seems a touch-and-go claim here, in the main service, it’s undoubtedly the case amongst our younger families with kids in the Children’s Service. There are many Shabbatot in the year when we have many more kids in the Children’s Service than we do today – on one of the High Holydays.

So why are WE here, and why are the three-times-a-year-Jews of previous generations not? What are the reasons?

I grew up at a time when there were, basically, three priorities underpinning most of our Jewish engagement, and they are all in flux and then there is one other issue that I think can explain the good news, the growth in the more than three times a year Synagogue Jew.

The first building block of Jewish engagement a generation ago was a sort of stickiness that meant people more or less stuck with what they knew, in matters Jewish and otherwise. When I was thirteen the bank at the top of my road made an effort to woo my pocket money with gifts of a pocket dictionary and a Griffin Saver hold-all with a gold logo. The expectation was that if I joined that bank as a teen I would stick with that bank for life. It sounds almost laughable by today’s standards. Not only have I moved banks – and several times – but the very bank I once joined, along with its griffin – is no more. We are a whole lot less sticky than we once were. We change jobs, careers, utility providers even life-partners a whole lot more than was the case a generation ago. Jewishly this stickiness used to mean that I was expected to do more or less the same Jewish thing as my parents, or maybe a little less. But that stickiness has largely gone, taking scores of three times a year Jews with it.

For communities dependent on stickiness the increased volatility of contemporary life is bad news, but actually I’m not sure it’s such a problem for New London. The vast, vast proportion of New London Synagogue members aren’t here doing the sticky thing. Instead our members choose to be here, usually instead of sticking with what they knew. Indeed the foundation of this community, some 49 years ago, was a refusal to be stuck. It was about reasons to do something new as the attraction of the old waned. The clue is in the name, New London Synagogue was never going to be based on the stickiness of the old. That’s as it should be. As Rabbi I never want to take commitment for granted, I’m delighted you’ve found your own way here – even if this happens to be the place your parents brought you to Shul as a child. I don’t want New London to be about stickiness, I want it to be a place where we carve out and create in each generation our own relationship with the community.

The second plank of Jewish identity, in times past, was antisemitism. Of course there is still antisemitism, but if you want to know what it means to be ‘other’ in Britain today you don’t ask a Jew. Jews don’t come to Shul today to escape the stares and the hostility that used to greet us walking the streets. Some 50 years ago the philosopher Emil Fackenheim articulated a ‘614th Commandment’ – don’t grant Hitler a posthumous victory – he demanded we retain our Jewishness as a response to Nazism. And a generation ago a number of Jews would come to shul three times a year for that reason but, as important as Holocaust commemoration is, I don’t know anyone whose Jewish identity is built in that way today.

And how do I feel about the decline of the kind of antisemitism that kept Jewish communities strong? It has to be good news. As true as it was that antisemitism boosted the numbers of three times a year Jews I don’t want it. As I mourn and abhor what the Nazis did to our people, I can’t build my Jewish identity on that foundation, nor would I attempt to foist such a thing on us as a community – even if you would pay any attention to such an encouragement. I’ll oppose antisemitism at every opportunity, but I’ll wave that particular reason for Jewish engagement goodbye and good riddance.

The third plank of Jewish life a generation ago, under great threat in this generation, is what academics call the decline in ‘social capital.’ The masterwork is Robert Puttnam’s book Bowling Alone, a title which refers to the impressive 10% rise in the numbers of Americans who would go bowling in the 20 years from 1980 until 2000, but more importantly to the staggering 40% drop in those who bowled as part of leagues or teams in the same period. His point was that we are affiliating less, and increasingly pursuing our interests individually, not communally. Puttnam’s decade-old analysis holds even more true today as instead of going out to bowl alone we now bowl on Nintendo Wiis in our own front rooms and download an on-demand social life rather than actually, you know, go out and meet real people. Increasingly we want what we want on our own terms and if we can’t find instant satisfaction in some kind of social communal space, we retreat on-line. Perhaps we don’t even bother looking in social spaces at all, so clear are we that the private electronic pursuit of gratification is so much more suitable for us. The sense, a generation ago, that it was worth being part of some kind of social group, is based on a sort of delayed gratification – I’m better off giving up a bit of my own selfishness to be part of a larger group where everyone gives up a bit of what they personally want in search of something bigger and better. Religions in general and shuls such as ours rely on that and the decline of social capital has cost us a number of three times-a-year-synagogue Jews.

It’s not good news, but all is not yet lost. I think we, as a society, increasingly realise we have to rebuild social capital. We can’t just take on our own terms, across our own private internet connection. None of us wants to live in that kind of atomised society. So our job, as a Jewish community, is to be articulate about what we offer here. This is a Bet Kenesset, a house of meeting people face to face, with no phones, no Facebook updates and no Skype. It’s a place to find real life nonagenarians and tiny babies and if you instinctively feel you would rather be in a place a bit younger, or a bit more adult the message has to be; appreciate the diversity, celebrate what you give up to be part of an adventure in the creation of social capital. Being part of a Synagogue community, regularly, is part of how we can save contemporary society from sliding into dystopic isolation and hollow emptiness.

So stickiness is going, I’m not too worried. I believe we don’t need it; we’ve always had our own reasons to believe.

And antisemitism as a reason for Jewish commitment has more or less gone and so we need other reasons to care about our Judaism. Thank goodness for that.

And social capital is declining, but we have a case to make and a flag to fly. The importance of being part of a community needs to be defended and celebrated, and I’m up for the fight.

But there is one more thing, one more thing that explains the decline in the three times a year Jew, and the simultaneous rise in those more committed. And it’s something I haven’t mentioned at all, because, ironically, I don’t think it had much to do with Jewish engagement a generation ago – religion. There were all sorts of reasons to come to Shul three times a year, a generation ago, but religion wasn’t one of them. We weren’t – even with our illustrious founder Rabbi – a community that knew its way around a blat of gemarah. We weren’t a community known for its observance of Shabbat. We weren’t a community – again, even with the theological leadership of Rabbi Jacobs – that actually spent much time considering what it means to stand before God. In many ways we are not that different today, but Judaism Britain, and I think also at New London, is getting more religious; more serious about learning, observance and, God help us, even becoming more spiritual.

On every demographic scale Judaism across the world is fracturing into the groups of those who know more, care more and commit more, whose numbers are growing, certainly as a % of the whole, and those whose connection to Jewish life is vestigial; based on stickiness, an opposition to antisemitism and the love of Woody Allen, and that group of Jews are disappearing fast.

It’s certainly true that those of us whose Jewish education halted at 13, whose theology is shaped more by Richard Dawkins than Louis Jacobs and who, after Yom Kippur will next be in Shul in a year’s time find Judaism less compelling. But the reverse is equally true; those who are involved in an adult engagement with an extraordinary repository of ancient wisdom, those who allow their own relationship with the Universe and everything in it to be shaped by a Jewish consideration of what it means to stand before God, and those who regularly join us at the Synagogue, find Judaism compelling, challenging and affirming.

We are back to the same dynamic; those of us who seek out and spend time nurturing our own reasons to believe are here today and will be here throughout the year.

So that’s my take on who we are and where we are going. It’s also my own story. I grew up with some stickiness and some opposition to antisemitism and I found religion, and actually it was religion that persuaded me of the value of affiliation, being part of a religious community. But I want to know more, more about the reasons we, as a community, have to be here today, particularly as we embark on our fiftieth year as a community. So I have this ask for those of you who are here today.

In discussion with Stephen, our Chairman, we want to have a number of parlour meetings in our members’ homes; fifteen or so of us at a time. It will be a chance to meet one another, and also myself and Cantor Jason. The topic up for discussion is Reasons to Believe in New London Synagogue, why are you here, why are you part of the this family. What more could we, should we be doing? Can you help us become stronger, more committed into our future?

Two requests;

Can you host an evening, at a time to suit you? We’ll handle the invitations, you just need to be willing to open your home and pour the coffee. Please let me know, drop me an email or call the office if you can help. We are looking for 20 volunteers.

And when the invitations come, can you come, we want to bring people together locally, there won’t be far to go, but you will be helping us become what we can be in our next 50 years. Because this, I believe is the biggest question facing us in our next 50 years. What reasons do we have to believe in this community. I believe the more we understand our own reasons, the better the lay and professional leadership of this community understand these reasons, the stronger we will become.

With every blessing for a year of sweetness, health and happiness,

L’Shannah Tovah Tikateivu


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