I have memories, as a small child, of running down from the children’s service to crouch behind the thick green curtains that used to hang at the back of the sanctuary so we could eavesdrop on Rabbi Jacobs’ sermons. I have glorious memories of my Bar Mitzvah – at New London; my tutor, the wonderful Alfred Shields, and the words shared by Louis from the Bimah which still inspire me today.
New London is the Shul I see when I close my eyes and picture a home for Jewish prayer, it always has been. I still get a frisson of excitement when I walk into our wonderful building and – perk of the job – enjoy surreptitiously wandering up and down the aisles in the dark when everyone else has long gone home.
Growing up New London was a place of warmth and familiarity. I knew my friends in the Cheder and the regular faces on Shabbat mornings, I remember watching the Bar Mitzvah celebrations of my near peers and knowing they were going to soon be watching me. Much of the strength of the Synagogue was drawn from the warmth and the sense of connection we felt as members. But there was also something else entirely unique about this community.
As a child I knew the sermons were erudite, but it took a while to understand quite how extraordinary the intellectual legacy of the Synagogue was. Rabbi Jacobs wrote 40 individual books and close on 500 academic journal articles and contributions to encyclopaedia. Louis was voted ‘Greatest British Jew’ in a poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle, but the truth is there is no-one who can match the simultaneous breadth and depth of his religious scholarship in the modern world. To boil this prodigious learning down to a single reflection risks condescension, but there is something about Rabbi Jacob’s ability to read the ancient with an ear both to its lasting truths and the markers of its own time that I always find inspirational. For me the central message of Rabbi Jacobs’ Torah is that we must turn to tradition to understand modernity and we must avail ourselves of every aspect of modernity to understand our tradition.
So where are we now, and where are we going?
It’s an honour to lead a community so vital and busy and active. Membership numbers have risen sharply in recent years, we have more younger members, marriages and all the good stuff than has been the case in many decades. But many of these newer members know nothing of our foundation or our story and come, instead, not for a community in which to be a part, but rather for specific services. Of course we provide services here; a dynamic Cheder, a beautiful marriage venue, dedicated conversion programmes and much else, but a Synagogue isn’t a collection of services. We are not a gym, we are a web of interconnected lives.
We can’t take for granted the sort of interpersonal connections our founder members enjoyed. We each need to reach out to our fellow members to make sure everyone part of our community. We need to share our stories about our Jewish journeys, and stories about this community’s journey, so we all can feel at home here.
Feeling comfortable and part of the community is necessary, but also insufficient. Judaism isn’t about meeting our own needs. It’s about acting with a responsibility that justifies our creation and our election as Jews. We owe an account before the One Who Spoke and the World Was Created. The great truth of New London was always that we must turn to tradition to understand how we should exist in modernity and we must avail ourselves of every aspect of modernity to understand our tradition. For many years this Synagogue approached this deep truth primarily through the lens of an internecine question of theology; the authorship of the Torah. Today we need to engage more broadly. We need to turn to our teachings of Shabbat to understand how to respond to the insatiable appetite for more and more stuff. We need to turn to our teachings on Shmittah to understand how to protect our environment and ecosystem. We need to turn to our teachings on social and economic justice to help mend the fractures in this society. We need to turn to our teachings on reconciliation and peace-making to support those suffering in the Land of Israel and beyond. We need to do all this to stand before God worthy of the life we have been given.
This is our task. As Rabbi I’m honoured to have the opportunity to dedicate myself to it. If we can rise to meet this twin challenge then we can look forward to our centenary celebrations, please God, with optimism, courage and pride. May we grow from strength to strength.