Monday, 11 June 2018

Ten Years a Rabbi At New London

Those of you at Services last Shabbat will have heard the announcements.

Our chairman congratulated the Bar Mitzvah boy and his family on his wonderful achievement - and the congregation responded in full voice; Mazal Tov.

And then Ian announced that this week there would be a kiddush given in my honour, having been Rabbi here for 10 years - and the congregation responded with a couple of tentative Mazal Tovs and a definite sense of  - can we go and get the fishballs yet?


I was reminded of the story of the Rabbi who was so ill he couldn’t get to the Council Meeting. Worried something might have been decided in his absence the Rabbi hauled himself from the sickbed to call the Chair to hear what had been decided. ‘Good news,’ the Chair responded, ‘Council voted 12 to 8 to wish you a refuah shleimah.’

It was always thus.

Moses in these terrific Parshiot is having a tough time. He’s asked 12 senior members of the congregation of Israel to go and scope out the land and 10 of them come back and give a fullsome raspberry to his prospects of leading the people into the settled life in the and they have been promised.

We’ve been doing a poll of our own these past weeks - we are looking at bringing new clergy in to support the community and we’ve been asking members what they think we should be looking to preserve and what we should be looking to transform at this time. Thank you for your responses. It’s even been helpful to understand more about some of the frustrations and dis-satisfactions of some in the community.
‘I don’t really know what’s going wrong,’ one distinguished member shared, ‘perhaps it’s the Rabbi. Things just aren’t what they used to be.’


One of my favourite books is written by Ronald Heiftetz, the Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University - it’s called, ‘Staying Alive in Leadership.’ The issue is, as anyone who tries to provide leadership knows - is that leaders very often get shot at. Leadership, of course, isn’t giving everyone what we want. And when we don’t get what we want it’s all too easy to blame the person standing at the pulpit.

Heifetz says that the big challenges that face us aren’t capable of being solved by a single solution - proper challenges can’t be solved technically - they can’t be solved by a skilled professional - no matter how gifted and hard working. The big challenges facing us are adaptive. Adaptive challenges are a messy conglomeration of factors beyond any single point of control. Adaptive challenges call us all to be creative, bold and sensitive.

So this is the adaptive challenge I identified when I started here.
I’m going to be blunt.
Apologies in advance.
I’m taking a risk that you can’t really sack the Rabbi for a sermon he gives on the occasion of being honoured with a kiddush for having made it to 10 years.

At the time I arrived here as Rabbi New London had been in decline for twenty years. For a generation the founding Rabbi of this community had told committed Jews thinking of joining, or even staying in membership, not to bother. I’m one of those who drifted away. Louis came to see New London as a vehicle for his sermons from this Bimah and not much more. And eventually Louis, of blessed memory, passed away.
That left - well really not very much.
There were no new members and a handful of kids in the Cheder. The only life-cycle events I performed in my first six months here were funerals. The black hole of the Synagogue finances was compounded by the fact that we had a significant number of members on the books who were  - not only not paying dues - but were actually dead.

The legacy of the greatest Jew of 350 years of Anglo-Jewry seemed to be that no-one other that Rabbi Louis Jacobs could lead a community that was founded for him. And now Louis was dead.

The executive Director of those years, Ronnie Cohen, dropped me a note this week, recognising my efforts. He suggested that what has happened here is an example of Techiyat HaMetim - bringing the dead back to life. That’s a little over-dramatic - though it made me smile.

The reason things aren’t what they used to be is that things aren’t what they used to be. It’s not the late 1960s anymore. Louis’s not Louis more. The world isn’t the same world as it was, frankly, even a decade ago. That’s not this Rabbi’s fault, it’s not even Louis’ fault or anyone else’s. It’s life.

And the reason I haven’t tried to re-infuse precisely the same things that energised this community in its pomp is only a small part of what energised the community in its pomp was energising the community the late 2000-and naughties. And I’ve always liked Einstein’s definition of insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

I know I’ve done some things that haven’t been easy for every member to accept - and I don’t mind being blamed for them.
But I’ve been blamed for doing things that - really - aren’t my fault at all. There are members cross with me that the Ladies Guild isn’t still doing the great work they did in the 70s. There are members cross with me that Cantor Jason isn’t the Cantor here.
So be it. But really.

Let me say a word about the role of women.
I know there are members who are upset at my leadership in transforming the community on this issue. I’ll hold my hand up for that one.
But - like everything else in this community - it’s never been just about one person, not even the Rabbi.

I’ve a copy of Volume 1 Edition 2 of the New London News, published in early 1965. It contains an article from a founder member arguing for a greater role for women in liturgy. This is a debate that’s been going on in this 54 year old shul for 54 years.
Over the last 10 years I’ve listened to more members and read more survey responses and emails on this subject than on any other. Here’s the most interesting thing about where this community is on the issue of the role of women.
There is no demographic indicator for who feels what - it’s not that men want less roles for women than women, or vice versa. It’s not that new members want more or vice versa. It’s not that more committed members want more or less than less regular attendees. The same goes for age, we’ve old and younger adults who split on the egal issue just we split on every other demographic splits - - - until you get below a age. Once you go below a certain age virtually everyone is in favour of a fully egalitarian community.
Here’s the reality.
The vast majority of the community either strongly want to see us become fully egalitarian or would wish that we become fully egalitarian were it not for the pain that it would cause the minority of members who feel uncomfortable with that change.
I know that there are members who feel uncomfortable - and worse - that New London might become egalitarian - they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable already.
But what’s a leader to do?

On the actual occasion of my ten years here, back in January, I gave a sermon looking transgenerationally - looking long into the future. I said then, that I don’t see any long-term future for a non-orthodox Jewish claim that women should be limited in the roles they can play. It doesn’t make sense to me Halachically, or as God’s will. It doesn’t make sense to me sociologically. It doesn’t make sense to me when I peer into my murky crystal ball.
For nigh on 50 years New London opened its doors to those looking for non-egalitarian non-orthodox traditional Judaism, and once the immediate flame of the Jacobs Affair died back the queues never materialised.
What’s a leader to do?

To those uncomfortable, I’m sorry. I hope I can ease a journey for some of you. I know I can’t ease that journey for many of you.
But what’s a leader to do?

Let me delve into my own filing cabinet of the 500+ sermons I’ve given over last decade from this very Bimah.

500+ sermons! Those of you who listen closely - and there will be an exam - will know I don’t repeat myself, but I looked again at two of my sermons - from my first year at New London and there is something I want to share today.

On my interview weekend in November 2007 I set out what I understood as the role of New London is. And I haven’t changed my opinion in the past decade.

I know - I said then - that there is something that needs to be done. A task which summons our attention and our best efforts. We live in a world where the unfettered call of materialism spreads misery and threatens to rip the soul out of human beings, turning us into productive units, overpaid hamsters spinning our way round and round and not really getting anywhere. We live in a world where religious idolatry – fundamentalism – has succeeded in destroying the World Trade Centres and threatens so much more horror.
We are still the inheritors of Avraham avinu who broke the false idols of faux religious piety and struck out on a journey towards a life with decency, integrity and kindness.

That’s where we come in. We exist to be a proud, brave, iconoclastic place of community. A place for people to come together in Jewish community to pray, to play, to honour and to celebrate; infused by everything we learn from our glorious tradition.

In the last ten years, we’ve done a lot of that. We’ve had events and programmes that have inspired and I’ve had the privilege of honouring and celebrating and commemorating with so many of you. I did the maths for the number of weddings; 167! But I suspect even above the delight I’ve taken in the weddings it’s been the funerals, or more accurately, the opportunity to be with families at times of pain, that has been the greatest privilege of my pastoral work here.

But perhaps above all the thing I value most is this - Shabbat after Shabbat, in this glorious space, with prayers led so gloriously, by Stephen and then Jason. And the honour and the responsibility of sharing, from this Bimah a Torah worthy of you, and indeed worthy of this unique and extraordinarily Synagogue. And that takes me back to Louis.

At my induction almost ten years ago I ended my address with the words of our founding Rabbi at his induction, at the New West End, back in 1954, because even over 60 years later I don’t think anyone has ever put it better. I don’t expect anyone ever will.

Said Rabbi Jacobs then, and say I now;
"I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here [either].
'O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit your inheritance; Strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear.' [From the Reshut of the Sh'li'ach Tzibur - Rosh HaShanah]
May You bless all the members of this holy congregation, prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may You always be with us as we continue to labour to do your will in sincerity and in truth. 

It’s been a privilege to share these last ten years with you. And I look forward to much else to celebrate together in the decades to come,

Shabbat shalom

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