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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
“No human institution has a longer continuous history, and none has done more for the uplifting of the human race [than the Synagogue].” Robert Travers Herford
At this time last year, I considered with you, the notion of ‘spiritual thinking’ and I invited each one of you to take just one opportunity during the year 5769 just gone, to engage with myself and Rabbi Hillel in ‘spiritual thinking.’ How have we done? Well, looking around the Colosseum today, I know that so many of you have taken the time to engage in ‘spiritual thinking’ with us through the many avenues at the Shul and if not with us, then I am sure that you have done so in your secular lives. For I strongly believe that engaging in ‘spiritual thinking’ leads to ‘spiritual practice.’ Not comfortable with the word, spiritual? Then define this process as one of engagement, making considered decisions as to how we engage with others for common good. We will have achieved this through our secular lives, at school, in universities, in our jobs and in our voluntary work. Many have expressed it within our own Community and this year I can now quantify that engagement.
On average, over a tenth of our Community worshipped in our Sanctuary every Shabbat. Our adult education programmes attracted over 10% of our members and 10% of parents sought educational opportunities. Our Cheder grew by 25%, our activities for young people and their families continue to thrive and the attendances for social and cultural events were off the scale. Last year, I asked that we begin to think of caring not only for our Community members but also for those outside. Over a quarter of us engaged in social action work through the Community and I know many more were involved in their own individual ways.
All this in a year of unprecedented change for NPLS. We welcomed new faces to Council, including a Chairman, the election of a new President, a Vice-President and a new Rabbinic Team. With so many changes, a phenomenal effort was required to restructure the Community operations. The new Finance and Governance Committees have insured the stability of the Community so that we can now look forward, naturally with caution through uncertain economic times, but also with some confidence. Many people have contributed tirelessly to maintain the excellent programmes within NPLS and to secure the future. For all your spiritual thinking and practice, Rabbi Hillel and I would like to express our immeasurable thanks.
In effect, last year I was asking each one of us to consider our own place within the Community. Hillel was the new boy along with many other more recent members. My situation was rather complicated being the new-old boy! There were many, many others of long-standing membership, some dating back to the Community’s inception. I make an assumption, hopefully a positive one, that by our presence here again a year later, our role within the Community has been solidified, more clearly defined or perhaps even redefined. Therefore, I would like to progress our thinking to that of the collective. What is our place as the Community of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue within Anglo-Jewry?
As Robert Travers Herford stated in the middle of the last century, “No human institution has a longer continuous history, and none has done more for the uplifting of the human race [than the Synagogue].” And yet the Jewish Chronicle has weekly reports of assimilation, declining affiliation, and the closing down of synagogues. Are we living in an age that might see the synagogue’s demise?
In my Rosh Hashanah message in the Jewish News, I suggested that synagogues need to transform themselves in order to remain relevant. This thinking is supported by years of research and responses to the issue of ‘Synagogue Transformation’ in the United States and was founded on the kind of data analysis available to us in the UK from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). Based on the 2001 Census data, and discounting the ultra-Orthodox who are not relevant to us in Northwood and our environs, it revealed that British Jews are an ageing group, older than the national population. Jews are more highly educated and professionalised than the national population. The statistics on family and household structure clearly show that the traditional concept of a Jewish family or household is becoming increasingly less applicable and that ethnicity is fast becoming as important a self-defining feature as religion amongst the myriad of Jewish groupings that defy homogenisation.
I await the outcomes of the 2011 Census that will give us another snapshot of the state of Anglo-Jewry with great interest. But the trends are clearly seen in the successful activities within Anglo-Jewry. There is a thirst for the exploration of Jewish identity through cultural and learning exchanges. In education, the establishment of JCOSS, the new Jewish Community Secondary School and thriving education programmes of organisations such as the London School of Jewish Studies illustrate a renewed longing for knowledge in a Jewish environment. The Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in London has enriched the cultural life of many and bolstered existing Jewish cultural organisation and events. Mitzvah Day and the Jewish Social Action Hub have supported a plethora of small organisations and individuals, to place tikkun olam at the heart of their Jewish identity. Limmud, jeneration, Moishe House, tent: the meeting place, and Wandering Jews are examples of year-round, post-denominational experiences for Jews to explore their Jewish identity in a new social and spiritual environment.
For many synagogues, the success of these organisations is perceived as a threat to their very existence. When Jews are increasingly defining themselves as Jewish by ethnicity or cultural background, where does this leave the Jewish religious institution? Even some synagogues that are successful face long-term decline if they are serving ageing Jewish populations.
We, the Community of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, are blessed this Rosh Hashanah by being a synagogue that bucks the trend. We do so because behind you are so many young people that they and their parents have reduced our average age. We do so because we do have the religious as the core of our being, a heart and soul devoted to God and the expression of our relationship with the Divine that keeps us firmly anchored to the chain of tradition of our People. And yet we are not only a synagogue, a religious institution, but a Community that cares non-judgementally for its elderly, the ill, the bereaved, and those in need. Our interest is counting people in to our Jewish Community rather than finding ancient reasons to keep people out. We are a Community that knows how to have fun and to play just as much as we know how to pray. We are interested in exploring our cultural as well as our religious heritage and we have a desire to learn more, in the process countering the fallacy that Liberal Judaism contributes to a watering down of Judaism.
Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue is an increasingly important Jewish Community Centre in North West London. Survival is not our issue, thank God. We are here to take our place in the chain of tradition that Herford described as the’ ‘human institution with the longest continuous history.’ So what is our future?
Obadiah Sforno, the sixteenth century Italian Biblical Commentator, expounded upon the words from Torah that we open every morning service with, ‘Ma Tovu – How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.’ He wrote:
“’Dwelling-places’ refers to synagogue and sanctuaries, so designated in the hope that God may dwell in them, and accept the prayers of those who worship there. And they are called ‘good’ because they benefit not only those who make use of them, but the entire people.”
My vision is for NPLS to be the Jewish Community Centre for outer North West London that is ‘good’ for the entire people. We have seen this year many from other local synagogues attending our cultural, educational, and social events. We must insure that we continue to develop what we offer but this trend will surely be maintained.
It may also be that, as some Progressive synagogues age and grow towards the end of their life, they seek to transfer their members to us. This may feasibly be the outcome for our parent Synagogue, the Synagogue from whom we emerged, Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogue. This Rosh Hashanah morning, my friend and colleague and former Assistant Rabbi of NPLS, Frank Dabba-Smith, is preaching about the life of their Synagogue and the options that the Synagogue and its members face when they have to sell their property. One of those options is to discuss, a potential reunification of the family unit, a combined future with NPLS.
It was our Emeritus Rabbi, who wrote the following description of the Synagogue at its best, identifying the qualities that have made it the ‘human institution with the longest continuous history:’
The Synagogue is called beyt k’nesset, a house of meeting: May we meet here in friendship, to share our joys and sorrows, and to renew our common memories and hopes.
The Synagogue is called beyt midrash, a house of study: May we learn here to know our heritage, to understand its values, and to consider how they apply to our daily lives.
The Synagogue is called beyt tefillah, a house of prayer. May all who come to worship here find inner peace, and know that they have been in God’s presence.
I think that our Emeritus Rabbi was describing us! Let us pray, that God guides us with wisdom so that this eternally relevant definition of the synagogue can be applied to us for decades to come and so that even when we are gone, we are remembered for maintaining the human institution with the longest continuous history, not for its own sake, but or the uplifting of the entire people. Amen.
© Copyright 2009 NPLS