Yom Kippur Sermon: A Tale of Two Futures

Yom Kippur Sermon
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

A Tale of Two Futures

Leeds city centre, photo: Dave Middleton
“3rd of October 2064,

Time for another journal entry. I’ve been in Leeds for a few weeks now as part of my fieldwork tour across the United Kingdom, surveying what’s left of the Jewish community. For an American like myself, it’s been a grim journey. Everywhere I came, I saw the tell-tale signs of decline; even the London Jewish community is struggling. The situation outside of London is dismal. Leeds is an impressive metropolis of 2 million strong, fully immersed in the robotics and nanotech industry, with a vibrant glass and steel skyline cutting across the green Yorkshire hills. Yet, this growth has not been shared by the tiny Jewish community here, just a few hundred strong. And the situation here is so similar across the UK.
Synagogues are boarded up; once-proud buildings are sold and Torah scrolls and religious artefacts donated to museums. Rabbis lost their jobs because communities can no longer sustain them. Assimilation is so rife that most people of Jewish descent only have a tenuous connection to their heritage. Hebrew literacy rates have dropped to an ultimate low. We can only reminisce on what Judaism once was. ‘Do you remember High Holy Day services when shuls used to be brimming with worshippers?’ ‘Do you remember the wide range of cultural events and social causes our community would support?’. Octogenarians tell me about the once-vibrant life here. About the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Cultural Centre, now empty and derelict. Getting a kosher bite to eat at The Vine restaurant, picking up groceries from the Kosherie. The palpable energy and good will that once flourished at Sinai Synagogue. Of course, Brodetsky closed a long time ago; young Jews have become a rare occurrence.
And this is not just a Leeds phenomenon. Leo Baeck College, the training centre for Progressive Rabbis folded decades before; the scant number of young people willing to train for the rabbinate are sent to the United States, where we train them, with little hope of them coming back to serve their fading communities. The Alliance for Progressive Judaism is struggling to hold on to its few remaining London and Manchester congregations. Only the Ultra-Orthodox are thriving; large families living in strictly-guarded gated communities, fearful of a hostile world, growing increasingly stringent and insular.
There’s the cumulative effect of a diminishing Judaism on a non-Jewish society. Antisemitism is rife; most people only know Jews from history books or troubled accounts of Israel. We are a strange breed to them; a cultural irrelevancy. Little is known of the great Jewish contributions to human civilisation. In schools’ religious education all over the country, in the media, in people’s perceptions, Jews are becoming a footnote of history.”

*                *                *                *                *

“3rd of October 2064,

 Time for another journal entry. I’ve been in Leeds for a few weeks now as part of my fieldwork tour across the United Kingdom, surveying what we can learn from the Jewish community here. For an American like myself, it’s been an eye-opening and inspiring journey. Everywhere I came, I saw the tell-tale signs of a prospering community. Leeds is an impressive metropolis of 2 million strong, fully immersed in the robotics and nanotech industry, with a vibrant glass and steel skyline cutting across the green Yorkshire hills. The Jewish community has managed to develop itself on the back of this growth.
The Leeds community here is a provincial powerhouse, 43,000 strong—and growing. There’s been an influx of Jews from the South over the last few decades, looking for clean air, quality of life and economic opportunities. There are six Orthodox shuls here now, a Masorti synagogue, the Park Minyan (for davening al fresco in Roundhay Park!) as well as a 2,300 member-strong Sinai Synagogue (with three rabbis and a cantor in their employ), the latter congregation affiliated with the Alliance for Progressive Judaism. (The Alliance has been wildly successful these last 50 years. They’ve seeded communities all over the UK and have almost tripled their number of congregations). The Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Cultural Centre is a real hub of cultural activity. There are two elementary schools here; Brodetsky in Alwoodley and Sinai Primary in Roundhay, as well as two high schools, one Orthodox, and one interdenominational. Three kosher restaurants have sprung up over the last few years (although that diary pizza place is not so impressive, but maybe that’s because I’m a New Yorker).
There’s a real sense that there’s a good thing going here, that life can be lived to the fullest here and that being Jewish is both incredibly meaningful as well as fun.
And this is just a snapshot of what’s going on nation-wide. Leo Baeck College now has a cutting-edge Cantorial Programme as well as an academically-solid PhD programme. They are ordaining 10 to 15 rabbis a year (it used to be under 5’s for years). The London Jewish population has grown immensely, through Jews moving to the UK from elsewhere (they’ve made themselves an attractive place to live), natural growth (providing a supportive infrastructure for young families was key) and conversion. There’s now a Jewish University on the site of the JW3 cultural centre, not to mention a blossoming philanthropic and cultural life. Jewish NGO’s are making their mark on the world; serving the Global South on poverty reduction, disease prevention, agricultural technology, refugee rights and conflict resolution. Israel is doing its part: now that there’s been a solid peace for 20 years, there’s an Israeli-Palestinian alliance training new leaders in conflict resolution.
There were dark years, to be sure, especially in the first two decades of the 21st century, when Israel was in turmoil and demographics were looking grim. But there’s been a concerted effort to rethink what Judaism could be and should be. We are growing as a community, and offering a way of life that is inspiring to many. Antisemitism has hit an ultimate low. Synagogues are an integrated aspect of urban life, supporting local projects, funding local charities. More and more non-Jewish university students are studying Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish Studies. British Jewry is impacting the world around them. Even though we are confident and strong in the USA, I think there’s much to be learnt from this.”

*                *                *                *                *

Yom Kippur relies heavily on the image of being inscribed in the book of death and the book of life. In which one of these two scenarios will we write our communal fate?

This is not about dystopian horror scenarios or messianic pipe-dreams. This is not just a theoretical exercise. These are real questions of Jewish continuity, revival and renewal that we should be asking ourselves: as a community as well as individuals.

Last year, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published their demographic study for the Jewish community in the UK, on the back of a similar American study that came around the same time. The Jewish community is shrinking and assimilating. Will there still be a significant Jewish community in the future? Truth to be told, some of the statistics are damning.

There are currently (2011 census data) 269,568 Jews in the UK. For a bit of context: in the immediate post-war years, this was closer to 450,000. The number of Jews in the UK has remained stable since 2001 but this actually means a subtle decline, since the general UK population is growing (now, 66 million, estimated at 70 million in 2028 – and Jews are a mere 0.5% of the current population!)
The Survey also warns us of a process of ‘thickening and thinning’: Jewish Greater London is generally growing while Jewish life in the provinces is shrinking.

Now, let us take a look at our home here in Leeds, and many of you will have experienced these statistics first hand in a way I have not. We were once a thriving community. In 1950, we were 25,000 strong. This figure really started dropping in the 1980’s – down to 12,000. In 2005, there were 8267 of us. And in 2011, there are only 6847 of us.

The Board of Deputies has published demographic data that raises further concerns: our marriage rate is the lowest since 1901 and continues to fall, as does our birth rate. There’s a general sense of Jewish decline in what we would call ‘the centre’: from mainstream United Synagogue Orthodoxy to Masorti, Reform and Liberal. The only Jewish sector that is growing is the Chareidi sector, the Ultra-Orthodox. Did their weddings 30 years ago only account for 10% of Jewish weddings, now it’s 25%. Just to break that down: one in four Jews getting married in the UK is Ultra-Orthodox.

While this is good news for the Ultra-Orthodox community itself (and I genuinely wish them mazal tov), it’s not such good news for us Progressive (and even mainline Orthodox) Jews. We have seen the emergence of a more self-confident but also increasingly insular Ultra-Orthodoxy in the last few decades. Of course, this is part of a more universal trend of rising religious fundamentalism in the world.
There’s been an infamous El Al incident this last week, where Chareidi men on the flight refused to sit next to female passengers, causing an uproar and a delay. We have also seen increasingly troubling signs from Ultra-Orthodoxy in our own country, including an incident in Stamford Hill, London, where women were told to walk on the other side of the pavement in the public domain, segregating the genders. The Ultra-Orthodox are free to live the lives they want to live. The question for the rest of us, however, is whether we want them to define our Judaism for us. And to that, we as a Progressive community must say a resounding ‘no’.

This wouldn’t be a Kol Nidrey sermon if it were only bad news. We await our metaphorical ‘sealing’ till the end of Neilah. Our fate has not been sealed. We are entering 25 hours of prayer, reflection, turning inward, introspection, teshuvah… of hope, deep thinking, creativity, community and solidarity. These are the key words for tipping the balance towards change. If anything, this message of change and transformation cuts to the heart of the High Holy Days. All we have to do is believe it. And when we’ve decided that we believe it and that we feel passionate about it, then we have to work towards strategies of change.

Our community has not been sitting idle. For a few years now, we have the wonderful Susie Gordon, the Leeds Jewish Community Development Worker. She’s an energetic, creative, out-of-the-box thinker who is committed to revitalising our community. And there’s plenty of good stuff happening in our wider community (a new bakery, a new high school, the Zone) as well at Sinai Synagogue. Here at Sinai, we’ve unrolled new and exciting initiatives and programmes as well as supporting and maintaining everything we’ve done well for the past 70 years. We’ve had an eventful Jubilee Year celebrating with one final Simcha on the 13th of December, plus a celebratory brochure (get your pieces in to Val Mogendorff, ladies and gents!) and we have a fantastic Shmitah Year (Sabbatical Year) programme waiting to be unrolled in a few weeks’ time for this coming year. We have an energetic Keruv/Outreach Group and a spurt in new membership these last few weeks. (And I extend a hearty welcome to all of you who have joined Sinai over the last year - please make this place your home!)

One of the pillars of transformation is our ability to build relationships. We have to go back to the core for our reason of being. Ask yourselves: why am I Jewish—Is it through an accident of birth? Am I a Jew by chance—or am I a Jew by choice? In Judaism, our primal understanding of the universe is one of relationship: the covenant we have with God. And the covenant we have with each other. As Ron Wolfson writes in a book I recommend heartily, ‘Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community’:

“It’s all about relationships. Call it what you will—a religion, a civilisation, a way of life—Judaism is built on relationships. Born of a relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah… we Jews are a relational people… in the end, the purpose of Judaism—the purpose of relationships—is to love the other and the Other, the thou and the Thou. When you do, you find meaning—an understanding of the significance of life; you find purpose—an imperative to do what you are put on earth to do during your life; you find belonging—a community of people who will be there for you and with you; and you find blessing—a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude, a calendar and life cycle of opportunities to celebrate the gifts of life. It is all about relationships… and creating and deepening them is the challenge to our Jewish communal institutions. It is time to set about the task. This is the moment to broaden our vision to embrace a Relational Judaism for the twenty-first century.”
(And yes, the author invites you to contact him: @RonWolfson on Twitter and at rwolfson@ajula.edu. It’s true too – I’ve Facebooked him and he responded!)

I think we can be both scared and excited about what a ‘twenty-first century’ Judaism could look like. But as Nelson Mandela said in his 1994 inauguration speech, (citing Marianne Williamson, a lesser known peace activist):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Challenge yourselves in this New Year.
Do love your Judaism, do take ownership of it, do give to the community (and the High Holy Day appeal!), do get involved, do volunteer.
Don’t think small. Don’t believe in your own inadequacy.

Give yourself permission to shine and to let your Judaism shine, in the many small ways that can make a big difference. We are commanded to let our Judaism shine, to be an or lagoyim, a ‘light among the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6).
Despair is easy, but hope is our only option. I’ve decided to be excited about what awaits us in 2064. I will be a very, very old (and retired) rabbi then, but I look forward to see a Judaism that is relational, renewed, relevant and passionate about its role in the world. We can change Judaism. So let’s do it.

G’mar chatimah tovah.


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