Where does your community live and thrive?

Where does your community live and thrive?

As most of Europe notes – either celebratorily or ruefully – the 500th anniversary of the birth of Christian Protestantism with Martin Luther’s proclamation of his challenges to Catholic doctrine and practice, it might be interesting to consider how this seismic event in European history has impacted on the Jews. Without doubt, we are still feeling the effect. Of course, I couldn’t possibly cover the whole subject, but in this article, I intend to focus on one aspect of how these changes have affected modern Jewish communities in Europe.

Almost certainly most of us reading this blog will agree that overall the effect has been positive for us. By asserting (though not in so many words) that a person’s religion was a matter of personal conscience, Luther broke the link between established authority and religious conviction. Though it took several centuries to work through, eventually the fact that Jews adhered to our own religious convictions could not be taken to be offensive and was eventually bound to be accommodated.

But of course, it didn’t stop there. Probably it was Protestantism that led to the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment that led to the rise of Reform Judaism and a whole host of other Jewish responses, including Zionism, Socialism, Cultural Jewishness – and Orthodoxy in its various forms. None of the Moseses in our history – for example, Moshe Rabbenu, Moses Maimonides or Moses Mendelsohn – would recognise any of the ways we do Jewish life now. Haredi Orthodoxy is as much a response to the enlightenment as is Liberal Judaism, Zionism would not have occurred to any of them and Hasidism, Lubavitch and the rest, would have boggled their imagination.

But as a result of these changes, we Jews achieved political and social equality, vast and well utilised opportunities, and, as outlined above, we also entered a fevered period of Jewish invention, upheaval and creativity. In general, the Sephardi world, without Protestantism and the Enlightenment, was not impacted in the same way and so its approach to Jewish life is more similar nowadays to that which our forebears would recognise. For example, in the Sephardi world you don’t have to face an investigation into one’s ideological associations and theological conclusions before being allowed to decide which ‘kind‘ of Jew you are. You’re just Jewish.

Recently, I’ve been watching and contemplating the impact of Protestantism on the world of Christianity. I’ve noticed that any assumption on the part of the Catholic Church 500 years ago, that such new-fangled ideas were bound to die out without the structure and authority that the Church in Rome offered, seems by now to be absurd. Protestant churches are thriving and, for example, though not in the majority in the United States, appear to be making the running in a whole host of ways, not least in some political contexts.

I think, therefore, that we’ve also got to assume that all the new varieties of ways in which Jews do their Jewishness have more tenacity than some of the Orthodox would wish to assert – or hope!

But just because something has lasting power doesn’t automatically make it good. I’d like to consider whether for example the dethronmentof the synagogue as the locus for public Jewish life is an unalloyed benefit or a damaging own goal.

Please note that I’m not making an argument in favour of some kind of religiosity. I’m simply considering the value or otherwise of the synagogue as a model for a focus of Jewish life as against the other two modern competitors – the Community Centre and the School.

Before the Enlightenment, synagogues were predominantly male places, but potentially meritocratic in their structure. Certainly rich people got superior treatment – no change there then! – but through the simple medium of scholarship, others could rise too. In general all (men and boys!) felt needed, indeed, they literally ‘counted’, and played their part. The mood was participatory, demanded regular involvement and attendance and provided a social as well as a culturo-religious locus for community life.

The modern community centre struggles determinedly to reproduce such levels of participation. In general, JCCs fail to avoid the trap of being service providers to consumers who might be persuaded to ‘join’ but cannot be persuaded to feel responsible for the well-being of the institution. The members’ relationship is casual, even if regular, and indeed the value of the JCC to individual Jews is frequently simply put into the pot with other competing calls on the modern Jew’s time and resources. Indeed, in the very term ‘JCC’ we can see the seeds of a problem – does it stand for Jewish Community Centre or Jewish Cultural Centre? Does one belong or simply consume/enjoy its offerings? How far does engagement with the JCC actually create a sense of community at the kind of level that involvement in a synagogue does for its members?

Clearly the answer to that question is going to vary from town to town and country to country but I’d argue that it deserves considering.

And then let’s turn to the third candidate for the locus of Jews’ affiliation – the Jewish school. For many Jewish parents, their children’s school becomes the place where friends are made and associations fostered. After all, these are people at the same stage of life with similar concerns. Surely this is an ideal situation in which to cultivate one’s involvement with other Jews?

Bu t schools are of necessity time limited. One’s children grow up. We might retain the relationships and friendships we made there forever but this does not create the cross generational essence of a community. Rathermore, it creates a club or an association. Few people’s involvement with the school outlives their children’s time there – and we should commend here the few for whom that is not the case – but actually, although schools have proved hugely powerful in terms of engaging adults in Jewish life on a temporary basis, they have mostly not solved the problem – perhaps it’s not their problem anyway – as to how to keep people engaged in Jewish life when their children leave.

As for synagogues, of course, they are also not doing well. They also bought the (Protestant) story that religious life was one’s private business, from which it is only a short hop to asserting that it’s only a small part of who you are. So, for example, most modern Jews are Jewish on Friday night but not on Friday morning. If the synagogue is the place where you only say prayers – with more or less conviction or understanding – (or worse but frequently the case, go to witness prayers being said or performed) then it will obviously only occupy a very small slice of time and an even smaller slice of attention.

But we should remember that the Hebrew terms for a synagogue are Bet Knesset – a place of meeting (community centre?) and Bet Midrash – a place of learning (school). Remodelled and reconceived, reaching into the roots of the concept –one that the Jews gave the world and from which the church, the mosque and the gurdwara grew– the synagogue can be one of the most flexible, involving, all-embracing and sustaining inventions of the Jewish people.

Go and have another look at yours. Shake it up. Review how you got the rabbi you’ve got and ask if he or she is fit for the needs of your community – that is, all the Jews in your place. Re-envision it as the place for all your community’s needs, not just for a small group of elderly prayer-sayers. Open its doors and its windows. Make it a place both of conviction and contention. Break down the barriers to entry. Give easy access to synagogue spaces to young people’s groups. Try and offer meeting facilities to every Jewish group and society at the synagogue. Give it back to the whole Jewish people which is where they after all once all belonged – and then see what happens!

I’ll give it another 500 years before coming to a definite conclusion, but I’m not convinced that either of the two modern inventions – the school or the community centre – can outdo the synagogue for value.

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Clive Lawton

About Clive Lawton

One of the founders and current Senior Consultant to Limmud. Scholar-in-residence at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, International consultant in educational development Consultant to the EU on diversity and community integration issues

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