By Rabbi Zvi
February 26, 2010
In view of recent coverage from Mill Hill here is the other point of view.
A Rabbi should be a leader in the community but this should not extend to excluding a proportion of his congregation from his personal classification of who is a Jew, however "theoretical" or "devil's advocate" this could be. I am shocked to see a Rabbi, of all people, publicly flouting the call in the Talmud not even to remind a convert that s/he was once not a Jew.
This is part of a tendancy to see the difficult things we do in the Rabbinate as not worthwhile. Outreach, making it possible for people to keep kosher without going bankrupt (particularly at Pesach time) and finding ways in and back for those who have (for whatever reason) drifted away.
So here's the shocker: This Rabbi is in FAVOUR of conversion. In fact he would love to be able to convert people to Judaism here in his own community - because there are people who live here in Darkest Berkshire and are frum. This is no different from any United Synagogue.
Yet the argument goes that people cannot convert in a community where they are unable to be observant, and so conversion has been limited to London and Manchester. Not so long ago there was conversion in Leeds and Liverpool, as well as Glasgow, but the Rabbis in those cities seem to be of the same opinion: nobody of any religious standing would wish to live there. A Rabbi living in the Provinces either home-educates or busses his children to the nearest Jewish (read Chareidi) school, and usually leaves as soon as he finds a post in the more intense environment of the major centres.
So there is no hope in the periphery. Nobody in their right Jewish minds can live here, it's doomed.
My experience is that those who live in small provincial communities are passionate about their Judaism. In London and Manchester it's all done for you - you don't have to have a breadmaker to make kosher bread or rely on Kingsmill, because you walk past the bakery down the road. But this is not an intense Jewish environment. It is a lazy environment. When everything is easy, you take it for granted. The late John Diamond once wrote that he gained an identity because he walked past the bagel shop. Some identity!! If that is what defines Judaism, then what about commitment, effort and struggling to ensure you have Jewish education, Jewish friends, a Jewish social life and a Jewish home? Just because it is easy in London and Manchester doesn't mean it makes you a better or more committed Jew. I would argue the reverse. Where there is a shul and a commnunity, as long as a person is able to practice Judaism sincerely and with passion, keeping the mitzvot, they should be able to convert. In the provinces Jews fight hard for their faith, and maintain it in the nakedness of our very small numbers. In London there is no fight - it is laid on and made simple. If you can afford the cost, the kosher food prices, the rental and the burial fees, anyone who earns enough can lead the lifestyle.
Judaism is not a lifestyle, it is a passion. Many of our Powers forget how Jewish families evacuated during the War to places like Letchworth Garden City were able to maintain their observance of Mitzvos despite it being very difficult. Nowadays we have door-to-door delivery, we have easier transport, and in my community we have several Shomer Shabbat families who live an hour from the great Jewish centres of Barnet and Hertfordshire.
The stark truth is that those who tell us we are not allowed to convert people to Judaism in the Provinces are saying that we ourselves are not good Jews. We in the Provinces are excluded from Klal Yisroel (the People of Israel in general) by those who look down their noses at those who prefer not to live on the beaten track. The policy of slowly abandoning the ground in the Provincial areas means that Jews in Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and the West of England are deserted by all but the Office for Small Communities, and those who are prepared to reach out to them - and even then the services offered them are limited, more often than not handed over to the Progressive Jewish spectrum, who are delighted with the situation. It may be good to retrench and intensify, but by killing the presence of the community in places like Bristol and Bath, Plymouth and Exeter, Swansea and Hereford, you leave the hundreds of Jews out there high and dry and deny Jewish spirituality to those yearning for it whether Jew or not yet Jew.
Can we really afford to make any community second-best?