Why I am a Reformed man

By Ben Rich, April 1, 2011

On leaving university, I dabbled in politics, until a headhunter suggested public relations as "more of a real job". So I spent the next 13 years helping an eclectic selection of clients such as McDonald's tell their customers what they were about. My father has never really understood this. "It's communications, Dad. Helping organisations explain what they do."

"But surely they know that?", he replies.

An interesting question. Do any of us think seriously about what we do? Isn't much of it mere force of habit? This is something upon which I find myself reflecting as I prepare to take up my role as Chief Executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism.

Early on, I came to realise that PR cannot change the truth. It can only tell it in the best possible light. Bad news is still bad news. And, while I enjoyed those PR years, I found it hard to get excited about Chicken McNuggets. So when we sold the business, I took the opportunity to re-engage with my Judaism.

Brought up in one of the grand old families of Progressive Judaism (my great grandfather founded the South London synagogue that gave Julia Neuberger her first pulpit), I was nevertheless a community outsider. I was born far away from the "ghetto", my Yiddish is non-existent and I didn't even have a bagel until I was 17.

PR cannot change the truth. It can only tell it in the best possible light

So I had to work hard to win the trust of the Jewish community: business came from a handful of cross-community groups, a couple of charitable foundations, left-of-centre, non-establishment organisations. Then the Movement for Reform Judaism hired me to launch their new prayer book.

I came to realise that Reform Judaism shared much in common with the Liberal Judaism of my youth. It promoted gender equality -which I regard as non-negotiable. Discrimination on gender lines is man-made, not God-ordained. Similarly, Reform sought - and seeks - to engage with the wider community. Isolationism is understandable in the shadow of blood libels and pogroms but self-defeating in modern Britain. How are we to be "a light unto the nations" if we will not share our neighbours' table, visit their places of worship and engage in social action with them?

However, I also came to see that there were some marked differences from the Judaism of my youth. When growing up, I placed little value on many traditional practices and rituals that I now believe bind us together as Jews.

So, while I used not to think it important to wear a kippah for services, I now find it to be a part of our common heritage as Jews, in which I take pride. I had perhaps not understood the strength that comes from standing together as one community - a strength recognised by Reform Judaism.

Ancient values and rituals often do conflict with modern life but Judaism deals with this by evolving. It learns from science and from the positive values of modern society. The oral tradition was the perfect tool to allow Judaism to evolve while retaining core values and beliefs.

Even so, some strands of Judaism remained stuck in medieval interpretations of Torah. They ceased to question and, once the injunctions of men were written down, began to treat them as the words of God. This has led some Jews to feel they have to choose between opting out of the modern world and opting out of Judaism. Reform Judaism squares this circle. While it values traditional rituals and practices on the grounds that they hold the Jewish people together, it does not elevate them into being the religion's core meaning. Reform Judaism contains the realisation that all Judaism is progressive. If it did not evolve - progress - at all, it would be an anachronism and lose all relevance to the age in which we live.

The majority of British Jews have come to recognise this for themselves in the ways in which they choose to practise their Judaism. The challenge for Reform Judaism is to enable them to feel proud of those positive choices rather than fret about the loss of old habits.

If Judaism is to survive and inspire future generations, it must be more than force of habit. It must be a living religion: strongly rooted in its ancestral traditions but engaged with the modern world.

Ben Rich starts work as the Chief Executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism on May 1

Last updated: 10:33am, April 1 2011