Interview: Baroness Neuberger

Why I am pleased to be back in the pulpit

By Simon Rocker, February 3, 2011
“My last proper job”: Baroness Neuberger

“My last proper job”: Baroness Neuberger

Some may have been surprised at Baroness Neuberger's return to the pulpit after 22 years.

But the new senior rabbi of West London Synagogue - whose selection was ratified after a ballot of its 1,600 members this week - revealed that the move has been in her mind for "a long time".

When she starts "probably my last proper job," she will have just turned 61. "It feels about time," she said. "The thing I've probably most missed in all the years I haven't been a congregational rabbi is the straightforward pastoral [side], being very close to people at quite troubled times. There's no other way you can do that. I've missed it and I am coming back to it."

Her voice bubbles with enthusiasm at the prospect of rejoining a congregation which "feels like home".

She grew up at West London, where her father was a warden, and she was married by the best-known of her predecessors, Rabbi Hugo Gryn. Rabbi Gryn's widow, Jackie, welcomes the appointment: "How proud Hugo would have been to see one of his own pupils taking on the role he held for so many years," she said.

Rabbi Neuberger will initially join the Reform movement's oldest community part-time in March, heading a rabbinic team of four including two other female rabbis. By September, she intends to go full-time, having wound down other commitments which include chairing a select committee in the Lords and finishing a book on "what matters in life", titled Is That All There Is?

In autumn, she will resign the Liberal Democrat whip and join Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on the crossbenches, since she expects to continue her parliamentary involvement. There would be issues "which it will be really important to have a religious voice on", for example, asylum and assisted suicide.

"I think there is a lot to be said about volunteering, the idea of mitzvah, about charity and whether people do have a responsibility to look after each other. I think you can say that from a Jewish perspective and that's what I intend to do.

I think there is a lot to be said about volunteering, the idea of mitzvah

"Sometimes I can imagine I'll be saying the same thing as Jonathan Sacks and sometimes we won't be on the same page - but we will be on the same benches."

Her last full-time pulpit was at South London Liberal Synagogue, which she decided to vacate after 12 years when "I could hear myself giving the same sermon". Her numerous public roles subsequently included running the medical think-tank, the King's Fund. But she did not totally give up rabbinical work, helping out various small communities over the years.

She is president of London's West Central Liberal Synagogue - "I love that congregation, it's completely dotty, it still has its Shabbat morning service at three o'clock in the afternoon". She has taken services in Cork, where she has a holiday home with husband Anthony, a professor of finance at Warwick University.

Despite her long associations with the Liberal movement - she is its president until December- Rabbi Neuberger does not see the switch to Reform as a big leap. "My own view is they're not very different. I think we should move more and more closely together because it's much more about where individual congregations sit than actually about the two movements.

"I don't think West London is under any illusions that I am a liberal voice. We should be really open to any Jew who wants to be part of us and we should be more open to people who aren't Jewish who want to join us. I think that's an important message and I shall be saying that loud and clear."

One of her ambitions is to ensure the synagogue premises are humming "all the time", and not just for Jewish groups or interfaith activities. "I can imagine there might be things for which we might wish to make the building available in the area as part of a contribution to Westminster and to London."

It might host meetings of Alcholics Anonymous or an asylum-seekers' drop-in centre - "I think Jewish communities should be doing more to support asylum-seekers. We have a family charity in memory of both my parents for young refugees and asylum-seekers. I feel very strongly about that."

But it would be up to the congregation to decide on use of the building. She would like to expand learning opportunities for late teens, young adults and parents of cheder children, in particular. And also to beef up the synagogue's presence as a centre of intellectual life.

"This is a great platform for other people to come and speak to a lot of Jews bang in the middle of central London," she said, adding that audiences needed to be nourished in other ways, too. "You do some study and you actually feed them."

But one speaker who is probably not ready to accept an invitation just yet is Chief Rabbi Sacks, whose synagogue, Western Marble Arch, is a few yards down the road. "When I was a kid, United Synagogue ministers did come and talk to the children here," she recalled. "But that's a very long time ago and I don't think he would at the moment - but that's not to say it's impossible."

Last updated: 2:39pm, February 3 2011