Plen sees double as Masorti looks to buck trend
members of Masorti’s Marom young adults group on a trip to Budapest
Matt Plen fully intends to return permanently to Israel with his family one day, having lived there for 10 years from 1998. But for the foreseeable future, his focus is firmly on the development of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues.
The 39-year-old north Londoner will shortly succeed Michael Gluckman as AMS chief executive, spearheading a strategic plan with the goals of doubling adult membership from its current 4,000 total in 10 years and making Masorti "a well defined, universally known concept across the Jewish community".
Membership has risen 50 per cent since 2002 and Mr Plen believes its message of "traditional Judaism for modern Jews" is striking a chord with the younger generation at a time when other synagogue movements are in numerical decline.
As well as the major New North London and New London congregations, there are significant Masorti communities in Edgware and St Albans and developing groups in areas including Elstree, Stoke Newington, Bournemouth and Glasgow. There have also been approaches to establish a Masorti presence in Muswell Hill, Brighton and Manchester - the development plan envisions five new communities being established by 2021. Masorti families include around 3,000 children and the movement boasts strong youth and young adult wings, Noam and Marom.
Mr Plen's own background is typical of many who have affiliated to the movement. Although his family were United Synagogue members, "I never felt I belonged there". He recalled being "dreadfully embarrassed when my barmitzvah teacher came to the house one December in case he saw our Christmas tree".
Things changed after he joined New North London in the early 1990s. He found the Finchley congregation "very welcoming - it was clear that you could come in on your own terms".
He ran the youth club at New North London and through Noam was "lucky to work with Joel [now rabbi] Levy, who challenged my assumptions and got me into the educational side". He liked the notion that Masorti allowed someone "to be who they are and ask anything they want, without any limits".
His educational work continued in Israel and taking up the post of AMS director in 2008, his goal was "to kick-start projects and push the movement forward in a more strategic and energetic fashion. We relaunched Marom and have been developing leadership within the group."
There are now volunteer representatives on 10 campuses and the movement has set up Jewish Community Organising, a training course designed to help lay leaders run congregations which meet the needs of members. Although New North London's Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is seen as the public face of the movement, a short-term communications target is for other rabbis to assume a more public role.
Mr Plen stressed that Masorti was a "bottom-up rather than top-down organisation. The high levels of participation says something positive about how we are engaging people. The good thing is that we are doing things cost effectively because we don't have access to huge budgets. We don't want to become another bureaucracy."
Nonetheless, a £350,000 fundraising campaign is under way to cover the additional cost of meeting its development goals over the next three years.
People joined Masorti for a variety of reasons. Some, like him, were from traditional United Synagogue backgrounds but had found Judaism becoming less meaningful.
Others were parents with children approaching bar- or batmitzvah age.
There was also evidence of children getting their parents on board. Around half the 800 young people who typically go on the summer camps are not from Masorti backgrounds.
Mr Plen welcomed "healthy competition" for members from other synagogue groups. "The stronger other streams are, the more it helps us to up our game. We are confident we have a good message."
Outside of Masorti, he is studying for an educational PhD and is a trustee of London Citizens, a community organising group promoting grassroots activism. "It's important to bring Jewish values of social justice into the public arena," he explained. "I believe that you can be seriously engaged in the halachic and Jewish world and still be a citizen of the world, engaged in wider society." Ticket stubs pinned to his office wall for concerts by singer-songwriter activist Billy Bragg suggest a related musical passion.
Mr Plen stressed that his commitment to Masorti was "open-ended. My family and I are happy here. Israel is home for me but there are a lot of exciting opportunities at Masorti and I don't want to leave in the middle of that."