Non-Orthodox launch new platform for unity

By Simon Rocker, September 12, 2008

A decade of frustration over lack of pluralism sparks call for action


Leaders of the UK's three non-Orthodox religious movements this week challenged the Chief Rabbi to recognise growing religious diversity, amid frustration over the failure of previous attempts at co-operation.

The Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements - which collectively represent around a third of Britain's synagogue members - are calling for a new model of religious leadership which is committed to pluralism.

The move reflects impatience at the progress made since the so-called Stanmore Accords of 10 years ago. They were signed by the three non-Orthodox organisations and the United Synagogue to heal a rift that began after the Chief Rabbi failed to attend the funeral of popular Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

Today, the leaders of the three non-Orthodox movements have issued a "statement of communal collaboration", urging greater partnership between synagogue organisations in education, projects for young adults and a range of ethical initiatives.

The text is printed in full in this issue and a copy is understood to have been forwarded to the United Synagogue.

The document says that while diversity is a reality within British Jewry, "true pluralism is, as yet, not".
Against the backdrop of a falling Jewish population, its signatories declare: "We cannot afford to duplicate the use of resources or waste them on denominational competition... [We] commit ourselves to avoiding destructive competition and needless duplication."

Synagogue organisations need to "model a pluralist manner of co-operative working in Britain", and religious leaders should share platforms to advance common goals, they say.

While acknowledging differences over Jewish status among movements, the statement goes on: "Whether at the chupah or the cemetery, we resolve to work together as co-operatively as possible and to seek ways to prevent individuals from suffering because of the differences between our movements."

One source close to the group behind the document told the JC this week that it was "an assertion of the desire to provide leadership for the mainstream. It's not meant as a challenge to the Chief Rabbi or the United Synagogue in the sense of saying ‘What are you going to do about this; sign up or else'. It's a challenge in that we're saying we are going to set up a new style of leadership to try to meet the needs of 80 per cent of the community because we don't think that Charedi Judaism is going to save the ... community for Judaism.

"The Chief Rabbi and the US have to face up to the consequences of having moved from being the de facto leadership of the whole of the community to having become the vehicle for the fundamentalist revival."

Asked if he expected the US to sign up to the new platform, he said: "On balance, sadly, no. But we would love to be proved wrong." He explained that it had been decided to publicise the statement rather than privately circulate it, otherwise "we'll have another umpteen years of frustration and inertia".

Along with the document, this newspaper today carries comment pieces by three of its six signatories. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the senior Masorti rabbi, writes that the first area for change should be in "the public domain. As leaders we must stand together to declare our key values..."

Stephen Moss, Reform chairman, said the document assigned "first priority to a commitment for renewed enthusiasm for cross-communal partnership. The task is urgent as the demographic challenge is very real."

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, hit out at "those who seek to delegitimise other Jews, the strident positions taken by batei din that lack compassion, and the sad failures to accord respect to rabbis of other denominations by refusals to use rabbinic titles, share platforms or even permit the giving of hespedim [eulogies] at controlled burial grounds".

He declared: "Such behaviour puts at peril the future of a Jewish community whose members wish to see a society that is mature enough to disagree politely, to debate respectfully, and to differ in its practice, while ... being prepared to demonstrate that what is common - a desire to perpetuate Jewish life - is of more value... than that which divides."

Last updated: 2:07pm, September 15 2008