Why the Accords failed to build the promised bridges

By Simon Rocker, September 12, 2008

The so-called Stanmore Accords of 1998 were an attempt to rebuild bridges between the mainstream Orthodox and non-Orthodox after the worst eruption of communal conflict in 30 years.

In August 1996, the much-loved leader Rabbi Hugo Gryn died, but the absence of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, from his funeral, caused anger among Progressives. In order to make amends, Sir Jonathan agreed to lead the tributes for Rabbi Gryn at a memorial service organised by the Board of Deputies the following February.

His scheduled appearance, however, exposed him to flak from the Orthodox right, including from within his own rabbinate. In an attempt to head off threatened protests, Sir Jonathan wrote a letter in advance of the event to the then head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, Dayan Chanoch Padwa, confessing his "pain" at having to praise one of "those who destroy the faith". When the letter was leaked and subsequently published in the JC, there was outrage.

It took more than a year and a half before religious leaders were able finally to put their names to an agreement to reduce tensions within the Jewish community. The Stanmore Accords - as they eventually became known -took their name from the place where they were signed; the home of the then president of the United Synagogue, Elkan Levy, in November 1998. He and his co-signatories, the lay leaders of the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements, pledged themselves "unreservedly to the pursuit of communal peace and co-operation".

As part of the agreement, a consultative committee composed of "lay, professional and rabbinic leaders" from the four movements was to meet quarterly to discuss "all relevant issues in the interests of communal harmony and... development".

That leaders of the different movements were willing to sit and talk may hardly have been revolutionary but the signing of a formal accord presaged a new era in inter-community relations. There was nothing in the accords to stop one movement publicly criticising another but it was supposed to do so in respectful rather than vituperative language.

And although the commitment to "co-operation" may have been vague, there were expectations, in at least some quarters, that it would produce tangible results.

Hardly was the ink dry when the agreement came under attack from various other Orthodox bodies. There was not even unanimous support within the United Synagogue. While the Chief Rabbi was understood to have lobbied for the agreement, his own London Beth Din issued a statement saying that inter-denominational committees "ultimately sow confusion".

Since the "consultative committee" meetings were held behind closed doors, it is hard to judge the value of the enterprise overall. To some, the fact that it has endured for 10 years is a success of sorts.

But questions began to grow about the effectiveness of the agreement and the committee it spawned. Five years ago, Paul Shrank, the late Masorti leader, urged his movement to pull out of a "failed" experiment. "True, there has been a lowering of conflict," he wrote in the JC, yet dialogue with the United Synagogue was "a dialogue of the deaf".

Masorti stayed put and the quarterly talks continued. But amid increasing expressions of frustration, by the beginning of this year the members of the committee were reconsidering its future.

Last updated: 3:37pm, September 23 2009