Have you visited the picturesque Jewish quarter of Romford? Bought challot at the thriving kosher bakeries of Ruislip? I thought not. The Jews of Romford and Ruislip are fewer in number than those in Edgware or Golders Green and live further apart. A Romford eruv, I imagine, might take in vast areas of Essex.
Tell that to the bosses of the United Synagogue, who are determined to enforce an obscure rule that prevents people from joining US affiliate shuls, unless they live within a 1.25 mile radius. This is designed to cow the affiliated synagogues into giving up their independence and taking up full US membership. Bigger bills for everyone, with no added benefits. Slightly more money at US HQ. Devastation for the affiliated communities.
I am just the sort of person that the US has in its greedy sights. So, as there are several large, expensive US synagogues nearer to our London home than our small, affiliated community, am I just a bargain-hunting cheapskate? No I am not.
We are members of Welwyn Garden City, the shul where I grew up, in a community that feels more like an extended family. We paid our fees faithfully even though we lived in Amsterdam for eight years (considerably more than 1.25 miles away). Coming home to England, we had a year to arrange a batmitzvah for my daughter. Should we join the nearest big US shul or stick with the friendly shul where everyone knew her name?
My shul values every member, old or young, rich or poor, frum or not. Our rabbi scours local towns and country, welcoming in Jews who have become estranged from their religion. In a small community, no one asks too many questions about how people get to services. They are just overjoyed when you turn up.
True, if you grow up in an affiliated community, you might not get the benefits of a big cheder or a choice of youth groups. But I remember some visiting, Big City teachers, keen to tell us country cheder kids we would be lost to Judaism. Well, some of us went to Israel, some went to Hendon. Most are involved, committed Jews. And some still live just over 1.25 miles from the shul and dream of the day when Radlett’s overspill shifts a few miles north-east.
My family’s membership is safe (unless the US plans to map every member of the affiliated communities and kick out 90 per cent of them). But what of a new family trying to join? Will they have to look around for another shul, perhaps ask for reduced fees if money is tight?
In Amsterdam, you don’t join an individual, Orthodox synagogue. Instead, you pay a proportion of your annual income to join the Jewish community — three per cent for the richest members, less for those with lower incomes. The money raised pays for shuls, chedarim, Jewish social services, cemeteries and the rabbinate. And you are free to attend the synagogue of your choice.
Such socialism may not appeal in the UK, but surely the US can find better ways of boosting its coffers than bullying smaller, poorer communities that need every member they can find.