Baroness Neuberger urged the Reform movement to place renewed emphasis on social justice in her first keynote address to its convention since returning to the pulpit just over 15 months ago.
The senior rabbi of West London Synagogue told the 270 delegates — the largest attendance at the event for many years — that the movement needed to “up its game”.
She recalled that West London’s first minister, D W Marks, had campaigned for girls’ schooling in Victorian times when it was regarded as a radical cause.
“But in our search for acceptance, in our search to be highly regarded by all brands of Judaism, we have lost that prophetic edge,” she declared. “We need to get back to our roots in thinking about social justice, just like our founders did and the prophets taught us.”
Although praising the social action initiatives of some synagogues in aiding destitute asylum-seekers, she highlighted other areas of need. “Where are we in the care of older people, our own as well as wider society? How often have I heard staff at Jewish Care or Nightingale saying there are old people living in their homes who have few or no visitors ever. Why not? Some may have no family. But what’s wrong with us?”
Representatives from small communities such as Hull and Milton Keynes joined those from large congregations in London and Manchester in Daventry, Northamptonshire, for the weekend “Chagigah” or celebration, a title reflecting the largely upbeat mood.
The power of music as an aid to spirituality was demonstrated at a range of different services, from Sufi-influenced chants to a band of flute, guitars and keyboard which played at Rhythm ‘n’Jews, a Shabbat morning service Finchley Reform Synagogue has pioneered for young families.
Rabbi Lionel Blue, who attended his first Reform conference more than 60 years ago, described it as “the happiest I can remember”. The first rabbi to make his mark as a broadcaster also showed he still knows how to tell a joke or two in an after-dinner speech.
When they were not praying or eating, delegates could choose from a Limmud-style menu of learning or practical Judaism sessions. While youngsters danced on chairs at a late-night quiz on Saturday, a class of 20 grappled with a tricky piece of Talmud with Leo Baeck College lecturer Laliv Clenman.
The movement also approved its new strategy to devote more to providing educational and other advice to synagogues while keeping overall costs down.
The work of Jeneration, which has catered for non-Orthodox young adults in general, will be targeted more on Reform members. Reform chair Jenny Pizer said: “We are relaunching it with a focus, initially but not exclusively, on provision for Reform young adults, particularly those on campus, and with an outreach programme to mixed-faith couples, many of whom would be otherwise lost to us.”
She said it was a tribute to the leadership of the movement president Rabbi Tony Bayfield — who retired as chief executive a year-and-a-half ago — that Reform were “no longer minor players in British Jewry”. With a new team in place, it would go from “strength to strength as the natural home for the majority of British Jews”.
Chief executive Ben Rich believed Reform was “uniquely placed” to reach out to intermarried families, “offering a brand of worship that is not too distant for many Jews from their traditional upbringing but at the same time providing a welcome and inclusive home for all, whatever their background”.
Regarding its rising profile in the national media, he added: “If you hear a Jewish voice and it isn’t Lord Sacks, the overwhelming odds are that it will be Reform.”