It’s a Reform lockout — but we hold the key

Reform Judaism has ruled its synagogues are too sacrosanct for the holding of religious services and will therefore stay shut for the high holydays

June 25, 2020 10:52

This is a public warning. Since the JC needs all the readers it can keep, those of a Reformish disposition may wish to look leftwards to Claire Calman for tea and sympathy until I’m done this week. What’s hitting my air-con?

Before Covid, I took a vow before a virtual beth din of egalitarian dayanim not to offend more of the Jewish community than absolutely necessary. I’ve done my best to be nice until now but an edict from the reborn Movement for Reform Judaism (known since its brit as Reform Synagogues of Great Britain) has me spitting fire and gumshields, so Claire please put that kettle on and look away now.

With three months to go before the High Holydays, the RSGB has ruled its synagogues are too sacrosanct for the holding of religious services and will therefore stay shut for the duration. “Our priority is keeping people safe,” said Reform Judaism senior rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, using the cop-out formula I hear all the time from opera houses that lack the wit to think themselves out of this catastrophe and into a place of better possibilities.

When the RSGB said its priority was “keeping people safe”, I thought it wanted to protect them from Reform Judaism, which could be a good idea. Sadly, it means the opposite. What Reform Judaism want to be safe from is Jews entering its sanctuaries. Instead it will keep them on a life support of Zoom songs and sermons for the indefinite future. And that includes the holiest days of the year.

Now, I never intrude on the rulings of private members’ clubs like the Athenaeum, the RSPB or the RSGB but my heart throbs for thousands of Reform Jews who will be locked out this Rosh Hashanah. Forget lockdown, this is life and death. I don’t have to endorse Reform theology to admire how Reform normally functions. It has brought comfort and inspiration to suffering Jews over two centuries and furnished wonderful melodies by Sulzer and Lewandowski without which the Orthodox High Holy Days service would be grimly impoverished. I repent each year to the tune of Lewandowski’s Zacharti Lach. Sadly, though, not this year.

Because in a summer when every Jewish faction from Satmar to crackpot is striving to keep Jews together in prayer and contrition, Reform goes and locks its doors and pockets the keys. Leo Baeck, are you reading me? Dr Baeck went to hell and back with his community, keeping them alive with the moral force of his presence. He did not phone it in on Yom Kippur.

Can’t the RSGB see how this edict goes against their DNA? Reform is the branch of Judaism that likes to say yes. In common with the bank which coined that slogan, this does not mean it dishes out readies to all supplicants, but its fundamental inclination is to permit, not to forbid. One-day festivals? Tick. Drive to shul? Better than not going. Mixed seating? If that’s what families want. I don’t decry these easings. On the contrary, I wish Orthodoxy had more of them.

But now, in the long tail of the 11th plague, Reform has gone all proscriptive. Shuls are no-go. Prayer is distanced and behind screens. I’ve been losing sleep worrying what the rest of us can do for these forsaken souls.

Got it: we’ll help them organise illegal street minyanim, like the ones that have sprouted all over NW eruv land without a single arrest so far. All we need is a quiet residential close and enough adults to lead the service. Afterwards, we’ll have a whisky kiddush, each family in its own front garden. Except on Yom Kippur, of course.

There are obstacles, of course. Reform families are used to driving to shul and street minyanim have no parking. Also, Reform rabbis sermonise with amplification. That might annoy the neighbours.

Still, I’m not giving up on Reform pop-ups. If it rains, we can use a school bus or a garden shed. Anything better than having Jews milling around on Holy Days with nowhere to go. Never did the Jerusalem Temple shut on a festival. Never in the diaspora have rabbis told their flocks to stay home, except under a present and immediate threat from Crusaders or, in 1939, air raiders. That’s how far the RSGB has strayed, leaving its members helpless in limbo.

Where will they go? Rabbi Laura’s welcome at mine. We can’t call her to the Torah, but she’s welcome to give the sermon, maybe on how it’s never too late to repent. RSGB has three months to change its mind. Sooner would be better. Mine’s without sugar, thanks, Claire.


June 25, 2020 10:52

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