New Reform chair: Covid has focused thinking on the future of our shuls

Robert Wiltshire gives his take on hybrid services, partnership activities, finances and healing the breach with the movement's oldest congregation


The pandemic may have caused unprecedented disruption to Jewish community life. But a year on, leaders of organisations have found that there have been some beneficial spin-offs in their forced adaptation to circumstance.

Robert Wiltshire, who took over as chairman of the Movement for Reform Judaism at the end of last year, says that some of the thinking about its future became “much more relevant” in the wake of the Covid crisis.

He had been keen to address a “demographic shift” within Reform, wanting to make absolutely sure that those people who were no longer living in traditional Jewish areas had access to communities”.

It was something his own shul, Radlett Reform, had already been tackling, evolving a “hub and spokes” approach to enable people to join prayers in homes. “We started with postcode Shabbatot and moved on to having minyanim in various places. One of the most successful we have now is in Welwyn but [it’s] still affiliated and very much part of Radlett Reform Synagogue.”

The idea may be replicated more widely as young people move further away from settled Jewish areas.

“We have got to make sure there is a home for our young people as they grow and have children. And now we have got the opportunity by what I call ‘in house and by mouse’.

“There is so much we can do from an educational point of view online and also by having hybrid services, where you have got people in the synagogue and at home if they are unable to join us. I think that’s part of where we want to go.”

The response to Covid has established other new norms. When a relative died three years ago, the family decided to stream the funeral for the benefit of other family and friends in America. “I remember being at Hoop Lane, thinking this was slightly weird and not quite right. Now the idea we stream a funeral seems absolutely the right thing to do.”

When someone he often sat near in shul died last year at 86 as a result of Covid, 400 people attended the online shivah. “The support and love that came through was quite astounding.”

Mr Wiltshire, who is 60, grew up in the Finchley Reform congregation, where his father was a founding member, moving to Radlett some 30 years ago. Professionally, his field is the food business — when we spoke he was dealing with a crisis with several containers stuck in a queue behind a stranded cargo ship in the Suez Canal.

After a short break from chairing Radlett Reform, he believed he could contribute to the movement nationally and joined the board in February last year. At a dinner with his predecessor, Geoffrey Marx, the idea of assuming the chair was broached.

His well-modulated voice conveys an instant calm. He says he intends to lead according to the “four pillars” he has always tried to live by — collaboration, trust, respect and honesty.

The board’s role was to be “the guardian of the movement”, he explained. However, some are wondering whether Reform has begun rowing back from the idea of being a “movement” – the vision of its chief executive Rabbi Tony Bayfield some 20 years ago — reverting to an assembly of individual synagogues.

Mr Wiltshire’s response was that “we are a very much a family of synagogues. Within that I believe we are a movement but we are also independent. I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive.

“What I have been absolutely in awe of over the last 12 months is how the synagogues have supported each other through very difficult times.”

One example of co-operation was the national Tikkun Leil Shavuot last year where shuls combined for a digital night of learning. “You could join a study session at Alyth Gardens [Golders Green] from your home in Edinburgh. We had people from the United States joining.”

Another example was the small Hull Reform Synagogue joining the larger Finchley Reform for online services over the High Holy-Days. “That to me is what a family is all about.”

Reform’s annual appeal dinner had to be held online last year and was “very well supported”. But the movement made a loss of £110,000 in 2020 and several central posts have gone.

“Philanthropy hasn’t stopped but there is no doubt that all communities are constrained at the moment. Having said that, Finchley and Alyth are embarking on building programmes. So there are still things to be done.”

Six months since the departure of Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who was its public face and voice, Reform is still considering what to do next.

“Laura gave almost a decade of wonderful service to us and no one can be expected to do that forever. But it has given us an opportunity to have a review and to rethink what we want going forward. The board doesn’t want to be rushed into it,” he said. The hope was for recommendations to be put to the annual meeting in summer.

There has been speculation that financial constraints might revive the long-shelved idea of merger with Liberals.

Relations with the sister Progressive movement are “very good — workmanlike and friendly, full of collaboration and trust”, Mr Wiltshire said. He speaks regularly with his Liberal counterpart Ruth Seager and the organisations work together on areas such as cheder teacher-training and student welfare. They have also co-ordinated on Covid-related policies. However, the answer on merger is “never say never but not now”.

He has also participated in some of the discussions to heal the breach between the movement and its oldest congregation, the West London Synagogue.

Just over a year ago, West London announced it was suspending its membership in protest at not being consulted over the movement’s introduction of a new code of conduct for clergy. West London had at the time set up an inquiry into historic allegations of bullying against its designate joint senior rabbi David Mitchell. The inquiry found there was no reason for Rabbi Mitchell not to take up the role.

“We continue to talk to each other in a very constructive and positive way,” he said. Pressed about the suspension, his diplomatic response was: “I say they have stepped back from active participation.” But West London remained a member and was“making contributions as they should”.

Mr Wiltshire “loves Israel”— he has a son in Tel Aviv — but at the same time is aware of the complexities of relations with the diaspora. During Chanukah, Reform held a joint lighting with the new ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, whose appointment had been strongly opposed by Rabbi Janner-Klausner. “Our young people spoke very openly and eloquently to the ambassador, who listened and understood our views. We will continue to have that dialogue.”

Unlike the Liberals, Reform has not focused on developing new communities. He believes that Shir Hayim, a partnership between the young egalitarian Willesden minyan and the older Hampstead Reform Synagogue, could be a model for others.

But the 41-strong Reform family is set to get bigger. “We do have two other communities that are going to be joining us, hopefully within the next 12 months.” One is new, the other an existing group that wants to join Reform —and both are outside London.

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