Crisis talks at Reform Judaism as 'potentially devastating' split with large shul looms

West London Synagogue wrote to the movement saying it was suspending membership


Crisis talks are underway between Reform Judaism and West London Synagogue after the umbrella organisation’s largest affiliate announced it would suspend its membership of the movement in what one Reform figure said could result in a “potentially devastating” split.

The synagogue wrote last week to the Movement for Reform Judaism, declaring it had suspended its membership and attacking the MRJ for issuing a public statement “without consultation” about a new code of conduct for clergy.

In the statement, MRJ alluded to allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour by Rabbi David Mitchell, whom WLS has promoted to be joint senior rabbi.

This week MRJ synagogue chairs, vice-chairs, rabbis and cantors were told by email that representatives of WLS and MRJ’s Board of Trustees were “now embarking on a series of meetings to discuss areas of mutual importance”.

In its letter declaring it was suspending its membership, WLS said conversations around any ethics code were “unconnected and unhelpful to our particular situation”.

The synagogue said suspending its membership would help it deal with the bullying accusations “independent of conversations happening in the community”, adding that MRJ’s intervention was “unconnected and unhelpful to our particular situation”.

It comes a fortnight after WLS said Rabbi Mitchell had agreed to take “time away” as pressure on him and the synagogue mounted over the allegations. There is no suggestion of physical abuse.

The shul refused to answer a number of questions put to it by the JC about the implications of the suspension and the nature of its internal investigations into the matter.

The JC understands that the WLS constitution contains no provisions for suspending membership — and nor does that of MRJ.

In order to disaffiliate from MRJ, the synagogue would need to get the support of 75 per cent of the congregation.

Members were not consulted over the decision to suspend membership.

The synagogue has not publicly spelled out what the suspension means in practice and would not say whether it would continue to contribute money to MRJ, which gets more than £1 million of its annual running costs from shul memberships.

One senior Reform figure said: “The decision was a knee-jerk reaction and they seem confused about what they can and cannot do.”

Another senior Reform figure said the suspension had left “everything under negotiation.”

They added that it was “sad that the founding synagogue of the movement had decided to break away in this way”.

One of the whistleblowers, who spoke to the JC about Rabbi Mitchell’s behaviour, said they “feared” WLS suspending its membership “removes any accountability or transparency around their investigation.

Removing themselves from the positive move towards a movement-wide ethics process makes no sense.”

The email about the meetings between MRJ and WLS was signed by MRJ’s honorary vice-chair Paul Langsford, Roger Nagioff, the honorary treasurer, and Sue Pearlman, the honorary secretary.

It was not signed by Geoffrey Marks, chairman of MRJ. The JC understands he has taken a back seat because he is a WLS member.

The synagogue previously pledged to bring in “independent advisers — a fresh pair of eyes — to spend some time working through the wide range of recent discussions, and meeting those affected”. But it has refused to say who the independent advisers are, what the remit of their investigation is or whether they intend to speak to former staff members about their experiences.

WLS also announced that its president Mark Fox and member Madeline Young will step down as trustees of MRJ.

MRJ’s public commitment to a new code of conduct was made after more than 100 of its members signed an open letter calling for such a code. The open letter said it should “lay out expected standards of behaviour and establishes a process for fair adjudication when those standards are not met”.

As MRJ announced a “robust and transparent” code, it added: “Serious matters have been raised in the Jewish and national media regarding safeguarding and employment practices at West London Synagogue. Our primary concern is the welfare and wellbeing of everyone who engages with Reform Judaism, including synagogue members and employees."

In a statement to the JC in January, Rabbi Mitchell said: “I strenuously deny that I have acted inappropriately. I want to apologise for anything that I have done which has inadvertently hurt or angered others.
“Since these issues were first raised I have learned, with coaching and mentoring, to become a better manager of people and I am still learning.”

WLS said in its letter to MRJ: “We regret that Reform Judaism chose to make statements… about matters relating to our synagogue without consultation and that sought to directly connect internal matters in our synagogue with the publication of a new Covenant/Code of Conduct for all Reform Judaism communities.”

It added it was “worth noting” that the synagogue was a signatory to an earlier code of conduct from 1995 which it said it was “generally supportive of updating”.

“We regret having to take this decision but have done so in order that we — as an independent synagogue and charity — can focus our attention on recent events at West London without external distractions or pressures,” the synagogue said.

“We, as the synagogue’s leadership, are handling these internal matters in a sensitive and responsible way, in line with our own governance code and community’s values.”

WLS said its decision “will not have any impact on congregants going through lifecycle events or conversions with the Beit Din which continue as normal”.

MRJ said it was “disappointed” with the shul’s decision, adding: “We are giving our full attention to a considered and proper response directly to the community.”

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