Board of Deputies
The synagogue has 2 Deputies who are elected to the Board
Joel Ison & Clive Harris
From Rabbi Laura Klausner Janner
It’s great to be back home, to be back in this important institution so loved by my late grandfather, Barnett and my late father, Greville, zichronam l’vracha both, I’m so proud to say, past Presidents – a role which they rightly cherished.
I know my father would applaud our brave President, Marie Van Der Zyl when she told me firmly that what matters is that “No Jew should feel isolated due to their affiliation or views, and we all have to respect each other.”
It’s been a week of promises, of manifestos - red, blue, yellow, green and also an excellent one from the Board itself, reflecting the high quality of the team who prepared it led by the astute, charismatic and principled Gillian Merron.
My rabbinical and cantorial colleagues have also just produced a manifesto of our key issues that guide us in our right, our imperative to vote - democracy and polarisation, climate crisis, refugees, racism and intolerance, homelessness, LGBT plus, Israel and Palestine to name a few.
Judaism has a manifesto for our city, our country, for the world– l’takken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to improve, impact, change the world in partnership with the Creator of all life.
This is our role as Jewish citizens - to be active, make our views heard and impact on public debate to ensure that this fantastic country benefits from all that our community has to offer. We should be so proud of ourselves as Jews as confident and contributing British citizens.
Our manifestos all have one element in common – they ask others to act in certain ways. But the best relationships, commitments are covenants, are mutual and our community needs to ask what we must do, how we must act to each other, so that we can preserve our religious civilization and community we love for future generations.
There are, I believe, a clear set of issues, a form of manifesto for all of us.
Let’s call this a Derech Eretz manifesto for British Jewry - a manifesto of acting properly, courteously, restoring dignity - restoring derech eretz to ourselves and to Britain.
דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה
How we behave comes before Torah.
We cannot lead a Jewish life however we define Torah without proper manners – without treating others correctly - decently.
The first part of a derech eretz cross communal manifesto is accountability for how we talk to and act with each other. Accountability means being able to answer for what we say – in person or online; having to answer for how we act.
I’m concerned that as a community we’ve swapped the beauty of nuance for puerile put-down, critique for insult and the benefit of the doubt for the worst possible interpretation. Where, when you need it, is the wisdom of the mishnaic statement that we always have to judge others favourably? Now we need it. Instead of attacking when you disagree, the derech eretz way is to turn the attack into a question assuming good intention.
The best example of assuming ill intent is that we seem to have lost the skill of having sensible discussions about Israel. We prejudge intentions, we insult, we find it hard to acknowledge the truth on the other side of the argument - whichever side, we label our fellow Jews, our brothers and sisters, as “traitors”.
We even stoop to challenge the Jewishness of those with whom we disagree. This has to stop.
When we do this, we drive people away. We drive away young people who feel that their wellbeing is threatened by the public Jewish debate rather than challenged, inspired or nurtured by it.
What does it look like to have a community of derech eretz in which we proactively nourish our diversity? It means accepting that we share kiddush, attend funerals, sit in the Board of Deputies, with people whose views we might really not like. It’s not meant to comfortable. Derech eretz is not about comfort – it’s the opposite – it’s about living with discomfort without dumping our discomfort, our fears, our anger on each other.
Derech eretz is living honourably with those we disagree, giving others the benefit of the doubt. It’s no chochmah, wisdom, to behave properly to others who you find easy. The challenge, the mitzvah, is holding yourself back – don’t write it, don’t say it, assume good intentions, ask a question. It’ll transform our lives – we can hasten the Messiah.
We can then return to the golden capacity of machlokot l'shem shemayim, disagreements for the sake of heaven.
It is derech eretz to be very careful how we respond when we’re anxious as fears and anger tend to clash with wise, considered behaviour. One of our raw fears is of rising reports of anti-Semitism. How do we respond with care and effectiveness?
We can’t just demand, “Stamp it out” - it’s too primitive, yes it expresses what we want, it releases adrenalin, anger, fear but doesn’t have an agreed attached action plan. We can’t stamp our feet and expect racism to disappear.
What could be a response of derech eretz?
Open our doors.
Just when we might want to turn inwards and close our doors (and hearts) out of fear, it’s exactly at that moment we have to open our doors to others. Think of our Seder when at the very moment of most vulnerability when we are angry, when we say with justification of history behind us “pour out your wrath on the nations who do not know you. שפוך חמתך על הגויים אשר לא ידעוך
At the very moment in which we feel unsafe, vulnerable and remember history – what do we do? We open our front door. Just as now when we may be feeling vulnerable we cannot stamp out racism – a communal manifesto of Derech Eretz of holding back our initial strong instincts compels us to open the door, to invite in people we don’t know, or we don’t know yet, to invite in teachers; neighbours, local councillors and politicians and yes specifically, davka, those with whom we disagree so that we can change their minds or even have our minds changed!
We tackle antisemitism by being precise in our interventions and by opening up conversations with those who don’t know Jews.
The institute for Jewish Policy Research stress that there’s a difference between an anti-Semite, and someone who, perhaps inadvertently, holds anti-Semitic views. We need to challenge anti-Semitism with practical solutions and give such people a ladder down which to climb.
I don’t want us to become a community defined by what we are opposed to, or, even worse, defined by the hate directed towards us. We must continue unapologetically to fulfil our duty to engage with and influence wider society for the better. As important actors in our community, I urge you to reject fortress Judaism. We must not put ourselves back into the ghetto.
For instance, I’m proud that we live in a country that has legal same sex marriage, or what is called, “equal marriage”.
The welfare of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans + people particularly means a lot to me as a rabbi, ally and a parent. This year, the government has been discussing Relationship and Sex Education, or RSE. All primary school children will learn that not everyone lives in what used to be called “a traditional family”. Sometimes, it’s mum and mummy, or Ima and Ima, sometimes it’s that parents don’t live with each other.
A derech eretz agenda would support this, must support these Relationships and Sex Education, RSE guidelines that ensure that from an early age, children will hear that there are many ways to build a family. RSE doesn’t attempt to encourage or persuade.
We know that mental health issues are more prevalent amongst the LGBT+ community, and that acceptance is one of the steps we can take to improve this. This is especially true as the rise in hate crime is far more directed to Lesbian, Gays and Bisexual people, let alone trans people than Jews or Muslims. We must be allies to others. This is the core of derech eretz, standing alongside others.
This may be uncomfortable for some of our community and we’ve seen lobbying against Relationship and Sex Education from a few ultra-orthodox communities suggesting that the RSE proposals are an infringement on religious freedom, and, astonishingly, from one Rabbi who stated that Jews should even “give up their lives” before submitting to the new guidelines.
It’s also important it’s not just Jews who believe we are all responsible for each other – who see us as kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh – this story was covered by the BBC, under the headline “LGBT teaching an abomination, Jewish judge says”. It pains me that people who are not Jewish will not distinguish between this outlying view and the rest of our community which paradoxically has been shown is more liberal on LGBT issues than the majority of the country. You, our Board Deputies are in a unique position to clarify that most Jews consider this an extreme and extraordinary intervention.
Our derech eretz manifesto must commit us to working together and being seen to work and lead together. Yes, it’s an improvement that we have stopped criticizing different mainstream Jewish movements in public but if that is the only way that we can manage derech eretz., then the bar of decency, of cross communal collaboration is horrendously low.
I believe that derech eretz demands of us as a community that we proactively, transparently collaborate on issues like interfaith, housing, the environment, the future impact of artificial intelligence on our communities and on society as a whole.
We have to have open conversations where no professional is banned from appearing in public with another, just in case, chas v’chalilah, this is seen as any kind of approval of the other. This is disgraceful behaviour. This is Anglo Jewry’s version of our emperor’s new clothes – everyone knows there are professionals – leaders, educators, rabbis who are forbidden to teach together, debated together or even be photographed for last week’s Mitzvah Day together. But we don’t say it aloud. We have to sit together to discuss crucial issues of our community whether Holocaust, anti-semitism, Israel, interfaith, racism or the fact that our community is funded primarily by just a hundred astonishingly generous philanthropists but the next generation is not picking up the baton of tzedakah in the same way.
These are not religious issues – these fall within the now moribund 1998 Stanmore Accords, the cross communal agreement about how all denominations would work together, looking up with integrity and decency for the good of the community as a whole and not downwards just at our own parochial territorial concerns.
This is not derech eretz.
We need you, our Deputies, to hold us all into account so we will work together for the good of our community as whole. This is where our conversation must be.
The solutions lie in working in unity, accepting our differences and pooling our talents.
Where we agree, let’s plan together, and where we disagree let’s lay a foundation for constructive disagreements for the sake of heaven, for the sake of our precious community.
Four years ago, I founded a project, Real Conversations, which teaches Jews and Muslims who live in areas of high segregation the skills of having difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Participants begin to see disagreements as opportunities to deepen relationships, and not moments where relationships fall apart. We call it turning a difficult conversation into a Real Conversation. It’s time to have more Real Conversations, where we disagree constructively and strengthen the fraying bonds within our own community. This is derech eretz - it’s not derech eretz to avoid, deride, diminish or prohibit conversations. This is simply not Jewish.
I may totally disagree with those in our community who, for example, do not believe in a two State Solution however, it is their right to say it.
Your President’s insistence that no Jew must feel isolated due to their affiliation or views – has to be our guiding principle, not just for the Board, but for our community as a whole.
Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will.