Originally published in New London Forum: Journal of the New London Synagogue 2:2 (April 1984).
Right from the beginning, when the New London Synagogue was founded as an independent congregation, some of its supporters looked forward to, and some of its opponents feared, the emergence of a New London Synagogue movement, a new, exciting trend in the religious life of Anglo-Jewry. The time had come, it was argued by the advocates of the movement, for a vigorous, non-fundamentalist approach. Such a movement would win over to its view those dissatisfied with both the rigidity of establishment Orthodoxy, as this was then in vogue (and still is) and the rejection by the Reformers and Liberals of the type of traditionalism to which the majority of the community was accustomed. During the twenty years of our existence, the voices raised in favour of a movement have not been silenced. In a recent Jewish Chronicle leader it was implied that, for all our successes, we had failed in what ought to have been our main task, the creation of a movement. The less charitable have attributed our failure to a preference for cosy respectability. We have been accused of battle-weariness, once the struggle to establish ourselves was over; of the parochialism which refuses to gaze beyond its own confines. Why are we still doing nothing about it, we are repeatedly asked.
If only the more vociferous, who tell us what we ought to have done and what we ought to be doing in this direction, would give some thought to the realities of the Anglo-Jewish situation. We recall only too well the earliest attempts to enlist in our cause other synagogues, discussing with them the formation of a co-ordinated synagogal body, and how it all came to naught. It quickly became evident that very few people were prepared to relinquish all that they and their predecessors had accomplished in order to attempt to build new congregations. Very few were ready to risk the heartache, the strife, the dissolution of old loyalties. Most of all, very few were willing to give the time and effort, especially the sheer hard cash, required to make the venture a success. We were on the move. They were exasperatingly stationary. It was as simple as that. I am reminded of the Rabbi who preached an eloquent sermon on charity. When he came home, his wife asked him how he had fared. “I achieved half my aim”, was his reply, “The poor are now willing to be assisted. All I now have to do is persuade the rich to give!”.
Nor is it fruitful to blame other like-minded synagogues for failing to join our movement. Painful though it no doubt is, we have to realise that the issues are not sufficiently pressing to encourage a full-scale abandonment of the status quo. True, we offer what we believe is a more reasonable approach but how many are really bothered by the meaning of revelation and how many have even heard of fundamentalism, except in the context of the Ayatollah Khomeini? To be sure, we try to affirm the validity of a dynamic Halakhah, but how many are bothered by Halakhic considerations?
Our concerns are often seen as elitist, not to say irrelevant, to the Jewish man in the street.
The catalyst for a new movement is simply not there. Should we be disturbed? Are we too complacent? I do not think so. For though we may not have much of a movement we do have a platform for our views. Our very existence, and that of our flourishing daughter congregation, the New North London, demonstrates that it is possible for traditionalists in practice to have a liberal approach to theology, one in which Jewish observance stands firmly on its own without requiring the shaky support of uncritical, and hence untenable, theories. We have helped to foster a mood with many an echo in the wider community. We are not an isolated group of men and women. I have lectured in Israel, in the U.S.A. and in European cities and our members have visited these places. Everywhere we have met people who are aware of what we stand for and who have expressed sympathy with our aims. Without being too arrogant about it, we are justified in saying that the New London is now on the map of World Jewry, marked perhaps in very small print but definitely there. Moreover, our close association with the Conservative Movement (and its counterpart, the M’Sorati Movement) means that the ‘movement’ aspect of our work is being taken care of, leaving us with the degree of independence required to cultivate our own garden.
The art of the possible—this is the maxim for religious politics as it is for politics in general. To have established two happy, friendly, traditional and open-minded congregations is no mean achievement and needs no further justification. If in the process something of value has emerged for the general community, of which we arc part, we should certainly not be shy of sharing it, but this should be as participants in a common quest. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that we are little green men from Mars invading hostile territory.
It is hard to understand why our success or failure must be measured by the ‘movement’ yardstick. The distinguished educationalist, Professor Ernst Simon, of Jerusalem, an observant Jew, prays regularly in a Conservative congregation. He was once asked why he prefers to pray there rather than in one of the many Orthodox synagogues. Simon observed, and we known what he means: “I can daven with the Orthodox but I cannot talk to them. I can talk to the Reformers but I cannot daven with them. Here I can both talk to my fellow-congregants and I can daven with them”. We cannot claim that our style of synagogue service and general outlook suits everyone. But it does suit us, we are able to daven together and we are able to talk freely to one another, discussing the problems Judaism has to face in the world of today as well as learning about the tremendous verities of the Jewish faith. If others were to overhear our conversation, participate in the dialogue and, perhaps, eventually join in with us completely, nothing could be finer. By all means let us be outward-looking. We are not narrow sectarians. But let us not indulge in the frustrating exercise of dreaming the impossible dream. Our impact will be felt in the general community even if it takes a little longer than we hoped in our first flush of enthusiasm. Meanwhile let the davening and the talking continue.