Originally published in New London News 2:3 (January 1970).
Just what it was that differentiated New London Synagogue members from other traditional congregations in Britain was pointedly made clear one wet, cold evening in late November when nearly 100 of them turned up to consider not just the present but also the future of our synagogue.
We had achieved much in 5½ years, as Rabbi Jacobs pointed out in an opening address. We even had the right to pat ourselves gently on the back. But, having done that, there remained the question: What do we stand for and, not less important, do we stand still?
In answering the first question, Rabbi Jacobs recalled that Anglo-Jewry, in its own muddled way, had achieved a blend of the progressive and conservative. But this synthesis had become lost. Our belief was that we could recapture it.
On the one hand, we were dissatisfied with what went under the heading of Orthodoxy in the world of today. On the other, we were also dissatisfied with Reform (or Liberal) Judaism.
But, Rabbi Jacobs noted, Orthodoxy has only a word—much depended on what it represented. To judge by the utterances of its present leaders, it did not represent a worthwhile philosophy of Judaism. Conceived of in static terms, it lacked a sense of history or of development.
Orthodoxy had turned its back on the intellectual achievements of modern Jews who had devoted their lives to trying to uncover the sources of Judaism as a developing civilisation and a dynamic force.
Similarly, Reform and Liberal Judaism did not answer our quest. Even though prepared to examine it critically, we had a love for and attachment to traditional Judaism. The Reform service left us cold and patently could not provide our spiritual home.
What we were looking for, to paraphrase Solomon Schechter, was some of the “madness of Orthodoxy” and some of the “method of Reform.” It was not a vague quest. It was also one shared by many others in Anglo-Jewry today.
But, having recognised this fact, what should we do about it? Establish a movement? There were some, Rabbi Jacobs remarked, who believed we should come out openly and say we belonged to a—or the—Conservative movement. He had strong reservations about this.
While he had himself opted for personal membership in the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis in the United States and Canada, he was wary of adopting a label to the New London which had such a strong American connotation.
He also saw no reason why we should surrender up to the Right-wing in this country the guardianship of traditional Judaism. Perhaps, he suggested, we did not need a label at all. Perhaps it was true that people who took the trouble to find out, knew what it was that we stood for and that, at this stage, we ought to continue in the “cultivation of our own garden.”
Rabbi Jacobs had opened the discussion in low key, touching only gently on the paths open to us and himself avoiding any gesture in one specific direction.
The speakers who followed were more definite in their expressions. Mr. Donald Samuel, who spoke after Rabbi Jacobs, said the time had come to formulate the path along which we were questing and the method by which we would try to travel upon it.
He argued that the synagogue should be more than a place for ritual purposes. There were many useful group activities taking place under the roof of the New London Synagogue—could we not now mobilize the whole congregation for service to the community, a service in which they would devote, say, one year to acquainting themselves in depth with our communal institutions and organisations?
This, Mr. Samuel suggested, would set an example to the community and benefit the institutions themselves enormously. He also proposed the compilation of a study manual in which would be set out the principal points of Jewish life and faith, together with basic questions, brief answers and an appropriate bibliography.
One of our younger members pointed out that a “New London Movement” would require additional rabbis and an institution for their traning. How would they be recruited and what philosophy would they be expected to follow?
A lady member was “disturbed” by “all the talk of starting a movement” and thought we were “getting a little above ourselves.” Establishment of a movement meant the adoption of dogmas, acceptance of the view that there was a certain approach which was better than others. This, she thought, would be a great mistake.
This brought the retort from elsewhere in the hall that, whether we formed a movement or not, we were “moving” and had to define terms for ourselves. We needed to know a little more clearly in our minds what we expected from ourselves.
However, another speaker cautioned against “going outside our own citadel too early” and expressed the view that “if we keep within these walls, our friends will come to us in their thousands.”
But this was not good enough for one of the younger set. The New London, he said, had found inspiration and what it should be seeking to do was to “spread this feeling of inspiration to Anglo-Jewry which is stranded high and dry in a wilderness.”
He was disappointed by the fact that the questing had been intermittent and, at times, non-exustent. This he put down to the fact that, while above average in intelligence, New London members had a low standard of Jewish learning and Halachic knowledge.
To be a movement, we had to dispose of trained people, with sufficient depth of Jewish education to take part in and develop a tradition over a period of time.
One lady member was concerned lest we be labelled the followers of one great rabbi rather than members of a self-generating movement. “Let us be a congregation and not sheep,” she urged.
But a younger member, a man, was a little disappointed by the “undue modesty this movement has adopted.” While New Londoners themselves were “doing all right, Jack,” there were young people and others in the community at large who were despondent about so-called Orthodoxy and could not wait for ever for our lead.
But the most forceful speech came from one of our oldest members. Whether we liked it or not, he declared, the New London stood for something. There were intelligent people all over the world who shared our ideas. We ought to be ready to help them form new congregations when the time was ripe, “which it will be.”
This congregation had done well. But it could not stop here. Our members should be full of hope and energy. We were not a club, but a synagogue.
Another speaker was annoyed by the “constant harping on the New West End.” Forget the past, he urged.
A new lady member told of her search for a congregation which would meet her needs. “Here, we are encouraged to think about the grass-roots of Judaism and, I believe, this is the only way we will attract young people.”
Other points made by speakers included:
Associate membership should be extended to all those who, although unable to become full members, wished to be joined in our endeavours. They could be supplied with copies of an expanded edition of this journal, together with reprints of Rabbi Jacobs’s sermons.
More space had to be found for the religion classes, from which children were already being turned away, if we were to offer places for youngsters from outside our own community.
The New London should take under its wing some of the struggling new communities in outer London where young married couples were settling because they could not afford the cost of living in the centre of the city.
These, together with other suggestions, will be considered by the appropriate bodies of the New London. Meanwhile other members of the congregation who were unable to attend the meeting may have some ideas which they wish to share or some comments to make on the ideas set out above. The editor of the New London News will be happy to publish these—but please keep your contributions short and to the point.