Steven Wilson

Our broad church must focus on what we can achieve

Even before I joined the United Synagogue (US) two years ago, I knew that one of its unique and to my mind, prized attributes was its proud role as a broad church within a centrist orthodox body. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the role.

I knew that any organisation that aims for breadth and inclusivity will face a constant struggle amongst its stakeholders, particularly now as natural trends across many societies appear to move towards the margins and away from a shared centre ground. 

I also knew that our Chief Rabbi, Beth Din, Community Rabbis and Rebbetzens play a vital role in providing spiritual leadership, supporting us on our Jewish journeys to the extent of our individual interest, and maintaining the US as a body which is highly respected by orthodoxy worldwide.  

I didn’t realise stepping into the role just how frequently I would be told that the US was lurching to the right or lurching to the left; it turns out that this happens to me most days.

Right now, differing opinions are being traded in the press, on social media, in shuls and no doubt over the dinner table.

Sometimes I wish those opinions were more measured and less personal but overall they reflect healthy debate.

That debate comes from a good place, with people that care passionately about the future of mainstream orthodoxy.

If I were to inject one thought, it would be that where there is a desire for change or for stability, the focus should be on what we can do, rather than what we can’t.

My attitude is certainly ‘can do’ and I try to always make myself available to communities, groups and individual members who want to engage.

I’ve also realised that a level of natural tension has always been present in the US – whilst the medium may have changed, a look back at the histories of debate between our rabbinic leadership, lay leadership and their communities is instructive.  It is the nature of centrist organisations.

I accept that trying to occupy the centre ground can be difficult.

As Nye Bevan said “if you stand in the middle of the road, you get run over” (and I don’t think he was trying to drum up business for his NHS).

It can be challenging from an intellectual perspective too – it can feel so much easier to associate with people with the same set of religious values rather than embrace the diversity within our US community.  I’ve always wondered whether I find this easier as a scientist who always compartmentalised the religious part of my brain.

However when I think about it too hard, I hear the voices of my university dons in what I now see as rather tiresome religion vs science debates.

They told me that I was at best ignorant, but more likely just a hypocrite; I now realise that it was their ignorant rejection of faith which lead to such a unidimensional worldview.

The odd thing is that the current furore comes at a time when there is so much vitality in our communities and so many opportunities to have your voice heard.

The US is committed to a programme of change set out in Marc Meyer’s excellent Strategic Review, to which so many contributed.

We can argue about the pace of change and I know we’ll get both possible views on direction, but there is no doubt that the US and its communities are on the move with many exciting developments here now and in the offing.

New communities are being established, existing communities are creating an ever-wider range of events, and educational and culture opportunities seem to increase exponentially.

Communities are doing more and more to innovate to meet the needs of our members.

As an example, at my community over yom tov, my wife and I chose to attend an explanatory service and deepen our understanding of some critical aspects of the yom tov prayers, and then with our young adults, to debate the value of community rather than do things we knew we wouldn’t fully understand or appreciate in the main service.

We want all our members to feel that their voices can be heard and for all our members to feel that they can work from within so that the US is fit for the 21st Century, whilst continuing to respect orthodox Torah values.

If you feel passionately about how to help all our members feel engaged, inspired and part of vibrant communities, please let us know, and think about taking on a community leadership role.

We are often criticised for being ‘top down’ but our lay structures are painfully democratic.

The one thing that has surprised me since starting my job is how ready our members are to voice diverse opinions, but how unready they are to stand for leadership roles.

At local level, our Honorary Officers and Boards of Management play a vital role in steering their communities, and our Trustees have responsibility for the organisation as a whole.  

There are very significant responsibilities in these roles, and together with the community, you also make some of the most important appointments across the US.

We are hugely indebted to all those who take on these responsibilities.

We continue to need the diversity of the whole team on board if we are going to continue to reflect our breadth.

If you can put up with a bit of tsorus but want to effect change or indeed to keep going as we are, then get involved and stand for election.  Time to move away from the by-lines!

About the Author
Dr Steven Wilson is Chief Executive of the United Synagogue
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