The London Jewish Community: Just Fine, Thank You!

I left London this past Tuesday morning after a long weekend and wonderful Shabbat there, and landed in Madrid this afternoon, preparing to meet up with the Conference of Presidents mission here. If anyone asks you what London and Madrid have in common besides both being in Europe, the answer is that, right at this moment, they're both cold and wet!

Actually, the southwest portion of London is suffering from major, almost catastrophic flooding, and the relentless rain is bringing those flood waters dangerously close to residential London. I can't know if it's even an item on the national news in America, but in England, it's all that they're talking about. I left London not too unhappy about departing for another climate, but as we landed in Madrid, it was quickly obvious that I was landing in rain and wind that were even stronger than the London weather. But the rain here has let up, it's not bone-chilling like New York has been, and it's not snow, so I know I won't get any sympathy from New Yorkers!

My time in London was spent right outside of Golders Green, in a charming neighborhood called Finchley. Finchley is the location of New North London Synagogue, led for many years by the quite remarkable Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg. Both he and the synagogue are jewels in the crown of the Masorti movement in Europe, Masorti being what Conservative Judaism is referred to outside of North America ( a better name, don't you think?).

Walking from my hotel to both the Rabbi's house and later the synagogue itself, it was clear that the neighborhood was densely Jewish…. mezuzot on every other house, and every few steps passing another person on his/her way to Synagogue, sharing a Shabbat Shalom greeting. Most of London's more traditional Jews are clustered in the area around (and in) Golders Green, neighborhoods like Finchley, Hendon, and a few others. In fact, there are so many visiting Shomer Shabbat Jews who stay in the Holiday Inn Express outside of Golders Green, where I stayed, that they offer Kosher choices and separate trays for use with their complimentary breakfast!

As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I had been invited to deliver the sermon on Shabbat morning, as well as to speak at the Seudah Shlishit program at a congregant's home, and also to participate in an all-UK "Yom Masorti" to be held on Sunday. Truth to tell, other than having been casually acquainted with Rabbi Wittenberg prior to then, and having worked with a past congregational leader on Masorti-related issues, I wasn't all that familiar with the congregation or the community.

My first inkling that I had better tread carefully was when a congregant came over to me in the synagogue on Shabbat morning and said something to the effect of "Rabbi, could I offer you a kindly word of advice? Most of the time, when rabbis and community leaders come over here from North America to speak, they talk down to us, assuming that we don't know all that much about Judaism. That's very insulting, because many of us have much more than a passing acquaintance with Jewish text and thought. Don't infantilize us. We like and respect scholars, but we don't like people who talk to us like children."

"Whoa," I thought to myself. That's a pretty nervy thing to say to a guest speaker. As it happened, I had prepared long and hard for all of my presentations that weekend, and wasn't worried that I was going to waste the gentleman's time, or insult his intelligence. I think that my congregants here in New York would attest to the fact that I try not to set the bar low when I speak or teach.

But as the weekend went on, it became clear to me that what the gentleman had been giving expression to was a kind of paternalistic condescension that our fellow Jews in Europe pick up on when American Jews speak to them, as if we're visiting our disadvantaged cousins living so far from the "home base." What we too often project– subliminally, I fervently hope!– might best be expressed as "we New York Jews do it right, and we are the most fully developed Jewish community and richest in terms of scholars and knowledge. We are here to grace you with our presence, but we hope you understand that you are, indeed, fortunate that we have chosen to spend this time with you."

I appreciated what that gentleman was saying, and I took it to heart. I even made a joke about it, saying that, far too often, we New Yorkers seem to have internalized that famous cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker magazine, where Manhattan takes up most of the cartoon map of the world, and the rest of the planet competes to even be mentioned (and I'm from Queens!). Paris gets a sliver, and the same for Rome, etc. I've often thought that people who live in Jerusalem have exactly the same air of condescension towards those who live anywhere in Israel but there.

But the real truth is that I emerged from the weekend in London far more humbled than the aforementioned gentleman would ever have imagined. Rather than look at the Masorti community in England with condescension, I saw them only with admiration and respect, not only for who they are, but even more for what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it.

In every significant way, the New North London Synagogue was humming with activity on Shabbat morning. The main service, with no Bar or Bat Mitzvah, was pretty much full, and there were two parallel minyanim that were taking place in different parts of the building. There were also separate services for children, and there were LOTS of children and young couples in shul that morning. I would say that, given the opportunity to have his/her synagogue look like New North London Synagogue on an "average" Shabbat morning, any rabbi from North America would sign off on that in a heartbeat. There was life and vitality in shul, as well as in the Seudah Shlishit program later in the day. I guess it's possible that my presence there impacted somewhat, but I humbly admit that having the President of the Rabbinical Assembly there to speak, while special, would not necessarily pull people in on a cold and rainy Shabbat morning. Clearly, people came to shul in such numbers because shul is where they wanted to be, and where they felt they belonged on Shabbat morning. What rabbi- of any denomination- could possibly ask for more?

The other thing that I found most impressive, particularly as the RA President, was the degree to which the community seemed to function as an organic whole. Clergy, other synagogue professionals and lay leadership worked seamlessly, and with great mutual respect, for the greater well-being of the community as a whole. Both on Shabbat and during the very-well attended Yom Masorti Study Day that followed on Sunday, the various roles that people were playing seemed to flow naturally. Everyone was working to insure the success of the program. There were no visible tensions, or lay/professional strains or stresses. So often here in the US, particularly in New York, where the major home bases of American organizational Judaism are almost all centered, we tend to work in silos, focused almost exclusively on our own organizational landscape. Planning across organizational lines, even within the same movement, can be extraordinarily frustrating. I felt none of that in London. And that felt extraordinarily good!

As I write this, tomorrow's itinerary includes being received by King Juan Carlos I in Zarzuela Palace, and by the President of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, in Moncloa Palace. Just another Thursday in the life…. not! Later in the day we'll be meeting with the American Ambassador as well. This continues to be an amazing experience, especially because the major item on our agenda- always- is the security and well-being of Israel. We get to "make the case" at the highest levels of the countries we visit, and then we wind up the mission in Jerusalem!

I consider myself most fortunate to have this opportunity, and coupled with last year's experiences in France and Israel, I shall certainly remember these few days for a very long time. A King and a President in the same day… as a young boy growing up I would never have dared to imagine an experience like this, and even as an adult, I still find myself feeling the unreality of it all. Once I get back to my office and see the pile of "to do" notes that have piled up, I'm sure the unreality will disappear all too quickly. But for now, there's nothing to do but savor the moment!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.