So this slot at the AGM has been billed as an update, a chance for me to tell you about all the “stuff” I’ve been doing in my role in Community Outreach, the activities I’ve helped organise, the events I’ve hosted, the members I’ve brought in as volunteers…..but I don’t actually want to talk to you about any of that!
I’m conscious that many people see me as a community do-er, someone who makes things happen, who “does stuff” at Sinai – but do you realise that’s not what my role is supposed to be?
The role was initially funded by a lottery grant to help us navigate the unchartered waters we faced during the first lockdown and enabled us to rapidly accelerate our online offering, ensuring our community could stay together, all be it virtually during those long months when we stayed at home. As we gradually emerged, the role changed to one of “doing” organising small group tashlich, doorstep deliveries for the yom tavim and gradually re-starting our toddler and youth groups, to ensure families retained their connection to our community.
With the ending of lottery funding, and the departure of Rabbi Strasko, a more urgent need was explicit and the role was reconceived in February ‘21 with a more strategic aim – and here I quote from my job spec - to “Work alongside and support the work of Trustees and the interim staff team, including education and sessional staff, whilst we develop new creative approaches to enhance the membership experience” I am proud that there have been many successes along the way - a new youth group, informal family learning opportunities, regular Friday night suppers, study lunches, adult learning both in person and through our wider Northern network, members being encouraged and mentored into new leadership positions as trustees, the rabbininc recruitment working party and in new initiatives such as the Chevrae and Rosh Chodesh groups. But as time has gone on, it has become evident that this approach is simply not enough…..
We read a great deal about how Covid has changed everything about our lives – how we work, how we socialise, how we connect with one another and how we express our culture and faith. Or has it? I think it would be more accurate to say it has rapidly and profoundly accelerated trends which have been emergent for some time – trends which if ignored, leave us as a community vulnerable to being left behind, marginalised and increasingly irrelevant to the majority of our members. Circumstances mean that we now have no Rabbi, no religion school, no youth or early years worker….We cannot hope to simply recreate what we had or did before, only this time with fewer paid staff hours, limited rabbinic leadership and relying on an increasingly tired yet willing group of volunteers…..we can do better than this; our membership, our children deserve better than this!
I’d like to share a drash with you, originally written by R. David Seidenberg for Limmud North America and more recently shared by Eva Frojmovic fromm Leeds Masorti which speaks to me of the journey we are on and the learnings we can take from it, using the Jewish concept of Jubilee as a metaphor for the radical change we need to commence:
“It's not enough to leave Egypt -- we need to understand what we are leaving behind and where we are heading. To do that, we need to explore not just the 49 steps of the journey from Egypt to Sinai, but also the 49-year journey that ends in the Jubilee year.
Jubilee is the fiftieth year, the year after the seventh Shmita or Sabbatical year. In Shmita, we “re-wild” the land – gathering produce from any field we wish, never hoarding what grows, taking down fences to let wild animals share food alongside us. At the end of Shmita, all debts between people are cancelled – we become equals once again.
The vision underlying this Jewish Jubilee is that society needs a radical overhaul at least once in a generation, and more frequent re-tuning – every seven years – in order to reflect the divine intention for humanity and the earth. It's not enough to be good people doing good deeds. We also need to let go, undo and remake our relationships with each other and the land. Jubilee is “a time of rebirth for the whole world, grounded in divinely-given freedom” (Rav Kook). It teaches us that it is not too late to remake our society and ourselves, to fix this world.
So what will it take for us to be a community who not only survives – but thrives, for the next 70 years and beyond?!
It will take courage to have difficult conversations, bravery to experiment & take risks (perhaps echoing Rabbbi Seidenberg’s idea of gathering produce from every field), a willingness to call out language or attitudes which – deliberately or otherwise – cause hurt, disappointment, or division (taking down fences referred to in the drash). And most of all acceptance that rebuilding ,re-widling, re-imagining means being prepared to challenge the status quo – (undoing and remaking our relationships with each other and our community)
A new way of approaching our challenges which stands firmly on the shoulders of our founding generation; honouring our traditions yet at the same time conceiving a community fit for future generations to take forward. To do this we will have to engage in the big questions:
What role and purpose does Sinai play in our lives and Jewish identities? How does membership of Sinai inform my Jewish life? Where does spirituality lie within our community? What are we really here for?
Much good work has already been done to garner insight into these questions - Judy Plaut’s pivotal Living Judaism work, multiple reviews of our education provision, a powerful consultation led by Sara Bordorley, feedback from the most recent Education Working Group - all of which demonstrate a belief in and a determination to bring about change, not for change’s sake but rather to help shape and build a progressive Jewish community in Leeds which we would be proud to be part of, and play our role in.
Moving forwards, this will be the primary focus of my work with the community – again quoting from my role spec, “providing mentoring, skills development and guidance to help (members) develop creative ideas ….and act as a central point of knowledge and support, adding capacity to the work of Trustees.”
In recent months, so many members have already reached out to me with frustrations & disappointment in our community, concern that their voices are not heard, and their needs are not met. But they also share ideas, possibilities, nuggets of powerful insight and a desire to do better. We must both hear and acknowledge the sadness and frustration, and then find the energy and determination to begin imagining, planning, budgeting and co-constructing a vibrant Sinai community, fit for purpose for future generations of progressive Jews in Leeds. These conversations are crucial to help shape, focus and steer both our building and recruitment working parties, and more fundamentally to help us create a cohesive and strongly articulated vision of who we are at Sinai, what we stand for and what we aspire to be.
So, rather than organising, publicising and hosting groups and events, my work will now shift towards a more tactical and leadership focused agenda – again quoting from my role spec - to
“Contribute towards a strategic plan to support Sinai in its transition to new ways of operating as it formulates its needs and vision for the next 5 years”
Tonight’s report serves as an invitation to you all to join this conversation and imagine with me. All I ask is that you agree to the following set of principles which will guide our conversation and plans:
Together, we will create a safe space to engage with the rhythms of Jewish life together.
- We will remain wholeheartedly committed to vibrant progressive Jewish spaces and community, and continue to seek to engage with like minded people who together will create a community that serves one another, and the wider world, inspired by our Jewish values, heritage and culture
- We are Judaism’s current guardians; we feel a responsibility to know it, to connect deeply with it, to struggle with it, to practice it, to teach it and to pass it on lovingly to the next generation.
I dearly hope that this speaks to you and you will want to step up and play your part in creating this new vision of Jewish community. Please be in touch to join the conversation.