What British Rabbis Know That Their Israeli Counterparts Don't

As they zealously guard their political power, Israeli religious leaders are losing their influence over a generation of spiritual seekers: young, secular Jews. Not so in Britain.

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British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis.
British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis.

British Jews want nothing more than to eat crumpets thickly spread with jam and drink tea with the queen, but an unholy alliance of extremist rabbis and vicious anti-Semites spoils the fun, making Anglo Jewry a sad, scary place to be. These stereotypes of British Jewry have gained currency, and while Sara Hirschhorn avoided most of them in her recent opinion article for Haaretz, she too describes a nervous community dominated by overly-strict Orthodox rabbis.

My experience of the British Jewish community is markedly different to the one that Hirschhorn describes. In fact, as the British United Synagogue's Israel rabbi, I believe this organization of Jewish communities has much to teach rabbinical leaders in Israel.

The ingenuity of the British United Synagogue is that it provides a warm, welcoming umbrella for tens of thousands of Jews whose lifestyles range from the most religious to the most secular. British rabbis recognize that they are powerless. Unlike their Israeli counterparts, who can enforce elements of Jewish law via legislation, they cannot coerce anyone into doing anything. If they fail to inspire their communities, the result could be rampant assimilation. So they must always deliver a Judaism that is appealing and relevant. In an effort to enhance their success in leading communities, they all undergo training to ensure that they have not only the rabbinical knowledge, but the professional skills too.

British rabbis dedicate their days to caring for the sick, supporting the bereaved, celebrating simchas, and teaching Torah. They are community builders who do not distinguish between the saints, the scholars and the sinners. They know that every Jew matters and every Jew has something to contribute. Opening the synagogue doors wide and reaching out to include every Jew is the United Synagogue's mission.

Today the United Synagogue shows increasing confidence. Its new learning program in memory of the Holocaust Victims, "70 days for 70 years," has gone global. Its rabbis proudly attend Limmud Conferences to teach the entire Jewish community. Tribe, the United Synagogue's youth division, alongside Bnei Akiva and other youth movements, reach out to young Jews across Britain, offering trips and educational programs. All this in an effort to stem assimilation and connect young Jews to their heritage.

British Jews take deep pride in their leaders. Anglo Jewry's last two chief rabbis, Jonathan Sacks and Immanuel Jakobovits, sat in the House of Lords and became internationally acclaimed religious leaders. My teacher, the head of the Sephardi Community, Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, was also honored by the queen for his work. Prime ministers and the heads of other faiths took notice of these rabbis because they were great leaders with outstanding moral authority. Chief Rabbi of Britain Ephraim Mirvis, who took office in late 2013, is following in their footsteps.

British Jews exert great political influence and their voices are heard. At a Downing Street reception just a few months ago, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with glowing admiration for the Jewish community, praising its ability to maintain its unique identity while integrating into the mainstream of British society.

If only the Israeli rabbis could learn to be more like those in the United Kingdom. While Israel is paradise for its religious-Jewish minority – which enjoys the state's synagogues and study halls, among the most vibrant in the world – its secular majority is faced with an established rabbinate that does not cater to them. Rabbinical leaders in Israel, who succeed magnificently in so many areas, fail to capitalize on opportunities to inspire and engage secular youth with their Jewish heritage. While they zealously guard their political power, Israeli religious leaders lose their influence over a generation of spiritual seekers.

Israel is our home. Its scenery is the setting of the Bible, its people are the people of the book and its soldiers are modern Jewish heroes. As a passionate Zionist, I am proud to live here and I believe it's where we all belong.

But we dare not be arrogant. We should have the humility to learn from Diaspora communities, especially that of Britain, to be more inclusive. Our rabbis must take the lead in demonstrating how our faith can create a strong, tolerant society that will inspire Jews and cause the entire world to respect the beauty and integrity of our faith.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi.

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