Some of those who are gathered here today can remember back to 1935. For those who can’t – and that includes me – just try and imagine what life was like in the mid-1930s: the depression had taken hold, Hitler was in power in Germany, Mosley was preparing to march through the streets of the Jewish East End… Was it a hopeful time – or was it is a fearful time? Judging by the way the founders of this congregation went about establishing a Liberal presence in what had hitherto been an Orthodox Jewish community that had been ensconced since the early 1800s, one might say that on balance, those went about transforming 29 New Church Road into a synagogue, felt optimistic about the future. Indeed, their vision was rewarded: within two years, the congregation had become so successful that it moved to new premises here at 6 Lansdowne Road – indeed, took up residence in a 1930s building that reflected perfectly the modern outlook of the members of Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue.
What did it mean to be a Liberal synagogue back in those days? It meant being part of a Liberal movement in Jewish life that began in Germany in 1810, and was founded in this country in 1902. Apart from the observance of Shabbat and most of the festivals, it meant giving priority to ethical teachings and values over ritual practices, like the dietary laws of kashrut. It meant treating the genders equally when it came to life-cycle moments and participation in religious services and study. It meant a much shortened liturgy and conducting the greater part of Shabbat and Festival services in English. It meant a more formal approach to music with the use of choir and an organ.
The list goes on… One cannot underestimate how radical and innovatory Liberal Judaism in England was in the early decades of the 20th century; it was very modern, very avant-garde, very different from traditional Judaism – indeed, for those Jews were not Liberal it did not seem Jewish at all, and in a very crucial sense it wasn’t: Liberal Judaism, like Rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, although rooted in Jewish tradition, was an entirely new form of Jewish life. While Orthodox Judaism responded to modernity by building a fence around the Torah, Liberal Judaism embraced modernity with all its democratic values – not least, modernity’s rationalist impulse and belief in progress.
Ah … progress … when Liberal Judaism was first founded in this country in 1902, progress was taken for granted; to paraphrase that overused new Labour slogan of the 1997 General Election: things could ‘only get better’ … – but unfortunately, they didn’t: the First World War, with its tragic and catastrophic loss of the lives of so many thousands of young men; the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s, which led to the annihilation of one third of the Jewish people and the murder of hundreds of thousands of other groups – Gypsies, gay men, the disabled – all those who did not meet the Aryan notion of perfection. In a way, when this synagogue was founded in 1935, the ideal of progress had already been severely tarnished and was on the verge of being obliterated by the forces of irrational hatred – although the optimistic founders of BHLS probably did not realise it at the time. So, progress had already had its day in 1935. But despite the challenges brought by the Second World War, after it was over the membership of BHLS grew, activities expanded – not least, the legendary youth club, first set up in 1946, that managed to keep going with its increasingly un-youthful membership for many years, drawing in people from the wider Jewish community to participate in its varied and enjoyable range of programmes and events.
Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue was ‘the place to be’ for so many people during those years. At the same time, gradually, during the 70s and 80s, the impact of the Sh’oah began to make itself felt – both the scale of the loss of six million individual lives, and the loss of thousands of Jewish communities across the continent of Europe. And so, led by a new post-war generation of rabbis, this congregation, together with its sister congregations elsewhere, began to become aware of its responsibility to maintain the traditions of Jewish life. In the words of the late Emil Fackenheim, we refused to ‘give Hitler a posthumous victory’. But the Sho’ah was not the only impetus: the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, created a new self-confident Jewish presence in the world, and the transformation of Britain into a multicultural society gave Jewish congregations a new reason to celebrate Jewish distinctiveness. And so, following the lead of the Liberal movement, this congregation began to reclaim many of the rituals and practices that had seemed so irrelevant back in the heady days of the dawn of the 20th century.
To some of those whose Liberal Jewish identity was formed during the first decades of Liberal Judaism, these developments have looked like a backward step – and worse: a retreat into ‘orthodoxy’. At the same time, it is clear to everyone, including ‘classical’ Liberals, that the changes in Liberal Jewish life in general over the past thirty years or so, and in this congregation, in particular, have been much more complex: on the one hand, we now have a prayer-book that we call a Siddur, using the traditional name, that opens from right to left and follows the rabbinic order of the service; on the other hand, that same Siddur, includes a covenant ceremony for daughters, alongside the traditional b’rit milah ceremony for sons. On the one hand, Bar Mitzvah has made a comeback; on the other hand, girls also celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah on equal terms, and Confirmation at age 17 has been transformed into Kabbalat Torah with young people choosing to continue their Jewish learning for a further two years after they have become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. On the one hand, we have reintroduced the commemoration of Tishah B’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the first and second Temples; on the other hand, we do so with a new liturgy that includes, both, all the destructions of the Jewish people, and remembrance of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001. On the one hand, the synagogue kitchen is now kosher; on the other hand, the synagogue not only promotes ethical eating, including fair-trade, championing justice and inclusion in every area of life, it openly includes, and indeed welcomes and celebrates mixed faith couples, lesbian and gay individuals and couples, single people, and a wide variety of individuals, with complex histories and journeys, some of whom are Jewish, some of whom are Jew-ish, and some of whom are not Jewish at all.
When, back in the mid-1980s, Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue changed its name to Brighton Hove Progressive Synagogue to signal its hope that it might be possible for the Liberal and Reform movements to merge, the congregation also, without realising it, reinvented the word ‘progressive’ for a new era in which simple progress was a thing of the past. And so, this progressive synagogue stands for and embraces everything that is forward-looking, open, inclusive, egalitarian and centred on the promotion of justice and human rights. And yet, we know that things won’t simply ‘get better’: we have to take responsibility for ensuring that our values are translated into practice each and every day – not least, in the way we respond, both, to those who cross the threshold, and to individuals and groups in the wider community.
For the past three weeks an exhibition of the history and life of the congregation has been on display, thanks, in particular, to the hard work of Betty Skolnick one of the vice- presidents. As we look back and reminisce, and also savour events of the more recent past, I hope we feel proud of who we are, what we are and what we have achieved, and that we feel a sense of gratitude for the leadership of successive Councils over the years, and for the contribution made by all the rabbis and lay ministers, who shaped the life of the congregation: Rabbi Goldberg and refugee Rabbi Lemle, Revd. Archie Fay, Rabbis Baylinson, Richards, Sirtes, Benjamin, Ginsbury and Wallach, Aubrey Milstein, whose passing we mourned in August 2008, and, during the 1990s, Rabbis Wolff and Glantz.
I also hope that we look forward to the future with that same optimism and expectation that emboldened our founders to establish Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue in 1935. I have now been rabbi of BHPS since December 2000. Before I close, I would like to end by sharing with you my vision of the years ahead. As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, my hope is that the kind of future we are journeying towards includes seven strands, which woven together will make the fabric of congregational life, vibrant, strong, flexible, whole and enduring:
1. A commitment to life-long Jewish learning that translates into a full programme of Jewish educational opportunities for members and friends of all ages
2. A ‘Keeping in Touch’ network of caring interactions across the congregation that ensures that ‘contact’ takes place not only between the synagogue professionals and lay leaders and ‘the rest’ of the congregation, but also between people of all ages, with activities taking place in people’s homes as well as in the synagogue building
3. A pallet of Shabbat activities – including, meditation, discussion and dance, as well as a variety of services – running parallel with one another, enabling people with a variety of interests, passions and needs to express their differing ways of being Jewish and celebrating Shabbat, before gathering in one place at the end of the morning to celebrate kiddush and eat together.
4. Active participation in Jewish life beyond the synagogue doors: in the local Jewish community and its cross-communal activities, in the national movement of Liberal Judaism, in Progressive Judaism across the world, and, in particular, in Israel
5. Engagement with the wider non-Jewish community of Brighton and Hove and beyond, encompassing multi-faith encounter and study, cross-cultural and social justice initiatives, ecological projects, and ‘arts and culture’ events that are part of the city calendar
6. The re-configuring of the festivals, beyond the provision of worship services, to create links between all the different dimensions of synagogue life, and with the wider community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, so that the festivals don’t just ‘happen’ on particular dates, the themes of the different festivals, provide a framework for the whole year, connecting together both people and the key activities associated with each theme. And, finally:
7. The fostering of a ‘participatory democracy’ culture at BHPS to ensure maximum involvement of all the different ‘constituencies’ within the synagogue in the development of the congregation.
We are 75 years young and going strong. As we pause on the threshold between the past and the future, please join with me in giving thanks to the Eternal One, with the words of the Shehecheyanu, the blessing for new experiences and special moments:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higi’anu laz’man ha-zeh.
Blessed of are You, Eternal One, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, 22nd May 2010 – 9th Sivan 5770