January is generally a dreary month in the northern hemisphere. And yet, set at the heart of winter, January also ushers in new beginnings. Across the world, the Jewish people marks Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat with the New Year for Trees – Rosh Ha-Shanah La-Ilanot – as in Israel, the almond blossom appears on the trees. This year, Tu Bishvat falls on Sunday, 20th January. And then, a week later, on National Holocaust Memorial Day, we will recall the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on 27th January 1945, which marked the beginning of the end of the Sho’ah.
In late December, I was conscious of a much less familiar date: the 145th anniversary of the birth of Lily Montagu, one of the three founders of Liberal Judaism, who was born on 22nd December 1873. Lily Montagu died in 1963, at the age of 89, and between Tu Bishvat and National Holocaust Memorial Day, on 22nd January, it will be her yahrzeit.
Limitation of space allows me to share just a few key highlights from her life. At the age of 20, together with her elder sister Marion (1868-1965), and their cousin, Beatrice Franklin (1871-1959), who later married Herbert Samuel (1870-1963), Lily Montagu founded the West Central Jewish Girls Club. The aim of the club was to give working-class Jewish girls the opportunity to develop themselves through classes, concerts and outings – and also through Shabbat services which she led. During this time, Lily also led services for children at the West Central Synagogue.
It was also during this time that Lily Montagu met the Jewish scholar, Claude Montefiore (1858-1938), whose vision of Liberal Judaism mirrored her own approach to living as a committed Jew in the modern world. In January 1899, she published an essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review, entitled, ‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today’, which encapsulated the worldview of Liberal Judaism. She wrote: “Together we must sift, with all reverence the pure from the impure in the laws which our ancestors formulated in order to satisfy the needs of the age…”
The commitment to respond positively to ‘the needs of the age’ became a cornerstone of Liberal Judaism, which first found organisational expression in February 1902 with the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union. Open to all Jews interested in reflecting on how to live as Jews today, services were held on Shabbat afternoons to enable Jews of all denominations to attend. However, by 1909, opposition from some Orthodox quarters led to the decision to reformulate the JRU as a movement dedicated to the ‘Advancement of Liberal Judaism’.
In the years that followed, Lily Montagu helped to found Liberal synagogues around the country, and in 1928 became lay minister of the West Central Synagogue, a position she held until her death in 1963. In 1925, she helped found the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and was responsible for running the WUPJ from 1926 through 1959, including organising its international conferences; the first of which was held in Berlin in 1928. Today, the WUPJ is the largest global Jewish organisation with affiliates around the world, including, in this country, both Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism. Zichronah livrachah – May her memory be for blessing; a source of continual blessing as we respond to ‘the needs of the age’ in the 21st-century.