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Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s Sermon. Milton keynes & district reform synagogue

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Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s Sermon.


Hove, Weybridge, Southport, Milton Keynes and Sharston – my out-of-the-ghetto appearances for September to November. I like to be obliging, so I make discreet enquiries as to whether there is any particular theme that people would like me to adopt in the sermon. I got a rather plaintive response from Zvi: “The problem of survival for the Jewish religion or individual when living away from the main centres. Our synagogue has survived and developed but continuity is not guaranteed and the younger generation are not easily inspired to deepen their Judaism in spite of our efforts. So some words of advice or cheer would be welcome”.
In a British Jewish community declining by 1% a year, a decline partially masked by the ultra-orthodox birth rate, I know that many of those inside the ghetto share Zvi’s anxiety. The decline of religion in general in this country, the assimilative nature of secularism – they make religious cheer a tall order. But I’m going to try. However, not quite in the way you might think.
I was sitting in a dinner at the Mansion House to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of the Jews to England – two and a half years ago. A well-rounded, middle-aged gentleman came up to me and introduced himself. He said he was Ian Luder, an Alderman of the City of London. Some of you will know that the City of London has its own local government with ceremonies that go back nearly 700 years, to the time of Dick Whittington. The Aldermen seem to combine marketing the country’s banking and financial services industry with dressing up in funny hats and tights.
Ian explained that his father, Mike, had been Head of Maths at a large boys’ comprehensive school in Hackney when my father had been Headmaster. We chatted and exchanged the usual platitudes about how small the Jewish world is.
About a year later, Alderman Luder contacted me again. He was about to become one of the two Sheriffs of London and would I be his chaplain? I asked what this might involve. He seemed to want me to attend banquets and swan around the Old Bailey for which the two Sheriffs are responsible. As a glutton and former criminologist, I seemed to fit the bill, so I agreed with one proviso. He needed to join a Reform synagogue. He’d grown up in our Southgate shul where his family – parents and sister – are still members. But he himself lived out in Bedfordshire and wasn’t a great shul goer.
He also hinted that if things went well, he might become Lord Mayor of London and get to ride in the golden coach at the Lord Mayor’s Show. I vaguely recollected that the Lord Mayor’s Show took place on a Saturday but mentally filed the issue – no point in worrying about things that were probably never going to happen. During September – when I was weekending in Weybridge and Hove – Ian Luder was elected the 681st Lord Mayor of London.
I want now to take you through four days in my rabbinic life a fortnight ago. And I still haven’t forgotten Zvi’s question.
During his shrieval year (year as a Sheriff to non-City types), I’d got to know, like and admire, Ian and his non-Jewish wife Lin very much. Ian is one of those Jews who has a strong sense of his Jewish identity but for whom shul going and many traditional observance have ceased to feature. He’s an accountant with one of the top City firms but, perhaps surprisingly, did a long stint as a Labour Councillor in Bedford before turning his attention to the very different world of the governance of the City. I suspect the spell as a Labour Councillor reflected the social concerns of his father – and mine – teaching the underprivileged in Hackney.
Ian chose two chaplains – the Rector of the Church in his Ward in the City and me. He didn’t hide his Jewish identity but during his shrieval year it didn’t figure very large.
On, now, to Friday two weeks ago. 9.00am rehearsal (I’ve been to more rehearsals than Laurence Olivier including one at 5.30am) followed by breakfast at the Guildhall. Breakfast was ‘his call’. It was vast but at its heart were upmarket bacon butties for those who so chose and substantial smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels for others. I smiled inwardly.
Then came the so-called Silent Ceremony at which he was formally appointed Lord Mayor of London. The ceremony is always followed by a church service – ironically at St Lawrence Jewry. Ian had hired several London buses and 150 leading members of the City were bussed to West London Synagogue for a 5.00pm special service.
It was a fantastic opportunity for me to formulate a 45 minute service and I chose to focus on that which Jews and Christians share (we sang the 23rd Psalm twice – first in Hebrew and then to Crimmond), on our civic responsibilities and on Jewish business ethics.
Ian’s the 9th Jewish Lord Mayor of London. I asked him to read Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God on its behalf”. His most recent Jewish predecessor, Lord Levene, also took part in the service and read a passage from medieval Spain about the responsibilities of a Jew who takes public office. I gave a ten minute sermon on Jewish business ethics and the illegitimacy of free markets unless they’re regulated by the biblical values of honesty, integrity, transparency and concern for others, what I termed righteousness.
We finished at quarter to six and many people stayed on for the West London six o’clock Erev Shabbat service.
The following day, the Saturday of the Lord Mayor’s Show, dawned grey and chilly. David Jacobs and I set off for the Guildhall at 6.15am and by 7.30 we’d started the first ever full Shabbat morning service to be held at the Guildhall – complete with Sefer Torah. The congregation consisted of Jewish members of City livery companies, members of the Reform Movement Board and some non-Jews who’d enjoyed their first visit to synagogue the previous afternoon.
I then got taken by police Landrover to Mansion House where I watched the Lord Mayor’s Show from the balcony. I was impressed at how much the Lord Mayor’s focus is on supporting charities for the deprived in London. I also had a narrow escape. My grandchildren were watching a recording of the Show that afternoon and spotted me first declining and then eating a sausage. Thankfully, Clare Balding made it clear that Ian Luder had assured me that it was a specially-made-for-the occasion lamb sausage.
But those of you who read the Jewish Chronicle may have noticed that I didn’t get away from ‘shock horror’ completely. Last week’s JC contained the following letter headed ‘Shabbat Shock’:
I am not observant. But my reaction on seeing Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform Movement, riding in the Lord Mayor’s carriage on Shabbat was one of disbelief!
Yes, I did join my Lord Mayor in the coach. Since we travel on Shabbat, it wasn’t the act of travelling that caused me to think but the purpose – was travelling in the Lord Mayor’s coach a suitable activity for Shabbat?
If I’d had any doubts, they were banished a few minutes later. I did my fair share of waving to the 400,000 people who lined the route despite the rain and the cold. I’m now thinking that should a vacancy for a minor royal occur, I might apply since I’m rather good at waving at people and it seems like quite an easy way to earn a crust. We came to St Paul’s where the Lord Mayor is blessed on the steps of St Paul’s by the Dean. Instead of the normal ‘Through Jesus Christ our Lord’ blessing, the Dean substituted, ‘Yevarechecha’ ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ from the Book of Numbers and instead of presenting him with a New Testament, he gave him a Hebrew bible. If leaders of the Church are prepared to be flexible in their approach to Jews participating in civic life, then we Jews need to show flexibility as well.
The Lord Mayor’s Show has taken place on a Saturday for 681 years and wasn’t going to be changed for anyone. The previous Jewish Lord Mayor of London, back in 1998, was advised to walk behind the coach. He didn’t.
Fast forwarding through Remembrance Sunday, the Cenotaph and the induction of Rabbi Middleton at Middlesex New Synagogue – inside the ghetto – we come to Monday evening and the Lord Mayor’s banquet. For the coming twelve months, there will be no pork or shellfish on the menu of the many City banquets Ian Luder (and I) have to attend. For the Lord Mayor’s banquet the menu proclaimed that the usual bread roll had been replaced by a chollah roll. My grace before meals gave me the opportunity to emphasise the need for balance between Torah, Jewish values and kemach, flour, the material necessities of life. And the Lord Mayor, in his speech, quoted from ‘my Chaplain’ as saying at ‘my special service at West London Synagogue’ that the markets have to be regulated by the ancient values of honesty, transparency and concern for the rights of others.
So what has all this got to do with Milton Keynes and the challenge of maintaining Jewish life in an area where there are so few Jews and so much reluctance amongst the young to make their identity anything more than merely superficial? Two things.
First, orthodox Judaism exists for those Jews who respond to a seemingly timeless, traditional way of being Jewish and living a Jewish life. I’ve great respect for open-minded, tolerant, orthodox Judaism. Reform Judaism, however, is not watered down orthodoxy but a different Jewish response to modernity, a response which has particular appeal for people who are physically as well as spiritually far removed from the orthodox milieu. What I hope you heard was Reform Judaism saying as follows: We Jews live in a non-Jewish society. We want to fulfil our civic obligations, play a full part in society, contribute to it and yet remain faithful to our own evolving, developing tradition and particularly its underlying values. What Ian and I worked out was how that was possible.
We introduced a large number of non-Jews to the synagogue and to synagogue services and made those services welcoming and accessible. I’ve never had such feedback both about feeling welcome and also about the message, the values, the Jewish commitment to righteousness conveyed by the services. We exposed people to Jewish ethics that could not be more relevant than today as Ian Luder shoulders the extraordinarily heavy burden of trying to restore the good name of the City and Britain’s financial services industry at a time when it’s taken an almighty battering. We celebrated Shabbat. And we also played a full part in an ancient and much-prized English pageant with floats which have a strong ethical content.
Second, I, Ian’s rabbi and chaplain, was with him ever inch of the way. I went where he was. We engaged fully with his world and found a way in which his Jewish identity could shine through. That’s the very essence of Reform Judaism. It doesn’t work holding out a blueprint for which people have no time and in which people have no belief. It would have been a failure of my role to tell Ian what he must or must not do and then let him get on with it regardless. It is painful and challenging to say that Reform Judaism doesn’t work completely even if the synagogue offers a whole range of wonderful programmes and says to people, ‘Come on in’. Because many won’t. We have to go out to them, engage with them, understand that the Jewish journey takes many paths and our job is to touch people where they are and facilitate, guide, prompt their individual Jewish journey. It’s very hard. You never quite know when someone will want to be reached and will be open to the changes that they need to make in their life to give it Jewish depth and to make it more meaningful.
There are 2 billion Christians in the world 1.2 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and 14 million Jews. In Britain there are 267,000 Jews and it sometimes seems as though all of them live in Golders Green. But there are Jewish communities in Hove, Weybridge, Southport, Sharston, and even a small community in Milton Keynes. Which has been raising the Jewish flag and continuing the Jewish journey for thirty years.
You are real heroes. I spent 13½ years working outside of North West London, with a community of only seventy families at first. It’s extraordinarily tough. Too few people. No communal facilities. Scarce resources. No helpful social pressure. The forces of secularism getting stronger and stronger. Yet you’ve sustained Jewish life in the face of huge challenges for thirty years. I take my kippah off to you. No its not an Arsenal kippah or Manchester United – God forbid. It says inside: “Alderman Ian Luder Lord Mayor of London 2008-09”. Go out to people, engage, be with them on their journey and you too may find yourselves in a golden coach waving to cheering crowds on the streets of Milton Keynes.
This sermon was reproduced with the kind permission of Rabbi Bayfield's office.

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