In a skillful if accidental departure between snowstorms, I am leaving today (Thursday) to spend a long weekend in London, and then connecting with the Conference of Presidents Mission in Spain next week, which will visit Madrid and Toledo and then proceed to Jerusalem. Under any circumstances, having the opportunity to visit these places would be special, especially with the COP mission. But on the most prosaic of levels, knowing that I’ll be in hotels for two weeks and not responsible for snow removal feels like a serious add-on benefit (with all appropriate apologies to my wife, who is not traveling with me).
The first leg of this trip, to London, brings me to Golders Green for Shabbat, where I will be delivering the sermon at the New North London Masorti Synagogue, home to my distinguished colleague Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg. This wonderful opportunity grew out of having met the President of Masorti Olami, the worldwide organization of Masorti congregations (Conservative in North America is called Masorti world-wide), at a conference in Buenos Aires last year.
This wonderful woman, Gillian Caplin, who wrote an op-ed in The Jewish Week a month or two ago, has been a driving force in furthering the cause of Masorti Judaism not only in England, but also throughout Europe. It was she who first invited me, in my capacity as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, to spend a Shabbat in her congregation. Rabbi Wittenberg was kind enough to extend the invitation to share his pulpit, and the trip was planned. As it happened, the Shabbat that I could get away led directly into the Conference of Presidents trip, and also coincided with a UK-wide Yom Iyyun (day of study) for Masorti congregations, to be held in London on Sunday. Perfect timing! It will be my privilege to participate in that as well.
There is ample good reason to be looking forward to spending Shabbat in London with friends and colleagues, and it doesn’t take all that much imagination to think of them. As it is, I have long believed that one of the best investments lay leaders can make in the vitality of their synagogues, wherever in the world they might me, is to afford their clergy a regular opportunity to visit other synagogues on Shabbat.
When rabbis and cantors spend each and every Shabbat and holiday in the same sacred space, especially when we, the clergy, are responsible for “producing” the service, it is hard to avoid allowing the service to become routinized. I have always found it wonderfully refreshing to see how other colleagues do what I do, some similarly, some very, very differently. Invariably, even when their approach is radically different from my own, I almost always come away impressed by their talent, and moved by the capacity to be spiritually uplifted in ways that I had not imagined.
That is true in America. It is even truer when one travels to another country entirely.
I am in no way an expert in the workings of the Jewish community of England, but even a relatively brief stay in London a few short years ago left me stunned by the degree to which the Arab presence in London had become so overwhelming. As it happens, there is an increasing Muslim presence here in central Queens (New York, that is), and it is totally common to see Muslim women wearing the hijab shopping shoulder to shoulder with Orthodox Jewish women in sheitels at our large Kosher supermarkets here, because of Kosher products being accepted as Hallal. I’ve gotten completely used to it.
But the Arab/Muslim presence in London is very different. To be sure, Arab oil money is all over London, and many of the fanciest stores and hotels are Arab-owned. But the sense of an Arab/Muslim presence in the city as a whole is palpable, in the same way that people speak of New York as having a Jewish ambience.
I remember walking through Notting Hill, which my wife and I were anxious to visit because of associations with it from the movie with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and leaving with the distinct impression that the neighborhood was, ethnically speaking, far more Muslim in character than it was represented in the movie. That is not, of course, intended as an indictment of the neighborhood, or its residents- just a statement of fact. I have to believe that having such a strong and still growing Muslim presence in the city impacts the nature of Jewish life there, if only on a subliminal level.
Of course, Golders Green is an overwhelmingly Jewish area of London, and Jewish life there is rich in both history and culture. But still- I look forward to hearing about what it means to be living an active and involved Jewish life in London today.
I checked the weather forecasts for London, Madrid, and Jerusalem. The temperature range is not all that different from what we are having here– mostly thirties and forties during the day– but nowhere did I see any indication of snow. I’ll sign off on that right now!
I hope to be able to write next week; for now, Shabbat Shalom!