high holy days · sermon

The changing face of the Jewish family

Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like. 

How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing? 

OK, you can open your eyes again. 

Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family. 

Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.

Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.

Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up. 

You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family. 

If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.

The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype. 

Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children. 

In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac. 

But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright. 

Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two. 

Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.

Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like. 

The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children. 

Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be. 

So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.

Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none. 

In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.

Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.

Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case. 

The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us. 

Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours. 

So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.

And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.

Imagine the possibilities.

Shana tova. 

I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

sermon · torah

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Trauma. No matter what we do, it seems contagious. If we talk about it, we’re passing it on. If we ignore it, we’re leaving an elephant in the room. If we follow everything the psychologists say and talk about it in exactly the right way, apparently it can still show up in our children’s genes. As if the trauma itself wasn’t worrying enough, we now have to be concerned that it might be inescapably hereditary.

As I and my peers embark on parenting journeys, or make the conscious choice not to, many of us keep circling back to the question of what we do with Jewish neurosis. If we have children, when do we tell them about the Holocaust, or the pogroms, or our fears? Should we tell them? If we do not have children, what role do we play in shaping the communities in which young people are raised? 

These are intensely sensitive questions. I do not want to dictate to anyone how they should feel about them, nor to project my own concerns onto other people’s families. But this week marked the anniversary of the Kindertransporters arriving in Britain, and a magazine asked me to comment on my family’s experience. It would be for a non-Jewish audience. I realised that I have spoken more about the existential issues around the Shoah to non-Jews than I have within the community, and feel that a conversation is overdue. 

Often, I feel like these discussions only take place in private conversations. Few of us are willing to publicly acknowledge how intergenerational anxieties shape our communal responses to everything from government policy to synagogue membership statistics. 

In particular, while the previous generation of Jewish leaders had people who felt comfortable sharing their own experiences and reflections on our collective traumas, as generations are increasingly separated from the events that caused the anxiety, we have become less willing to discuss them. It seems we have decided to move on without explicitly saying how we intend to do so or where we plan to go.

If we want to look forward to a Jewish future, we must first acknowledge its past. That begins, of course, with the Torah. Genesis can be seen as an exploration of overcoming intergenerational trauma. The story of the human family begins with Adam and Eve, who are cast out of paradise and subjected to the first experiences of suffering and pain.

Their children are Cain and Abel. In the first parashah, one jealous brother murders another. The survivor, Cain, carries a scar that he will pass on to his descendants as a remembrance of that violence.

Generations pass, but that cycle of sibling rivalry continues. Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, keep up that conflict, spurred on by competitive parents. Ishmael is banished into the wilderness with his mother. Isaac is almost sacrificed on an altar. Isaac does not speak to Abraham again. He and Ishmael are only reunited at the point when Abraham dies, when they come together to bury him.

Isaac’s children fare no better. From the first moment, Jacob grabs Esau’s heel on the way out of the womb. Isaac and Rebecca seemingly pit their sons against each other. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Laban tries to kill Jacob. 

Now, at the point when this week’s parashah begins, we expect the violence to be heightened. Jacob is trepidant, fully expectant that Esau will also try to kill him. He sends envoys of gifts, goodwill and messages of peace. Esau comes out with four hundred men, and it looks like the two parties will have to prepare for all-out war. Instead, Jacob bows seven times before his brother. Esau runs up to Jacob, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and cries. At the final moments of this parashah, Jacob and Esau bury Isaac together.

Healing takes time. It can take centuries. The span from Cain and Able to Jacob and Esau is 20 generations. That was how long it took for those brothers to make the first steps towards acknowledging the trauma they had inherited and trying to reconcile. 

Healing can happen in an instant. All it took was for Jacob to show humility and Esau to show compassion. Tears, heartache, and honesty can do in a few minutes what years of failed initiatives cannot. It requires a decision not to be defined by the tumult of the past. 

This brings us to the present. The behaviours of the patriarchs might be likened to the trauma responses of some of our own community members in facing the tragedies of the past. Some chose Isaac’s path of silence. Some, like Jacob, could not bear to tell the truth. Some even took up Cain’s route and engaged in violence. And yes, some, like Esau, made the decision to leave the past behind them and find new meanings.

I am not casting judgement on how any individual has responded to their suffering. I think, most likely, each of us has adopted all of these postures at some point. But what concerns me is how, communally, the British Jewish community has decided to interpret the Holocaust. It seems that, in our communal press and many of our institutions, there has been a tacit, possibly even unconscious, decision, not to move on from the past. 

Instead, we are constantly re-traumatised, reminded that another genocide could await us at any moment if we are not completely vigilant to even the slightest threat, however real or imagined. During the build-up to the General Election a year ago, I had to patiently counsel many terrified older people that there was no existential threat to Jewish life, and they could still sleep safely in their homes. We should never have reached the point where they felt so scared. 

I look at some of our discourse and despair at raising a child in the Jewish community. What values are we communicating when almost every response is an anxious trigger, rather than a measured engagement with reality? I think there are some who believe that constantly teaching our children about Jewish suffering will convince them into remaining Jewish. Even if they are right, at what cost does their Judaism continue? If they are only affiliated out of guilt or paranoia, what quality of Jewish engagement do they really have?

This is why making the conscious choice of Esau is so important. About ten years ago, I followed my dad to the site of Saraspils concentration camp in Latvia. At that time, we believed that this had been the site where his grandparents were killed. We now know it was Auschwitz. But I am glad we believed it was Saraspils, because that was a good place to pay respects. Little remained of the camp or the technology of genocide. The area had grown over with trees and plants and grass. Life had ended there, but life had also continued. 

We said kaddish, remembered their names, and talked about our hopes for the future. Then, as we walked back, we talked about what we could do for those facing similar violence today. It was a recognition of the past, an opportunity to grieve, and a chance to translate that suffering into meaning. I felt like I had my moment of reconciliation, if only brief, and I think the rest of my family felt the same way.

In 1982, Rabbi David Hartman (zichrono livracha) warned Israeli civil society that they faced a choice between being defined by Auschwitz or by Sinai. At Auschwitz, we learnt the wickedness of which people were capable. At Sinai, we learnt the wonders of what God could do. The Israelis could either define themselves by the trauma of the gas chambers or by the miraculous moral message of revelation. 

That essay has been cited many times, but I don’t think the British Jewish community has yet accepted that it might have lessons for us too. We are also faced with the choice of structuring our lives as if they are a moral calling from God or as if they are a cause to be constantly afraid of the rest of humanity. Only once we realise that we have taken the wrong path will we stand a chance of facing up to our trauma, and beginning to heal.

Shabbat shalom.

Saraspils concentration camp memorial

I gave this sermon to Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Parashat Vayishlach on Shabbat 5th December 2020

high holy days · sermon

Grieving the Year

Stage 1. Denial

At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, the grief expert David Kessler described our relationship to these unprecedented times as a mourning process:

“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.”

No doubt, over the past 6 months, many of us have felt that complicated array of emotions associated with grief. Indeed, today, it is hard not to feel some anxiety and dissonance that we cannot do Yom Kippur in our usual ways.

Kessler suggests that the best way to face up to this feeling is to know the stages of grief and understand them. Denial. Bargaining. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance.

Each of these feelings is important and needs to be honoured. The Jewish tradition has much to teach us about them. In each of these difficult feelings there is holiness and meaning. I am going to tell Chassidic stories about each of these stages of grief, beginning with stage one: denial.

Rabbi Shmelke once asked the Maggid of Mezritch, to explain a difficult theological concept to him. He said: “Our sages teach that we should thank God for suffering as much as for wellbeing, and receive it with the same joy. How is that possible?”

The Maggid told him to seek out Zusya. Zusya had known nothing but poverty and heartbreak in his life. He had lost his children and lived with chronic illness. “He will explain suffering to you,” said the Maggid.

Rabbi Shmelke found Zusya at the House of Study and asked him the question: how is it possible to thank God for suffering? Zusya laughed: “You’ve come to the wrong person. I haven’t suffered a day in my life.”

As Rabbi Shmelke left the room, he realised that he must accept all suffering with love.[1

Stage 2: Bargaining

Abraham bargained with God to prevent the utter annihilation of Sodom. Moses bargained with God so that not all of Korach’s supporters would be killed. ‘Perhaps,’ thought an old Jew in Jerusalem, ‘I might be able to intercede with God too.’

So every day she went down to the Kotel – the Western Wall in the Old City. Each morning, she davened and prayed to God: “Sovereign of the Universe, I beseech you. Please bring an end to this plague and to economic crisis. Please put an end to the bush fires and the wars.”

“God,” she cried out at the Wailing Wall, “if you grant us peace and stability, I will devote every moment of my life to Torah and prayer. I will be the most righteous person in the world.’

She went down every week on Shabbat. And then every morning. And then three times a day. And then she was praying every day three times a day for months on end.

Her daughter asked her: “how do you feel with your new piety?”

“Like I’m talking to a brick wall.”

Stage 3: Anger

Once, Rebbe Levi Yitchok of Berditchev saw a tailor remonstrating as he prayed, throwing his fists up in the air. After the service, he called over the tailor to ask him what he’d been saying to God.

The tailor said: “I told God what was what. I said: ‘Listen, God, you want me to repent of my sins, but I’ve only committed minor offences compared to You. Sure, I don’t keep perfect shabbat or kosher, and I’m sorry about that. But You – You have taken away mothers from their babies and babies from their mothers. You have allowed all manner of injustice to continue. So let’s call it quits: You forgive me and I’ll forgive You.”

The Berditchever Rebbe laughed: “You’re a fool. You let God off far too easy. You should have demanded the Messiah and the redemption of Israel. That would have been a much fairer exchange.”[2

Stage 4: Sadness

Once, in the middle of the night, one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s children fell out of bed. Entirely engrossed in his studies, he did not hear the child’s cries. However, his father, the Alter Rebbe, heard the cries, closed his Torah books, and went to comfort the child. The Alter Rebbe later said to his son: “No matter how deeply immersed you are in holy pursuits, when a child cries you must hear it; you must stop what you’re doing and soothe their pain.”

So too: we must hear the crying child within us, and acknowledge our own pain.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Professor Aisha Ahmad is a political analyst in Canada, who has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, and Lebanon, often in some of the most challenging situations. She recently warned that, in her experience, the 6 month mark in a sustained crisis is always very difficult. She advises us:

“It’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out. This six month wall both arrives and dissipates like clockwork. So I don’t fight it anymore. We have already found new ways to live, love, and be happy under these rough conditions. Trust that the magic that helped you through the first phase is still there. You’ll be on the other side in no time.”

Once, Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchev was asked: “You are poor, rebbe, and yet every day you thank God for taking care of all your needs. Isn’t that a lie?”

“Not at all. You see, for me, poverty is what I need.”[3]


[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim: Early Masters, pp. 237-238

[2] Louis Newman, Hassidic Anthology, p. 57

[3] Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, p. 49