Articles on early history
Why Reform? Published in the Edinburgh Star, 2000
On October 6th 1997,over 40 people crowded into a living room in the New Town in response to an invitation from the Glasgow New Synagogue (GNS) to join an Erev Shabbat service. The numbers and enthusiasm of the people attending were a welcome surprise to GNS members in Edinburgh. The Glasgow New Synagogue is the only Reform-affiliated synagogue in Scotland, and some of us Edinburgh members had long felt that Glasgow should not have all the glory! Since that first service we have been able to sustain regular activity in Edinburgh, and have recently constituted ourselves formally into the Edinburgh Reform Jewish Community. In this article we take up the kind invitation of the Editor of the Star to introduce ourselves to its readers.
The main impetus to get together in Edinburgh came from the practical and social difficulties of belonging to a synagogue in a city 50 miles away. Having to travel to Glasgow for every service and synagogue activity may not present us with ethical problems, but the practical ones remain! Besides, we were aware that an important part of our tradition lies in local community consciousness, and we wanted to work within that. In this we have been successful - our events have a very local, informal and (we hope) welcoming feel to them. Under our formal Constitution, we are an affiliated group of the Glasgow New Synagogue, sharing its aim of giving Judaism renewed meaning for its present-day adherents by seeking to balance ancient faith and tradition with modern wisdom and understanding. Our membership rules are the same as for the GNS and the Reform Movement generally, although we have two kinds of members - those who belong only to the Edinburgh Community, and those who are also full members of the GNS. Our membership numbers are still uncertain, because we only gave a formal basis to the group a little while ago, and we are still contacting the many people who have attended our events in the past. We expect though, to have over 50 members when the dust settles, drawn mainly from Edinburgh but including the Lothians, the Borders, Fife and even the Highlands! The community encompasses all age groups from the very young to the quite mature, with widely varied backgrounds, and we hope that this helps us to create an atmosphere welcoming to all. We value everyone, but we are expecially pleased to have the sustained involvement of the children, many of whom also attend the weekly Religion School at the GNS.
Community activity centres around services, of which the most regular and important is an Erev Shabbat service, which we hold monthly. Often the Glasgow synagogue spares our Rabbi, Pete Tobias, to lead the service in his inimitable style. We hold it in very informal surroundings - for a while we used our members' living rooms until we outgrew them - and the atmosphere has very much of a home service about it. Usually 20 to 30 people attend. Recently we have started to imitate a long-standing tradition in Glasgow of having a communal meal on some Friday nights following the service. Our longest-standing festival tradition is that of a communal Seder, which we have now had on three occasions. We use a room at Inch House which can accommodate some 50 people, and we have never had spare seats. A particular pleasure at the Seders is to be able to welcome the many Reform Jews who are visiting Edinburgh at any one time, many of them Americans working at the University. During the course of the last year we have organised several events including an 'Open Shabbat' - a whole day of worship, study and food - and a Purim party, which we took rather too seriously in the fancy dress aspect - the Chairman of the Community will not readily forget the unplanned experience of buying petrol from a garage forecourt while dressed as Snow White, complete in too many details. Other activities include a study group, which has met in preparation for important festivals and currently is studying the Book of Genesis. Most recently we celebrated the start of the High Holy Days with an Erev Rosh Hashanah service, which we conducted ourselves. For the main Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services - as for most others - we still travel to Glasgow. We are optimistic about developing our own resources in Edinburgh, but we intend to walk before we run.
Why Reform? Because for the Reform movement, rooted in the religious concepts of Jewish tradition, the application of these concepts is an evolving task. We look for ways of making traditional values relevant in a very different world from the one in which they developed. In a world which regards men and women as equal, we offer families the opportunity to sit together and encourage the same participation in services for men and women alike. In a society where Jews no longer live in close proximity to places of worship, we believe that involvement in worship overrides Biblical and Halachic concerns about travel on Holy Days. In a community where Hebrew is in no way the dominant language, we give congregants the opportunity to use English in prayer to enrich their understanding and appreciation of our worship and our traditional teachings. Reform Judaism continues to develop and grow as human knowledge and understanding continue to grow; the two complement rather than oppose one another.
One welcome feature of our situation in Edinburgh is the good relations which exist on a communal level between the Reform and Orthodox communities. Part of the reason for this must be the Literary Society, which benefits from the enthusiasm of many people from both communities. But the real responsibility lies with the many people who have chosen to build on our areas of common understanding. In this spirit we want to thank the Star for this opportunity to introduce the Community, and to welcome interest in us and our interpretation of Jewish tradition. We welcome everyone who would like to know more about our Community or about Reform Judaism in general.
Many in the Edinburgh Reform community read the discussion articles in the last issue of the Star with interest and sympathy. We have our own ongoing debates about the future, and I am glad to thank the editorial board of the Star for the opportunity to try to bring the two debates together.
I last wrote about the Edinburgh Reform Jewish Community (ERJC) in the Star a little over two years ago, so perhaps a brief recapitulation is in order. The ERJC has had a separate existence since 1997, as a group affiliated to the Glasgow New Synagogue (GNS). During that time we have gradually built up the number of our activities, starting from the monthly Erev Shabbat services which remain our central event. Over the years, however, we have gained confidence to add to these with services for other festivals, communal Seders, quarterly all-day events, study sessions, children’s parties at Purim and Chanukah, and occasional social activities. Last September we marked the fifth anniversary of our first meeting with a formal inauguration as a community of the Reform Synagogues, with the Hebrew name of Sukkat Shalom. Our confidence continues to grow as we continue to add new activities: a crucial innovation last September was a monthly Cheder, and this month we are hoping to start a tradition of social occasions centred around a Havdalah service. Despite our growth, I feel we have preserved the informal and friendly atmosphere with which we started. Although we greatly regret the departure from Glasgow of Rabbi Pete Tobias, very much the moving spirit in our early days, we feel confident that we will continue to flourish without his help.
We have our problems, too, of course. Our inclusivity, which leads us to welcome participation at all levels of commitment, can also make it difficult to motivate formal membership (we have the same membership rules as GNS). So our formal numbers – around 50 – and our material resources don’t really reflect the degree of energy and enthusiasm that we experience in the community. This leads to the second problem, the one which gives the officers the greatest everyday difficulties, that of finding a suitable venue for services. In this context we are bound to be disappointed that our tentative approach to the EHC in respect of Salisbury Road has not been answered. Our third problem is expressed through our own debate on perspectives: whether and at what point we should be seeking independence from GNS. We are tied to GNS by bonds of familiarity, participation, and gratitude for their essential help in getting us established, but we know that at some point we must seek our own way. The material obstacles are formidable, and the idea of attending High Holy Day services held anywhere but Newton Mearns is still hard for many of us to envisage.
Relations with the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation enter our discussions frequently. At a communal level they have strengthened since I wrote enthusiastically about them two years ago. A number of Edinburgh Jews attend both Reform and Orthodox services and maintain good relations with both communities. There has been one informal and friendly meeting between officers of the two communities. We receive invitations to the social events of the EHC, and have enjoyed attending some recently. And at a personal level and through the Literary Society we get along fine – I hope!
At a more formal level, however, much more could be done. We don’t seek to minimise the differences between Reform and Orthodox in practice and principle, but it is short-sighted to focus on these exclusively, ignoring the many areas of mutual understanding on which we could be building. The Oxford Story article in the last Star showed the degree of co-operation and mutual respect which different communities can achieve without compromising their principles. Of course, Oxford cannot be an organisational model for every city, but the spirit embodied in their arrangements can teach us a great deal.
The EHC took a brave step in opening its perspectives debate in the public forum of the Star. Our contribution to that debate comes from outside the Orthodox community, but from firmly within the wider tradition of Judaism. Declining numbers are a problem for Jews of all communities everywhere; in the Reform movement we are convinced that this problem can only be addressed through a renewed engagement with the principles of our faith and through working to reconcile tradition with the demands of life in modern society. But we don’t claim that that renewal can take place only within our movement. On the contrary, we believe that – inspired by the same history and beliefs, and without compromising our central principles – Jews from many different movements can work together to revive our common faith and traditions.
Article by Lindsay Levy - Summer 2004
Edinburgh's Jewish Reform Community can trace its history back almost 30 years to the late 70s, when half a dozen families who were members of the Glasgow New Synagogue but residents of Edinburgh began to gather on Fridays in each other's houses. Many of us had young children at that time, and we met, held a short service and shared some food. I don't think we ever discussed, or even considered, the possibility of becoming more than an occasional prayer group.
Eventually, as is almost inevitable with such a small group, simple demographics put an end to our meetings. Some members moved away; there was a tragic accidental death in the community, and the meetings in Edinburgh faded out. Those who remained in Scotland continued as congregants of Glasgow New Synagogue, and their children were bar mitzvah there.
In 1997 Pete Tobias, then rabbi of GNS, encouraged us to try again. Invitations were issued for an Edinburgh Erev Shabbat service, and to everyone's amazement - not least our hosts! - over forty people turned up.
From then on the community grew organically, as it seems in hindsight. We started with monthly Friday evening services, sometimes in conjunction with a family meal to which everyone contributed a dish, and soon occasional Shabbat services followed by lunch and study sessions were added, and an annual Seder was established, held in the beautiful 17th century Inch House. Over the past few years we have held regular shiurim for adults; festival services on Sukkot, and Chanukah, Purim parties, and perhaps most importantly we have established our own Cheder for the community's children.
All this while we have been functioning as an effective outreach group of Glasgow New Synagogue. Although we had expanded our activities, many important parts of Jewish ritual, such as rabbinical services, life events and High holy Day celebrations have only been available in Glasgow. Some of our community have maintained two full memberships; they attend services in Edinburgh when we hold them but are eligible for pastoral care, burial rights etc. in Glasgow. Most confusingly, their children have attended both cheders!
In his final year as GNS rabbi Pete Tobias suggested we gave ourselves a name, and we became Sukkat Shalom, Edinburgh. Also in the past twelve months we have had two bar mitzvahs, and two births in the community. Perhaps the outcome was inevitable - at our AGM in March we voted overwhelmingly to become autonomous.
The motion which was passed was this:
We are committed to being a fully independent, progressive Jewish community, providing as many Jewish facilities - life cycle events, services and the like - as we possibly can. At this stage we do not know the details or time scales involved, but we are committed to developing these Jewish facilities to the best of our abilities.
I'm sure that all our members are aware of the enormous challenge we have set ourselves, but at the same time there is a great feeling of enthusiasm and optimism about. Our first act after voting ourselves into independence was to agree to purchase our own Sefer Torah. Almost half the purchase price has already been achieved through fund raising activities.
Anyone who wished to join us, or even just to keep in contact during this great adventure can do so through our website.