Masorti Jews in Bristol

Jewish culture By Yaakov (JJ) Martin 24th May 2016

This may sound like a nice story but it was not easy.

Jews have been long established in Bristol since the beginning of 12th century. And they were Jews, just Jews or as some say the JEWS. Maybe those were easier times as Jews were just Jews, not Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and so on.

Of course Jews in Bristol had the same problems through the ages as Jews all over England.

But better times came and in 1870 the Bristol Hebrew Congregation was established. Still they were just Jews, though one could see that the wind of change was coming. Already in Germany, and then USA, the Reform movement and Conservative Movement were well established. But Bristol was in the corner of this huge world, so there was peace. There were Jews and there was a Synagogue to which those who wanted to take part in religious life were coming. And so it was until 1960…

“It all started back in 1960, I had a call, here in Bristol, by one Leonard Hart inviting me to partake in the formation of a Liberal Jewish Group, that is a Jewish religious community having a Liberal as distinct from an Orthodox orientation. I said count me in, and so did some 20 others whom he had contacted, people who felt their religious needs and their needs for Jewish community were not met in the orthodox environment. I say this with the utmost of respect for our many friends in the orthodox community” – talk by Joachim Schapiro.

And again all was nice and quiet, if there ever is nice and quiet where there are more than two Jews in one place.

It was a time where, at the start, two communities parted far away from each other and then gradually decided to “make-up” and work together on many issues which concerned the Jewish Community in Bristol. Of course the religious celebrations and Shabbat Services were still carried out in their own ways, but where there was a need to show unity, both communities always did so.

For some members in both communities it was not enough. One side felt that things were too strict, yet on the other side some thought that things were too relaxed.

The Liberal Synagogue tried different styles of services and different approaches towards its members. New conversion classes began and new members came, including those with an Orthodox background. And again on both sides there were those who felt that it was not enough.

Most of the members of the Orthodox Synagogue were rather easy going people. And despite having an Orthodox Rabbi, not all of the time, they lived a more relaxed life. Most of them though were very attached to the Orthodox order of service.

The Orthodox Synagogue is situated in the centre of Bristol. It is one of the nicest small purpose built Synagogues in England. There is a big plot of the land behind the Synagogue and all this was a reason for the “New Idea”.

A group of members started to talk to members of the Liberal Synagogue about uniting resources and forming something like the “Oxford Model”. At the same time, as there was no Rabbi within the Orthodox Synagogue, members contemplated changing their affiliation from Orthodox to Masorti.

Representatives of Masorti UK visited several times to have meetings with the members, not only members of the Orthodox Synagogue, but also those from Liberal Synagogue, and those who were not members of either. Things seemed to be going in one direction. Plans had been drawn, meetings had been held and finally the “Big Day” came, when members of the Orthodox Synagogue on its EGM voted to make a change.

The votes were counted and 75% of those voting approved the change of the affiliation of the Orthodox Synagogue to Masorti Movement. It was a step closer to the “Oxford Model” as it was much easier for members of the Liberal Synagogue to work closer.

But the “devil is in details”. There were those who were not happy with this direction, and based their arguments on the Constitution of the Orthodox Synagogue. Despite the vote, the change was blocked. Did I not say before that where there are more than two Jews in one place problems pop up.

This was the end of the matter… But of course not. After all 75% voted for the change.

And the change did come. Well not the change but the New Community. There was a force which was unstoppable and soon Masorti Jews in Bristol were registered. The group of enthusiasts decided that there was a need for the “third way”. The community registered as a faith organisation affiliated with Masorti UK, and rented a place where they could hold services, gained new members and the rest is the history.

And if anyone ever asks if there is a place for Jews in Bristol, you can loudly say, yes there is, and for all kind of Jews. There is a place for Judaism to flourish in the South-West of England. There is a place for everyone.

Dr Yaakov (JJ) Martin is a retired psychology lecturer, highly involved in Jewish Community of Bristol and at present is president of the newly established Masorti Congregation there.

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