European Rabbis Meeting in Nice
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
For the last several years the Masorti rabbis from across Europe have held annual meetings hosted by one of our European congregations, in order to study Torah, share experiences, discuss Jewish and communal concerns and find solidarity in our shared companionship. We have come to know each other well and have developed trust and strong working relationships, enabling us to draw on each other’s strengths, turn to trusted friends in times of trouble and welcome new colleagues into the region. We have been growing steadily as a group and now number some twenty colleagues.
We meet under the auspices of the RA, the Rabbinical Assembly, to which all rabbis serving Masorti / Conservative congregations and institutions of learning and pastoral care are encouraged to belong. Specifically, we constitute its European region. The RA is a support organisation, one might even say a trade union, for rabbis, though some might think that a phrase like ‘rabbis unite’ sounds too much like an oxymoron. With its main centres in New York and Jerusalem, the RA provides placement and career guidance, advanced learning opportunities, such for example as specialised courses on kashrut supervision or becoming a mohel [strictly for doctors], and intensive seminars on deeper aspects of Jewish learning. It also supports rabbis under stress and helps resolve such tensions as may at times inevitably arise between rabbis and communities. Over time the RA has become more aware of Europe as a growing and important region, a perception we are keen to deepen.
This year we gathered in Nice. It’s a wonderful place to meet and I personally enjoyed practising for my forthcoming Jerusalem half marathon by running along the seaside, something hard to do here in London. We were warmly hosted by Kehilat Maayanei Or [well-springs of light] its lay leaders and its rabbi, David Touboul. I had the pleasure of attending the wonderful celebrations of the community’s twentieth anniversary and the dedication of a new Torah scroll. The joy and singing were marvellous.
But, and this lay at the heart of a number of our discussions, France is not the easiest place to be a Jew today. We were addressed by Philippe Souci, a lay leader in Maayanei Or, who is both a lawyer, representing inter alia one of the families who lost relatives in the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, and, as deputy mayor of Nice, a local politician closely involved in regional affairs. He painted a painful picture of the changing reality in France for Jews since the 1980s. On the one hand, he noted the strong support for the Jewish community locally – there are some 40, 000 Jews in Nice. On the other hand, he was frank about his sense of growing anti-Semitism in France. He was a person of the left, he said, and wanted to believe in ‘La Torah et La Republique’. He quoted the Prime Minister Manuel Valls, ‘France without the Jews will not be France’. Jews must stand up and support and fight for these principles, he insisted. Yet he could not help feeling pessimism about the future.
Similar concerns emerged in our discussion about refugees. Basing ourselves on the verse [Exodus 22.20] ‘You shall not humiliate or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, we pondered a range of commentaries beginning with Nachmanides’s warning that we should be mindful of the desolation experienced by the homeless and outsiders. God sees their tears and listens to their cries of desperation because they have no-one else to whom they can turn.
This led to a raw debate. We all agreed about our responsibility, especially as Jews, to support refugees, who are hungry, cold, homeless and often without hope. Yet we shared worries about the future. What might the impact on Europe be? How could so many people be integrated successfully? Were the risks of imported anti-Semitism real? We concluded that it was our responsibility to do our best to help refugees, and that we had no choice but to meet whatever future challenges might arise.
At the same time, we discussed the development of new communities across Europe. Groups in many countries were keen to join the Masorti fold. We spoke of how such chavurot should be encouraged, how to develop them into full communities, the need for a balance between strong lay leadership, rabbinic guidance and skilled input. The RA, Masorti Olami Europe [the European lay leadership body] and prayer leaders and leyyeners trained by EAJL [the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy] together with the deeper learning offered by the Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem all had to be part of the picture.
There are many opportunities; people are eager to identify, and we are living through an intensively creative period.
We noted some of the complex questions of personal status which arose across a Europe where people are still rediscovering their Jewish backgrounds, concealed by survivors after the Holocaust as a result of the trauma they had passed through, with the intention of ‘protecting’ future generations. How could we best encourage and include such people who were often in search of their true identity?
We parted from one another more deeply aware of the sacred work we are privileged to share and resolved to do the best we can to broaden and deepen the Jewish life of our communities and their members.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.