Proud to be mainstream
IN RECENT years, the word “mainstream” has been seized upon by different sections of the Jewish community. The dictionary definition of the word is “a prevailing current of thought, influence, or activity within a society or group”. It is time the word was used properly — in which context I feel proud that 70 per cent of this country’s synagogue members affiliate with Orthodox Judaism, the vast majority of them identifying with the authentic, inclusive and modern values of the United Synagogue which speak as strongly to Jews today as they ever have.
And, in the face of declining membership, general apathy and assimiliation across the whole community, the US is still the body best equipped to revitalise Jewish life in this country.
The United Synagogue is a unique organisation, respected and envied the world over. With 40,000 members, accounting for around 80,000 souls, it encompasses the whole spectrum of religious practice. We welcome Jews of varying levels of observance and belief, and are committed to engaging and enriching our members’ lives, moving them along their Jewish journey at a pace with which they are comfortable. No other Jewish organisation in the UK approaches our size and influence — this is why the US continues to fly the “mainstream” Jewish flag.
Over the past 141 years, the US has ensured the continuity of Orthodox practice and affiliation in this country. My own grandchildren are eighth-generation US Jews. Being part of the US gives my family the best chance of preserving their Jewish identity.
This really matters to our members. They want their children and grandchildren to continue their traditions. They want them to remain Jews. They are concerned by the assimilation and loss of identity that is happening in America where, to paraphrase one commentator, the non-Orthodox departure from Jewish life could see the end of Reform and Conservative Judaism.
The United Synagogue stands firmly against this loss of identity, with values that place us firmly at the centre of Jewish life. Our members, observant or not, realise that being part of the US ensures that they are linked with a heritage unbroken since the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Of course, not all our members live “frum” lives, but they know how important it is for them to fulfil their responsibilities as Jews, in the tradition of their forbears.
Our rabbis understand this, and embrace all members, while encouraging them to increase their Jewish observance.
At the same time, the US also fulfils the aspirations of the “frummer” Jew. This unique partnership between practising and non-practising Jews adds enormous strength to our community.
We are taught that each Jew has a responsibility for his or her fellow Jew whatever that person’s level of observance or belief. The US is perfectly placed to carry out this responsibility. Those organisations at either pole of Jewish life are uncomfortable with each other. This is not true of the US. We value our inclusive approach — which nevertheless brooks no compromise. Our members know for example, that, with the “hechsher” of the United Synagogue, their children’s marriage is accepted throughout the Jewish world.
As for the decline afflicting religious life throughout the entire British society, the US addresses this robustly. Tribe, the young US, has almost 14,000 members whose positive Jewish experiences are bearing fruit. We now have four times as many full members under the age of 30 compared to five years ago.
We are developing, at a rapid rate, further programmes focused on modern, inclusive engagement, within an authentic Jewish environment Our Living and Learning programmes are geared to providing Jewish education, firmly based in halachah, in an exciting way, and our inspiring Chesed work focuses on caring for our own members as well as engagement with the outside world.
The US is the mainstream, not stagnant but flowing. Jeremy Jacobs is the chief executive of the United Synagogue