Plen sees dou­ble as Ma­sorti looks to buck trend

The Jewish Chronicle - - Community - BYBARRYTOBERMAN

MATT PLEN fully in­tends to re­turn per­ma­nently to Is­rael with his fam­ily one day, hav­ing lived there for 10 years from 1998. But for the fore­see­able fu­ture, his fo­cus is firmly on the de­vel­op­ment of the Assem­bly of Ma­sorti Syn­a­gogues.

The 39-year-old north Lon­doner will shortly suc­ceed Michael Gluckman as AMS chief ex­ec­u­tive, spear­head­ing a strate­gic plan with the goals of dou­bling adult mem­ber­ship from its cur­rent 4,000 to­tal in 10 years and mak­ing Ma­sorti “a well de­fined, uni­ver­sally known con­cept across the Jewish com­mu­nity”.

Mem­ber­ship has risen 50 per cent since 2002 and Mr Plen be­lieves its mes­sage of “tra­di­tional Ju­daism for mod­ern Jews” is strik­ing a chord with the younger gen­er­a­tion at a time when other syn­a­gogue move­ments are in nu­mer­i­cal de­cline.

As well as the ma­jor New North London and New London con­gre­ga­tions, there are sig­nif­i­cant Ma­sorti com­mu­ni­ties in Edg­ware and St Al­bans and de­vel­op­ing groups in ar­eas in­clud­ing El­stree, Stoke New­ing­ton, Bournemouth and Glas­gow. There have also been ap­proaches to es­tab­lish a Ma­sorti pres­ence in Muswell Hill, Brighton and Manch­ester — the de­vel­op­ment plan en­vi­sions five new com­mu­ni­ties be­ing es­tab­lished by 2021. Ma­sorti fam­i­lies in­clude around 3,000 chil­dren and the move­ment boasts strong youth and young adult wings, Noam and Marom.

Mr Plen’s own back­ground is typ­i­cal of many who have af­fil­i­ated to the move­ment. Although his fam­ily were United Syn­a­gogue mem­bers, “I never felt I be­longed there”. He re­called be­ing “dread­fully em­bar­rassed when my bar­mitz­vah teacher came to the house one De­cem­ber in case he saw our Christ­mas tree”.

Things changed af­ter he joined New North London in the early 1990s. He found the Finch­ley con­gre­ga­tion “very wel­com­ing — it was clear that you could come in on your own terms”.

He ran the youth club at New North London and through Noam was “lucky to work with Joel [now rabbi] Levy, who chal­lenged my as­sump­tions and got me into the ed­u­ca­tional side”. He liked the no­tion that Ma­sorti al­lowed some­one “to be who they are and ask any­thing they want, with­out any lim­its”.

His ed­u­ca­tional work con­tin­ued in Is­rael and tak­ing up the post of AMS di­rec­tor in 2008, his goal was “to kick­start projects and push the move­ment for­ward in a more strate­gic and en­er­getic fash­ion. We re­launched Marom and have been de­vel­op­ing lead­er­ship within the group.”

There are now vol­un­teer rep­re­sen­ta­tive­son10­cam­pus­esandthe­move­ment has set up Jewish Com­mu­nity Or­gan­is­ing, a train­ing course de­signed to help lay lead­ers run con­gre­ga­tions which meet the needs of mem­bers. Although New North London’s Rabbi Jonathan Wit­ten­berg is seen as the public face of the move­ment, a short-term com­mu­ni­ca­tions tar­get is for other rab­bis to as­sume a more public role.

Mr Plen stressed that Ma­sorti was a “bot­tom-up rather than top-down or­gan­i­sa­tion. The high lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion says some­thing pos­i­tive about how we are en­gag­ing peo­ple. The good thing is that we are do­ing things cost ef­fec­tively be­cause we don’t have ac­cess to huge bud­gets. We don’t want to be­come an­other bu­reau­cracy.”

Nonethe­less, a £350,000 fundrais­ing cam­paign is un­der way to cover the ad­di­tional cost of meet­ing its de­vel­op­ment goals over the next three years.

Peo­ple joined Ma­sorti for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Some, like him, were from tra­di­tional United Syn­a­gogue back­grounds but had found Ju­daism be­com­ing less mean­ing­ful.

Oth­ers were par­ents with chil­dren ap­proach­ing bar- or bat­mitz­vah age.

There was also ev­i­dence of chil­dren get­ting their par­ents on board. Around half the 800 young peo­ple who typ­i­cally go on the sum­mer camps are not from Ma­sorti back­grounds.

Mr Plen wel­comed “healthy com­pe­ti­tion” for mem­bers from other syn­a­gogue groups. “The stronger other streams are, the more it helps us to up our game. We are con­fi­dent we have a good mes­sage.”

Out­side of Ma­sorti, he is study­ing for an ed­u­ca­tional PHD and is a trustee of London Cit­i­zens, a com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ing group pro­mot­ing grass­roots ac­tivism. “It’s im­por­tant to bring Jewish val­ues of so­cial jus­tice into the public arena,” he ex­plained. “I be­lieve that you can be se­ri­ously en­gaged in the halachic and Jewish world and still be a cit­i­zen of the world, en­gaged in wider so­ci­ety.” Ticket stubs pinned to his of­fice wall for con­certs by singer­song­writer ac­tivist Billy Bragg sug­gest a re­lated mu­si­cal pas­sion.

Mr Plen stressed that his com­mit­ment to Ma­sorti was “open-ended. My fam­ily and I are happy here. Is­rael is home for me but there are a lot of ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties at Ma­sorti and I don’t want to leave in the mid­dle of that.”

Mat Matt Plen and ( left) me mem­bers of M Ma­sorti’s Mar Marom young adu adults group on a trip to Bud Bu­dapest

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