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Edinburgh Jewish Dialogue – looking at the Oxford Jewish Community Model

Edinburgh was delighted to welcome Jesmond Blumenfeld and Lizzie Maisels from the Oxford Jewish Congregation as part of the Edinburgh Jewish Dialogue initiative looking at options for the future of our community.  Nearly 50 people attended the event, including familiar and new faces representing all age groups and levels of religious observance.

As it was the last night of Chanukah, the meeting started with the lighting of the candles by Isaac Ansell Forsyth, followed by a brief reminder of the principles of the South African philosophy of Ubuntu (“humanity”) by Jane Ansell.

Professor Joe Goldblatt welcomed the audience and related his experience in Oxford during a previous Chanukah, recalling the “ruach” that he experienced there.  He then introduced Jesmond Blumenfeld and presented him with a copy of David Daiches’ “Two Worlds”.  He also presented Jesmond’s wife Lizzie with a box of shortbread (one of many boxes kindly donated by Walkers Shortbread Ltd for the event).

Jesmond has been a member of the Oxford Jewish Congregation since 1975. He has held numerous honorary offices, including President of the Synagogue Council, and Chairman of the Jewish Centre Management Committee. He is currently a director of the Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre Limited, convenor of the Chevra Kadisha, and a member of the Oxford Jewish Heritage committee. He is a retired economics don who is now working part-time as a freelance writer on Africa.

Jesmond started his talk by explaining what a visitor would see in Oxford if they visited the congregation on a typical Shabbat.  There would be at least two services in progress – one Orthodox and one either Liberal, Masorti or a women-only minyan.  All resources – Sifrei Torah, Chumashim etc – are shared, and most importantly, the morning ends with a communal Kiddush, even if that means one group waiting for other services to end.

He explained that each group is free to keep to their own rules regarding observance, but in a way that shows mutual respect for other groups.  For example, all food on the premises is kosher, but it is not necessary for men to wear a kippah around the building unless attending an Orthodox service.

The history of the combined congregation goes back to the 1970s when the Orthodox shul building was old and unfit for purpose, and other Jewish organisations had bought several properties on the site.  The community then decided to form one multi-denominational congregation and to form a company limited by guarantee to own a communal building with a constitution stating that the building should be available for all forms of Jewish worship.  Having this embedded in the constitution has allowed for the development of a genuinely inclusive community, with mutual respect for all forms of worship.  

This inclusive philosophy starts very early in the life cycle.  The community runs a “play shul” for parents with children aged 0-5, and the cheder is non-denominational – the children are required to attend each group’s services at least once as part of the curriculum.  More recently a programme of adult education has been established including an introduction to Judaism and Hebrew and also cultural events.

Jesmond’s talk proved of great interest to the audience, who had many questions and ideas to raise.  His answers established that halachic rules are always respected in relation to all life cycle events, but that ways have been found to accommodate those of “the Jewish faith” who are not halachically Jewish.  For example, only weddings sanctioned by the London Beth Din can be written in the congregation’s book, but couples can engage a rabbi so that they can still get married within the synagogue building.  

A very wide ranging discussion took in areas including reaching out to young people and Israelis, the need to build trust between the Edinburgh congregations, welfare and use of social media.

Future speakers for the Edinburgh Jewish Dialogue include Clive Lawton, director of Limmud, and possibly a representative from the Stockholm Jewish community.  We will then all meet together to discuss whether we can take ideas from any of these models to develop a feasible plan for Edinburgh’s future.

If you are not on the Dialogue mailing list, and would like to be included, please e-mail zoe@scojec.org.

If you are not on e-mail, please contact Janet Mundy on 0131 467 1872.