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Twinning initiative brings new vibrancy to British Jewry

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Over the last few years, the communal landscape has been quietly but determinedly shifting towards a more unified and self-sustaining whole, as The Chief Rabbi’s Centre for Community Excellence (CCE) funds a twinning programme that fosters inter-community partnerships across the UK.

Hundreds of miles have been covered as groups come together for meticulously-planned Shabbatonim, festivals and social events where friendships are forged and the unique character of each community is celebrated – all part and parcel of the wider vision for communities that the Chief Rabbi laid out upon entering office.

His pledge to transform synagogues into powerhouses of Jewish religious, educational, social and cultural excellence has swept British Jewry with initiatives that extend far beyond the regular CCE grants that make innovative programming possible, connecting regional lay leaders at biennial conferences, devising training initiatives to standardise practise in areas like Tahara and delivering vital bursts of energy and leadership in the form of visiting madrichim and Rabbis. The successful pairing up of multiple congregations undoubtedly derives in part from the refreshed thinking and renewed sense of purpose that the Chief Rabbi and CCE have repeatedly aimed to inspire.

‘The second Shabbaton had an even wider reach – people from diverse backgrounds journeyed from a staggering 13 towns and cities’

One of the figures in the vanguard of the twinning movement is Rabbi Yehuda Pink of Solihull, whose institution of the Bosworth Shabbaton has proved to be a groundbreaking step towards strengthening Jewish life in the regions. The first Shabbaton in March 2015 drew 150 Jews from Solihull, Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham, not to mention the Chief Rabbi and Valerie Mirvis, who expressed their delight at seeing such a proud and united show of regional Jewish life. The second Shabbaton in September 2016 attracted a similar attendance but with an even wider reach – people from diverse backgrounds journeyed from a staggering 13 towns and cities, among them Leamington Spa, Mansfield, Middlesborough and Rotherham.

Rabbi Pink highlighted the importance of presenting Judaism in a ‘non-threatening and inviting manner’ in order to attract a diverse crowd to spend Shabbat together.

“It was particularly pleasing to be able to attract people with little formal connection to the community including those in mixed marriages or practicing alternative lifestyles,” he said, providing an indication of how the spiritual, educational and social programming that the Chief Rabbi advocates can be crucial in reconciling less affiliated Jews with their heritage.

‘ “It was amazing…The trip itself exceeded all my expectations” ‘

On a more local level, the Silhillian congregation has been very active in fortifying its connection with its twin community Sheffield, with whom it has run three highly successful events in 2017 alone. Some innovative thinking from Rabbi Pink and Rabbi Golomb saw the two congregations hit the road on a Whiskey Tour of the Highlands that left participants in high spirits – and not only as a result of the distillery visits. One Solihull member commented that “It was amazing…we started with a joint Shacharit and breakfast with Sheffield which was great. The trip itself exceeded all my expectations”.

Since then, summer exchange visits have included a joint lunch and quiz and a June barbecue, with the communities splitting the organisational work that goes into creating a memorable occasion. The feedback is always glowing – with attendees grateful for the chance to ‘renew the friendships’ previously established and to be a part of ‘this wonderful twinning concept that the Chief Rabbi promotes’.

There was already a deep-seated, historical connection that linked the South Manchester and Southport communities, what with many former Southport members having long since left the latter congregation for life in Manchester. This desire to reconnect with their roots formed part of the impulse that brought the two synagogues together in a partnership that is helping to rejuvenate Southport shul. A Shabbaton earlier this year was not only an extraordinary logistical feat, as Rabbi and Rebbetzen Lewis prepared meals, gave Divrei Torah and ran an outstanding programme throughout Shabbat, but an encouraging example of how light can be breathed back into some of British Jewry’s most beautiful shuls.

“It was a real treat to get a glimpse of how the shul used to feel in our heyday,” said Adrian Fletcher, former President of Southport Hebrew Congregation, “there were 80 of us altogether and it was wonderful, we had to open up our beautiful big shul and the atmosphere was exceptional”.

Commenting on her experience, one South Manchester member noted the importance of being able to better “understand…the history and dynamics of a different community” while benefitting from a Shabbat experience that was “inclusive and uplifting…from beginning to end”. For others the whole occasion was “full of nostalgia”.

‘A series of Shabbatonim have been transformative for the community’

The phenomenon has also reached London, where one large shul has been forging pioneering links between the city and the regions since before the CCE Twinning programme was formally launched and CCE funding provided. Motivated by a desire to help empower a community in an area where provision for Jewish life is less robust, members of Pinner United Synagogue Leonie Lewis and David Kaye, set about connecting their membership with the historical congregation of Norwich. A series of Shabbatonim have been transformative for the community and enlightening for all attendees.

“It made us realise the challenges of living outside London and how hard small, regional communities have to work to sustain their Yiddishkeit”, said Leonie Lewis, a Pinner member and United Synagogue Trustee.

And their visits are duly appreciated by Norwich Jews who credit these weekends with “keeping the flame of the candles alight”. One mother, attending shul with her son, commented on the “vitality, variety and lovely melodies” that filled the building over a weekend of Shabbat services and meals.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in a project that is gradually suffusing Jewish communities with a renewed enthusiasm and vigour that hasn’t been seen for decades. Communal differences have been overcome and celebrated with the twinning of the Newcastle and Gateshead communities, who have enjoyed multiple Shabbatonim together since 2014, while Birmingham Central is keen to build on its recent twinning with Cheltenham.

Reflecting on the progress of the Community Twinning initiative, the Chief Rabbi said: “We are seeing the emergence of a robust community network that takes as its point of reference authentic and meaningful Jewish experiences that enable communities to establish a common ground while strengthening their own sense of identity. It is incredibly exciting to see these partnerships form and I look forward to hearing more about what British Jewry can achieve as it works more closely together.”

The growing list of collaborating communities goes on, but there is more to be done. With a bit of inspired leadership, an enthusiastic congregation and the support that is always on hand from the Chief Rabbi’s CCE, the sky is the limit.