Seeing my Wexner Friends through British Eyes
Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is Executive Director of the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK and an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 1). Shoshana can be reached at: email@example.com.
“Are all of your friends so interesting?” This question emerged from the mouth of one of the British university students who I recently took on a leadership trip to NYC. The purpose of bringing these 10 young people to the USA for a week was to let them experience a pluralistic Judaism that is vibrant and public. Because of the structure of the Jewish community in the UK (modelled after the Church of England), there is a Chief Rabbi who is Orthodox. Therefore, “proper” Judaism is assumed to be Orthodox despite the fact that a third of affiliated Jews belong to one of the non-Orthodox movements. So I thought it would be worth bringing our university student leaders to a place where they could see pluralistic and non-Orthodox Judaism flourishing (as well as see a version of Orthodoxy that is more open to dialogue than what they often find in the UK).
Besides visiting HUC and JTS, I took them to visit the most innovative and interesting new initiatives I could find. The reason for this was that our organization, Jeneration, is only two years old. Although sponsored by the British Reform Movement, Jeneration is a post- denominational effort to reach 18-35 year old Jews and I wanted them to see what Jeneration could become in another ten years.
So we started out at StorahTelling, now based at the 14th Street Y. Steven Hazan Aranoff, Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus, was kind enough to host the group and spend a few minutes talking to them about the transformation of the Educational Alliance into the 14th Street Y. They were intrigued to see how an establishment institution could host something as innovating as StorahTelling. Then we were off to Bikkurim, where Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna Nina Bruder gave them a similar message. They could not believe that UJC could host such a vibrant and imaginative group within their walls. The people that Nina introduced them to similarly showed them that innovation was possible, not just in a cross-denominational setting but also within Orthodoxy as well. It gave my group inspiration that vision and energy can either renew an established institution or propel a start-up into being. As I introduced Steven and Nina, I shared with the group how I knew them and how the Wexner Graduate Fellowship had shaped my own pluralistic vision of Judaism.
As we wandered through HUC, we happened to bump into Rabbi Aaron Panken, who I also introduced as one of my Wexner friends and fellow alum. We also were shown around JTS by Rabbi Mordy Schwartz, who I had originally met as husband of Wexner alumna, Rabbi Esther Reed, and we bumped into Rabbi Danny Nevins, another Graduate Fellowship alum, as well. On Shabbat, they went to Minyan Hadar, founded by Wexner alumnus Elie Kaunfer, and Sunday had a session at Temple Emanu-El, where they heard about the Skirball Center set up by Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum Rabbi Leon Morris. Each time they asked me how I knew the people they were meeting, and each time I told them more about my years as a Wexner Graduate Fellow and how those relationships have continued to shape my vision of a pluralistic Jewish community.
By the end of the week, they had grasped the concept of Jewish pluralism. It is a notion that is just beginning to reach the shores of the UK, despite the fact that this country is the birthplace of Limmud, one of the most innovative pluralistic initiatives ever. Even though Limmud has been on the scene for 25 years, London is only now about to open its first community high school, its first JCC, and has recently opened its first Jewish social action incubator, JHub (based loosely on Bikkurim).
While I love my new home in the UK (and am about to be sworn in as a British citizen next month – Hail to the Queen!), the trip to NYC reminded me how grateful I am for my education in the USA. It has allowed me to bring a taste of American Judaism to my adopted British community. I am also grateful for my continued friendships with so many Wexner alumni in the USA and Israel. This network has always benefited me personally and spiritually, but now that many of us have entered a new chapter in our careers, our professional connections are also allowing us to model for the next generation (or Jeneration, in my case!) how the creation of a pluralistic Wexner community can be something that the rest of the Jewish community should aspire to.
To answer my students’ question, “Are all of your friends so interesting?”, all I could do was tell them that twenty years ago, my friends (Aaron, Nina, Danny, Steven) were students and only beginning to dream together about what the American Jewish community might look like in twenty years. The only difference is that we took our dreams, and with the help of The Wexner Foundation and others, we brought them to fruition. My group was inspired. Returning to the UK, they were energized to create a similar network and a similar pluralistic vision for British Jewry. I look forward to visiting them in another twenty years to see what they create.