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Jews in Churches - a choice

This is an address made on Shabbat for Manchester Reform Synagogue on 17th December 2022.

On Thursday I found myself crying in a corner of Blackburn Cathedral. Let me explain why.

I was attending a conference put on by the Council of Christians and Jews – the CCJ – and the William Temple Foundation. William Temple (15 October 1881 – 26 October 1944) was an English Anglican priest, who served as Bishop of Manchester (1921–1929) and went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury (1942–1944). Temple was known for his scholarship, inspirational public speaking and his social activism.

The conference brought together leaders from Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities – from former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to local Muslim chaplains. We were exploring topics of how religious communities can respond to the challenges of post-pandemic Britain – the conference was entitled ‘rebuilding the public square.’

We were starting the second part of the morning with the second panel of this hybrid event and suddenly, on the screen before us, someone began sharing their screen and someone began drawing swastikas and other obscene symbols. Yes – many of you will know what this is – zoom bombing, exactly like we experienced months ago during our Friday night service. Yet this time the images stayed on the screen for a while – I and the other rabbi in the room explained how to kick someone out and make the room secure.

We as Jews knew about security and safe spaces – learnt through persecution and painful experiences. I needed to take a moment out of the room from the talks to process the pain of seeing a swastika on the screen and time to shed a tear. For far-right antisemitism is alive and real. We can see this with Ye – Kanye West – and his obnoxious antisemitism announced to his twitter followers – who as Marc Levy from the Jewish Representative Council said on the news recently – his twitter followers are greater in number than there are Jews.

Back to the conference – that morning we had already spoken, a great deal, about antisemitism in the church and church history. Priests were leading conversations about how to challenge antisemitism, how to be allies, and how to work together. And we know how it feels to be a minority in a Christian country and how hard, sometimes, that can be. That is why, for a small number of people, making our temporary home, our mishkan, here at the chaplaincy centre, has been problematic. For some, the cross, which we cannot see as our beautiful banner hangs behind us, symbolises an unsafe space. It represents experiences of Christianity which has not understood the Jewish experience – has, at worst, persecuted Jews and violently tried to proselytise us. For that reason, being in a church feels impossible.

Yet – I want to gently acknowledge this sense of discomfort and fear and invite us to choose another path - particularly given my experience at Blackburn Cathedral this week.

This space, here at the chaplaincy centre and the auditorium, represents a response to Christian antisemitism and an opportunity for healing. For there is important work being done here to bring communities together, to work across difference, to listen to experience and be in partnership together.

Although this isn’t a consecrated church it is used as a church by a couple of Christian communities who rent out the space. It’s also used for concerts, multi-faith services. And in the centre itself houses – Manchester Central Food Bank, DePaul the homelessness charity, another foodbank for students, staff from the CCJ itself and many others. It’s a centre for progressive values and spirituality. Everyone is welcome, non-judgmental spaces. And indeed, many progressive Jewish communities meet and have met in Church spaces throughout time. As a student rabbi I was often in a church space for a Shabbat service. And I always enjoyed the challenge in making the space feel like it was ours and chances for dialogue and building relationships.

Very similar values and actions were at play in the conference at Blackburn Cathedral – and this is why it was targeted. Those bigots understood that important liberatory work is done when different religious communities come together to listen to each other and work together. This is the work being done here. The leadership here at SPH have gone above and beyond to understand our particular needs and make us feel at home. By allying themselves with us they are now, in a very real way, standing alongside us – offering the hand of friendship and allyship.

If we only stay in our Jewish spaces – we remain in the ghetto. We ignore the potential to build relationships and find allies. And this is vital to combating antisemitism and hate in our society. We are nothing if we are not working with others across lines of difference. And yes, that may feel uncomfortable and new, it is challenging. But within the challenge is the potential for treasure, growth and healing.

Maybe the chanukiah is a good symbol and metaphor for this work. From tomorrow night we will be putting our chanukiot on our windowsills – proudly asserting our identities and our story of hope – of the underdog being victorious, of hope and light being possible in dark times. I’m sure many of you have seen the picture of a chanukiah sitting in front of a window which shows, on the street below, a Nazi flag. The photograph was taken in 1931 by Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner, of their candle-lit Hanukkah menorah against the backdrop of the Nazi flags flying from the building across from their home in Kiel Germany. An act of defiance and an invitation to us to address our fears and safely and slowly open our hearts.

Of course, we are scared and want to do the exact opposite. For we hold deep generational and contemporary trauma which is manifested in so many ways. From filling our cupboards full of food, ‘just in case’, to the necessity of strict security on our shul doors and any Jewish communal spaces, to keeping our Jewish identities hidden when out and about. The trauma and fear is real. And it takes a great deal of courage and compassion to move from our hidden fortress on Jackson’s Row to being here in this shared, open space.

But if we can move through that fear and enter into dialogue with others who share our values and goals – there is a great gift waiting for us and we can light many more lights this Chanukah.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will and let us say, amen.

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1 Comment

Tracey Graham
Tracey Graham
Dec 18, 2022

An exceptional sermon; healing is everything. Taking the first step is life affirming. It is light giving. Thank you for this. xx

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