Is the Shul Orthodox?

Frank Gent

I ask the question, because people often ask me, and because at the last service I caused offence to an important member of the community by inviting a woman to stand on the bimah.


The answer I have always given is that the shul is Jewish, and that other labels would be inappropriate because the members of the community come from such a wide variety of backgrounds: Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, Liberal, Secular, Assimilated, Converted… That is my answer - but what is yours? And should the shul make its mind up? I have preferred to be vague, continuing the Exeter tradition of semi-independence - we never in our history, for example, owed much allegiance to the Chief Rabbinate, whilst being nominally Orthodox. Our Orthodoxy consisted, for the past hundred years, of Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur services, funerals, and precious little else. It did avoid problems and conflicts. There was nothing to have a problem or conflict about. About thirty years ago the Congregation had unofficial links with the Reform movement, with the Yom Tov services being taken by a Reader from a London Reform Synagogue. We still have the machzorim in the shul from that period as evidence!

As for me, I come from an assimilated, mixed background, my Jewishness coming from my Italian and German ancestors, eighteen months in Israel, Harry Freedman and other wonderful Jewish people, including many of you, and many books. Brought up without Judaism (as a religion), married in a Liberal Synagogue, and taking my guidance from the Masorti (Conservative), I came to Exeter after my eighteen months in Israel, where I had wonderful experiences, going to shul regularly in Ma'alot, that still inspire me now. Finding Harry Freedman was wonderful, because he was such a good teacher. It was he who got me to take my first service - terrifying! I didn't know at first how new it was, this community, that had existed for decades only in name. Harry welcomed us all, and motivated us. Exactly nine years ago, in June 1983, I produced the first shul newsletter. As time went by Derrick Boam resigned as President, and to my great surprise asked me to succeed him. Harry left for London, our treasured older members died, people like Bernard Rosenberg, Ralph Collett, Kurt and Hetty Wilhelm and Golda Weinberg, amongst others, and many new people came. We welcome so many Jews, and often the welcome is reciprocated. We achieve so much, thanks in particular to the efforts of a few. Despite criticisms and complaints (how Jewish!) we are, honestly, thriving. But in the process the community has changed. We are no longer moribund, but we face new challenges. Some of us face the future with a non-Jewish partner,others feel alienated from traditional, middle-class Anglo-orthodoxy, and all of us are trying to find some sense and meaning in our Jewishness.

So, is the shul Orthodox? For me, no, though I respect orthodoxy and much of what it offers. Not United Synagogue, pretentious middle-class snobbery, but Jewish spirituality, an attempt to make Jewish sense of the world, with a welcome for all Jews and new approaches. It's time to think what our Judaism means to us, to make decisions, time to plan for the future. Please do that. And please think positively and constructively about the future. I look forward to hearing what you think.