Saturday, 9 July 2011


Despite having been in post for more than four years, I'd not yet visited Neve Shalom - the synagogue of Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation. I was speaking with my friend Leon Charikar (Chair of LPJC and Programme Manager for NHS Pacesetters in the East Midlands) earlier this week and mentioned this omission - yet again. All the more shameful on my part, as I live only ten minutes walk from Neve Shalom and pass it on a fairly regular basis. Not for the first time, Leon extended an invitation to visit the synagogue. He mentioned that today would be a good occasion on which to do so, as they'd be celebrating a Bat Mitzvah, with  Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a public figure I've long admired (even if she doesn't share my enthusiasm for Glasgow novelist James Kelman) coming up from London to conduct the service.

I've visited the Orthodox Synagogue in Highfields Street three or four times now, so this seems like a good day on which to start redressing the balance.

Neve Shalom means "Oasis of Peace" (Isaiah 32:18). It is named as a tribute to the village near Jerusalem known as Neve Shalom / Wahat al Salam, where Jews, Christians and Muslims live together, creating a living example of harmony in diversity, showing that these three great faiths can live and work together for the greater good. The life of that village is a constant source of inspiration and a beacon of hope for peace for Jews, not just in Leicester but all over the world.

I'd picked up some of the story of the origin of Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation when I was part of the team working on the Jewish Voices oral history project, covering the life of Jews in the city in the 1940s and 50s. Most of the information given below has been taken from literature that I picked up in the Synagogue today. I prefer to have people and groups featured in this blog speak for themselves, in their own words as much as possible.

In the late 1940s a small group of Jews in Leicester were seeking an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. In 1950 they formed the Liberal Jewish Group, affiliated to the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, later renamed Liberal Judaism. They held services in members' homes and hired halls  for festival services and religion school.

By the 1960s the name was changed to the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation. they held biweekly services at the Friends Meeting House until the present building was bought in January 1995 and refurbished to become a synagogue. the building itself had previously been used as a nursery school and was designed by Leicester-born Ernest Gimson, described by one authority as,  "the greatest of the English architect-designers".[

Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation is an affiliate of Liberal Judaism. They cherish and honour Jewish heritage, but interpret Jewish tradition in the light of modernity, while preserving all that is good in those traditions. They promote pluralism and engage in dialogue with other streams of Judaism, other religions, cultures and philosophies. it practises full gender equality in all aspects of congregational life. Services are conducted by visiting rabbis from the Liberal and Reform movements, as well as by their own members. The prayer books they use, published by liberal Judaism contain gender-inclusive language, in both Hebrew and English.

LPJC is represented on Leicester Council of Faiths and is active in the field of inter faith understanding. They support and work for Tikun Olam (Repairing the World) in its widest sense. They support and help Asylum Seekers and a number of other good causes, Jewish and non-Jewish. Neve Shalom is registered as a Fairtrade Synagogue.

Eleven o'clock is the starting time for the service; Leon has advised me to get there a quarter of an hour before that. When I arrive, the first person I meet whom I know is Denise Bergman. I've worked alongside Denise a few times at events in Leicester College (where she teaches), at SACRE and on our first exhibition at Highcross during National Inter Faith Week 2009. She finds a spare kippah for me to wear and we go to the back of the gathering, where I sit with her and her husband Andrew.

Today's Order of Service contains a page about Bar/Bat Mitzvah by D. Mottram-Epson, entitled, "Just in case you aren't sure what it is all about":
A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a male or female aged thirteen or over who gains adult responsibilities within their synagogue and Jewish community. A Bat Mitzvah means daughter of the commandments, and refers to a Jewish girl who has reached the age of thirteen. Strictly speaking you become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, rather than have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The rite of passage ceremony will vary according to the branch of Judaism and the customs of the synagogue. But in all cases the ceremony marks the Jewish child going from childhood to adulthood.
In a Liberal synagogue the ceremony is the same for both genders. It has evolved so that the Bat/Bar Mitzvah can demonstrate that they are able to fulfil the necessary requirements of a Jewish adult in the service. For a Liberal or Reform Jew the person should be familiar with Jewish history, Jewish practices and festivals and have a decent standard of reading Hebrew. This ceremony is Incorporated into the Shabbat Morning service on or after the child turns thirteen. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah leads certain prayers. Then they have an aliyah (call up), where the rabbi calls them up to the bimah using their Hebrew name, to read from the Torah scroll. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah says the blessing before and after reading from the scroll, and will generally read between 10-25 verses of the week's portion. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah may also choose readings and/or poems from Jewish literature to personalise the service. It is a Jewish parent's religious obligation to teach his or her child or children about Judaism including helping them to prepare for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah though importantly it should not signal the end of their religious education.
Family is a very important part of Judaism and, like other religions, they gather for important festivals and events and this occasion provides a perfect opportunity to get family together. In addition, some family members are often asked to participate in the service. For example, opening the doors of the Ark, undressing the Torah scroll or holding the Torah. This is considered an honour. After the service the Bar/Bat Mitzvah holds a party and celebrates.

I must say, I am very impressed with the young girl who takes centre stage as Bat Mitzvah today. As part of the service she reads an exegetical essay on the story of Balaam and his talking donkey from the Torah. It's a remarkable thing to listen to, researched, written and read by someone who has just turned thirteen. Rabbi Julia Neuberger (who is officiating today largely because she is a long-term friend of the family) takes this text as the basis of her short sermon later on, in which she extols the virtues of being able to change one's mind.

While I would confess to being lost in the many passages of Hebrew singing, I don't need to know the language in order to clap along.

Over a hundred people attend the service today, not all of them from the Leicester congregation. This (apparently) is evident in the variation in tunes and rhythm followed in the singing; not that I'd have noticed, but the rabbi does, remarking on it with good humour more than once). A great many of those present are children and young people. Live music at the beginning and end of the service is provided by the Bat Mitzvah herself (doubling up on trumpet and clarinet) and her family. The gathering ends with the serving of what has become the Jewish signature dish on such occasions: bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon and dill pickle.

I am really taken (moved, even) with my first visit to Neve Shalom - Leicester's own Oasis of Peace. I'll certainly ensure that it isn't my last!

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