Earlier this week I flew to London for a very special reunion. The genesis of this event began in 1998, when I was approached by my friend Michael Sinclair, a mover-and-shaker in London’s Jewish community.
We first met during my stint as rabbi of Notting Hill Synagogue. I knew Michael as an innovative, original thinker who was ahead of the curve on every issue and challenge facing Jewish continuity.
In 1993 Michael had partnered with Chief Rabbi Sacks to create an organization called “Jewish Continuity,” with the aim of transforming Jewish life in the UK and halting the slow but seemingly inexorable decline into oblivion.
By 1998, Jewish Continuity had merged with another major Jewish organization, and Michael was looking to initiate new projects – in particular a project that would address the growing problem of Jews marrying out of the faith, or not marrying at all.
Concerned by the escalating disaffiliation of British Jews in their 20s and 30s from organized Jewish life – which Michael felt was to blame for this phenomenon – he proposed launching a “hip” shul that would specifically target this demographic.
The location we chose was the “Saatchi Synagogue” – recently dedicated by the celebrated Saatchi advertising brothers in honor of their elderly parents, Nathan and Daisy. This newly built sanctuary wasn’t actually a synagogue; it was part of a Jewish day school complex, used by the school for prayers and assemblies on weekdays, but conveniently empty on weekends.
The Saatchi name was a perfect brand, particularly as the synagogue was a five-minute walk from the Saatchi Gallery, a hub of modern art that was then located in the trendy St. John’s Wood area.
The period before we opened was a frenzy of activity. Night after night I met with a range of potential members and participants – some enthusiastic, others lukewarm. We launched an eye-grabbing advertising campaign that included billboards in London Underground stations. It was picked up by the national media – who loved it – but derided by Jewish critics as offensive.
“Welcome to the unorthodox synagogue” read one advert, with the blurb asking: “Where does it say that an Orthodox service has to be boring, formal and uninspiring?” Another advert had a speed sign with the number “45”. The blurb was blunt: “The Saatchi Synagogue will have tremendous energy, dynamism and vitality. One reason is that people who go there will be under 45.”
The main program feature was weekly Friday night dinners with celebrity speakers. The first dinner, and at least a dozen after that, was sold out in less than 3 days. Speakers included actor/playwright Steven Berkoff, celebrity chef Claudia Roden, as well as Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres.
The first London mayoral campaign debate between Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingstone was at the Saatchi Synagogue, moderated by BBC news presenter Martyn Lewis (Archer later withdrew his candidacy after he was charged with perjury, and Livingstone won the election).
Within a matter of weeks, the synagogue’s social events were resulting in engagements and weddings, and so it went on for several years.
This week’s reunion was at the home of a couple who met at the Saatchi Synagogue. We had not kept in touch over the years, but it was heartwarming for me and Sabine to reconnect with them, and to realize how we had positively impacted their lives, and the lives of so many others.
The friendships and connections between the people who met at Saatchi have persisted throughout, and seeing them again brought back floods of wonderful memories.
As we chatted and reminisced, I recalled my first address at a Saatchi Synagogue gathering, during the initial Friday night dinner 25 years ago. I had begun by asking where everyone had been for dinner the previous Friday night. Some said they had been with parents and family, but others admitted they were out with friends, or at home not having Shabbat dinner.
I smiled. In December 1894, I continued, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated for the first time how radio waves could be used to transmit signals – “telegraphy without wires,” as he called it. One thing led to another, and eventually, radio waves became the medium for the transmission of talk shows and music. Today there are thousands of radio stations that use “telegraphy without wires” so that we can tune in and hear news broadcasts and our favorite songs.
But radio waves were there long before Marconi revealed their existence – it’s just that no one had ever utilized them. And even after Marconi’s innovation and the subsequent creation of ubiquitous radio programming – unless you tune in to a program, you’d never know it was there.
Shabbat is no different, I explained. There it is, every Friday night, since the beginning of time – but unless you know it’s there, and you tune in, you could go through your entire life and never experience its sublime beauty or its incredible power to spiritually rejuvenate the soul.
Judaism, our ancient faith, is just the same. It is a gift from God, but it is all too easy to go through life without it, never tuning in, or trying to find the particular program to give you what you need so that you can connect with God.
Remarkably, this idea is embedded at the heart of the Ten Commandments in Parshat Yitro. The Jews who gathered at Mount Sinai were told (Ex. 20:8) זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַׁבָּת לְקַדְשׁוֹ – “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” The commentaries puzzle over the fact that when the decalogue was repeated in Parshat Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:12), the wording was changed: שָמוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַׁבָּת לְקַדְשׁוֹ – “Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”
There are countless explanations – some practical, others metaphorical. But the simplest explanation is this one: unless you “remember” it is Shabbat, you’ll never tune in to sanctify it, and you will certainly never observe its precepts. Jewish identity is no different – unless you belong to a community, and connect to your Jewish heritage, simply being born Jewish is never going to be enough.
This past Sunday, as I looked around the room at the reunion, I was moved by the continued dedication of my Saatchi Synagogue friends to their Jewish identity a quarter of a century after they “tuned in.” And there are many others who didn’t make it to the reunion, but for whom making the step to “remember” 25 years ago made all the difference to their lives, and to the life of the UK’s Jewish community.
Very occasionally, you encounter a divine presence in a seemingly mundane gathering. That was my experience this week. I came face to face with the crystallization of one of the Ten Commandments, and it was an experience I will never forget.