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Spotlight: Andrew Gilbert
Written by Movement for Reform Judaism Monday, 21 June 2010Spotlight: A series of articles profiling Reform Movement members and their work in the wider Jewish community. Andrew Gilbert is a former chair of the Movement and is now chair of Limmud International. He was recently recognised with a Jewish Volunteering Network "Special Award for Outstanding Work in the Jewish Voluntary Sector" and shares his Jewish journey here.
"I grew up at Finchley Reform Synagogue. In the 1960s and 1970s there was less of a difference between Reform and United Synagogue communities than there is today; a small part of each community was more observant but in general, levels of practice were similar in both groups. My grandfather insisted I was taught to lead a traditional Grace after Meals for my Bar-Mitzvah, as like most families we were cross-communal.
When I got to campus I realised the actual gulf between Reform Jews and both general Orthodox and "shomrei" Orthodox students. However it was the need to fight anti-zionism and anti-semitism on campus that really brought us all together in a real sense of "Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh B'Zeh" - all Israel is responsible for one another.
Taking part in the building of RSY-Netzer shaped further my understanding of this relationship. As young Reform Jews took part in major communal projects we became a core part of the community and its leadership. What we did not know Jewishly we made up by bringing our progressive and more worldly values to the table.
I became the youth worker of seven Reform synagogues and set up the northern region of RSY, gaining a sense of being Reform and a Jew not just a member of one particular synagogue. I also learnt that not every synagogue in our movement was the same or had the same vision. This work brought me into voluntary leadership positions in many of our communities where I gained knowledge, skills and life-long friends.
In the late 1980s I was privileged to lead a number of trips of young people to the then Soviet Union visiting refuseniks. It was here that I took on my first national voluntary leadership position in the adult Reform community as Chair of Exodus, a Reform-led cross-communal endeavour in which the Movement was an equal player.
I was then stunned to be offered the role of leading Limmud, which was then a gathering of a couple of hundred "educators" with their families that took place over Christmas. The story of how Limmud grew is a credit to many volunteers and also a well known tale. Its effects on the Orthodox community are well known, but we rarely speak about its effects on the Reform community, and whilst that is a predominantly good story it also points to the major failures of our movement in preparing ourselves for cross-communal activity.
After leading Limmud for 7 years and then taking part in building the then new UJIA I was honoured to become chair of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Whilst it was an honour, I think it is harder than it should be to be an effective volunteer or voluntary leader in many of our synagogues and this is as true in the national movement.
So in 2005 after finishing as chair of the Reform Movement I was honoured to become the founding chair of Limmud International and in 5 years took part in another amazing growth story backed by volunteer work.
I love my Reform Judaism. I love many of our leaders. I am challenged by our lack of knowledge and how little is being done about it. I am challenged by how few of us play roles in the wider Jewish community. I critique our movement for its lack of preparation and recognition of the need for us to lead the mainstream. Until we can understand ways of being cross-communal and ensuring that the intensification of Reform Judaism will equal Reform Judaism, we will not play our full role."
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