Shabbat Shemot 5780 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon 18th January 2019

It’s an Ofsted Report for an Orthodox Jewish school in Hertfordshire last January that summed up for me some of the challenges of Jewish institutions.  It sounds like one of those internet memes.  The parents see a school filled with lifelong friends; be it fellow parents, teachers or governors, there is a familiarity that feels too easy.  The staff feel themselves to be at the heart of community.  The children feel safe with people they have relationships with in so many contexts; that Monday to Friday those teachers are ‘Miss, Mrs, Mr so and so’ but come the weekend they are known by their first names at least if not auntie and uncle.  That is community, that is being Jewish, multiple hats, a connectivity of relationships.  However, what is it that Ofsted saw?  An inadequacy of effective leadership and management because “at all levels, including governance, professional and personal, boundaries have been allowed to blur.  Appropriate confidentiality has not been maintained.”  Blurred boundaries, a multiplicity of relationships, seeing people and not roles has been part of our USP for so long, it has made us feel connected but we have to learn that with that comfort brings risk.  I have no doubt that the school over this year has found ways to be both the professional space it needs to be without losing any of its sense of community; I think it’s what Ofsted and its very strict guidelines around safeguarding has enabled all our schools, kindergartens and day cares to achieve.  They have the rules that sit firmly along-side our strong sense of community.  At the other end of the spectrum I see it every time I walk into a Jewish Care facility too. The interplay between volunteers and residents is so lovely.  I watched the service leaders at a Jewish Care home last Shabbat morning calling people up to Torah, reminding them of the communities they were such key maches of in decades gone by.  Yet the CQC, the Care Quality Commission, works alongside Jewish Care to ensure that all the safeguards are in place to make sure that the wonderful interactions between volunteers, staff and users are always done in appropriate ways to look after everyone’s interests.

This week’s Torah reading teaches us such an important lesson.  We can be so immersed in a situation that we are blinkered to the reality of the status quo or cannot understand how it could be perceived by others.   The Israelites living in Egypt were thriving.  Their numbers were increasing, their status solid and yet ten short words, one simple verse and their entire reality changes and why? Because how they viewed themselves and how others viewed them was suddenly at odds.

8 A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. ח  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.

What did the Pharaoh fear of the Israelites?  Simply their numbers and the tightness of the community.  The more they were afflicted, the tighter they drew together and the more numerous they grew.   Perspectives change both how others perceive us and how we within perceive ourselves.  Just as an Ofsted report means the joyous sense of community is suddenly made to feel at odds with safeguarding, so several articles in the Jewish Chronicle can have us questioning whether synagogue leadership is behaving in an appropriate manner to be protecting the vulnerable amongst its members and staff.  Articles in the national press leave people criticising religious institutions across the board, for fear that organisations so associated with all that is antiquated are indeed not fit for purpose, outmoded and are not protecting those who most need it. Yet we cannot allow criticism to cause us to retreat.  Instead we need it to force us into asking ourselves difficult questions.

What sets Moses apart from all those around him in this week’s parasha?  Twice, central moments of the narrative are introduced by us being told that Moses looks around him.  So many of us are blinkered by relationships, roles and a very insular definition of responsibility, but this is not true of Moses.  He is able to understand how other people might be experiencing the world, he is able to empathise and try to look at how things are for them as well.

Ex 2:11

11 When Moses was grown up, he went out to his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. יא   וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.

With Moses having been brought up in both communities among the labourers and the rulers he acquired a unique sense of society, he was the first to see slavery as an injustice.  Sadly, what he was not given were processes in which to speak out, a way to deal with his anger about what he saw until again he was able to look around him.

Exodus 3:3-4

3  I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. ג   אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:  מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.

As a community who has benefited from wise lay leaders for many years, who have listened to the voices who talked about safeguarding and governance before it was mainstream and as a community who have implemented systems to ensure everyone is accountable, we have to be a community of Moses.  We have to look outside of ourselves and call the whole Reform Movement and all religious institutions to understand that we do not stand outside the parameters of the need for rigorous and robust safeguarding measures.  Synagogues, like schools and care homes, need to sacrifice a little of their autonomy to the power of regulatory bodies.  Whether that is the Movement for Reform Judaism or the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, robust values-laden codes of conduct with procedures and retributions need to exist.   A small group within the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors are busy creating such a process but with the rules needs to come a shift of culture.  Rabbis need to start to view ourselves like doctors and teachers and not just accept accountability but ask for the protection that it brings for ourselves, our synagogue staff and our members.

In Pirkei Avot Hillel teaches

Pirkei Avot 2:5

וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

In a place where there are no men (no mensches, no people behaving properly), strive to be a real man, (strive to be the mensch, strive to behave in the way you know to be correct), regardless of what is going on around you.

Let us not hide and say it was them, not us but rather let us, like Moses look all around us, let us not be blinkered by relationships, roles and how things have always been because one implements safeguards in the good times so that when

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ

when there are new relationships, new roles, the processes in place to protect are robust enough to withstand them

May this not just be the beginning of a new decade but  also of a new era when religious institutions  take their place in this modern world, a world where protecting the vulnerable is not a prophetic ideal but a legislated for reality

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