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History of the OJC - The Oxford Story

The following is reprinted from an article by Jesmond Blumenfeld, former President of the Oxford Jewish Community, in the the January 2003 edition of the Edinburgh Star (the magazine of the Edinburgh Jewish Community) and is reproduced with the permission of that magazine.

The Oxford Jewish Congregation (OJC) is a rare, if not unique, community of Jews.

For several decades, as the wider UK synagogal community has become increasingly polarised between 'orthodox' and 'non-orthodox', the OJC has enjoyed and cultivated a sense of unity and common Jewish identity, based on mutual respect for, and collaboration between, the different strands of Judaism. In a nutshell, the OJC operates as a single 'umbrella' organisation to which Jews of any denomination can belong, while permitting - indeed encouraging and funding - sub-groups of members to organise different services.

The 'default' services on shabbat, the chagim and on the High Holydays are orthodox. On many shabbatot, however, 'alternative' services are held simultaneously with the orthodox service. At present, Liberal services and Masorti services (the latter fully egalitarian) each take place on one shabbat each month. There are also regular 'non-denominational' children's services and occasional women-only services (in the orthodox tradition). (A Reform group also used to run monthly services, but has been in abeyance for some years.) Progressive services are also held on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Although lack of space occasionally requires the hiring of separate premises (e.g. on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the different services normally take place within the same building - the Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre - with the participants coming together for a joint after-services kiddush.

How did this unusual organisational setup evolve? How does it work in practice? And what are its advantages and disadvantages?

To answer the first question it is necessary to provide some historical background. Prior to the 1960s, despite Oxford's status as a major university centre, the size, strength and stability of the resident Jewish community waxed and waned as a result of external developments beyond its control. The reluctance of Oxford Colleges to employ Jews in senior academic positions, and the relative absence of economic and industrial development in the Oxford area, inhibited the growth of the resident Jewish population. This was reflected in the synagogue's normal seating capacity of 50 persons.

The late 1930s and the onset of the Second World War brought an influx of some 500 refugees from Germany, and at least a similar number of evacuees from London. However, most of the latter subsequently drifted back to London and some (though not all) of the former moved on to other destinations, thereby causing the community to shrink dramatically again. For much of the time, therefore, the undergraduate Jewish student community - present for only 24 weeks of each year - was the dominant group. Significantly, the rapid post-1945 growth in student numbers meant (in the words of the OJC's chronicler) that 'the undergraduate element was a far more substantial proportion of the Anglo-Jewish student body than the resident community was of Anglo-Jewry as a whole, both in size and resources' - a fact that reinforced the long-standing recognition that 'undergraduate needs were in some sense a national responsibility'.

Although 'town-gown' relations were often strained, the mutual dependency between the two small communities also encouraged cooperative behaviour. Two aspects of these cooperative relations are particularly relevant. First, a tradition of cross-denominational usage of the synagogue building was established early in the 20th Century. Whether because of lengthy periods without a minister, the very small number of residents, the eclectic background of the Jewish undergraduate community, or the presence of particular individuals with strong Liberal leanings - perhaps all were relevant - the forms of service used in the synagogue were varied. Moreover, the synagogue building - originally leased by the OJC on part of the current site - appears to have been acquired subsequently by an independent trust, whose members comprised residents, dons and undergraduates representing both orthodox and non-orthodox traditions.

Second, after the Second World War, despite its dwindling numbers, the resident community became involved in the provision of kosher meals for the expanding cohorts of students. A related, though subsequent, development - connected to the 'national responsibility' issue - was the purchase by the London-based B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation of a site next to the synagogue for the provision of kosher meals for students (although it was still the local residents who provided the service).

By the 1960s, the old synagogue building was in a state of serious disrepair. Although the 'permanent' resident population had now begun to grow, it was a London-based committee, including several prominent Oxford alumni, which took on primary responsibility for raising funds for a new Jewish Centre. Although not the original intention, it was eventually decided to build the Centre on the site of the existing building, augmented by several adjacent sites. However, the underlying properties were not owned by the Congregation: apart from the Hillel-owned site, some of the properties were registered in the names of individual OJC members, and the rest were vested in the aforementioned independent trust. An additional consideration was that, while the Congregation had become more orthodox in its orientation by the 1940s, some of (the successors to) the trustees of the original synagogue building were concerned to protect the interests of Progressive Jews.

The solution to the problems posed by this plethora of interests was found in the creation of a non-profit charitable 'Company Limited by Guarantee'. The Company's purpose was to hold the new building and all the underlying properties, and to give the OJC, the Oxford University Jewish Society (OUJS) and the kosher meals service assured use of the building in perpetuity. The OJC, the Hillel Foundation and the (successors to) the original trustees were all accorded rights of appointment to the directorate of the Company, with special provisions to protect student and Progressive interests. A crucial additional decision was to insert an unalterable clause in the Memorandum of Association of the Company stating that the building must be made available for 'all forms of Jewish worship'. This provision appears to have been regarded as unremarkable by all concerned - certainly, there is no evidence that it was formally disputed by any interested party.

The import of this complex organisational structure is that the Company stands as the ultimate guarantor of the right of access to the Centre. In particular, it ensures that if the OJC (or the OUJS) were ever to be 'taken over' by one or other religious tendency, they would not be able to preclude other denominational groups within the Oxford community from holding services in the Centre. In practice, however, there has been no case to date in which the Company has had to exercise this ultimate power because, in the 27 years since the Centre was built (in 1974), the Congregation has become increasingly 'pluralistic' in outlook and character.

The OJC itself is a complex institution, which is difficult to describe, mainly because of the relative 'informality' of its own structures. Although the OJC describes itself as an 'independent orthodox' congregation, its constitution merely lays down that its objects include the 'advancement of the Jewish religion' and the provision of religious and welfare services for the 'Jews of Oxford'. Membership of the Congregation is open to 'all persons of the Jewish faith', albeit with the crucial rider that any individual's access to religious rites (including bar/batmitzvah, marriage, burial etc) depends on his/her halachic status. Both men and women are counted as full members, with non-Jewish spouses/partners of members offered non-voting associate status. Significantly, the community does not have a rabbi or other formal spiritual leader. Except on the High Holydays, when outside assistance is obtained for the orthodox services, and for part of the summer when absences create the need for some assistance with lehening, all the services are run by lay volunteers.

As noted above, the 'default' services are Orthodox, run by a 'religious services committee' in accordance with halachic principles and long-standing local custom. However, there are also semi-autonomous informal groups that organise Progressive, Masorti, children's and women's services, all in accordance with their own traditions, but all also in the name of the OJC. Each group is entitled and expected to protect the integrity of its form of service; but each group also understands and accepts that it is part of a wider and unified community. The activities are co-ordinated (loosely) by the Shul Council. There are no 'bloc interests' on Council and no formal representation on Council for the non-orthodox groups (the convenor of the Orthodox religious services committee is a member of Council, ex-officio). Instead, all elected Council members are encouraged to regard themselves as representatives of the whole community, and - if necessary - a satisfactory spread of interests is secured by co-optation of individuals.

How does all this work in practice?

The short answer is that it works because everyone wants it to work. The slightly longer answer is that it works through a combination of mutual respect, tolerance, inclusiveness, negotiation, common sense and avoidance of rigid structures. Some very practical examples:

·           The OJC's stock of Sifrei Torah is available for use by all denominations without qualification (other than a mutual understanding that every Torah scroll must be accorded utmost respect);

·           Out of respect for orthodox sensitivities, the Progressive group would not hold a service with music in the Centre on shabbat (if they wanted to do so on a particular shabbat they would move off-site for that occasion);

·           There have been occasions (e.g during the early part of the shacharit service) when the orthodox service has been short of a minyan, and has temporarily 'borrowed' attendees from the alternative service;

·           Although there are some individuals who, through principle or preference, will attend only their 'own' services, there is a significant degree of fluidity in attendance (a number of Liberal and Masorti adherents, for example, attend the orthodox services on the shabbatot when their preferred service is not available); and

·           The post-service kiddush never starts until both services have finished, even though - on occasions - congregants from one service have to wait 20 or even 30 minutes for the other service to finish.

The location of services is determined in an equally civilised and sensible manner. Formally, the Centre is run on a day-to-day basis by a Management Committee, whose chairman is appointed by the company, but whose other members are appointed by the OJC and the OUJS. The Management Committee's responsibilities include ensuring that the principle of equal access for 'all forms of Jewish worship' is upheld. In practice, the arrangements are usually settled between the respective service convenors. Orthodox services are normally held in the 'main' shul, and any alternative service in an adjacent multi-purpose room - but this is only because the orthodox services generally attract larger numbers. If, on a particular shabbat, either the Liberal or Masorti group wants to use the main shul (e.g. for a family simcha such as a bar/batmitvah) the locations are switched.

 

The Jews of Oxford take great pride in the inclusiveness of their institutional structures - a pride that is reinforced by the favourable feedback received from the continuous streams of short- and long-term visitors that pass through the city. They are also proud of the fact that their Congregation is vibrant and growing (the Jewish Centre is currently undergoing a major programme of extensions and refurbishment to meet the needs of the next generation).

There are drawbacks, however, the greatest of which is that the setup does not readily accommodate the provision of spiritual leadership. The Oxford community had no resident rabbi between 1908 and 1940, and has had none since 1948.

The explanation is partly financial - although the resident community has now grown to encompass nearly 300 member households, the costs of running the Centre (which include student usage and are defrayed exclusively from local resources) and of the Hebrew classes (which currently cater for nearly 100 children), preclude any realistic hope of employing a minister. But it is also because finding a spiritual leader who would not - intentionally or otherwise - cause a degree of unwanted polarisation within the community, would constitute a major challenge.

 

Jesmond Blumenfeld (Oxford, January 2003)
(The author is a former President of the Oxford Jewish Congregation, and a former Chairman of the Management Committee of the Oxford Synagogue and Jewish Centre. However, the views expressed in this article reflect his personal opinion, and should not necessarily be taken to represent the official views of the Oxford Jewish Congregation or any other institutional body.)

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