24/25 January 2020, 27/28 Tevet 5780

I have thrice applied for Rabbinic positions in London. All three times I was exceedingly aware of my colleagues and even friends also going the same post. It was uncomfortable. But we navigated it. The blessing and challenge of our intimate progressive Jewish community is that we know each other so well. Sometimes that is a huge benefit to the way we work together, sometimes it can blind us to a professionalism that we should be managing. We are so concerned with a sense of mutual support, of protecting ourselves from external scrutiny and washing ‘our linen in public’ that we may have resisted hearing the benefits of this.

My colleague across the road Rabbi Miriam Berger referred last week to an Ofsted report for a Jewish Primary school in Hertfordshire, the cosy-ness of staff and students and the interconnected relationships they held made for Ofsted, a blurring of boundaries.

Sometimes the cosy-ness and supportive intimacy of our Jewish community can mean we don’t lift our heads to look at the bigger picture. Sometimes we are working so hard on so many important ways to develop, sustain and progress our synagogues that we might resist seeing and listening to everything we should.

Following allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour by a colleague, many have come forward from Progressive Jewish communities to insist on a proper Ethics Committee to both protect and create due processes for complainants and subjects of complaints alike, be it rabbis, teachers, student rabbis or lay leaders. The Union of Reform Judaism in the States has created a robust process for this already. It behoves us greatly to follow. I have signed a letter along with many colleagues committing to safer sacred spaces and both the Liberal and Reform movements are working on this now.

I see an echo and anticipation of this in our Torah portion Va’eira. Getting deeper into the story that defines us, the Israelites are worn down by their avodah kasha, hard labour. So much so that when Moses returns from his visionary and encouraging moment at the Burning Bush, and relays what He and God have planned;  they can’t hear it, let alone believe it.

Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses because of their kotzer ruach and because of their hard labor. (Exodus 6:9)

Rashi helps explain kotzer ruach as “shortness of breath,” When one is stressed, pressed or anxious we feel this difficulty in breathing or rushed breaths.

As Sforno, Italian commentator of 16th century says, “It did not appear believable to their present state of mind … their heart could not assimilate such a promise” (Sforno on Exodus 6).

There are times when we feel beleaguered or downright exhausted in our Jewish communities but this is something that surely should receive attention and commitment.

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Rebecca