Written for Cardiff Reform Synagogue
My absolute favourite movie is Monty Python’s Life of Brian; I have seen it countless times, and it delights me on every single occasion; indeed at each viewing I pick up something that I didn’t notice before. Fighting to the top of best scenes in the film is an argument between members of the People’s Front of Judea about what the Romans have ever done for them. It goes like this: ‘What have the Romans done for us?’
‘Nothing!’ ‘Yeah nothing!!’ ‘Well, apart from the roads.’ ‘OK, apart from the roads, what have the Romans ever done for us?’ The argument goes back and forth until it is concluded as follows: ‘All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’
It came to my mind in connection with this Shabbat not because there is any immediate link that I can think of with Abraham starting his journey but because this Shabbat is Lech Lecha, designated a number of years ago by Leo Baeck College as the annual occasion when students would fan out across the country and talk about the College and all its works. And as a result it seems a very good opportunity to, ask the question: What has the Leo Baeck College ever done for us?
Leo Baeck was a luminary at the Berlin Hochschule, the great centre of Jewish learning and rabbinic training that was to be decimated by the Nazis. In the months before his death he knew that a college in its image was to be founded in London to perpetuate the ethos of the Hochschule and to begin the work of rebuilding the spiritual leadership of Progressive Judaism that had been so ravaged by Nazism. The college was named after him almost immediately after his death and as ‘Leo Baeck College’ it has been labouring to fulfil the promise that its founders implicitly made to Leo Baeck in the final stage of his tremendous life.
And what about the College itself: abused, underrated, wilfully misunderstood, and occasionally, unwittingly and certainly unintentionally, the cause of all the above?!
What has the Leo Baeck College done for us?
• It has trained more than 160 rabbis since its foundation.
• It has sent indigenous rabbis back to serve communities in Continental Europe that had been almost destroyed by German occupation and the ravages of Communism.
• It has painstakingly created a rabbinic training programme that – academically and pastorally – is recognised across the Progressive Jewish world as being about as good as it gets.
• It has become a centre of academic excellence in Hebrew and Jewish studies recognised by the most important academic validation authorities in Britain.
• It has produced education programmes through its Jewish Education department that have won international prizes and enhanced the quality of the Jewish education of generations of our youngsters.
• It has inspired some of its graduates to enter its faculty to educate the rabbis of tomorrow.
• It has produced rabbis who have become writers and educators of the highest calibre.
• It has produced rabbis who have become national figures not just for Anglo-Jewry but for general society.
• It has restored a whole cadre of rabbis that was lost in the Second World War.
• It has been responsible for the training of all but the first rabbi to serve this [Cardiff] congregation.
And if you ask yourselves: OK, OK, but apart from the last point – Leo Baeck College has trained the last four rabbis, and all the students who have served this congregation, but, nevertheless, what has the Leo Baeck College done for us? Let me put a question to you: since when do we Jews measure the success of something on the strength of what it has done for us? Since when do we Jews so narrow our horizons that we envisage what happens in the Jewish world solely in terms of its impact on us?
Since when could Cardiff Reform Synagogue, and many others like it, with its constant reminder of the losses sustained by so many of its families during the Second World War, fail to support wholeheartedly an institution that has provided over the last six decades one of the best rejoinders to Nazism of any in Britain?
Everything that the Leo Baeck College has achieved in the decades of its existence, it has done for us; all the rabbis who have graduated from it and have gone out to dedicate their lives to the Jewish people have done it for us; everything for which the College now stands, and all the new horizons on which it sets its sights for the future, are for US.
So the next time someone says ‘What has the Leo Baeck College done for us?’ in your hearing you will be able to answer with assurance and in truth: a very great deal, more indeed, than we could ever adequately acknowledge.
Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Shabbat Lech Lecha
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.