Given the involvement of both sides of her family in their respective congregations, it’s not surprising that Claire Lemer grew up firmly ensconced as a child of the United Synagogue.
Her father has been on the board of her ‘home shul’, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and is now, she thinks, in his 40th year of running its children’s service.
So Dr Lemer, a consultant paediatrician, has United Synagogue in her veins. In 2014 she became a trustee of the US — a big responsibility to take on, considering her day job.
But she says, when she speaks to young doctors at her hospital, Guy’s and Thomas’, she often tells them of the importance of having a hinterland on which to draw, unconnected with work, but which she believes has the capacity to make them better at their job.
- Read more: United for 150 years
Her commitment to the US has grown over the years. She says: “Like many young people, growing up, [synagogue] was part of my routine, whether it was Hebrew classes or bat chayil, or attending Shabbat or festival services. When I went to university, for the first time I had to think about the choices I wanted to make. I was lucky enough to go to a small city (Cambridge) where the student Jewish society was very active, but also very connected with the local synagogue.”
Accordingly she began to become involved in Cambridge Jewish life, and understood the nature of the behind-the-scenes work that had to take place in order for people to benefit.
Back in London, finishing her clinical training, it was “head down”, with synagogue in the background, part of “the rhythm of the week”. But what she calls “various life events”, including a serious road traffic accident, brought Dr Lemer back to communal activity.
At first she took part in a US programme for young leaders. “Then people in my local synagogue, knowing I had done this programme and seeing the skills I was developing, asked me if I would become involved in the strategy work that was being written for our community. And then I was asked if I would serve on the board, and I did that for a while. And the combination of all of that was to get involved in the rejuvenation of United Synagogue Women, led by Elaine Sacks [wife of the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks]”.
That took her, Dr Lemer says, “from the detail of the synagogue to the detail of the bigger picture, again, what was going on behind the scenes”. Around that time (2014) there were discussions about how to get more women involved by having them stand as trustees, and so she agreed to run for election.
Looking back across the decades to the group of people who began the US 150 years ago, Dr Lemer describes them as “really revolutionary” in their initiative. But no institution reaches 150 years without changing and without listening to potential constituents.
The most immediate change, Dr Lemer believes, is in the geographical location of US communities, and the support the umbrella body can give to new congregations, both in London and in the regions. Last year the US gained more than 1,000 new members, and that, she feels, is because they are trying to offer “more than just the life cycle of services and simchas and burials. “We are trying to support Jewish schools in a number of different ways, and have begun the Jewish Community Academy Trust to provide the best Jewish and secular education available.”
The US has established two asylum seeker drop-in centres, in Hendon and Woodford Forest, which it hopes will bring in younger people interested in helping the wider community. “And, supported by the National Lottery, we are creating a Heritage Centre at Willesden Jewish Cemetery.”
The US, says Dr Lemer, “is an incredibly important organisation which touches many people’s lives… we can offer a place where people can feel safe and connect with like-minded people”.
She is aware of criticisms of the US in the past, but believes it is becoming “more agile” in its responses to what people want and need from their community. It is doing its best to provide a place for younger people who want to “invest and grow” in their Judaism.
But in order to take what the US has to offer, Dr Lemer says, “there need to be people giving”. Despite a busy schedule in her paediatric work, and the problems of Covid-19, she says the US has given her “more challenging” opportunities to learn and think — and she hopes that more people will take up the baton to begin the next 150 years.