The Chief Rabbi and his immediate predecessor were among the guests at the United Synagogue (US)’s 150th anniversary reception at the House of Lords.
More than 200 people returned to the place where the organisation was mandated in 1870 with an act of Parliament, to hear two of Anglo-Jewry’s leading thinkers mark the historic event.
Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks hosted the event, heralding the US’ openness and unity, saying it represented “inclusive Orthodoxy. It welcomes everyone non-judgementally”.
He said its formation 150 years ago, with the coming together of five London synagogues was a “miracle on the same level as the division of the Red Sea” and that it “renders the United Synagogue somewhat unique in many ways today.
“Sixty communities, but stronger and younger than it was 150 years ago.”
Sacks, who served from September 1991 to 2013, spoke about the diversity of the organisation, saying it provides a home for the “most learned, the least learned, the most observing, the least observant, and we’re all friends, and that is extraordinary”.
He contrasted the British model to the American system in the 1900s, which he said “did not keep strictly to Halacha [Jewish law]. They allowed all sorts of stuff that we wouldn’t allow”.
“Today that whole movement, which is called conservative Judaism in America, is imploding, because they lack one word, mitzvah [commandment].
“That one word that is missing there we never lost. We stayed faithful to Judaism. The result is today we are strong in the way the American movement is not.”
Taking to the podium, Chef Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis paid tribute to his predecessor, saying Sacks was “a good example of how, through the United synagogue, we have not just made an impact within our own ranks, but rather we’ve made an impact throughout this country”.
He added: “Rabbi Lord Sacks did not only make a deep impact in our communities. But far more than that, he has made a great positive impact on all of British society.
“We don’t only thank you for hosting this evening’s event, but far more than that. For being the most extraordinary ambassador par excellence for Judaism and for the Jewish people.”
He added that “what we are doing here this evening is we’re coming back to the place where the United Synagogue was born, where it all started and actually it’s not such a Jewish thing to do”.
Explaining that Jews do not return to ancient Mesopotamia or Mount Sinai where fundamentals of the faith were laid, he said: “While our history and our past are crucial to us, because you can only know where you’re going to if you know where you’re coming from, the present and the future are far more important for us.”
The event was attended by representatives from most of the US’ 60 congregations, including from Borehamwood, Radlett and Hampstead, as well as communal leaders, and politicians such as Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, Mike Freer, who represents Finchley and Golders Green, and Lord Monroe Palmer.
In a letter to the synagogue movement’s president, Michael Goldstein, the Queen wished members a “most successful and enjoyable year celebrating the significant milestone”.