Each year, at the end of January, we are invited to come together to remember the Holocaust and perhaps learn from the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, with war raging in Ukraine and debate throughout the world becoming more and more fractious and polemic, we can only hope that one day, the forces for good will outweigh the forces of evil.
Coinciding with Holocaust Memorial Day, Rabbi Margaret Jacobi will be retiring from her role at the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue after 28 years. Throughout her time as Rabbi leading her congregation, she has undoubtedly been a force for good and we can only hope her successor continues the excellent job she has done over the years.
We first met many years ago when I helped raise money for a LGBT Jewish exhibition to come to the Birmingham LGBT Centre. On the evening, I was surprised to learn that a Rabbi would even set foot in an LGBT Centre, let alone speak in one and it was truly an honour to share the stage with her. The words in her speech were just perfect, then I stood up to speak about my Jewish upbringing which was a world away from the truly delightful form of Judaism – and life itself – espoused by Margaret.
Not so scary
Instead of the scary Orthodox and exceedingly blinkered rabbis I remember from growing up, Margaret was kind, softly spoken, thoughtful and above all, incredibly inclusive. Rather than a black or white view of the world, her view is in full colour, ready to accept that we can have differing viewpoints on how we make the world a better place. That’s not to say she doesn’t have her own opinions, far from it, she’s simply humble enough to accept that other viewpoints exist, and willing to listen and learn.
We swapped details and kept in contact. After years away from the Jewish community, I even became a subscriber to the Synagogue newsletter, but Margaret always accepted without question that although I am culturally Jewish, I have no belief in a higher being and I firmly think humanity needs to sort out its own messes. If only it would. That said, Margaret made it easy to see the benefits of organised religion – a sense of belonging, faith and coming together, especially in times of personal difficulty.
Nowadays, the world can be such a scary place where debate can be much more difficult. People like Margaret give us hope of a better future. Seeing a religious leader encouraging people to come together with informed dialogue and respect for other opinions really has been a breath of fresh air.
Some years ago when I helped to edit a local magazine, it was coming up to the tenth anniversary of Civil Partnerships being introduced in the UK. I got in touch with Margaret and she was delighted to write the most wonderful article about how her synagogue had jumped at the chance to include ceremonies for same sex couples. She wrote about a lovely example of a couple who recently married in her synagogue. Back then, the term marriage was still a few years away from being used, but she embraced the notion, which sadly is still not the case for Church of England even now.
Indeed, blessings for same sex couples had been taking place in Progressive Jewish circles not just for ten years, but the best part of half a century and are part and parcel of Progressive Jewish life. The joy and happiness of same sex marriage is well and truly celebrated, rather than vaguely tolerated or grudgingly accepted.
A less polarised view
In 2016, I was heavily involved fighting Brexit and put out a call for people to help. Along came Margaret who kindly gave up time from her busy schedule on more than one occasion. Like so many of us, she feared a future with a more fractious Europe.
However, she did tell me she didn’t want to upset her congregation, so never preached her views on the subject at the synagogue, especially as some of her congregants had different views on the subject. As I said, incredibly inclusive, and once again, prepared to hear a different viewpoint.
A window on the caring world
Each week, the synagogue newsletter continues to drop into my inbox. Naturally there’s a bit about religion, but it also includes news about community events. Recently, it highlighted a service at St Martin’s Church to mark World AIDS Day where I was heartened that the Synagogue President said some words which were encouraging, inclusive and thoughtful. To me, it was a sign of great leadership from Margaret.
The newsletter always features ways to help the wider community, including people displaced and seeking refuge here in the UK, how to help foodbanks and more recently people struggling with heating bills. It includes all manner of efforts to bring different communities together. From events with Palestinian guest speakers to understanding other religions, the newsletter never fails to bring hope and a knowledge that many of us can still come together and learn from each other.
Good luck Margaret
After retiring from her role as Rabbi, Margaret’s next adventure is to spend some months on sabbatical in Australia. Birmingham’s loss is definitely Australia’s gain. One thing is for sure, Margaret will leave some big shoes to fill. Let’s hope her successor will find the same grace and dignity to lead a congregation so they can be wise, thoughtful and kind.
Holocaust Memorial Day – Many events are being held throughout the region, including in Birmingham at the Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB on Sunday 29 January. Doors open at 1pm with the event starting at 2pm.
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