|Married to Dr Isobel Braidman two years before taking up his current
post. His wife is a Senior Lecturer in Medicine at the University of Manchester.
They have three sons, Avi, Yossi and Raffi.
He has a PhD in the History of Jewish Philosophy; his thesis was on “The Jewish Reception of Spinoza from the 17th to the 20th centuries.”
He holds the Advanced Diploma in Counselling and is a Registered Associate of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
He started his ministry at the historic Mikve Israel-Emanuel Dutch-Portuguese synagogue in Curacao, the island of the Netherlands Antilles and served there from 1969 to 1971.
He returned to England and the Edgware Reform Synagogue where he served from 1974 to 1977. Since 1975 he has been a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America.
He came to Jacksons Row, Manchester Reform Synagogue in September 1977 and became a member of the British Assembly of Rabbis of which he was Chairman during the years1990 to 1993.
He lectured in Modern Hebrew at the University of Manchester Department of Middle Eastern Studies from 1984 to 1996.
His earlier work on Spinoza led to the publication of his book “Baruch Spinoza, Outcast Jew, Universal Sage” by Symposium Press in 1995. The book is an analysis of Spinoza’s contribution to philosophy, biblical criticism, psychology and political theory.
He has broadcast regularly on the BBC radio 2 and 4 programmes on Jewish themes.
350 years of Jewish Life on a West Indies island
Rabbi‘s address to the Congregation
on 4th May 2001
I have just returned from participating in a historical event of monumental proportions. The community on the island of Curacao (pronounced "cure-a-saw'), in the Dutch Caribbean were celebrating their 350th anniversary and I returned to join them. Along with other rabbis, who had served there over the past 35 years
it was also, in fact, the 30th anniversary of my having left the island where I had my first pulpit. I can only sketch the outline of events that took place over those twelve days and hint to you the effect they had on me. It was a thoroughly emotional affair and also a deep learning experience.
No sooner had I stepped off the plane and picked up my bags than I was whisked away by a driver to the opening ceremony that took place in, of all places, the cemetery. The oldest cemetery in the western hemisphere. I don't know if that shocks some of you but it was highly significant as a celebration of their past. Their slogan also included learning from the present and working towards toe future. Ashkenazi communities such as ours call their cemeteries beselem, Yiddish for beit olam - House of Eternity. Sephardi communities, such as in Curacao, call theirs beit chayim - House of Life. They have restored theirs, which has been full for many years. as a historical site with exhibition halls
The community are extremely proud of their history; they go back to the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion to the New World They are the mother congregation of the Americas having spawned others in the Caribbean and the first one in America
The opening service, the following evening, was extremely moving. The beautiful Dutch colonial building with its pastel deep golden yellow and white outside and the dark mahogany of the pews inside, raised box like Bimah or Tevah as they call it, and the huge Ark or heychal contrast with the white pillars and the white sand covered floor characteristic of Caribbean synagogues. The congregation was bathed in candlelight radiating from scores of candles in the magnificent 18th century globe and branch style brass chandeliers. Along the northern wall on the raised mahogany enclosure sat the officers of the congregation, the men wearing top hats and tails, the women in their elegant best and wearing a white kippah.
The Guest of Honour was Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, his second time there, the first being twenty years ago with his mother Queen Beatrix and other members of the Royal Family. After the service we met the prince in a party atmosphere and he was presented with a Shofar
What moved me most about the service and, indeed, about the whole week, was the involvement of the younger generation by which I mean those who were children when I served there from 1969-71 and who now, many of them, have children of their own. The service included the best of the unique repertoire of music which is the noble heritage of many generations Those melodies have never left me I would love to introduce some of them to our Choir
Every time I tried to join in I was choked with emotion; the lump in my throat was from hearing the sons and daughters of the choir I knew, some of whom were no longer there, some now singing in the ‘celestial choir invisible’, one whose two daughters were in the choir loft was downstairs in a wheelchair having suffered a stroke Friday night and Shabbat morning services were less grand but no less stirring. The tiny congregation about a quarter of the size of ours, was swelled by north and south Americans representatives of Jewish communities from other islands, the nearby Aruba Jamaica, and further afield from Panama to Holland and Israel I was the only Brit!
The congregation is a unique blend of Sephardi and Progressive Hebrew Portuguese, Spanish and English mingled together in the prayers In 1864 a split occurred resulting in a Reform temple being established on Curacao. The building, which has a steeple like a church is still standing; now it is a court of justice.
After 100 years the island's Jewish population had declined from 2,000 families to one quarter of that number. Both congregations had trouble raising a minyan, so they recombined: the first orthodox / reform merger in history. As a compromise, they joined the World Union of Progressive Judaism and the Reconstructionist Foundation. Reconstructionism is a lecture in itself.
There are compromises that make the place a model of Jewish co-operation. The Hebrew school, founded in 1964, brought together Sephardim with Ashkenazi who hitherto would not mix, let alone marry each other What's more, the Ashkenazi Jews on the island are nominally orthodox with their own Shul but the school integrates the two. And so does the youth movement BBYO. And the orthodox rabbi, Yeshiva trained, and a Moroccan Sephardi, serving the Ashkenazi community. Attended all the main events of the 350th plus a tephillin service for a Barmitzvah at the Progressive synagogue on the Thursday morning.
The other compromise is over egalitarianism. When the merger was effected the by laws required a 75% majority for change to be voted upon, concerning any issue regarded as "incisive". A 2/3rds majority would not have worked since the orthodox/reform split was 2/3rds and 1/3rd. Women and Torah was such an issue They reached a compromise last year whereby every other Shabbat would be egalitarian; it wasn't easy, both sides had to give. That's the nature of compromise. The in- fighting leading up to it was bitter in the extreme. The debate went on for well over thirty years and reached the depths in the last three. In the end they had to call in a consultant rabbi from the Reconstructionist Foundation in the USA. He gave them a choice between maintaining the status quo and survival.
Their problem was the notion of a woman standing in front of an open scroll, let alone reading it, for no rational reason. Just that people believed it wasn't the done thing. Bat mitzvahs could read Haftarah; their fathers were called to the Torah. When one young lady appeared at her father's side someone stood up and publicly objected there and then to a woman standing in front of an open scroll When it was put to the vote 72% voted in favour just 3% short
They had the choice: either go on until death was the decider, or compromise - they chose the latter. What clinched it was a young lady who insisted on having a Bat mitzvah even if it had to take place at home, as it did in her back garden. They acquired a Sefer Torah from a friend whose rabbi in New York (an orthodox rabbi to boot) agreed for the scroll to be transported to Curacao.
This young lady moved me more than anyone else I met. At the opening ceremony, which after hot debate, became egalitarian she chanted from the scroll with the traditional Portuguese melody. Her mother elevated the scroll, as she had done, since last Yom Kippur. They divide Yom Kippur - half egalitarian, half non egalitarian.
One interesting thing that I discovered was that on Simchat Torah they used to have a Callat Torah - a bride as well as a bridegroom of the Torah going back to 1670. That has now been forgotten and people think that it is a modern innovation. The Callat Torah used to come down from the women's gallery and join her husband in procession with her bridesmaids. It was a custom that went back at least to the seventeenth century in Amsterdam, if not earlier.
What moved me about the girl who triggered the change was that this young lady's mother was my pupil when she was her daughter's age. I used to teach her and her sister privately because as little girls they had not been enrolled in the Hebrew school. Her father is a Dutch Protestant, her mother descended from one of the families that brought over the scroll she read from, three hundred and fifty years ago, from Portugal. The scroll dates from 1320; it was already nearly 350 years old when the community began! The same family established the famous orange Curacao liqueur. They gave their two daughters a Jewish education. One married Jewish, the other non-Jewish. The Torah reader comes from the mixed marriage. All the cousins are deeply involved in synagogue life.
I am ecstatic that life has worked out so well for them. Children who are either apathetic or rebellious as teenagers have turned out to be pillars of the community putting in many hours of work over the two years of planning for the 350th anniversary. They help run the youth group and the Hebrew school; the latter put on an exhibition of their work - a puppet show dramatising their community's history. And a display of research done into street names, named after prominent Jewish personalities on the island and the lives of their grandparents - wonderful that they bring history right up to date to include near relatives who have passed away.
There were other events: lectures by Chaim Potok the novelist rabbi, and Gunther Plaut, editor of the Chumash from which we take our translations week by week. I was privileged to be asked to give a lecture-cum-shiur on my book about Baruch Spinoza the Dutch Sephardi philosopher whose sister is buried on that island in the beit chayim. A direct descendent of hers turned up from Philadelphia. There were seminars of a very high standard on the current situation of Jewish communities in the Americas and a superbly photographic exhibition on synagogues in South America and the Caribbean. An open-air concert was held in the grounds of the 18th century Fort Amsterdam - half Caribbean music, half Jewish from the American Conference of Cantors which drew an audience of 2,000 people
It was all so spectacular and inspiring that nothing moved me as much as witnessing how people and their children have grown Jewishly and tried to pass on their enthusiasm to the next generation. They've problems to be sure; children go abroad to study in the USA or Holland. One out of three, if that, return No-one can guarantee that their grandchildren will carry on what they have been shown. In that respect it's no different from anywhere else. They are acutely aware of the need for creative thinking in ritual and education as an urgent necessity to secure the future
What I have brought home with me is this: the power of a milestone celebration is immense; this one was very professionally organised. Eighty people were involved with ten committees to produce the festival in a congregation a quarter of our size. The PR knock-on effects were tremendous: I made an excursion into the countryside to track down a flock of flamingos. On a dusty road away from the town (the whole place is roughly about the size of Greater Manchester) I stopped with three others, one from Curacao, and two Israelis, at a bar restaurant. One of the latter noticed a welcome board in three languages and asked the proprietor if he could chalk up a welcome in his own language, Hebrew. The proprietor agreed and then told us that he had watched the synagogue service on TV from beginning to end. When we came to pay for our drinks he said they were on the house!. He was a local, coloured Antillean, speaking Dutch and the local language Papiamento. He didn't say so but it would seem to have been a gesture towards us, as Jews, because it wouldn't make sense if we were just another group of tourists he depended upon for business. The others insisted on paying but he refused payment; I offered to buy him a drink and he replied "buy the cook one", who was very pleased and asked for a fruit juice. So we completed the circle of friendship. Beyond this PR, that celebration has done wonders for community morale, and for orthodox / reform relations too. But for internal commitment, above all.
Our congregation, at Jacksons Row, was founded in 1856. In five years time it will be our 150th anniversary. Next year it is our Ladies Guild 50th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of our building in Jacksons Row. It will also mark the beginning of my 25th anniversary of service to the congregation. How about it? Let's put our thinking caps on to work out how we can use these milestones to give ourselves a real boost!
RABBI DR REUVEN SILVERMAN