Thought for the Week: VE Day Service of Thanksgiving

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 May 2015

The eagle-eyed Alyth member watching last Sunday’s VE Day Service of Thanksgiving from Westminster Abbey might have been surprised to see a familiar face in the congregation. In fact, one didn’t need to be especially eagle-eyed. Because, there, sat directly opposite the Queen, with, thankfully, well-polished shoes, was, well, me.

I was there representing the Reform Movement; one of two rabbis in a party of faith leaders, along with our colleague from Liberal Judaism, Rabbi David Goldberg. In the picture below, David is sat to one side of me, with the Most Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala on the other, and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra and Lord Singh of Wimbledon completing the row.VE Day

The service was a remarkably impressive occasion: beautifully put together and executed with an enviable eye for order and detail. Those who know me well will appreciate my excitement at the 26 page booklet of notes to ensure that the service went without a hitch! To be in the awe-inspiring and historic environment of Westminster Abbey for such an occasion was truly moving, though it is worth noting that they too have challenges of acoustics and toilets in need of renovation. Ein chadash tachat ha-shemesh, as Ecclesiastes tells us.

The primary themes of the service – thanksgiving and commitment – are ideas common to diverse faith traditions. However, this was a Sunday morning Church service, and most of the tone and content of the service was deeply Christian. The liturgy did feel very ‘other’ to me, despite my very English upbringing. Ours is a Christian country – a fact that is strongly present at these national moments. So, for example, the Prime Minister read an acutely particularistic text from Romans 8, which felt slightly jarring, to me at least, just three days after a General Election.

Despite this, my overwhelming feeling – the slightly unnerving proximity to the royal family, apart – was a genuine sense of ease. It felt entirely appropriate that representatives of a variety of religious communities should be in that place at that moment. Yes ours is still a ‘Christian’ society, but it is one that absolutely welcomes within it a diversity of belief and culture.

This feeling of positive integration, especially for us as an engaged Jewish community, was reinforced for me by three personal moments during the morning:

The first was deciding what to wear. The invitation had asked that faith leaders attend in traditional dress. But what does that mean for a Reform rabbi? To be a Reform Jew is to exist with everyday society. A tallit felt inappropriate for a Christian service; and while David wore canonicals, these are a borrowed tradition from the Church, so hardly count as traditional dress. My ‘traditional’ attire extends as far as a kippah. So that is what I wore – a suit and tie, and kippah. Existing within British society, and within the Jewish community also.

The second vignette was on the way in, when a police officer, seeing my kippah, began to speak with me in Hebrew – catching me utterly off guard. When she and I chatted later, I discovered that she is English born, lived in Israel and has Israeli citizenship, but had now returned and had recently graduated as a police officer. Fully within British society, and within the Jewish community also.

And then, when the service got under way, it began with the Lord’s Prayer, which the two rabbis in attendance – both, as it happens alumni of Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University – could say by heart. Neither David nor I joined with the more particularistic liturgy, with its Christian theology (and – to my ear – very gendered language), but we are both very much products of English society, while living Jewish lives.

As modern Reform Jews, we are utterly immersed in British society – living within it, proudly British, to some extent part of the establishment (and aware too of how compromising that has the potential to be). After a year in which there has been a feeling of insecurity around our community, I had a very strong sense on Sunday morning of the integrated nature of non-Christian religion into established British society. Two rabbis, a few metres from the Royal Family, in the extraordinary surroundings of Westminster Abbey.

And thankfully, with freshly-polished shoes.