Rabbi with answer to shrinking community

DAVID SAFFER meets a dynamic rabbi who is reaching out to Jews... and encouraging them to lead a full Jewish life

RABBI Yehuda Pink is helping buck the trend of shrinking regional shul memberships. Solihull Hebrew Congregation had 49 families on Rabbi Pink's arrival with his wife Dini in 1994.

Nearly 18 years on, 115 families are shul members.

"Everywhere in the provinces is shrinking but Solihull is growing, very slowly, but nevertheless we are growing," he said.

The Pinks have expanded the shul cheder, initiated a host of adult education programmes and social activities, and run twice-yearly day-camps for children around the West Midlands.

Defining the West Midlands community as Birmingham, Coventry, Warwick, Stratford and Wolverhampton, there are at least 4,000 Jews in the region.

"The challenge is to reach out to Jews and encourage them to participate in Jewish life in a way that will bring them into the community," said Rabbi Pink.

"Traditional shul memberships are shrinking dramatically everywhere, smaller communities with shuls, social groups and clubs have closed but the number of Jews is still holding steady - if not increasing.

"The challenge is to direct these Jews towards existing institutions and remodel our way of thinking to be able to work better with the reality on the ground.

"Most are not going to walk through your shul door, become fee-paying members or join a social and cultural club. The old model of being based on fixed membership needs to be reformed.

"Traditionally, funding came through membership, but as this is no longer happening the challenge is to continue activities with perhaps a more transient membership."

Rabbi Pink enhanced his views by discussing regional intermarriage.

"In smaller areas like this, at least 60 or 70 per cent are intermarried," he said. "It's about finding a model that can remain within the framework of traditional Judaism but make people feel comfortable in a shul setting.

"The key thing is being honest and up front with every person or couple at initial meetings.

"If a non-Jewish husband comes along with his Jewish wife to an event, we welcome them but won't count him to a minyan or call him up to the Torah.

"The fact that we don't like Jewish people marrying non-Jewish people doesn't mean the non-Jewish partner is a bad person. It's important to get the message across that we respect them as individuals."

Rabbi Pink noted the rationale between condoning and understanding.

"I can understand why a girl growing up in Kenilworth, for instance, might decide to marry a non-Jewish partner," he said. "But that does not mean I can condone that action by holding a chuppah in the shul.

"Once you can make that difference it gives you the foundation for a healthy working relationship. The key is treating people with respect. Lubavitch have been grappling with these issues for decades - long before it became fashionable to work with the broader spectrum of Jewry.

"I'm a representative of Lubavitch and our philosophy is to reach out to every Jew irrespective of who or where they are from in a non-judgemental way."

Rabbi Pink added: "I spent a couple of months in Russia after I qualified and they'd never seen a religious Jew for 60 years in this particular area. Intermarriage was rampant so issues I was dealing with 21 years ago are similar to what I'm dealing with today."

Born in Manchester, Rabbi Pink is the eldest of Phaivish and Chana Pink's seven children.

Rabbi Pink has three brothers who are also rabbis and he cites "intellectual challenge" as a key inspiration to following his chosen path.

"It's the ability to link thousands of years of debate and study with modern society," he said. "We study ancient texts but connect them to 21st century life."

Evaluating his years in the post, Rabbi Pink, who married his American-born wife Dini in 1993, said the variety of work is his biggest challenge.

"You are responsible for so many different things which perhaps in a larger community would be shared around a number of people," he said.

"There is always something different happening. The challenge is trying to juggle all those balls without dropping any."

Among his many roles, Rabbi Pink is chaplain at local prisons and hospitals.

Author of Medicine and Morals, an acclaimed course on Jewish medical ethics run by the Jewish Learning Institute, Rabbi Pink has lectured on the topic at home and abroad and delivers a fortnightly class to Jewish medical students. He also liaises closely with Birmingham Jewish Community Care.

"They run a Jewish care home, meals-on-wheels and have an active social care team visiting people who need help in all sorts of ways," he said.

"A lot of the work is confidential so many people do not know how much work they do within the community. They are a very active organisation."

Rabbi Pink has written a column for Solihull News called Faith Matters since 2002 and penned one for the Birmingham Post on Daily Thought.

"It's about trying to connect an upcoming Yom Tov or event that has occurred and try to put a Jewish slant in a universal way so Jewish and non-Jewish readers can get a moral lesson from it." he said.

"I'm constantly surprised how many people come up to me saying, 'You must be the rabbi - we read your article in the paper."

Being a member of the Interfaith forum has also been beneficial.

"There is never going to be agreement among different religions on whose viewpoint is right or wrong," he said. "Concentrating on areas where every faith area is working whether with asylum seekers or to diffuse tensions after civil unrest, works very well to promote harmony and highlight the role faith plays within the community."

As for inspirational times, Rabbi Pink cited the High Holy Days as the highlight of his year.

"It's a time when you get the biggest influx of new faces," he said. "People nobody has seen before turn up and suddenly feel a Jewish spark."

"In larger Jewish communities such as Manchester and London, people would dismiss the type of Jews we have in Solihull.

"They are not involved, they don't come on Yom Kippur - so what sort of people are they?

"In a smaller community they find a way to express their Jewish spirit. It's inspiring how people from different backgrounds and levels of belief come together in a non-judgemental attitude.

"Everybody is welcomed and made to feel part of the community."

So does Rabbi Pink feel he is achieving more, helping to keep a small community alive, rather than serve one like the city of his birth?

"Absolutely," he said. "The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was often asked why he did not move to Israel. One of the reasons he gave was that a doctor had to be where his patients are.

"There were many thousands of rabbis in Israel so they did not need one more, whereas in America at the time, there was a great need for strong leadership.

"That has always been the philosophy of the Lubavitch movement.

"Wherever there are Jews we will be there for them."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph