January 22, 2023 --- Last Shabbat, not yesterday, but the week before, in the context of reading about Moses and the burning bush that was never consumed, I was reminded of the very beginnings of my own journey to Judaism – my first burning bush moment – which happened in a two-bedroom semi-detached council house on a housing estate called Faifley which is part of Clydebank, once a shipbuilding town on the banks of the river Clyde that also boasted a massive Singer sewing machine factory. Not quite the romantic wilds of the Scottish Highlands. That moment was when Scottish Television broadcast the Nuremburg trials. I remember my father insisting we all watch – I was five or six at the time – in spite of my mother arguing it was too gruesome for us, especially the younger ones. We watched and I never forgot. It put just about everything in my life into a new perspective.
And ten years later at the age of 16, during my first year at University in Glasgow, I somehow felt drawn to join the Jews – to identify, to become part of this group of young students whose main activity was celebrating Rabbi Burns night on the beach with lots of booze and not very kosher haggis. I persuaded one of them to take me to his synagogue and he did. It was Glasgow Reform Synagogue, at the time quite a strong community with a Greek-born rabbi called Simon Franses. I finally wrote to the rabbi and he invited me to the shul on a quiet moment and showed me around. I told him I wanted to convert and he encouraged me to attend services for a while and then we would talk more. I did – but then I was 16 turning 17 and the joys of adolescence got in the way.
Brian with Miriam Kramer, EUPJ Co- Chair and President Emeritus Steve Brummel
Fast forward to my mid-twenties and an opportunity arose to study Hebrew in Ireland. I jumped at this chance, fell in love with Hebrew, and seemed to develop a discipline in learning that wasn’t there when I was 16 and I tried to learn it by myself. Then I moved to Belgium on a scholarship, studied theology, Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language further and rolled from one academic degree into another, defending my PhD on the poetry and metaphors of the Prophet Isaiah. Two days after we buried my father – my next burning bush moment – I decided I needed to return to my Jewish journey.
Some of our sages point out that the Eternal only called out to Moses after he had turned to look at the burning bush. The death of my father inspired me to turn and look, and after that the Eternal reached out, as it were, in the person of the Judaism teacher at my faculty. We had never met before and were introduced when we were both waiting in the faculty secretariat in Leuven. He might not remember, but this was the ‘Moses, Moses’, ‘Brian, Brian,’ moment for me and I gave in, stopped trying to convince myself it would be too difficult, and said ‘hinneni’, ‘here I am’.
Fast forward three years and I was in London, at the Sternberg centre, appearing before the Beth Din. Another burning bush moment followed as Peter and I drove home and I received a telephone call from my rabbi – Nathan Alfred. ‘Five more years and you can sign up for rabbinical school,’ he said. He was thinking of Leo Baeck College, his own rabbinical Alma Mater, but there were some burning bush moments to follow that would redirect me.
Brian with Beth Hillel Rabbi Marc Neiger and musician extraordinaire Shaya Feldman
The time had come for Rabbi Nathan to go on sabbatical and I was assigned by IJC’s religious affairs committee to search for student rabbis to replace him. Some came from Leo Baeck, but one came from Abraham Geiger College – Fabian Sborovsky, now Rabbi at Menorah Synagogue in Manchester. Fabian pointed me to Geiger and to Rabbi Edward and to a first contact and an interview, and my first classes in Berlin.
And then IJC was without a rabbi – another burning bush moment – and I had just started my studies, and I was able to step up to the plate and help lead services. And with Geiger’s flexibility, helping lead services turned into an internship that lasted almost four years.
Brian with Bill Echikson, Benjamin Dobruszkes, President of Beth Hillel, and Edward Van Voolen - Geiger Institute and Brian's mentor
Moses wasn’t convinced he had leadership quality, but when he finally realised he wasn’t expected to be perfect and he would get plenty of help on the way he was able to say ‘hinneni’, ‘here I am. Going to Abraham Geiger college was the same experience. Always insecure, but grateful for guidance and assistance.
As some of you know, I sometimes suffer from a mild version of ‘imposter syndrome’, the sense of being inadequate or ill-prepared to do a job and the accompanying fear of being exposed as an imposter. I experienced it as a professor at university, I experienced it regularly when I was at rabbinical school, and I still experience it from time to time when I stand in front of my own community. But it seems that Moses had a similar experience standing in front of his community, so in that sense I’m in good company, and like Moses, I can expect help and support to move forward. And again, like Moses, while I have ambitions for my rabbinate, I know I don’t need the assurance of success before I make a start.
Thank you to everyone for being here, to Anu and Steve and the Board of IJC, to so many people who have helped and supported, with a nod to the people who were unwitting burning bushes, to my rabbinical mentors Marc and Edward, and to the community that birthed Yonah the Jewish me and Brian the rabbi me.
But of course, I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for one very important person who sacrificed a great deal to allow me to pursue this dream. Thank you Peter!
Brian with Peter and daughter Julie