Author interviewBook infused with Judaism but written for all readers

UK Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner’s book on resilience could hardly be more timely

Newly released ‘Bitesize Resilience’ draws on author’s personal and professional experiences to offer Jewish-themed guidance on dealing with crisis, trauma, and COVID-19 life

Left, cover of 'Bitesize Resilience,' by author Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, right, October 2015; (Courtesy)
Left, cover of 'Bitesize Resilience,' by author Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, right, October 2015; (Courtesy)

LONDON — British Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner  began her new book “Bitesize Resilience: A Crisis Survival Diary” six years ago as a way to digest and deflect allegations of child abuse that surfaced against her high-profile father, former Labour MP Lord Greville Janner.

In the ensuing years, the UK Reform movement’s senior rabbi began to write it as a series of entries that give practical and emotional guidance on how to respond to crises, trauma, as well as the ordinary day to day difficulties that life can throw at us — all skills that could not be more relevant today.

“I made the decision to finish the book and get it out to people during lockdown,” Janner-Klausner tells The Times of Israel via Zoom from her north London home in early June.

Infused with wisdom, Jewish thinking and practice, the accessible book draws on Janner-Klausner’s life and experience, both personal and professional, in order to help others build resilience. Judaism, she writes, is a case study in resilience, with a historic ability to rise anew from suffering.

The book has a Jewish tone and narrative, but Janner-Klausner — a regular and popular contributor to religious broadcasting in Britain — deliberately ensured it had universal appeal.

“It is aimed at anyone, Jews and non-Jews,” she says. “You don’t have to be religious to read it. I think it’s particularly for people who are proactively thinking about their health and well-being.”

“And there’s quite a lot about leadership,” she adds. “I don’t mean senior rabbi kind of leadership, but leading in a family, leading at work.

Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, right, with her husband David. (Courtesy)

Janner-Klausner confesses that the lockdown has been a very mixed experience. “At the beginning, my brain nearly fell out — we were doing so much because we reinvented Judaism. We went online in every way,” she says.

But this period has also enabled Janner-Klausner to evaluate certain aspects of her life.

“I realize that I need far less. I need fewer people, fewer stimuli, and that’s good for me — but I am in the very luxurious position of not being beaten up by the person I live with and I think if you’re scared or irritated by the people you live with, I can’t imagine what that’s like. And I have a job. My greatest concern is about the people who won’t. Or what poverty will do. I worry about that more than a second peak,” she says.

Surviving a witch hunt

In April 2015, after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced they would not be prosecuting Lord Janner on account of his severe dementia, there followed a relentless and vicious attack against him. He died in December 2015.

Janner-Klausner’s very public role — she was appointed as Senior Rabbi in 2011 — meant that being seen was unavoidable, despite wanting the opposite, while she was coping with her shock and trauma.

She has described the accusations as akin to the 17th century Salem witch trials which “brought with it a continual bombardment of hatred through social media and consequent emotional danger for our family.” Alongside her two siblings, Janner-Klausner has continued to campaign to clear her father’s name.

At one point, Janner-Klausner says someone suggested she was not to be trusted to do her job anymore. “And they were wrong, because I think people trust me more now because they’ve seen, bloody hell, she can deal with loads, so she can deal with my stuff,” she says.

But “Bitesize Resilience” is not about the allegations against her father. The book is written in her personal capacity, she states, and, as she says in its preface, the purpose was to reframe that experience: to use it “to learn, to grow, to make peace with myself and the world around me.”

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, left, with her father, former Labour MP Lord Greville Janner. (Courtesy)

Asked if she’s achieved this, Janner-Klausner pauses before responding.

“It’s a work in progress,” she admits. “When the process finishes around my father, it will be easier. But I’ve made peace enough that I haven’t become the person that I didn’t [want to be]. I was really aware that this had the capacity to turn me into somebody else. I’m still as ridiculous and loving, and I’m wiser and more resilient.”

She is tougher too, but “not in a brittle, unfeeling way.” She has also noticed a change in her ability to cope when something shocking or unexpected presents itself and, as a result, returns to her sense of self far quicker.

It is back to resilience.

“I am much more resilient, thank God,” she reiterates, but “if I’m not, I think it will be temporary.”

A matter of faith — and mental health

Inevitably, the theme of faith underlines the book.

“For me, I think the difference between faith and lack of faith is a positive, optimistic, hopeful perception of the world,” Janner-Klausner says. “I don’t think the world is neutral, which means lots of random things happen like Covid. I have faith that people are good, that when people understand things, they will learn and be better. I am really strongly driven by that justice and faith narrative together.”

I think the difference between faith and lack of faith is a positive, optimistic, hopeful perception of the world

Janner-Klausner is chatty, enthusiastic, empathetic and forthright — and in “Bitesize Resilience,” she writes with striking honesty and openness about some of her struggles concerning her mental health. She did deliberate about what to include, she says, and was advised by a former colleague to remove a section in which she wrote about feeling so dark that she might harm herself.

“Afterwards, I thought, I don’t agree, put it in! Because if I can’t be honest, how on earth is someone going to be honest with me?” she says.

“Also,” she emphasizes, “loads of people feel that level of despair and I think there is great value that honest, vulnerable leaders can bring if they say they have too.”

Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner. (Courtesy/ Graham Chweiden)

The book is very personal, Janner-Klausner admits, but there is a lot that isn’t there, she says, smiling. There are some parallels between how and what she chose to reveal in it and her approach as a rabbi.

“I do believe in bringing emotion and truth to the pulpit in whatever way that enables other people to. There are many times when I’ve cried at a funeral or at the bimah [dais] but not in a way that someone has to look after me. And that’s the balance,” she says firmly. “Giving just enough [of myself] so people can empathize and it opens them up, but not so much that they are frightened.”

I do believe in bringing emotion and truth to the pulpit in whatever way that enables other people to. There are many times when I’ve cried at a funeral or at the bimah [dais] but not in a way that someone has to look after me

Janner-Klausner was a congregational rabbi for Alyth, one of the largest Reform synagogues in the UK, for eight years before serving as the senior rabbi to Reform Judaism. She lived in Jerusalem for 15 years, where her oldest child now lives, and moved back to the UK with her family in 1999.

She believes that the role of a rabbi is to behave like the Levites, who aided the priests and whose name derives from the Hebrew verb to accompany. She uses the example of a funeral to illustrate her point.

“When you walk alongside the mourners, you are accompanying,” she says. “You are walking at the same pace — you’re not going to zip ahead or lag behind, are you? You are there to also hold that person up and encourage them in the way they need in that moment.” A rabbi’s duty, she writes in her book, is to support but not to save.

Janner-Klausner expresses deep concern about young people’s mental health, and the proceeds of “Bitesize Resilience” are going to the Molly Rose Foundation, a charity whose aim is suicide prevention, targeted at young people under the age of 25.

“I am very worried,” she says. “There is something qualitatively different happening with young people’s mental health, for lots of reasons.” Janner-Klausner sits on the UK all-party parliamentary group for AI, which examines the regulations around what is on social media. She hopes regulations will help, “because this massive influence has been so unfettered.”

Importance of community

Janner-Klausner is a huge fan of religious communities as they are spaces that build resilience by bringing people together. The coronavirus has meant that institutions have had to adapt and find new ways of worshiping, consoling, celebrating and connecting within communities. According to a recent report in the Financial Times newspaper, the pandemic has spurred a mini religious renaissance.

“I’m a data person,” she says. “And the data shows there is more participation in online religious services, however, you cannot measure renaissance without a control group. So, is this a renaissance? We’re not sure, because of what will happen afterwards.”

What is certain, she says, is that progressive synagogues will have to maintain their online programming and facilities such as streaming services when they reopen.

“You cannot take it away from older people, people who are disabled or people who can’t get to shul [synagogue]. It’s just not possible,” she says.

Illustrative: Lay cantor Gary Levine sings at home in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Levine)

Before dashing onto her next (online) meeting, Janner-Klausner considers whether we can be strengthened by the pandemic experience.

“I think it’s like any other quite extreme experience,” she says. “If you have enough capacity not to be physically hurt by it, not so traumatized there’s no coming back and not made homeless from it, then yes. However, as with any serious crisis, or any crisis, if you do not have support, if you are damaged in your ability to deal with it, then some people can be.”

“But,” she says, “we’ve seen, not just in our very lovely lives but lots of people are saying, gosh, I’ve learnt I need less. And at a time of global warming, when we need to fly less, when we’re consuming off the scale, that’s a wonderful thing.”

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