Monthly Archives: August 2015

Ushering in New Year 5776

We are just a couple weeks away from ushering in another new year, 5776. These Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) will be my fifth with the congregation and I, as each year, look forward to our sacred time together.

So much that has occurred during the past year – the terror threat of ISIS, or Daesh, streams of Middle Eastern refugees, continuing Israeli tensions, a likely change in Western relationships with Iran’s Shiite theocracy, the Greek financial crisis, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Elections at home highlighted worries over immigration.

For Belsize Square Synagogue, there were more triumphs than not – increased membership and continued enthusiasm for our beloved congregation and its activities, with celebrations galore and glorious musical offerings from our multi-talented members, young and old.

The challenges remain the same: enhancing Jewish identity, raising educational levels, offering a vital home for our youth, developing leadership and new volunteers, and never taking our future for granted.

We may approach the holidays with our usual presumptions but there are ways we can improve. For many the holidays are an ordeal, attendance something we “have to do”, services boring and prayers written in a time hard to relate to. We are unaware of the symphony, history and moral genius of the liturgy. We come late, leave early and let our minds wander or talk to our neighbours.

Despite the regular assumption that I must be disheartened by the lack of attention, I am fully aware how difficult it can be for some of you. The Hebrew is difficult, translations even more so, and services are long. And while I spend days and weeks writing my sermons, it is always a wonder that anyone really listens to my words, whose theme this year is Fear: Fear of God (the Yamim Nora’im), terror, loss of health, life, relationships.

The biggest challenge for us is this: we have too blithely turned our services into a spectator sport. People come to watch the action take place on the bimah instead of in the seats! You can change that by doing something to make our time together more engaging.

  • So make some noise at services! They are not supposed to be quiet. I hope for a constant buzz of people singing along with the choir and Cantor and it is OK to chat to our neighbours, so long as we avoid long conversations that detract from the focus of the services and disturb others.
  • Make the services more meaningful before you even get here! Find someone to whom you owe an apology. Ask forgiveness and forgive others at home, work and synagogue. Do real cheshbon hanefesh (scrutiny of our lives and souls) to put us in the right frame of mind to use the service as a catalyst for self-improvement.
  • Da lifnei mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand. If you are distracted in synagogue, have negative thoughts, get annoyed with this or that, say to yourself: “I stand here before my Creator and I must take account of who I am.” It will jolt us into experiencing truly meaningful prayer and devotion.

There is a tale of a wagon driver who took a rabbi from town to town. Passing an orchard. the driver said: “I’ll get some apples.” As he climbed a tree, the rabbi yelled: “He’s watching!” The driver scrambled down and ran. The rabbi drove till he caught up. “Rabbi, why did you yell: ‘He’s watching’? There was no one there.” The rabbi said: “I wasn’t talking about the farmer. I said – and he pointed upwards – ‘HE’s watching!’”

Come to our synagogue, a haven of sanctity. I want them to have a constant buzz, with all of you singing, thinking, engaging with God, Torah and the Jewish people. Then our ushering in of 5776 will be the best ever!

My wife Ella and our son Micah, with my daughter Elana and son Eitan, and I wish you all a sweet, healthy, blessed and peaceful new year 5776

Bivracha, shana tova u’metukah
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Top Russian wartime naval award

Bill Howard wearing the Ushakov medal (blue ribbon) and Russian 65th Anniversary Commemorative medal (red ribbon).

Bill Howard wearing the Ushakov medal (blue ribbon) and Russian 65th Anniversary Commemorative medal (red ribbon).

Congratulations to our 95-year-old member, William (Bill) Howard, on his award of Russia’s top naval honour, the Ushakov Medal, which was presented to him at home on August 20 by a member of the Russian Embassy, Oleg Shor. This is his third medal. In 2010 he received a Russian medal commemorating the 65th anniversary of the victory ending the Second World War. In 2013 he received the British Arctic Star for his part in the Royal Navy’s Arctic Convoys in October 1944 and March 1945.

Under the navy’s protection, the convoys took vital supplies of food and armaments to Soviet troops cut off in the far north-west Kola peninsula in the Arctic Circle. They braved fearsome weather conditions and German attacks from air and U-boats along the Norwegian coast. Bill was a petty officer on board HMS Bellona in the escort fleet, an amazing achievement in itself for a man born Horst Herzberg in Berlin, given the Royal Navy’s British-born personnel only policy. But his complete command of English and extraordinary ability to speak in any dialect or class accent won them over and made him a valuable asset. There is a photograph of him in uniform at the Jewish Military Museum, now housed in the Jewish Museum of London.

Hanging in there: Out of Chaos

Max Lieberman (Germany 1847- 1935): self portrait 1927, oil on canvas

Max Lieberman (Germany 1847- 1935): self portrait 1927, oil on canvas

A picture belonging to our Synagogue is on view at the Ben Uri Gallery’s centenary exhibition, Out Of Chaos, at Somerset House, WC2R 1LA.

The celebratory exhibition at the prestigious historic building on the corner of Waterloo Bridge and Aldwych, features works by David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Solomon J Solomon, Frank Auerbach, Jankel Adler and Joseph Hermann. Among the 100 or so paintings on view, out of its full collection of 1,300 artworks, is a self-portrait of Max Liebermann, which was left to Belsize Square Synagogue as part of the Zondek legacy.

Lily and Theodor Zondek were members of our Synagogue. Theodor was related to the artist, who died in 1935, and held the picture as a family possession. The couple had no children and left their estate to the Synagogue. This was common practice among our early refugee members, whose families had been destroyed by the Nazis and did not have their own next generation to bequeath their possessions to.

At the request of a relative, the Synagogue Board did not sell the painting but gave it on long-term loan to the Ben Uri in 2002, when the art collection moved into its current premises at 108a Boundary Road, NW8. The gallery considers this self-portrait to be among its most important works. Another version of it hangs in the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin.

Founded in the East End as an artists’ circle by Russian-Jewish immigrant Lazar Berson, the Ben Uri Gallery has embodied its recurrent theme of identity and migration by moving from one London location to another. In keeping with its history and ambitions, it considers its present home as a temporary address while it keeps its eye open for a spot in the centre of town.

The exhibition opened on 2 July and continues until 13 December. It is in the Inigo Rooms and entry is free.