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Exodus: from Egypt or the USSR

Looking back at my own experiences, the events that led to my deep appreciation for our religious tradition, law, narrative and faith that make up Judaism, I would say that despite my many trips to Israel and the incredible times I had travelling, studying, living there and marvelling at the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, nevertheless, the trips I made to the former Soviet Union were the most significant Jewish experiences in my life.

I went numerous times between 1984 and 1992, some visits more successful than others: visiting refuseniks, teaching Judaism, Hebrew and Jewish history to young and old, dissidents and students, and smuggling dissertations, books and photos, which have become part of the legacy of our people’s freedom movement for Soviet Jewry.

Between 1988 and 1992, almost 1½ million Jews found their way to freedom in Israel and outside it. As I said in the introduction to my book, From Exodus to Freedom, the liberation of Soviet Jewry will rank as one of the greatest miracles of our people’s history, second only to the founding of the modern state of Israel. Israel absorbed almost a million Jews, the equivalent of the United States absorbing the entire population of France into its borders, and within just four years!

My many visits to the USSR enabled me to understand what it is like to live in a nation of oppression, of suppression of basic human rights. They could not study, speak the language of their choice or learn about their religious faith without fear of arrest and imprisonment. The bravery of the Jews I met, from Sharansky to Begun to Edelstein to Astrakhan, is forever emblazoned in my heart and soul. They taught me what the struggle for freedom is all about, the strength that comes from a deeply rooted faith in right versus wrong, and the sacrifice necessary to protect the freedom of Jewish life today.

It is an amazing narrative we are about to tell once again to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren, how 3,300 years ago, a small slave people, powerless, without territory or army, left the mightiest empire in the world, Egypt, strengthened by hope and faith in an unseen God and unseen virtues, taught in our Torah.

We learn from the story of the Exodus from Egypt that the strength of our people which has enabled us to outlive every mighty empire since the beginning of time is based not on chariots, arms or armies, not on statues or monuments, power or wealth, but founded upon the humility of belief in the power of God, a God of redemption, history and vision who has taught the world that the sanctity of human life is non-negotiable, and that human beings are destined to be free, not slaves. This is the story of a God who has maintained this special relationship with the people of Israel, to be His eyes and ears to the rest of humanity until our world is redeemed for all.

And we tell the story of Passover around our dinner tables, focusing on the future, on our children. We parents and grandparents teach them that our memories will not be held in monuments but carried through the generations in words, values and hope. This is a faith greater than anything on earth, that binds the past and future, forever a witness to the human spirit and its connection to a God Who is the greatest Power on earth, the unseen force of life as we know it. Our task is to build a world of human freedom, based upon responsibility and the dignity of all.

When we open the Ark in readiness for the Torah reading, we sing, “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kumahAdonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.” (Whenever the Ark set out, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee before You.”)

I never understood what that verse from the book of Numbers (10:35) meant until I went to the Soviet Union. How can the Torah scroll “scatter our enemies, cause those who hate us to flee from us?” On all my trips to the USSR, I brought siddurim, tallitot, Bibles, sacred Jewish texts. And on almost every entry into the country I was grilled, at times for hours, asking me what I was bringing and told how “dangerous” these books and items were to the mighty Soviet Empire. I wondered how that was possible. How could an empire with nuclear weaponry be afraid of any book, especially a prayer book or chumash?

But then I understood the fear. Authoritarian regimes are paranoid about “ideas”, about values that challenge the supremacy of might and power. And then I knew the power of my Judaism, the power of the word, the spirit, of God, without armies and nuclear bombs. The fear was palpable, the fear that Jewish ideas might destroy the basis of oppression.

What has changed in 3,300 years? Virtually nothing. Our religious tradition stands as strong as ever today, our mission the same: to bring about a world based upon God’s might and not the ephemeral power of weapons and war. Some day, Elijah will come and the Jewish people will be free, and then all humanity will be free, under God. Next year in Jerusalem!

My wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a blessed, joyous and meaningful Passover 5778.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The Essence of Judaism

I have often been asked if Judaism has an essence, a central doctrine that runs through from Orthodox to Liberal?” The answer is yes and is spelled out in a text from the Babylonian Talmud: In the hour when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, he is asked:

  • Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?
  • Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
  • Did you involve yourself in your children’s upbringing?
  • Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?

Note that the first question on “arriving in heaven” is not “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you observe the ritual commandments?” but “Were you honest in your conduct of business?” In other words, the essence of Judaism is behaviouristic and, specifically, the primacy of ethical action. Our Jewish understanding of religion is that without the quest for moral life, a Jew cannot truly be “religious”. We are defined not solely by our synagogue attendance or observance of Shabbat or kashrut. Commitment to the core values those rituals represent is indeed important but ultimately they prod us towards a more sanctified and ethical life. The goal is decency, as I have stressed many times from the bimah, quoting the great psychologist, Dr Viktor Frankl, who taught that the world is divided into just two groups, “decent” and “indecent”.

The second question asks about our commitment to Jewish study. Rabbinic wisdom holds that study is critical because it leads us to greater selfawareness and a more moral life. Two recent books well worth reading are Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism and Simon Schama’s Belonging, the second part of his trilogy on the Jewish people. Study, learn, come to our Sunday morning and Monday evening classes and our four-part series in March with St Peter’s Church and our Muslim neighbours.

The third question asks whether we have devoted our lives to children, fulfilling our covenantal obligation to pass on our Jewish values and dreams to the next generation. For those unable to have their own children, our tradition teaches that this duty can still be fulfilled by assisting the children of our community and beyond. Plant those seeds in the next generation. A Jew can never be oblivious to the need to pay attention to the future.

The fourth question challenges us in an extraordinary way, asking whether we worked and hoped for a better world than today’s world. In other words, a Jew is not allowed to stand aloof as the world bleeds. The world is fractured in so many ways and we must ask ourselves what we are doing to improve things. The threat of global terror, global warming, world hunger, crime on our streets, the struggle for Israel to survive, the challenge for freedom (the list goes on), is not “their” struggle, it is “our” struggle.

Rabbi Tarfon, of the 2nd century CE, taught: “It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world but neither are you free to desist from doing all you can.” We are also guided by Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE), who wrote that the greatest principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbour as yourself” and Moses Maimonides (12th century): “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

I wish you all a good start to the new secular year 2018. May it be a time for growth, education, and goodness, the core of our Jewish commitments.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Looking back 100 years to November 1917

This month of November 2017 is historic, for it was on 2 November 1917, one hundred years ago that the Balfour Declaration was delivered to Lord Rothschild, committing the British government to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

On 7 and 8 of November of that same year, 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky and changed the world in a dramatic sweep of power.

On 9 November 1938, the Nazi regime led a nationwide pogrom against every Jewish community and Jew in Germany and Austria, in a horrific foreboding of the coming Shoah.

These three watershed events affected us all. The Balfour Declaration set in motion the realisation of 2,000 years of Jewish dreams, the return of our people to the Land of Israel, and recognised the nationalist aspirations of the Zionist movement. It cemented international recognition of the plight of the Jewish people, as confirmed by all the leading Western nations at the San Remo Conference, held in 1922.

The British government accepted a mandate to lead the Jewish people to statehood. The government also made promises to the Saud and Husseini families, leaders of the Arab world at the time, which created much of the tensions that ensued in the region. Jewish history and life was never the same after 2 November 1917. Zionism, the sanction for a future Jewish state, became embedded in the hearts of the Jewish people.

The Bolshevik Revolution marked the end of Russia’s brief experiment with liberal democracy, the end of its tsarist monarchic rule and beginning of the profound experiment of Communism.

The Bolsheviks, who seized power without much popular consent (a littleknown fact), took over the apparatus of government and the media by force and bloodshed. The country lost millions in a civil war lasting till 1924.

The Jews, mostly still in the Pale of Settlement in poverty-stricken rural areas, were caught between the White and Red Armies. They suffered from both sides, which viewed the Jewish population with equal contempt.

I should know. My maternal grandparents left Ukraine in 1924, young and fit enough to leave pogrom-filled Russia, walking across Ukraine and the rest of Europe to arrive in America on a rat-infested ship in 1924.

The ultimate failure of the Soviet Union experiment, the outrageous years of famine and terror during Stalin’s long reign, the decimation of so much of Russian life and lives, the economic failure, the virtual imprisonment of its people, had an enormous impact on our own development: the nuclear arsenals, clashes of economic systems and the demise of religion, especially the practice of Judaism.

And then there is Kristallnacht, the events of November 1938, when the Jewish world was set on fire. We know the details: arrests, destruction of Jewish property, street gangs, imprisonment in vile conditions, and the announcement to the world that Jews were facing a war of destruction. All became clear in November 1938, 79 years ago.

We are honoured to welcome Ambassador Peter Ammon, Germany’s Ambassador to the UK. He is a true friend of our community and looks forward to addressing us at our synagogue. Not only has he turned down many other invitations, he is missing the major Germany-England football match at Wembley, all just to be at our Kristallnacht Service on Friday evening 10 November!

Do come to welcome the Ambassador. He is a fine speaker, but, most importantly, a true friend of ours. This is a historic event for our congregation.

My best wishes to all of you for a month filled with historic memory and reflection.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

2017: year of anniversaries

We are headed into our quiet summer months, a time for reflection, reading, travel and enjoying this time of year.

On Monday night 31 July we will be here to remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively. As an astonished Napoleon commented on arriving in Jaffa in 1800 to find Jews remembering the Temples and Jerusalem: “A people still weeping over their holy places after so many years will be a people that will indeed return to their holy places and regain sovereignty in their national and historic homeland.” Napoleon was no prophet, he was simply observing the inexplicable. The Jewish people never forgot its ties to Jerusalem, to Eretz Yisrael.

This is the year of special anniversaries and a good time to reflect on them, as we will at the High Holydays. What do we remember this year?

1897: 120 years ago in Switzerland, against all the naysayers, Theodor Herzl assembled the First Zionist Congress in Basle. Over 200 delegates attended and the gathering received good media coverage, to the surprise of most, since no one expected to see a Zionist movement started.
It was due to Herzl’s organisational and promotional genius that two powerful emblems were introduced: a Magen David painted onto a tallit unfurled at the Congress and the singing of an inspiring Hebrew poem, Hatikvah (The Hope), written in longer form in 1878 by the Central European-born wandering writer, Naftali Herz Imber, and set to music 10 years later in the new religious agricultural settlement of Rishon LeZion in Palestine by Romanian-born Samuel Cohen, using a tune he remembered from childhood (as did Smetana in Bohemia around the same time).

It was at Basle that the Jewish state began, together with its flag and national anthem and Herzl’s promise that there would be an independent Jewish state in Palestine “in 50 years”. Almost to the exact date of the prophecy, Israel came into being on 14 May 1948.

1917: Besides being the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution which forever changed the 20th century (not for the best, with its slaughter of millions), 2 November 1917 was the date of the Balfour Declaration proclaiming the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people on its historic soil without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.

That Balfour Declaration was confirmed by the Allied victors of the First World War at the San Remo Conference in Italy in 1920, the forerunner to the granting of a mandate over Palestine in 1922 by the newly created League of Nations, which again confirmed Britain’s promise. The sanction of the nations of the world paved the way for the realisation of the “hope” of the restoration of the Jewish people.

1947: 29 November 1947, 70 years ago,when the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in Palestine together with an Arab state, giving a future Jewish state yet another sanction from the international body of nations. The British were to leave on 14 May 1948 and a Jewish state would be resurrected on its ancient soil after a hiatus of sovereignty from 63 BCE when the last Jewish state came to an end under the Roman general, Pompey.

We know the rest of the tragic story. The Arab nations rejected the creation of their own state in order to destroy the Jewish entity and, until this day, Israel’s recognition and acceptance in the region is still not a certainty.

1967: 5 June 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War when Israel’s existence was again called into question by Arab nations, led by President Nasser of Egypt calling for the destruction of the 20-year old Jewish state. The story is a heroic one. Israel, fighting for its survival, defeated the Arab armies in six days, in the process occupying the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights and West Bank, and unifying Jerusalem on 7 June. This brought to an end the barbed wire and artillery pointed at civilians in Jerusalem, and liberated the occupied Jewish Quarter, including the Kotel, the Western Wall which forms the ancient remains of Beit Hamikdash, the Temple and Temple Mount.

It’s all in our memory. We do not forget what has happened and we never will. I do hope that all of you will draw strength from our Jewish memories because, despite all the odds against our survival, we have proved wrong every prognosticator of our demise. Our religious truths have survived to bless the world and Israel remains a shining light to the entire world.

Enjoy the summer months ahead and we will be back in September, ready to prepare for the coming of another New Year 5778.

Blessings and peace

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

“Settlements” and the history of conflict

Shalom Chaverim,

I have been asked by several congregants to explain the Israeli “settlements”. What are they? Why are they an international problem? Why are Jewish organisations so upset with the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 declaring all Israeli “settlements” beyond the borders of 4 June 1967 to be “illegal”.

I particularly recommend Alan Dershowitz’s brilliant legal analysis for those following these aspects of events (look it up on Google). But my concern is broader. I worry about what it means for the future of our people as antiSemitism increasingly takes the form of attacking our institutions as “Zionist”. What happens at the UN or in Jerusalem affects us all.

Israel itself contains divergent views on settlements. Are they out of control, an obstacle to peace, a mistake, illegal? Or, as many believe, do Jews have a right to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael, so long as their presence is legal. In fact, many cases of disputed legal rights have come before the Israeli Supreme Court. So here is a brief history.

“Palestine”, covering most of today’s Jordan and part of today’s Iraq, was governed by pagan, Christian and Muslim rulers, starting from the Romans’ destruction of Judea in 74 CE. Apart from the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1187, no group ever claimed Jerusalem as its capital. “Palestina” was mainly governed from Damascus as a province. Its population was sparse, mostly Bedouin nomads who lived off the land. Landholdings belonged to absentee landlords.

The Zionist movement brought Jews to settle in the area from the late 19th century, starting the process that led to the Jewish State of Israel. In 1917, as an ally of Germany in the First World War, the Ottomans lost their empire and Britain took over colonial oversight of Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon, under the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.

To accommodate Jewish aspirations in Palestine, Lord Balfour declared on 2 November 1917 that Britain supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, meaning both sides of the Jordan. That plan was altered in 1922 by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to enable Britain to create a further Arab state in addition to Iraq and the future Saudi Arabia (formed 1932), in fulfilment of promises made during the war to tribal chieftains, including the Bedouin Husseini family.

Thus we had the arbitrary creation of Transjordan while Palestine was officially shrunk down to west of the Jordan. During the British Mandate of Palestine, granted by the League of Nations in 1921, Jews settled throughout Palestine, including in today’s “disputed” areas. Huge pockets of Jews lived around Jerusalem, in Gush Etzion and Hebron as well as other areas.

Arab opposition to growing Jewish immigration, especially from central Europe after Hitler came to power in 1933, resulted in the 1936 general strike, which turned into a three-year revolt. Britain responded with a Royal Commission of Inquiry, headed by Lord Peel. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended partition. The Jews were offered 20% of mandatory Palestine, a compromise they accepted. The Arabs rejected their much larger share.

The outbreak of the Second World War put the issue on hold. On 29 November 1947, the two-year-old United Nations voted for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state. The Arab nations quickly prepared for war to destroy a new Jewish state.

On 14 May 1948 the British left and Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. The very next day seven Arab nations attacked Israel, vowing to destroy the Jews and drive them into the Mediterranean. That effort failed and, in talks in Rhodes from February to July 1949, Israel and her Arab neighbours signed a series of General Armistice Agreements. These armistice lines have never been formally recognised as borders.

After 1948 Jews were driven out of the “West Bank” and the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish holy sites and synagogues were completely destroyed. The Kotel (Western Wall) was turned into a donkey latrine, the cemetery at the Mount of Olives destroyed and desecrated. Not one UN resolution ever called upon the “occupier”, Jordan, to allow Jews to worship in Jerusalem, a supposedly international city. Not a single one.

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank were illegally occupied by Jordan (only two nations recognised that occupation, Pakistan and the UK). Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire, no-man’s land and artillery fire. Jews were not allowed even to visit the Old City – all Jews, not just Israeli Jews.

In 1967, Nasser and the allied Arab nations were again bent on destroying Israel, cutting off its southern port, Eilat, to choke its economy. Not one UN resolution condemned this barbarism. On 5 June 1967, in a war that lasted six days, Israel made its pre-emptive strike, resulting in the capture of the Sinai, Golan Heights and West Bank. Levi Eshkol’s government warned Jordan not to enter the conflict but King Hussein rejected the advice. Responding to Jordanian fire, Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned Jews to the Old City, Jewish Quarter and Mount Scopus.

We know the rest of the story: terrorist attacks, the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, repeated threats to wipe out Jews, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic extremism, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the early 1970s, Israel’s Labour government decided to react to the Arab world’s “Three Noes” passed at their Khartoum conference some two weeks after the Six Day War (No Peace with Israel, No Negotiations with Israel, No Recognition of Israel). They asserted the right of Jews to settle in areas whose status needed resolution but technically and legally belonged to no one.

Since then, two sets of negotiations, offering to return over 98% of the disputed territories for the creation of a Palestinian state, have been turned down: by Arafat in 2000 (involving Israeli Prime Minister Barak and US President Clinton) and by Abbas in 2005 (Sharon and George W Bush). The result is the stalemate we see today.

Israel’s peace movement was shattered by the Palestinian rejections. Israelis increasingly feel that Jews have as much a right as anyone else to live in “disputed” territories. Almost all Israelis feel that resolution can only come through direct negotiations and recognition of two peoples and two states. Abbas and the Hamas organisation have clearly rejected that essential path to peace. They have
attempted to isolate and delegitimise the Jewish State under the aegis of international bodies.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have frequently stated that no Jewish Israelis would be permitted in the West Bank, including the pre-1949 Jewish areas. Sadly, that was the sentiment expressed in last December’s UN Resolution 2334.

In my view, there is no reason why Jews cannot live anywhere in the world, even in a future State of Palestine, just as Arabs should and do live in the Jewish State of Israel. I see the vehement and violent rejection of Israel, not the “settlements”, as the heart of the conflict. Israel dismantled settlements in Sinai and Gaza in order to open up negotiations. She was met with increased violence and terror.

I hope this brief review helps. It is a complicated situation, where passions run high on all sides. Whatever your thoughts, the facts of history are crucial for understanding the difficulty of creating peace for all.

God bless the State of Israel, one day, with real shalom, peace, as we also pray for the peace of Israel’s neighbours. Dignity, peace, security and freedom for all.

B’shalom, Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Up and down, in and out, Why we need our Jewish faith and values

Shalom Chaverim,

Some of the conversation surrounding the Brexit vote (shock) in the UK, followed by the Presidential vote (further shock) in the United States, has been quite startling. There’s been a significant questioning of democracy, of stability, of our values with a not so subtle dose of uncertainty and anxiety about our collective future.

My own view is that we have not even come close to reaching catastrophic results in either country. However, this is as good a time as any to take stock and be aware that history can change dramatically, unexpectedly, and catch us all off guard.

We Jews know that reality more than any other people. Safe in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, suddenly there arose a Babylonian Empire to destroy the Temple and exile two thirds of our people.

A Jewish state, Judea, the last sovereign Jewish state until 1948, existed in strength and in peace until the expanding power of Rome in the west eroded Jewish independence, leading to the outbreak of the doomed Jewish revolt in 66CE and destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.

Our entire history since those debacles, while living in galut (exile) or diaspora (dispersion), has been a story of “security and safe haven” one day, only to be eventually shocked into disarray.

Jews lived in Baghdad for centuries until they were caught up in its gradual decline and finally invasion by Mongol invaders in the 13th century.

The Jews of Spain, who lived in relative comfort for centuries, bouncing between Muslim and Christian overlords, found themselves cut off by the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, culminating in their expulsion from the entire Iberian peninsula, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Jewish havens in Poland and Ukraine also came to a sudden end.

In our own lifetime, Jews who had lived in Germany since the 9th century and by the 20th century had reached positions of influence, creativity and even power, became the centre of Nazi extermination designs.Then came the virtual end of Russian Jewry.

And that is a major reason why we should remember the lessons of the coming festival of Chanukah. Before Antiochus Epiphanes IV began his religious persecution, his Seleucid predecessor, Antiochus III, followed up his victory over the Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt in 198 BCE by giving the Jews freedom of worship and relief from heavy taxation.

Antiochus IV continued this policy for the first seven years of his reign. But in a complete reversal, in 167 he initiated the first major pagan persecution of any Jewish community, forbade the study of Torah, prohibited circumcision and forcibly imposed emperor- worship on the Temple in Jerusalem.

What happened in so short a period of time? There are all kinds of explanations – unrest in Egypt following his incursions, leading to fear of another war there; souring of the economy; and most importantly, a growing intolerance towards the “differing practices” of the Jews

Hence, the first religious persecutions in history, the three-year Maccabean revolt and the subsequent cleansing of the Temple, leading to our holiday of Chanukah.

So, what does this all mean for us? To me, it means that there are no guarantees in history; that things can change rapidly; that we need to be ever alert and ready to check any emergence of anti-Semitism.

We must always be mindful that the countries we love so much and which have given us abundant freedom, hold no rock-solid guarantee that this will last forever.

What is forever is God, Torah and the people of Israel. We must never forget that reality. So light those Chanukah candles, cherish our current freedom, implant in our children the resolve to resist any onslaught on our people and faith. Let them know that our spiritual strength and vision will last for eternity.

My wishes to all of you for a festival of light and hope, of lots of oily food (latkes, sufganiyot) and the joy of freedom.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Kristallnacht onwards – how anti-semitism continues

9 November 1938 will forever remain indelibly etched into the consciousness of world Jewry. For on that day the “night of broken glass”, Kristallnacht, was launched throughout Germany and Austria. Synagogues were burned to the ground, thousands of Jews arrested, many more beaten in the streets and humiliated. But most of the world, witness to the destruction of Jewish life, did nothing to alleviate the violence.

“It is an internal affair of the German government” was the mantra of the day. With the world’s passiveness and inability to respond to the impending demise of German and Austrian Jewry, the tools were put in place for the first steps towards the Final Solution.

Belsize Square Synagogue will not forget that night. Our guest for Friday night’s service on 11 November will be Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Jonathan has been a courageous and visionary leader, almost single-handedly taking on the anti-Semitic outrages of the Labour Party, unafraid to address attacks against our Jewish past and attachment
to Israel, and challenging Mr Jeremy Corbyn on his failure to understand the stain of anti-Semitism. We are honoured to have him join us and I look forward to welcoming him. Our thanks to Robert Sacks and Eric Moonman, our Board representatives, for arranging this.

The onslaught against Jewry has not gone away. It is just repackaged differently, centred round Zionism and Israel. The BDS boycott movement and UNESCO’s resolution on 13 October denying any Jewish link to Jerusalem, especially the Temple area, was frightening and hateful. I hope you will all protest to your neighbours and MPs that erasing Jewish history is just the latest example of the 3,500-year-old obsession with Jew hatred. It’s real.

Only six countries voted against it: Estonia, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, the UK and USA. We should express our gratitude to them for their sanity and resistance to base anti-Semitism in the United Nations. There were 33 in favour, including France, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, and 17 abstentions. Many other countries not on the governing board, including the Czech Republic, solidly denounced the vote.

Two other points of interest: Irina Bokava, UNESCO’s director, disavowed the vote and called it a disgrace to the world’s nations and the UN. And a Jewish member of Mexico’s UNESCO delegation, on the point of resigning in protest at his government’s support for the resolution, stayed on to fight at the urging of Israel’s delegate. Oddly, Mexico renounced its earlier support but fired its courageous Jewish delegate.

There is so much else going on this month, notably the US Presidential election, where we pray the winner will help our troubled world. But we still have a full programme with Shabbat UK, Adult Discussion on philosophy and Bar Mitzvah services. Come to our services and activities and become part of the Belsize miracle! Wishes for a joyous month of learning, goodness, mitzvot, reading and friendship.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Setting our goals for 5777

Shalom Chaverim

This month begins our time for introspection, spiritual, moral and personal. Called heshbon hanefesh, or the soul’s account, it is considered in Jewish tradition to be the most intensive spiritual self-judgement of the entire year.

The theme of this year’s High Holyday sermons and services will be aims, goals and ideals. How does our faith that we are moving towards something l’eila u’l’eila (higher and higher), influence who we are?

We, the Jewish people with our Torah, left the world an array of gifts that had never before appeared to humanity: belief in One God (monotheism), belief in revelation (the still, quiet voice that addresses humanity), belief in messianism (the view that history moves toward a peaceful and idyllic future).

That last contribution is known as a linear view, the idea that history and humanity move toward a culmination. The pagan world had a “cyclical” view of history, meaning they believed in the cycle of nature, with nature making our lives spin round like wheels without end or resolution.

Then came the Torah, in which God begins Creation and moves matters forward to the family of nations, moral principles and law in a narrative, Exodus, which sees the beginning of a people’s history, a people destined to lead nations to unity and harmony.

We take seriously the words we recite from the prophet Zechariah at the end of every service in the Aleinu: Bayom hahu y’heyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad, On that day God shall be one and His Name one.

As you see, I am in a frame of mind to look forward and I ask us all to do the same. It takes a lot of hard work but also encourages us to do real heshbon hanefesh, constantly examining our souls and destiny. Failure to do so decreases our spirit and diminishes our souls. I would love to hear your passions and thoughts on where our community should be going. Here are some of my ideas:

1) I want to keep investing in the highest goals of our tradition, and central to that aim is education. We will have four Sunday sessions from 12.30- 2.30pm teaching our members to read Hebrew. Our Sunday adult education class from 10.00am-12.30pm will look at modern philosophy and the Jewish responses over the last 200 years. This is one of the real highlights of my tenure at this synagogue.
There will also be a joint class with Revd Paul Nicholson of next-door St Peter’s Church in an intensive examination of our religious traditions and more Lunch ‘n’ Learn sessions after Shabbat services.

Our ongoing Monday night Introduction to Judaism, from 7.00-8.15pm, fills the Library with 14 candidates and their partners. But I would like to encourage any of you interested in a full survey of Judaism – its values, theology, holidays, life cycle, history, Bible and literature – to join an enthusiastic and bright class.

2) We need to continue to enliven our services and to think of new possibilities for participation of both young and old.

3) Music: Our ambitious plans continue with our concert on 25 September with my friend, the violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov, along with my wife, Ella Leya, a recording star in her own right.

4)Youth: Under our new Youth chairman, Simon Cutner, plans are afoot to revitalise our youth groups.

5) Social Justice/Tikkun Olam: With the amazing Eve Hersov, our Community Care Co-Ordinator, spearheading our Bereavement and Compassion Committee, I am hoping to establish a Social Justice Committee to re-ignite a passion for social awareness and gemilut chasadim, acts of kindness to others – refugees, the poor and homeless. We need to improve our profile in this area and if someone is keen on this, tell me.

6) Travel: Our trip to Berlin in May was an extraordinary success. We hope to visit Israel next and want to see who is interested in joining us for a 2017 trip. This will not be your normal trip to Israel. We will meet rabbinical, political and archaeological personalities and the human rights right activist, Natan Sharansky.

This is the month of Elul, a time for selfevaluation, for communal evaluation and renewal of our vision for 5777, the new year which comes in next month. I look forward to seeing you in synagogue.

B’shalom always,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Summer stocktaking: Rabbi’s end of term report

It is that time of year again, time to take stock, to enjoy the quiet of the summer months, to recharge our energies for the coming year, and, hopefully, find a new perspective in renewed faith. We may have no control over the turbulence around us but we can look back over the past year at our Synagogue and see cause for pride and gratitude.

I have said many times that I feel so privileged to be the rabbi of this unusual and gifted community. I am blessed with remarkable students, the best of friends and a congregation that believes in the best of our Jewish ideals and spirit. May God continue to give us that strength. So, here are a few reflections on what we have accomplished together and where we are headed.

We began the Jewish year with powerful High Holy Day services and attendance. I spoke on aspects of fear, the choir was magnificent, the Cantor never sounded better, everyone took part. We had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah virtually every week, where our gifted children affirmed their Jewish identity.
We took 30 members to Berlin on a trip beyond all expectation. We learned so much and were impressed by the local activists we met at the Alexander Haus, thanks to our co-host, Thomas Harding. A big thank you to Claire Walford for arranging it all.

We had classes: our Sunday morning adult discussion class on modern western philosophy and Jewish responses from Hobbes to Moses Mendelssohn. We held our annual lecture with Rev Paul Nicholson on religious extremism in our respective faiths, and were joined by a leading
figure of the Shiite Muslim community.

Our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot was led by Alasdair Nisbet. Though small in number, we were mighty in the content of our educational endeavour. Maimonides was the glue and learning was all around us, as was the cheesecake. Our community second Seder attracted the largest attendance we have ever had. And we had a joyous Purim, a festive Succot.

Seven adults who have studied every week with me in the synagogue library were brought before the Bet Din and became part of the Jewish people. We also welcomed three children who followed their converted mothers. We had Hebrew “marathon reading” classes for the first time, to try to put those unfamiliar with Hebrew at ease with our services.

We are growing. Membership is up. Attendance is largely excellent. We are blessed with leadership, and this is a good moment to thank our outgoing Co-Chairs, Suzanne Goldstein and John Abramson, along with the Board and Executive, for their time and commitment.

Our office works hard and I personally am grateful that I work with such fine individuals as Jennifer Saul, Jagdish (bookkeeping), Adam Rynhold (my right arm), Gordon Larkin (our man who keeps us safe and organised!), and Lee Taylor, the very best Chief Executive, a man of incredible integrity and devotion to the community.

I also want to again note how blessed we are in our music, our professional choir, our youth choir director, Alyson Denza, our superb music director, Dr Ben Wolf, and, finally, my partner on the bimah, Cantor Paul Heller.

Our music programme has been revolutionised by Philip Keller and the the Music Committee. Concerts just get better and better. Our Israel Committee, led by Jeffrey Graham, arranged a memorable dinner, raising funds for our regular charities in Israel.

Our talented Education Director, Jeanie Horowitz, enhances our children’s knowledge of their Jewish heritage. Thank you, Jeanie, and thank you also, Eve Hersov, compassionate and caring, who visits our seniors and those who are ill and watches over mourners.

So, how can we do better next year? Well, we will certainly try! We will focus on ideals, aims and goals at the High Holy Days. We will organise another trip, most likely to Israel.

Our Monday night Introduction to Judaism course has 12 new students. We will continue our Sunday morning study of modern philosophy and Jewish thought. There will be more Hebrew reading opportunities. Stay tuned!

Welcome to Jackie Alexander, our new Chairman, and the Board of this great community, to all our committee chairs and, most of all, to our entire membership. You continue to astound with your energy, compassion, devotion to the community and passionate interest in seeing Jewish life thrive.
Have a wonderful summer and may God bless us with renewed faith and most of all, shalom.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Shavuot and this year’s theme of Maimonides

Chaverim Yekarim – Dear Friends,

This is the month of Sivan, the month of June, when we celebrate Shavuot, our short two-day chag that has few rituals or customs attached to it, unlike its partner pilgrimage festivals (regalim) of Passover and Succot.

There’s a reason for that lacuna in ritual for Shavuot because the primary message of this festival is matan Torateinu, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Torah speaks for itself, it needs no formal ritual, for it is about our mental and intellectual connection to Torah and Judaism. That is why the most prominent ritual attached to Shavuot has been the custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the Kabbalistic tradition of studying Torah all night long, as our ancestors at Har Sinai stayed awake all night long before receiving the Ten Commandments.

By now you all know the importance of our educational component at Belsize Square Synagogue. We have hosted a variety of prominent speakers, including the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Dr Ismar Schorsch, and more recently the Provost and esteemed Dean of History at JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer. We’ve had other scholars with us and we have a steady diet of classes in our weekly Monday night Introduction to Judaism course, covering everything from theology, festivals and life cycle to interfaith matters and history.

And we have our regular Sunday morning discussion group where we we have studied this year the great thinkers of Western civilisation and Jewish responses to those thinkers, and have become familiar and knowledgeable about Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Hegel. We have hosted a magnificently successful day of study, Limmud, and held joint classes with our neighbour, St Peter’s Church, on Bible, extremism and many other subjects.

Education is the heart and core of our congregation. Without knowledge we lose our vision, our wisdom, our drive to maintain the light of Israel. Talmud Torah (Torah study) is the hallmark of our religious faith and commitments. We know that without our Jewish education, knowledge and literacy, we would have disappeared long ago.

Here are some cornerstone citations to remember:

1. It says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Am ha’aretz lo chasid (An ignorant Jew cannot be a pious person). Our rabbis knew 2,000 years ago that without knowledge of Torah, it is impossible to find the drive and purpose to observe the commandments, personal and inter-personal. You simply cannot be or act on something important to you without knowing why. Knowledge increases the sense of obligation.

Jews have learned through the centuries that there is no substitute for learning.

2. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (The study of Torah has equal weight to all of them, i.e. the rest of the commandments). What was Rabbi Akiva trying to teach us? Without study of Torah you cannot understand why we Jews must do what we do. This says it all regarding the place of study in our tradition.

3. V’shinantem l’vanecha (And you shall teach it to your children – or chew it over with them.) All parents have this obligation, as we recite from the Shema morning and evening, for study leads to the parental ability to transmit our tradition to our children and grandchildren. The verse says we should teach them intensively, repeatedly. V’shinantem, which comes from the word for tooth (shin, like the Hebrew letter), means that we must first be students ourselves so that we know what we are telling our children.

4. Torah lishma (Torah for its own sake), which means that the purpose of our study is not to gain a diploma or secure good grades or even “prepare ourselves for a job”, but for its own sake, just to love the learning – no ulterior motives allowed. Now, would not this ethical value be helpful on our university campuses where so much of student and classroom life is about getting good grades rather than the substance of learning?

So my plea to you all is: Come to our classes and services. I always try to teach something new each week. Come to our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot after evening service on Saturday 11 June. Our subject this year is Maimonides, the great Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1140-1205). Each of our sessions will be on a different aspect of his teachings. What do you know about Maimonides? Come and find out.

And join us on Sunday mornings. We’re wrapping up this year’s course but come next year, when we will be exploring the philosophies of Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber, Rosenzweig, Kaplan and many more prominent 20th century Jewish thinkers.

My wishes to all of you for a blessed and dairy-filled Shavuot.

Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler