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A challenge for unity and acceptance

Shalom Chaverim,

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, Not in God’s Name, is a masterpiece, an essential, brilliant and necessary dissertation which combines the best of Jewish ethics, theology and vision in one book. It is no surprise that Rabbi Sacks received, and well deserved, the prestigious Templeton Prize 2016 for his exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

The theology presented in Rabbi Sacks’ book is the most perfect response to a world that has been plunged into interfaith conflict, due to the rise of religious and political extremism. And it is extremism, whether it be Islamic, Christian, Jewish or secular, which threatens to destroy us in its murderous agenda of bloodshed and intolerance.

Our very hope for coexistence and understanding of each other, especially in the area of interfaith dialogue, depends upon a new framework of religious vision that encompasses the “other”, and Rabbi Sacks has mastered the religious response to terror and extremism.

“Us” Versus “Them”

Both religious and secular extremism in the past and today divides the world into a dualism that splits the world into an “us” versus “them” mentality. The “good guys” take on an ideological position that soon warps the human soul by justifying a contrived and diabolical need to destroy the ”bad guys” and, as Rabbi Sacks demonstrates so lucidly in his book, allowing for the most violent and dastardly murderous activity.

This need to be rid of all ideological and religious competitors characterised the Jewish Dead Sea Sect (from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st Century CE) whose religious stance divided the world into the “children of Light and Darkness”.

The Christian crusaders separated the heathens who rejected Christianity from the pure faithful. Hitler and Stalin crushed the Jews and all their other ideological opponents as “evil ones” preventing the pure race or righteous ideology from victory. Today’s Islamic fanatics have made cruel war against anyone who defies Islamic sharia law and the establishment of Islamic dominance.

Embracing the Other

However, true monotheism, as we read in Sacks’ book, finds a way of encompassing us all in a family of nations. If we were only to read our Scriptural sources carefully, maintaining our unique religious callings while, at the same time, finding a theology that embraces the other due to an enlarged and appropriate understanding of monotheism – one God, one humanity – then the problems of terror, fanaticism and dualism would find no followers.

I am not an Orthodox rabbi but I have relied upon my brilliant teacher, Rabbi Sacks, for wisdom, Torah, insight and more. I, for one, marvel at the breadth and depth of Rabbi Sacks’ knowledge and insight and believe that everyone should read his brilliant book.

However, there is one caveat to his Not in God’s Name that needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later.

While Rabbi Sacks has presented a coherent and necessary theological framework for

interfaith relations, in my view the time has come for a similar ideological and theological basis to improve “intra-faith” relations, i.e. the way Jews should look upon their fellow Jews. The intolerance that exists, the apartheid we have created in our own Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are appalling and, unfortunately, getting worse.

There are constant spats regarding praying at the Western Wall, whether non-Orthodox rabbis should be granted the right to officiate at weddings, funerals or conversions, prohibitions on Orthodox rabbis from even stepping foot in Masorti, Reform or Liberal synagogues, let alone engage in classes, worship or dialogue with each other, in a dark side of Jewish life today that we too often ignore.

Unnecessary Division

In fact, we live with the absurdity that an Orthodox rabbi, even here in the UK, finds it easier to attend a church or mosque than to be present at a nonOrthodox synagogue or institution.

The time has come to rethink this preposterous and unnecessary division within our small Jewish world. The fighting and division weaken us at the very time when we need to stand united in the face of rising anti-Semitism, constant attacks against the state of Israel, and rampant assimilation and acculturation.

Not only are we, the Jewish people, weakened by such divisiveness. We appear as absurd, empty proponents of the kind of mutual respect for all that our world desperately needs at this time in history, unless we become determined to undo the walls we have erected to keep the other Jew out.

We must be one people, for the underlying principle of the Torah is the Oneness of God, and the correlation to that is the oneness of the people of Israel. The divisions among us lead to a disqualification of our ability to testify to the world regarding God’s unity and the unity of nations and religions. As the Midrash tells us: “The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart.” (Numbers Rabbah 15:14)

A Diverse People

This call for unity does not mean that we Jews need to be the same in our various approaches to Jewish life, law, ethics and tradition. We are a diverse people and that has always been a salient fact of Jewish history, whether it be Pharisees vs Sadducees, Rabbis Shammai vs Hillel, Ishmael vs Akiva, kabbalists (mystics) vs Maimonidean rational philosophers, or Mitnagdim (traditionalist opponents) vs Chasidim (thought illiterate revolutionaries when the movement arose in the 18th century).

These are all schisms which predate the differences that now exist in the Orthodox world (including Chasidim, Charedim, religious Zionists and antiZionists) and Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jews.

We Jews have never shared the same understanding of Jewish tradition and law. But as Rabbi Sacks so eloquently said at Jewish Book Week in February, we do, however, share the same fate despite our faith differences.

We are of a rabbinic tradition in which each daf or page of the Mishnah and Gemarah (together making up the Talmud) and Midrash (rabbinic literature expounding the Bible) reminds us that there are different voices on any subject. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – these views and those views are all part of a living God. To differ is divine.

We are continuously reminded by our sages that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not because there was no study of Torah or because of laxity in the observance of Jewish law. The rabbis taught that the cause of our destruction was sinat chinam, causeless hatred. The rabbis said that the sin of sinat chinam was equal to the three major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Sacks so eloquently called for an end to the political power of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, stating that the existence of a highly politicised rabbinate in Israel has destroyed the moral and religious credibility of Judaism. The dislike for much of our beautiful Judaism among the masses of secular Israelis is an appalling legacy of their politicised rabbinate.

The fact is that with the onset of the Enlightenment, Haskalah, in the 18th century, Jews were divided as to the direction of Judaism, on the degree of acculturation, the meshing of the new values of modernity with the sacred values of our Jewish tradition.

There were Reformers, beginning with Moses Mendelssohn’s disciples, followers of Immanuel Kant, who called for the dismantling of the authority of Jewish Law.  The mid-19th century saw Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose neo-Orthodoxy called for integration into modern European society while freezing Jewish law as promulgated in the Shulhan Aruch, the definitive religious framework of Orthodoxy today.

A few decades earlier saw the birth of Wissenschaft Judentums, the “science of Judaism” the scholarly framework of what became the Conservative or Masorti movement, that called for a maintenance of the authority of Jewish law, accompanied by the understanding that Jewish law has always evolved and changed in accordance with circumstances at various stages in Jewish history.

Different responses to modernity, different outlooks on what constitutes Judaism and Jewish law. It has always been that way and we have to find a way of recognising the authenticity and the seriousness by which Jews of different paths approach their understanding of Judaism.

Healthy Whole

There has never been an “Orthodox” Judaism – that is, One Way, a “right” way of Judaism. We are a proud and diverse people, and each branch and stream contributes to the healthy whole of klal Yisrael, the community or congregation of Israel.

Getting stuck in the view that “we are the right way” and “you are the wrong way” will weaken us and dismantle our ability to teach our various approaches with passion. We must look with admiration on Orthodox Judaism’s maintenance of Jewish tradition, the ability to flow against the stream of assimilation, preserving our yeshivot and reverence for our sacred texts and halachah or way of doing things. But at the same time, we have to admire the creativity and advances made by Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jewish scholars and communities in their efforts to make Jewish life fit the patterns and mores of our contemporary society.

Jewish scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, history, literature and halachah has been enhanced by the contributions of my own teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the heart of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement – luminaries such as Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Ismar Schorsch, Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Jewish Apartheid

The time has come for leadership to come from United Synagogue, led by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who knows very well that the tear in the fabric of Jewish collectiveness and unity is damaging us and our future. We must prevent our own extremists from hijacking our wonderful Judaism, so that we may build together a unity that will enhance the state of Israel and Jews everywhere in the world, destroy the scourge of anti-Semitism that has found new life around the world, and struggle together to create a Judaism, with different shades, that will enhance the great name of God and the Torah.

We live apart, we seldom speak to each other in our different machanayim (camps). We do not pray with each other and we do not meet each other enough. What is this Jewish apartheid doing to the next generation, our children, when they see their parents divided, when the rabbis of one camp will not enter the domain of another synagogue community?

I have been told that it is impossible but, yes, I am willing to dream and to challenge the way things are, because they are simply wrong. I invite Rabbi Sacks to come and speak to my synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue, where he is respected and admired, and where his knowledge and Torah will be as revered as in any Orthodox synagogue.

We are all the brothers of Joseph and we will merit the greatest part of our future when we stop fighting, when we end the barriers and truly become am echad, one people, with diverse paths to Jewish law and Jewish genius.

We are preparing for Passover, knowing that the path of freedom will require greater love, ahavat Yisrael, a respect for each other that we can then pass on to the rest of humanity, waiting for our own example of what it means to be a loving servant of God, with a love of all God’s Creation and life And the same is true for non-Orthodox Jews toward Orthodox Jews and Judaism. The intolerance goes both ways. Our intolerance of our fellow Jew knows no ideological borders today.

Please accept this invitation, Rabbi Sacks, for God’s sake, for our people’s future, for our children and for the full fruition of your brilliant plea for oneness

among all peoples. Let us follow the advice of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who taught us that only causeless love, ahavat Yisrael, may overcome the ruination of causeless hatred. It is no dream but a matter of our very Jewish future that we share together.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

This is a version of the article published in the Jewish Chronicle on 1 April.


Celebrating life – the best reaction to antisemitism

Shalom Chaverim,

Adar, this March, is the month of Purim, that one-day festival in which we celebrate, eat, drink and refuse all signs of sadness. These characteristics of Purim persist despite the fact that the story, as told in the Book of Esther, is one of the most difficult chapters to comprehend in all of Jewish history.

And that is because the Book of Esther tells us of a Persian plot, probably in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, to annihilate the entire Jewish people. Behind all the celebrating is a dreadful story, one that we have experienced all too often.There have been two streams of assault against the Jewish people since Abraham appeared in the annals of history. We label them under the rubric of that longest and most virulent of ethnic and religious hatreds, “antisemitism”.

The first is told in the story of Esther: the attempt to destroy the Jews physically. It happened again after Rome defeated the Bar Kochba revolt in 135CE, then sporadic Islamic jihad from the 7th century on, 400 years of crusades from 1096, expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, the 1648 Chmielnitski massacres in Ukraine and 19th-century pogroms in Tsarist Russia, leading finally to the Shoah. Jews were murdered because they were Jews.

And then there is the Book of Maccabees, the story of Chanukah and, in 168 BCE, the first attempt to destroy our Judaism, culminating in the first recorded instance of a revolt for religious freedom. With the physical attacks went book-burning (the Talmud in 14th-century Paris), destroying synagogues, desecrating Torah scrolls and eliminating Jewish education, notably in the Soviet Union.

The practice of difference

Why do we rejoice as we do, for both Purim and Chanukah, when behind them lies a story of such sadness and darkness? I think the answer lies in our cherished tradition of meeting sadness with life, with celebration, without forgetting the countless times we have had to hope, pray and, as now, fight for our right to exist in our own land, Eretz Yisrael, and our sovereignty in the modern State of Israel.

For the best, succinct, single-volume review of the scourge of anti-Semitism, I always recommend Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s Why the Jews? This fine book tackles the issue of this endemic and violent hatred. The common thread is the Jews’ desire to remain different. This arouses hatred and intolerance of the “different”, who reject the majority culture.

In antiquity, it was because the Jews had an invisible God, rejecting paganism. In medieval times it was because they refused to convert willingly to either Christianity or Islam. In the modern period, the refusal of the Jews yet again to obliterate themselves, as they integrated into a new liberal law-bound society, led to the coining of the word Antisemitismus by Wilhelm Marr in 1879.

Marr was promulgating his quasi-scientific racial theory that both put Jews at odds with Germans and forecast that Germans would lose out. It was this anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoah. Today, hate-filled antisemitism, attached to the State of Israel and Zionism, still targets Jews.

Our Jewish response

Our Jewish response to all this madness? Life, study and celebration! Join us for our Purim festivities. Join us for this month’s joint course with St Peter’s Church on “Religious Extremism”.

And get ready everyone: Professor Jack Wertheimer, world-renowned Jewish historian and former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, author of over 16 books – and my mentor throughout my rabbinic career – is coming to visit us. He will speak briefly at Friday night service on 1 April and at length after Shabbat dinner that night on “Judaism in an Age of Religious Recession”.

After Kiddush following Shabbat morning service, he will speak on “The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews”. On Sunday morning, 10-12.30, he will address our Adult Discussion Group on “Orthodoxies in Transition”.

There will be a special evening reception and talk on Monday 4 April for our generous patrons who have made this scholar-in-residence week possible.
I will see you all in synagogue for our continued first-class offerings. Wishing you all a month of learning, celebrating and rejoicing in our challenging and never dull Jewish life here.

B’shalom tamid,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Meet my friends – old and new

One of my greatest thrills is to bring my past into my present – my dear friends from my previous life to my new family at Belsize Square Synagogue. In January we hosted Mona Golabek, the gifted pianist, actress and star of the one-woman show now running at St James Theatre. The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the story of Mona’s mother, Lisa Jura, who came to London from Vienna on a Kindertransport in 1939.

At 14 Lisa was a budding classical pianist, and it was music that gave comfort to herself and other youngsters in the hostel, known as the “Children of Willesden Lane” through Mona’s bestselling book of that name. Most, like Lisa, never saw their parents again. We met Mona in Los Angeles when my wife, Ella, appeared on Mona’s popular radio show, Romantic Hour.

Shortly we will host another long-time friend of mine, Professor Rabbi Hanan Alexander, Dean of Students at Haifa University and a leading academic authority on Jewish education. The latest of his three books has drawn the attention of the education world through its focus on combining Jewish and secular liberal education. The bifurcation, especially in Israel, between the Jewish and secular world has created two societies, two worlds afraid of and largely ignorant of each other.

On Erev Shabbat 5 February, Professor Alexander will talk about criticism of Israel as opposed to demonisation. On Shabbat morning, after our Kiddush, he will speak about his own field: How Jewish is Jewish Education? At our Adult Discussion Group the next morning, he will discuss his latest book, Re-imagining Liberal Education.

Hanan and I met as eager young rabbinic students at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, now called the American Jewish University. At that time, students could study two years in Los Angeles, then transfer to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. So that’s what these two guys from California did! Our memories and friendships with colleagues and mentors go back 40 years.

On the first Shabbat in April, we will welcome the eminent scholar and former Provost of JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer, a leading historian of European and American Jewry. His 16 books and prolific articles for academic journals explore every aspect of Jewish life, such as schools and the rise and fall of movements. He will be with us, thanks to the support of our “angels” who have made this week possible, for our Shabbat morning Service and at our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group, as well as a special week-long programme for our patrons.

Jack and I met when I started at JTS and we have been close friends ever since. He mentored my doctoral studies, exams and dissertation, helped me edit my book and influenced virtually all my rabbinic studies. A wonderful teacher and brilliant scholar, and another incredible week ahead of us with an important person from my past!

From 1-5 May, I will be joined by a more recent friend, Thomas Harding, author, journalist and product of Belsize, son of our own Frank and Belinda Harding, as he leads a trip to Berlin. Thomas is a brilliant writer and speaker. You all know his first book, Hanns and Rudolf, about the capture of the Kommandant of Auschwitz. His second very personal book, Kadian Journal, chronicles his grief and reaction to his teenage son’s fatal cycling accident in 2012. With his third book, The House by the Lake, he returns to German history, tracing events of the last 120 years or so through their impact on the families who lived in a country house near Berlin, which once belonged to the Alexanders, his grandparents. Thomas is another friend whom I treasure.

And finally, on Sunday 25 September, the world-renowned violinist, Maxim Vengerov, will be joined by his accompanist and my wife for an unforgettable evening. Maxim and I go back some 20 years since we met in Chicago and we have become like close family. As an amateur violinist, I admire his virtuosity and warmth. He admires and loves my devotion to Jewish life and studies, and so we have this mutual admiration society.

Well, I’ve been in love with my Ella for over 22 years now and have never met anyone so brilliant and talented: composer and singer, with three CD records and film soundtracks – and now an author, with her book, The Orphan Sky, published last year. The novel, drawing on her youth in Soviet ruled Azerbaijan, received rave reviews.

The people I love from past and present will meet the people I love at Belsize Square Synagogue. Let’s rejoice and enjoy the wisdom, learning and music – together! See you in synagogue this month and beyond. May you all be blessed with a month of goodness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Annelise Winter Celebrates Her Century

Congratulations to Annelise Winter who celebrated her 100th birthday on 23 November.
Cantor Heller visits Annelise Winter who holds her birthday card from the Queen.

Cantor Heller visits Annelise Winter who holds her birthday card from the Queen.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Annelise Clara Goeritz came to Britain in May 1939.

Her father’s second cousin had the foresight to leave Germany in 1933 with all his assets and she worked in his Staffordshire factory for 30 shillings (£1.50) a week, paying £1 a week for board and lodging.

Towards the start of war, the factory moved to Edgware and Annelise came to London with it. But she changed jobs to underwear firm Lux Lux Ltd, stitching shoulder straps to vests. She eventually responded to a newspaper ad for typists for the Civil Service. She passed the test and worked in a typing pool.

Both in Staffordshire and London, she experienced great kindness. She went to an AJR Youth Group for 25-35 year olds, where she met her future husband, Oskar Winter. They married on 28 October 1950 at Hampstead Registry Office. They lived in Kilburn before purchasing a bungalow in Mill Hill, where she still lives.

The right sort of fear: our High Holydays theme

Shalom Chaverim
As the days become shorter, we settle back into our routines. The test now is to infuse into our daily lives a spiritual and moral dimension. So here is a brief summary of the journey we made in our sermons during the High Holydays.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
I welcomed 5776 by introducing the theme of fear, because these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Fear (or Awe) when we confront our basic fears. But this should be put into perspective. While we have legitimate fears about health, finances, children or politics, when compared to earlier generations we are far better off in life span, health and security. We have the State of Israel and no longer need fear the pogroms and genocide endured by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

First Day Rosh Hashanah
On Rosh Hashanah, I expanded on our legitimate fears – including dentists and heights! – and looked at how our ancestors reacted. They were guided by a biblical fear, the fear of God (yir’at shamayim – the fear of heaven) the fear of doing the wrong thing. My examples were the midwives in Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s orders at risk of death because of yir’at Elohim, fear of God, and then the command in Leviticus not to “put a stumbling block in front of the blind nor curse the deaf … because you shall fear God”. No fear of thunderbolts here, just an awareness of doing the right thing.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah
Here I spoke about parents’ fears for their children’s future. This is the era of the “selfie”, of incredible narcissism, cynicism and a jaded attitude towards goodness. We need to ensure that our children do not forget their Jewish heritage and values or lose hope in the vital belief that they can make a difference through fulfilling the mitzvot.

Kol Nidrei
With antisemitism rising, another fear is a repeat of the Shoah. What lessons can we learn? My hypothesis is that, by dwelling on the means – the depraved torture, terror and murder of six million – we are in danger of forgetting the most important issue, the end. The aim was to annihilate Judaism as well as the Jews. On Kol Nidrei, the holiest night of the Jewish year, we must increase our support for the synagogue and what it represents. Especially in this congregation, we must be more determined than ever to make living Judaism our greatest priority.

Yom Kippur
Here I suggested we have two sides, as shown in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I was once asked at a Bar Mitzvah whether I really believed that the kind of ethics I had taught mattered because, as the guest said, “That’s not my world, Rabbi. My world is about success and achieving”.
In Genesis 1 we are told to “conquer the world”, using our powers to conquer space, disease, etc. In Genesis 2, we are told we are nefesh, soul, and must be joined to another soul to develop and nurture our love for others. Genesis 1 symbolises our power. Genesis 2 is Shabbat, a reflection of the part of us that lives for others. I asked you to be a part of “my world”. We are more than figures and achievements, we are also love and soul.

I addressed our concerns as to how to keep our loved ones alive in our minds. To keep their memory fresh by recalling their values and beliefs. Through living by their principles, we continue to be with them. And if we live in such a way, with love and devotion, our children and grandchildren will in turn remember us.

I ended by reviewing our journey of fear. Despite terror, economic uncertainty or worry about our loved ones, we need to confront fear in the right spirit – with renewed hope, strength, faith, love of humanity and love of God. We become the “god” we worship. If we are cynical and negative about our power for good, that is the god we create. The God with whom our ancestors communicated is an optimistic God, believing in the power to make the world better, rather than dimming our vision and reducing our faith, confining us in a world of negativity. Have hope, courage and faith before the gates close!

There are so many people to thank for our High Holyday experience but I do thank all our daveners, Torah readers, Haftarah chanters, shofar blowers, the leaders of our Youth Services, the children who led Yom Kippur Minchah, our Succah decorators, the professional and community choirs, our caretakers, crèche workers, security, youth leaders, sound equipment people, wardens, webcasting crew, our music director Ben Wolf and Cantor Paul Heller.
Join us each Shabbat and send a wish and prayer for your dear ones. A special prayer for peace for the people and State of Israel. You are constantly in our prayers and thoughts.


Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

A vocal anniversary

Sue HeimannnAfter the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Succot and its conclusion with Simchat Torah come as a joyful reaction. This year again saw our recent ritual of the fully unrolled scroll surrounding the congregation, as well as several women participating in hakafot, carrying the Torah in the circuits.

But this year the service also celebrated the 50th anniversary of soprano Sue Heimann’s choir service.

Sue Rosenberg, as she was, started in the Children’s Choir under the late Hanny Lichtenstern, whose professional singing career in Germany as Johanna Metzger was cut short by the Nazi regime. Hanny gave her heart and soul to perfecting the choir, which had been started by Charlotte Salzberger, wife of our congregation’s first rabbi.

Sue was Hanny’s star pupil and the youngest member when she joined the choir aged six. She hung around at the back of the class and choir loft and badgered Hanny until she was allowed to join. Hanny gave her three lessons a week from the age of 10 and she sang everywhere she went.

Hanny’s husband, Paul Lichtenstern, also a professional musician, taught her piano up to grade V, when she decided to concentrate on voice. At school she was only interested in music and sport. At 13, she was promoted to the Adult Choir, 10 years younger than normal, and flitted between both choirs. At 16, she took over from Hanny the rendering of Zacharti lach, (I have memories of you) the plangent verses from the Prophets, which is such a highlight of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Service. She also sang it at weddings and at the funerals of Rabbi Jakob Kokotek and Rev Joseph Dollinger.

The Children’s Choir, which became the Youth Choir in 1975, when Sue was pregnant with her first child – it didn’t seem quite right to call it a children’s choir any longer – performed regularly at the old-age homes in Bishop’s Avenue (now closed). It was also called upon for the annual memorial service of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

When Hanny retired from conducting, handing over the reins to Sue Straus (now Mariner), together, they continued entertaining at the old-age homes, accompanied by Paul Lichtenstern.

As a child, Sue played with the Lichtensterns’ son, David. Another childhood friend was Peter Heimann, whose aunt was a close friend of her aunt. Peter had a tenor voice and was also taught by Hanny. Peter’s was the first Bar Mitzvah Sue sang at. They married in 1973 and continued singing together while bringing up their two daughters, Ruthie and Sarah.

Sadly, Peter died in 2008. A concert in celebration of his life, held at Wembley (United) Synagogue, raised funds not only for his family but Belsize Square Synagogue, Laniado Hospital where Peter had been treated when taken ill in Israel, and Chai Cancer Care.

Sue worked in a special needs school with autistic and Down’s Syndrome children, which she loved. She then worked for 10 years at the charity, Chai Cancer Care, in Hendon. She says: “I am thrilled that I now do ‘granny duty’ for my gorgeous granddaughters, Sasha and Olivia, who both have lovely voices, like my daughters.”

She is also thrilled to be able to sing still with both the Community Choir and the Professional Choir. “I thank them both for all the support they give me,” she says. “Long may it last!”

We wish Sue many more tuneful years. You can hear her on 13 November, when she will sing in the choir at the newly designated Henry Kuttner z”l Choir Shabbat.

Henry, who died in March 2014, aged 84, conducted the choir for 15 years, following in his father’s footsteps. He then spent 15 years preserving and computerising our liturgical music. The service recognises his contribution to the community.

Law, custom and folk belief

The problem of the “Mazkir Exodus”

We are still very much into our Holiday season, having just completed our Yamim Noraim and now entering the festivities of the Succot week, culminating in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Please come to our synagogue and rejoice in the Holidays.

What I thought would be of most value to you is a little guidance on the following question: what exactly does Judaism require of me? What is law? What is custom? What is bubbe meise, or folk religion? The reason why I share this lesson with you is that each year at Yom Kippur, at Yizkor or, as we say at Belsize Square, Mazkir, there is a mass exodus from the synagogue as we begin to recite the memorial prayers, meditate upon the lives of our loved ones and recite our affirmation of love and faith with the words of the Kaddish, always in their memory.

The exodus from shul is one of the most interesting examples of how folk religion has in many ways come to replace the dictates of Jewish law and normative minhag, or custom. There is no good reason why it should have become such an odd replacement of traditional mandated behaviour, since there is no prohibition in any shape or form on reciting Kaddish and being in synagogue with living parents to remember our departed loved ones.

There is always someone for us to remember – a grandparent, friend, Jews of the past, anonymous individuals who need to be remembered. We miss a great opportunity, an essential part of our spiritual beings, in leaving just at the time we need to remember and do right by those no longer with us. Leaving is entirely bubbe meise, an unnecessary superstition.

There are three categories that dictate Jewish behaviour: halachah (Jewish law), minhag (normative custom or convention) – and then there’s bubbe meise. Halachah is mandated, required for each and every Jew after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Halachah is mitzvah, commandment.

The halachot are rooted in the 613 Torah Mitzvot, a large chunk of which we can no longer fulfill because they require the existence of a Temple. In addition, there are later rabbinic halachot, such as lighting Shabbat or Chanucah candles, which carry the same weight as a Torah commandment.

Halachot are both ethical and ritual and they run to a long list. To take some well-known examples: asking for and granting forgiveness (Teshuvah), ethical business practices, giving to those in need (Tzedakah), studying Torah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, refraining from gossip and slander (lashon harah), and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Halachah is required of us but halachah changes. Some halachot fall out of use or lose their relevance, such as shatnez, the Torah prohibition against mixing wool and linen, which pales into insignificance in today’s wide range of materials. But these emendations to halachah are part of a process of legal interpretation, growth and evolution.

As an example of the evolution of rabbinic understanding of Jewish law, take the participation of women in Jewish ritual life. Not until the late 19th century were Jewish women allowed to study Torah in major Eastern European communities. Yet halachah has never restricted women in any way.

Minhag is a tougher definition since some “customs” do eventually find their way into normative Jewish practice while others fade away. We bow during the Aleinu, we eat honey and apples at Rosh Hashanah, we refrain from eating meat in the nine days before Tisha B’Av, we cover our mirrors in a house of mourning, we do not eat dairy after eating meat for either one, three or even six hours depending upon local minhag, we come the long way to the Torah for our Aliyah, we recite early morning prayers before the formal call to worship, and so on.

There are different customs for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as for Jews living in Israel today. All these customs have a vital role to play in how we as Jews express our commitment to halachah and Jewish values.

And then there are Belsize Square customs, customs that belong to no other Jewish community! Yes, we have our very own. You might have your favourites, here are some of mine: bowing at the Ark before the Torah scroll is removed, the Cantor shifting the Torah scroll from the right to left shoulder before the blessing of the coming month (birkat hachodesh), not announcing page numbers (in common, admittedly, with most British synagogues), calling Yizkor – the normal term for the Memorial Service everywhere else – Mazkir, and … starting services punctually on time and, following unspoken guidelines, taking one hour on Friday evening and two hours on Saturday morning!

Finally, there are superstitions, pure and simple, developed over the years. Many originated from the kabbalistic movement in the late mediaeval shtetls of Eastern Europe. They are mostly concerned with graveside and mourning practices. One belief I heard recently is that it is inappropriate for a grandchild to recite Kaddish for a grandparent while the parents are still alive. That’s totally superstition.

Reciting Kaddish is binding on the deceased’s children, siblings, parents and spouse. But there is nothing that precludes a grandchild, or anyone for that matter, from reciting Kaddish at the cemetery, in synagogue or in a minyan.

There is no bar on remaining in synagogue, even if both parents arealive, for the Mazkir/Yizkor service,which is also recited on the three Pilgrimage Festivals. And only superstition would stop a pregnant woman coming to the cemetery.

I hope this synopsis helps. If you have any questions about what Judaism requires of us through halachah, or suggests that we do because of minhag, or seems to prohibit by virtue of folk religion, just ask. That’s why I’m here.

My wishes to all of you for a week of Succot joy and celebration. To rejoice is a mitzvah. It’s an order! So mo’adim l’simchah (fixed times for joy). May your Holidays be celebrated with simchah, with joy.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

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.