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Freedom and Election Issues

Dear Chevra,

Spring is in the air. It is Passover, the celebration not only of the change of seasons but also the commemoration of our liberation from bondage to freedom, the beginnings of the Jewish people.

Of course, Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday, steeped in ethics and memories of our own experience. But it is a holiday whose message has resonated in the souls of many peoples and nations, in the quest for freedom.

Freedom, in order to be preserved, requires responsibility to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the unliberated and the oppressed all over the world. The Jewish soul cannot rest until all are free.

“Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The latter part of this famous cry for freedom in the Book of Exodus is often left out. The purpose of freedom is to better the world; we call it “to worship” or “to serve” God in making this world a kingdom of God on earth.

I am writing this message a few weeks before Pesach but I think that this year’s Passover is a reminder in a world often dominated by terror, autocrats and oppression, that we in a few selected countries enjoy the privilege to vote and choose our elected leaders. The Pharaohs of the world are not chosen.

We might complain about our elected officials, but we have the freedom – and responsibility – to choose them from among many. Freedom in the coming election for this nation’s future in May; freedom exercised in Israel – Israel’s democracy is often chaotic and volatile but the people have chosen their next government in a swarm of nations surrounding her that know nothing of democratic choice; and in my country, the USA, next year will see another round of debates, primaries and the final vote in November 2016 for the next President. Cheers to all three nations!

Passover also allows us to ponder why God created our people and to ask what has been the uniqueness of Judaism, our message, since our liberation from Egypt in approximately 1290 BCE. I suggest the following possible answers for what we have taught the world:

  • Freedom must lead to education and learning. Literacy and knowledge leads to the right behaviour among us: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is equal to all other Commandments.
  • Freedom involves passionate and sincere debate. Many points of view, many paths of discovery and respect for the differences among us lie at the heart of religious faith.
  • It is OK to ask questions about everything: faith, religion, politics, social values, history, literature, freedom, justice. A society that suppresses the right to ask questions is a society of Pharaohs. In too many other places in the world, people still do not have the right to challenge what they have been taught and to question whether it is true.
  • Absolutism, fundamentalism, certainty of belief is the kiss of doom to freedom. Freedom means that we continue to search for the truth. It never teaches us that all truth is revealed and known. Fundamentalism of the type the West is struggling against today leads to violence and intolerance, as was the case in the former Soviet Union, today’s Iran and other terrorist-based entities.
  • The chiddush, that which is new, is to be cherished. Religion is not just to preserve the past but is meant to stimulate our search for new solutions, a more just society, a more moral society.
  • Seeking the “good”, morality, is the heart of true freedom, the basis of the Ten Commandments. Ours is a God who “brought us out of the land of Egypt”, not a distant God who created the universe but a God who cares the most about the way we treat other people – the heart of all religious life.
  • Making this world a place where God can truly dwell, a kingdom of peace on earth, is our most important quest and vision. It is our behaviour that counts the most, not what we believe. To seek each day a path that can lead us toward making this world into what it ought to be tomorrow should be the essence of every human being on earth.

Some day … some day … Adonai Echad u’shmo Echad – The Lord is One and His Name will be One.

My wishes to you and your loved ones for a blessed, rich, tasty, freedom-filled Passover with family and community.

Chag Pesach sameach to all.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

SCHOOL VISITS – JOINT SHUL & CHURCH LECTURES – PURIM FUN

It’s all go at Belsize Square Synagogue

Dear Friends,

I am writing this message to you having met with the last of four schools visiting Belsize Square Synagogue for our annual Holocaust Education days. The impact of our outreach to children who never came to a synagogue and who had no exposure to any Holocaust education or testimonies, is a most powerful experience, a reminder, once again, of the role our synagogue and community play in our wider society.

I cannot thank enough Henny Levin, our chief organiser of this event each year, and all the volunteers, who are an integral part of this tremendous outreach. May we all hope for the day when the lessons of the Shoah have truly been understood and that our world will never tolerate again words such as extermination, genocide, Holocaust, anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism and any ideology that disrespects the image of God that is a part of every human being on this earth.

We pray for the four million refugees from Syria, 200,000 killed in the war there, the victims of terror around the world, and those who live in daily fear in Eastern Ukraine, Nigeria and elsewhere around the globe.

It is Purim, after all, that reminds us of the delicate balance between death and sorrow on the one hand, life and celebration on the other. One minute Haman plotted to exterminate the Jews of Persia; the next minute he fell, due to the valour of Queen Esther and Mordechai. We celebrate with song, food and laughter.

This year we will have a special performance of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at 6pm on Wednesday 4 March, followed by a se’udah (festive meal) and the reading of the Megillah. On Thursday we will have a Purim lunch, for music and talk.

As a highlight this month, I am pleased to announce that St Peter’s Anglican Church, under Rev Paul Nicholson, and Belsize Square Synagogue will host our first joint adult education class, with two sessions at St Peter’s and two at Belsize Square. Please take advantage of the tremendous opportunity to learn, share and discover, together with our neighbours at St Peter’s, listed here.

One last note. Passover follows straight after this month. I ask all of you to consider participating in Maot Hittin, the
“selling of hametz”. It is embedded in our Jewish tradition to “welcome the stranger” and to “feed the hungry” and what better way of doing that than to make out a cheque for £10, £15, £25, or whatever amount, to Belsize Square Synagogue – Rabbi Altshuler’s Discretionary Fund.

The money collected will be forwarded to Manna (formerly Meir Panim), a partner group with our synagogue, dedicated to providing food in dignity to those in Israel who are desperately hungry, specifically to celebrate Pesach. Manna began as a response to the many Holocaust survivors in Israel below the poverty line, most of them from the former Soviet Union.They needed help and Manna came into existence. All you need do is fill out the “contract” that allows me to sell your hametz and, with a contribution for Manna, you have more than fulfilled the core mitzvah of this season.

I want to wish all of you a good month of March, a raucous celebration of Jewish survival with Purim, and a meaningful preparation for the coming celebration of Passover.

B’shalom always
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

SECURITY FEARS IN THE MIDST OF TERROR – ARE WE SAFE?

Shalom, Dear Members of Belsize Square Synagogue,

This past month has been a difficult one for us because of the horrific terrorist murders that took the lives of 17, including four Jews simply shopping for Shabbat.

We now know that one of those victims was Yoav Hattab, aged 21, son of the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia. At the start of the supermarket siege he tried to grab the terrorist’s gun. His last text from the shop to a friend, was to “light Shabbat candles to bring peace into the world.”

Such a contrast between the Jewish environment we try to create in our homes and the violent ways of many around us. There has been much discussion about the future of UK Jewry, about the increase in uncertainty and fear that has gripped parts of our community.

While there is some disagreement about the validity of the results, Jews are talking about the recent survey of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, showing 45% of British Jews believe that Jews “may no longer have a long term future in Britain.”

I have been in this country for the past four years and am certainly not oblivious to the dangers of terror and the violent anti-Semitism gripping much of European society, including the UK. But from what I have observed, British Jews are thriving. Never before have there been as many opportunities for Jewish learning, life, observance and participation.

Since arriving, I have personally noticed a greater willingness in our own midst to stand up, to be counted, to participate in demonstrations for Israel and against all threats to Jewish honour and existence. While aware of the reality in London and other parts of the country, I do not believe in any overreaction. This is not Nazi Germany.
We should be grateful that terror threats and the rise of anti-Semitism have met a response from leaders of both major parties, police and security personnel, and our own community. We are not afraid and are protected in our freedom and Jewish life by the rule of law.

As Home Secretary Theresa May declared before the Board of Deputies: “Without its Jews, Britain would not be Britain”.

There is another way of looking at religion, very different from the “religion” of the terrorists or extremists, and that comes from our own Source of Life, the Torah . I am addressing the importance of each of the Commandments on Friday nights. I hope you will all come for the remaining sermons.

A recap thus far – Commandment 1: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. One God, one humanity, the sanctity of all life is the basis of all Commandments. This is a God who cares less about the magnificence of the creation of the universe and who emphasises the importance of freeing slaves from bondage. Our compassion and goodness to all human beings is the gateway to God. That’s what our God expects, everything else is secondary.

Commandment 2: You shall not make any other gods besides Me (God). In modern idiom, this means that any time we place anything else – even “good” things – at the top of the pyramid of our value system, it leads to ruin. Humanity has tried placing nation, money, art and music, education, science, even love in place of God, and all efforts to do so have failed us. If you replace God’s Law, the supremacy of God over all, if you divide humanity in any way, if you worship replacement gods, you are violating the viability of our world.

Commandment 3: You shall not take God’s Name in vain. This Commandment in no way prohibits “swearing” or “blasphemy”. What it does prohibit is using God’s Name for unjust and immoral purposes. This Commandment is for all those who kill in the name of God, who find no inconsistency between God and using religion and/or God to brutalise other human beings.

Please come and discover the rest of the magnificence of the Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot, and know why these Commandments, given at Sinai, are the foundation of Judaism and, for that matter, human existence as we know it.

My wishes to all of you for a month of learning, increased Jewish awareness, of life, of peace, of goodness, of sanctity in everything we do.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

LIGHTS, MUSIC — LET ACTION BEGIN

Shalom l’kulchem,

In just two weeks we will be lighting our Chanukiyot and celebrating the Festival of Lights, the liberation of Judea by the brave Maccabees in the first heroic war fought for religious freedom. The protection of diversity in the Greek world and the defeat of the cruel Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, was a major step forward in the development of western history. This war

protected the right of people and peoples to be different, to not be swept along by the desires of oppressive regimes into undermining difference and uniqueness in the human family.

Much of humanity is still struggling for freedom and religious liberty — the Kurds in their battle against ISIS; Israel in its fight to preserve the Jewish state and Jewish religious rights in an environment that demands it disappear and insists it has no historic rights in the land of our ancestors; in Africa with upheavals in Sudan and Nigeria; the Ukrainians in their confrontation with their Russian neighbours; and in Iran, where executions occur daily for defying its monolithic theocratic regime. Indeed, a young woman was imprisoned there, an American-Persian Shiite Muslim in solitary confinement, awaiting sentence of up to six years in prison, and all for watching a men’s volleyball game!

Light those candles and remember how fortunate we are to have our own religious freedom and self-esteem as Jews practising our own religion and faith. May the banner of freedom flourish and grow.

To me, Chanukah, a joyous festival that brightens up the darkest hours of the year, is a time for music, colour, art and learning. On Wednesday 17 December at 7.30 pm, our Synagogue will host a unique concert here in the sanctuary. Alice Burla, an 18-year-old wunderkind at the piano, will perform a programme of Bach, Chopin, Scriabin and Kapustin.

Alice, who hails from Toronto, is already an accomplished player. Her parents are from the former Soviet Union. She began playing the piano at four years old. She won first prize at the Canadian National Music Competition and other major competitions and has participated in major international festivals, including the Verbier Festival, the International Summer Academy Mozarteum at Salzburg, Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes in Israel, the Paderewski Piano Academy in Poland and International Piano Master Classes in Berlin.

In 2007, 2008 and 2011, Alice was featured on Public Broadcast Systems telecasts of Live from Carnegie Hall and appeared as a piano prodigy in the 20th Century Fox major film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. She is currently studying in Madrid with the world’s leading piano instructor, Dmitri Bashkirov, at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia.

We have the opportunity to witness a budding star in our own synagogue. Our guest presenter will be my friend, renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov, who played the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto

at last month’s sell-out concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Maxim and I will start off the evening by interviewing each other about violin, music, being Jewish, and more. Maxim will introduce Alice for 50 minutes of piano, with a special treat at the end.

Please contact the Synagogue for your reservations. Money raised will be used to cover the costs of this special event, to support our Music Committee under chairman Philip Keller and their future endeavours, and leave a little assistance for Alice as she makes her strides in the world of classical music.

Another special guest coming soon is Rabbi William Gershon. We will host him and his wife, Raquel, at Belsize Square Synagogue over Shabbat, 12-13 December. Rabbi Gershon is the President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organisation of Conservative-Masorti rabbis worldwide (about 1300 in total). He is coming specifically to give me and us here in London his unqualified support. This is a real honour for the Synagogue and I hope you will come and support his visit.

Rabbi Gershon leads a 2500-member congregation in Dallas, Texas, and was installed as the new rabbinic assembly president in May this year. He will speak at our Friday night and Shabbat morning services, and engage us in learning at our open Lunch and Learn following the morning service. He will also address our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group the next day, 14 December, at 10.00am.

FYI: We continue our study of the world’s great thinkers each Sunday morning from 10.00-11.15am. We have already studied Plato and Socrates, moving on to Aristotle, and look forward to further study of Graeco-Roman classical philosophy and Jewish responses from Aristobulus, Philo, the writer of Ecclesiastes and others.

Don’t forget to support our popular annual Bazaar, with the added attraction of a Saturday night Jazz Concert on 6 December, and I look forward to seeing you each Shabbat at Belsize Square Synagogue.

My wishes to each of you and to your loved ones for a joyous, uplifting, candlelit celebration of Chanukah. May freedom endure forever!

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

 

Rabbi’s message: November 2014

EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION

There is no day more important on our Jewish calendar than the day after all the chagim!

It is one thing to pray, listen, reaffirm, ask for forgiveness, make new resolves, and another to implement what we have vowed to change and plant in our lives. The holiday period provided great spiritual and emotional uplift for all, but now is the time to walk on the paths that we set out to accomplish.

We have educational opportunities. Our Sunday morning discussion group is embarking on a new course: The Philosophers and Judaism. From Socrates through Plato, Aristotle, Pyrrho, Epicurus, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Darwin and Kierkegaard to Marx and Nietzsche – we will discuss and tackle some of the great philosophical ideas and analyse them under the eyes and heart of Jewish wisdom and thought.

Come and join us each Sunday morning when there is Cheder at the Synagogue, from 10.00-11.15am.

Lehrhaus Day

We also have our Lehrhaus on Sunday
9 November, all day at Belsize Square Synagogue. Held in honour of our Synagogue’s 75th anniversary, the Lehrhaus is the culmination of our congregation’s festivities, marking our unique history.

What better way of perpetuating the legacy of our community than through the prism of Jewish learning? There are twenty presentations (shiurim), led by a distinguished faculty, including Rabbis Stuart Altshuler, Markus Lange, Jonathan Wittenberg and Danny Rich; academics Professors Tessa Rajak and Glenda Abramson, Dr Annette Boeckler, Dr Bea Lewkowicz and Ben Barkow; Cantor Paul Heller and our own Belsize elite corps – Andrew Levy, Hilary Curtis, Neil Nerva, Larry Miller and Michael Horowitz.

Topics range from the Biblical Dietary Laws (Kashrut) to Why Do We Read the Torah in Hebrew? to an analysis of Jewish attitudes about Judaism and Israel, to Early Jewish Mysticism.

Please call the Synagogue Office and make your reservation. To cover our minimal costs, the charge is £10 if you register in advance or £15 on the day. This includes lunch and four sessions. Be here at 9.30am for registration.

Then stay for the day, which will culminate in a panel discussion with Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Senior Rabbi Masorti Judaism UK), Rabbi Danny Rich (Chief Executive, Liberal Judaism), Rabbi Stuart Altshuler (Belsize Square Synagogue) and Deputy Ambassador Eitan Naeh of the Israel Embassy. Our topic: What is the future of Judaism and of the Jewish people?

The Frieda Graumann Scholarship

Another area receiving renewed energy and commitment is the subject of Israel. What we need to do for Israel is to energise our youth and there is a great opportunity for all of our youngsters. The Frieda Graumann Scholarship is designed to subsidise a young person’s trip to Israel to experience its unique atmosphere.

Prize Essay

Applicants must write an essay on a topic related to Jewish life and/or Israel, that demonstrates the applicant’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. Essays should be between 800 and 1,000 words long and submitted to Rabbi Altshuler no later than Sunday 1 March 2015.

Our Scholarship Committee will decide on a winner who demonstrates that he or she is deserving of such a financial award. Following selection of the recipient, there will be an appropriate honour at a synagogue service for that particular individual.

It’s the month after the holidays. Time to do the work that has to be done to raise our knowledge and commitment to our people and religious values, our Judaism! Let us all make this time a bridge to the fulfilment of our goals and dreams.

Hazak Hazak V’nithazek. Let us bring strength to each other each day, for the sake of our children, our children’s children, our beloved community and congregation, to the Jewish people everywhere and to God Almighty

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s monthly message: October 2014

LOOKING AHEAD TO OUR “HOUSE OF LEARNING” – OUR LEHRHAUS DAY

The new year has begun and we were again blessed with the beautiful voices of choir and Cantor Heller and, hopefully, some uplift from the words shared from the bimah. The challenges before us are many. The time to do teshuvah (repentance), to change for the better, to enhance Jewish life, to enrich our souls, to commit ourselves to our congregation and synagogue still further and to renew the loving bonds we have with family, friends and everyone, is more imperative than ever. I hope that the upcoming Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur will be a time of uplift and reconnection with ourselves, our community, and God.

Unique History: As you all know, this year has marked Belsize Square’s 75th anniversary. Founded in 1939, with the first service held on Friday evening, 24 March, we have become a congregation recognised here and abroad. Our history is unique but we are also known for our warmth, broad embrace and contribution of talent in major fields of endeavour. Where we are “coming of age” and beginning to make our mark is in Jewish education, learning and scholarship.

We have, within our community, scholars of Jewish history, ancient and modern, as well as specialists in other fields and a bustling weekly Jewish study group. We especially appreciated the contributions of our guest speaker, Rabbi Dr Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at our celebration in March.

To highlight our commitment to higher Jewish education under the guidance of our Adult Education Chairperson, Dr Claire W alford, Belsize Square Synagogue is hosting its first Lehrhaus (House of Learning) Day on Sunday 9

November. I hope you will all take advantage of this incredible offering of  Jewish learning, discussion and study. Registration is from 9.30am, and the day will be split into four periods, starting at 10.00am. The full programme is:

  •  Professor Tessa Rajak: Why do we read the Torah in Hebrew?
  •  Dr Annette Boeckler: One prayer book, four continents.
  •  Glenda Abramson (mother of our Co- Chair, John Abramson): Great Works in Holocaust Representation: Todesfuge (Death Fugue by Paul Celan) and Maus (graphic novel by Art Spiegelman).
  •  Rabbi Danny Rich (Chief Executive of the Liberal Movement): Israel Mattuck: The Inspirational Voice of Liberal Judaism.
  •  Rabbi Markus Lange: Dramatic Dialogue in Jewish Prayer.
  •  Rabbi Stuart Altshuler: Kashrut: Biblical and Ethical Basis for the Dietary Laws, and The Question of Theodicy (Why do bad things happen to good people?)
  •  Cantor Paul Heller: The God Particle, and the Siddur’s Geography.
  •  Dr Bea Lewkowicz: Our Heart Belongs to Belsize Square: Belonging, Community and Religion among German Jewish refugees.
  •  Hilary Curtis: Jubilee: Anniversaries and Jewish Values.
  •  Neil Nerva: German Jewry.
  •  Michael Horowitz: Spinoza: Still a Heretic?
  •  Dr Ben Barkow (Director of the Wiener Library): Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.
  • Other sessions will be led by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK), Larry Miller and Andrew Levy.

The day will culminate in a panel discussion, What is the future of Judaism and of the Jewish people? led by three rabbis – Danny Rich, Jonathan Wittenberg and myself – and Israel’s Deputy Ambassador, Eitan Naeh.

Lunch, all-day coffee and cake and a full children’s programme will be provided. The day will end at 5.15pm.

There will be further information nearer the time but you have a good picture now of its seriousness and fullness. This will be another event to make our community shine and bask in the glow of yet another tremendous achievement, this time in the area of Jewish learning.

The time to register is now! Advance booking is £10 for members and non-members alike. Booking on the day will be £15. Bring your friends and associates from around the community. Children are free. Please register online via our website or call the Synagogue Office.

An Educated Community:  The reason the rabbis taught us that Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (the study of Torah is equal to all of them – the other Mitzvot) is that they knew that an educated community would last forever. That is the secret of our Jewish survival. So come and join us on Sunday 9 November!

Until then, my best wishes for a G’mar Hatimah Tovah, (a good seal or verdict) as a fitting and uplifting end to Yom Kippur, and for Mo’adim l’Simchah, a joyous and wonderful Succot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah for you and your loved ones.

Bivrachah (with blessing)

Rabbi Altshuler

Rabbi’s monthly message: September 2014

Examining our relationships: New Year 5775

We are less than one month away from the coming of another new year, 5775. It is always core to Jewish belief that the way things are today, the problems and woes that beset us, do not have to remain the way they are.

Life, as we see it, is filled with challenges. But we have been given all the tools and power by our Creator, by God, to improve our circumstances and fill the “dark spots” of our existence with light and healing.

There  are  three  specific  areas  of  our lives that require our attention each year and they are:

  • Our  relationship  with  the  world: This is Yom Hadin – The Day of Judgment. What is the state of society? Our nation? What are our ethics? What are  the  social  ills  and  problems  that need attention: the environment, social dysfunction,  gaps  between  poor  and rich, the strains of economic stagnation, the  obligation  of  the  nation  to  assist those abroad who suffer at the hands of tyrannies, terror and fear? How can we make the world a better place in our everyday lives?
  • Our relationship with Judaism, the Jewish people, Israel, Belsize Square Synagogue: Who are we? What is my responsibility to the Jewish people? In the light of Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza,  how  do  I  feel?  Why  has  there been a dramatic upsurge in anti-Semitic  activity in the UK? What is my obligation to care for the State of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world? Is there a moral argument to be made for Israel’s search for security from terror and missiles, or am I just too uncomfortable with the concept of a Jewish state that has to fight in order to survive?What can I do – and why – to give time, resources and soul to the betterment of my synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue? How do I want it to thrive? Do I care if it succeeds and why or why not? What is my relationship with God, with Judaism, Torah, Jewish law, the Mitzvot, ethics and morality? How do I relate to people of other faiths, in particular  to  Muslims  and  Christians? How am I different?
  • Our  relationship  with  ourselves and with each other: It is certainly a good time to evaluate the state of my own life. What are my strengths? What are the things I need to improve, to rid myself of? What can I change? Whom should I forgive and of whom should I ask forgiveness? Do I have the spiritual capacity to do teshuvah (repentance, literally return), really change my life for the better and expunge all those miserable and awful habits that prevent me from being my true self? How can I improve my relationship with my spouse, my parents, my siblings, my children, my friends? Am I happy? What is happiness and fulfilment for me? What is the state of my values and how does my Judaism help me meet these important matters in my life?

Reconciling the Challenges

The theme of my sermons will be an emphasis on the quality of love, the imperative commanded in our Torah: “To love  God  with  all  our  hearts  and souls” (Deut. 6:5) and “To love our neighbour” (Lev.19:18).

We will try to reconcile the challenges mentioned above with our love of Israel, our fellow Jew, of each other, our loved ones, of self, and ultimately our God, the Creator, the One who Reveals Torah – ethics – and the Redeemer of the people of Israel. Why and how should we love, and what and whom should we love?

I look forward to our coming together again and hope that in some way our time in synagogue will be uplifting, relevant to our lives, challenging, perhaps taxing to the soul, and allow us all to think, pray, express our gratitude, study and walk away recharged for the coming year, 5775.

Ella, Micah  and I wish all  of  you  and your loved ones a sweet, blessed, healthy and good New Year, filled with dreams, hopes, vision and renewed life.

L’shana tovah u’metukah – To a good and sweet year!

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s Monthly Message: July-August 2014

Looking back and forward

I continue to be so proud of our congregation – the talent, the warmth, the compassion, the energy of our members is astounding.

As we look back at this past year together, my fourth with Belsize Square Synagogue, we have celebrated together during triumph and joy, reaching  75  years  as  a  congregation. We  have lost cherished stalwart members but we have also brought babies into the community and exalted our b’nei mitzvah called up to the Torah for the first time.

I am so proud to be your rabbi and look forward to another triumphant year, hopefully free from sadness and sorrow. Now is the time to prepare the groundwork for our future, and here is what I believe should be our ideological and religious starting point.

(1) We will continue to affirm our reverence and guidance of our rabbinic traditions and halachah (way of life), basing our actions on Rabbi Hillel’s k’lal gadol (main principle): “Do not do unto your neighbour what you would not want your neighbour to do unto you.” (Pirkei Avot)

No matter what the decision is about – ritual or liturgical changes, the way we deal with families, the holidays, or any part of our observance – we must never lose sight that the heart, the lev, is the key to knowing what God and our tradition demands of us.

(2)  We  will  continue  to  affirm  the centrality of am Yisrael, our connection to the people of Israel, the whole Jewish people, whether Orthodox, Masorti, Reform or Liberal. We must continue to be a bridge for the entire community.

I am proud that we have such warm relations with our neighbour, South Hampstead Synagogue and Rabbi Shlomo Levine, with the Liberal movement and Rabbi Danny Rich, with my many Masorti colleagues and the Reform movement. We Jews need peace based on respect for our different paths of Jewish life. We also need to engage in inter-religious dialogue with our Christian and Muslim neighbours, as we have done through various meetings.

We cannot live in an ideological or culture vacuum, an island unto ourselves. Our Jewish goal is to respect all paths to goodness, learn about who we are in the maelstrom of ideas, and be vital components for helping to improve the wider community and nation.

(3) Talmud Torah (education): One of my long-term goals is to improve our Jewish literacy. We have so many who thirst for knowledge and I am proud of the turnout at our regular courses and the special or occasional events taken by myself and Cantor Heller.

There will be more learning opportunities, including our 75th anniversary Lehrhaus on 9 November, and, hopefully, an educational trip to Jewish Spain. There will be opportunities to learn Torah leyning (reading) and other synagogue skills as we continue to increase people’s involvement in our services. There will be lay-led services next year, with guest darshanim (preachers), daveners and Torah readers. And we will bring in the Cheder to make Judaism alive, relevant and joyful to a new generation of Belsizers!

Learning is the key. I have devoted my entire professional rabbinic career to the classroom and I will continue to teach  – in the classroom and at every Shabbat and Holiday service. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – learning of Torah is equal to everything else (ie all the other mitzvot).

(4) Shabbat and festival observance: The more we know, the more respect we give to our incredibly wise and beautiful Judaism. Perhaps this year we can pledge to increase our attendance in the House of Prayer and House of Study, to bring more Jewish observance into our homes, and to inspire our youth with our own devotion to Judaism.

I hope that you all enjoy quality time this summer  to  expand  your  minds  and souls, to rest and sanctify the miracle of life.

I  look  forward  to  being  back on the Belsize Square pulpit for Tisha B’Av, on 3 August, and the coming of the New Year 5775.

In shalom always,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s Monthly Message: June 2014

Shavuot – Harvest of cereal and soul

Shalom Chaverim

There is still one more major holiday of the yearly cycle that awaits to be celebrated and that is the holiday of SHAVUOT – lonely Shavuot, that usually bypasses so many because, unlike its counterparts, Pesach and Succot, celebrated for an entire week and with distinct rituals attached to them, Shavuot is celebrated for only two days (in Israel, just one) and with just a few minhagim (customs) to help us mark the festival.

And yet, one could certainly claim that Shavuot just might be the most important of all the holidays, the climax of anticipation after Passover (marked by the counting of the Omer), the holiday that commemorates the most significant turning point in Jewish history – matan Torateinu – the giving of our Torah at Mount Sinai.

There are a few customs attached to Shavuot, which means weeks in Hebrew, underlying the significance of the seven weeks that separate the holiday of our liberation by leaving Egypt from the holiday of our spiritual freedom at Mount Sinai.

Shavuot, contrary to its often neglected place among our people, could be claimed as actually the most important holiday of all, for it commemorates and celebrates the very purpose of our existence – the Torah, its teaching and perpetuation through the generations, which is the miracle of the Jewish people.

We remember that Shavuot was originally only an agricultural festival, as the Torah tells us, marking the beginning of the harvest season. We also know that it became the practice to read the Book of Ruth for two reasons:

1. the story of Ruth takes place during the beginning of the harvest season.
2. Ruth was the most famous “convert” to Judaism, a Moabite woman, who embraced the religion of her mother in- law, Naomi, promised to never leave her or her new nation, and became a full-fledged Israelite. Ruth’s great-grandson was David, the greatest king in Israel’s history.

Thus we are reminded that Shavuot is also about each of us, born Jews and naturalised Jews, embracing the heritage and tradition of our ancestors. Let us remain true to that vision.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s monthly message: April 2014

Shalom Chaverim

One of our young B’nei Mitzvah students asked me after reading the salient verses regarding the celebration of Passover in the 12th chapter of the book of Exodus, why the “first of the months”, the month of Passover (Nisan) is the new year in the Torah, while we celebrate the first of the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, as our new year?

She is right. There are two “new years” – in fact, four new years, including Tu B’Shevat (new year for trees) and the 1st of Elul (usually considered the last month of the year) if you read the Mishnah! The month of Passover, the first of Nisan, was clearly the biblical and the oldest Jewish new year, with Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) added much later, after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. In exile the Jews adapted themselves to Babylonian culture, including its calendar.

The Babylonians celebrated their new year in the autumn, using the occasion to crown their king as the head of the Babylonian pantheon of gods. The Jews, mindful of their Babylonian neighbours, took the Babylonian calendar and made Rosh Hashanah their head of the year while rejecting the coronation of the earthly king. Instead they made it a time to re-establish our devotion to the King of Kings, Hamelech – God.That is why the music at the High Holy Days reflects royalty and subservience to the King (Adonai melech, Adonai malach, Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed). The pageantry of the new year season reflects this historical reality.

Passover was always the holiday celebrating the birth and creation of the Jewish people, while Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of all humanity, a characterisation that was clearly added much later because the only reference we have in the Torah regarding Rosh Hashanah is that it was a Yom Teruah (a sound of the blasting of the shofar on the first day of the seventh month). In their great wisdom, our Rabbis kept the lessons and vision of both holidays, Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Passover is to focus on the particularity of the Jewish people and our commitment to Judaism. Rosh Hashanah allows us to focus on the universality of God’s creation, of all humanity. In other words, to be a Jew means that we need to live in two worlds: our own world, the Jewish one and, at the same time, to live also in the rest of society. Each of those worlds nourishes the other. We cannot truly be Jewish if we close our eyes to our obligations to all people but, conversely, we cannot truly be human if we close our eyes to our obligations to our own people and faith.

As the rabbis taught regarding the blowing of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah: the mouthpiece of the shofar is small, the end from which it blows is large. If you try blowing a shofar from the wide end, there can be no sound. It will only make a teruah/shevarim/tekiah if blown from the smaller end. We Jews must make our contribution to society at large by blowing the shofar from the “Jewish” end, the small end.

And so this is one of the great teachings of our Passover holiday, to tell the story – Haggadah – to your children and family of the origins of the people of Israel. Remember who you are and what you mean as Jews to the rest of the world. Do not try to be “universal man” until you are able to express that universalism through Jewish ears, eyes and hearts. By being Jewish first, we will make the greatest difference to the fate of nations. The world needs us. Are we ready for the challenge?

I do hope that all of you will have meaningful Seders with your families this Passover. I would suggest that we discuss some of the crucial ideas that arise from our recitation of the story of our people, from their slavery in Egypt to their triumphant deliverance, and its message of freedom. What does our Judaism mean to us, to the world?

What does Israel mean to us? How was the modern state of Israel a fulfilment of Jewish history since our Exile 2,000 years ago? Why is it important to re-enact the sacred drama of Passover, the experience of slavery? Does it sensitise us to the needs of the poor, the hungry, the forgotten? What about the oppressed?

Be proud of our Jewish heritage, celebrate the foundation stones of our people with Passover, come to synagogue during the holiday (we need you there!), study the Haggadah, increase your awareness of your ties to Jewish history and tradition, and pray for the gift of freedom. We should never take for granted the freedom and liberty we enjoy in the UK, Israel and the free world.

May you all have a delicious, kosher, meaningful, blessed and enriching Passover with your families. May God bless our congregation and our people forever.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler