Author: Hilary Curtis

The gifts within us: what Rosh Hashanah tells us

We will be gathering again shortly to usher in a new year, 5778. The tone for our High Holy Days is set for challenging ourselves, heshbon hanefesh (account of the soul), and to find uplift in our special time together. The theme of this year’s sermons is about knowing who we are and recovering the gifts that are too often hidden right inside us!

This story says it all, The Apple Tree’s Discovery by Penina Schram. It’s a beautiful tale of how we keep searching for more and more and more, only to discover that what we want is within us.
In a great oak forest where the trees grew tall and majestic, was a little apple tree. It was the only apple tree in that forest, so it stood alone. Winter came and snow fell, covering the branches of the little apple tree. The forest was quiet and peaceful.

One night, the little apple tree looked up at the sky and saw a wonderful sight. Between the branches of all the trees, the little apple tree saw the stars in the sky. They seemed to be hanging on the branches of the oak trees.

“Oh God, oh God”, whispered the little apple tree, “How lucky those oak trees are to have such beautiful stars hanging on their branches. I want more than anything in the world to have stars on my branches. Then I would feel truly special.” God looked down at the little apple tree and said gently, “Have patience, little apple tree.”

Time passed. The snow melted and spring came to the land. Tiny white and pink apple blossoms appeared on the branches of the little apple tree. Birds came to rest on its branches. People walked by, admiring its blossom. All summer long the apple tree grew. Its branches formed a canopy overhead.

But night after night the little apple tree looked up at the sky with the millions of stars and cried out, “Oh God, I want stars on my leaves and branches, just like those oak trees.” And God looked down at the little apple tree and said, “You already have gifts. Isn’t it enough to offer shade to people and fragrant blossoms and branches for birds to rest on and sing to you?”

The apple tree sighed and answered, “Dear God, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful! I do appreciate how much pleasure I give to others but I really want stars, not blossoms, on my branches. Then I would be special!” God said, “Be patient, little apple tree.”

The seasons changed again. Soon the apple tree was full of beautiful apples. People walking in the forest reached to pick and eat them. And still, at night the apple tree looked at the stars in the oak tree and cried, “Oh God, I want stars on my branches to make me me feel truly special.”

And God asked, “But apple tree, aren’t your wonderful apples enough? Doesn’t that satisfy you? Doesn’t that give you pleasure and make you feel special?” Silently the apple tree shook its branches from side to side. At that moment, God caused a wind to blow. The oak trees began to sway and the apple tree began to shake. From the top of the apple tree, an apple fell. When it hit the ground it split open.

“Look,” commanded God, “Look inside yourself. What do you see?“ The little apple tree looked down and saw that right in the middle of the apple was a star. And the apple tree responded, “A star! I have a star!” And God laughed a gentle laugh and added, “So you do have stars on the branches. They’ve been there all along, you just did not know it.”

This season is a sacred season, a time to reflect on the meaning of our lives. How about rediscovering those gifts we know are embedded in all of us but we sometimes refuse to acknowledge?

We will explore our heritage, history, and contribution to the world as Jews. Why neglect the hidden treasures of Jewish life – our values and beliefs, rites and rituals, links to the State of Israel and to God that, like the little apple tree, we have not yet found? This is the theme of our services.
My warmest greetings to you as we prepare to usher in the new year, Rosh Hashanah 5778. May this be the year of blessing, joy, celebration, health and peace for you, your loved ones, the Jewish people and all humanity.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Israel, festivals and Sinai’s place in history

Early good wishes for a Yom Ha’atzma’ut Same’ach on Israel’s 69th anniversary and Chag Shavuot Same’ach for God’s revelation at Sinai, giving the Torah to Israel.

First, Israel’s Independence Day. This is also the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War from 5-10 June and of the liberation of Jerusalem. As a young teenager, I remember the tense days before that war, our fears when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the United Nations peacekeeping troops and mobilised his forces in Sinai, cuttingoff Israel’s access to the Red Sea. As Nasser threatened to end the Jewish State, war seemed imminent.

And then the miracle of Israel’s military victory, seemingly invincible and with theapparent promise that this would be the final war, that peace would at last descend on Israel and the entire region.

It did not happen that way. Jordan, though warned against attacking, did so under pressure from Nasser. Israel turned King Hussein’s blunder into the liberation of Jerusalem and Jewish holy sites, with control of the “West Bank” – or Judea and Samaria – in the hope of exchanging territory for peace (UN Resolution 242).

Well, Israel is still there and, as a result of “occupation”, Jews in Israel and outside are as divided as ever about how Israel should proceed without a negotiating partner for peace. Liberal Jews point to the seemingly irreversible poison of occupation that destroys Israel’s values and erodes each day the promise of peace.

The other side say: “Don’t be naive”. In every generation, as the Haggadah warns us, there are those out to destroy us. Look at Israel’s neighbours: Hezbollah and Assad to the north, Hamas to the south, ISIS to the northeast, Islamic extremism and terror threats everywhere. To the east a moribund Palestine Authority rewards terrorism and “martyrdom”, using its media, educational system and international apparatus to promote the demise of Israel, as it calls for boycotts and delegitimising of Israel at the UN.

Two sides of the coin, both with much truth. At Passover we are reminded there are enemies b’chol dor vador, in every generation, attempting to destroy us – a clear reference to anti-Semitism. Since the creation of the UN in 1945 only one nation, Iran, has uniquely and consistently called for the utter annihilation of another UN member state, which it terms the “Zionist entity”.

No other nation has been so threatened or consistently found so little support from other nations. Iran should have been immediately expelled from the UN for calling for the destruction of another nation. But…silence.

We have moved from Passover, the story of our liberation from oppression and bondage, fully aware of the threats that have historically hovered over the Jewish people and of the ongoing madness and evil that has taken so many innocent lives, especially in Syria. The Haggadah reminds us not to be naive. Evil exists.

Yet, despite so many battles for survival, we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. Sinai represents our spiritual inheritance, the laws, mitzvot, that remind us not to forget the environment we shed when accepting the new values of our ancestors: compassion coupled with love of justice and the sanctity of life. That is our calling which we affirm each year as, with Sefer Torah in hand, we travel towards a better tomorrow.

Let us use this sacred time to strengthen our purpose in our Jewish existence and destiny as we march through the timeless messages of our holy days and historic days between Passover and Shavuot, celebrating the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

May you all have a joyous Shavuot and join us for our annual night of study, our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, on Tuesday evening 30 May, 6 Sivan 5777.

Shalom always,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Purim and Passover: the lessons of history

Over the next two months, we will celebrate Purim and Passover, both festivals laden with meaning relevant to us today. Yet, we often mark them without considering their importance to our collective being. Remembering what they mean to us is critical because we live in an age increasingly forgetful of the past. The new “histories” are mostly attempts to rewrite the past, often bypassing truth, especially regarding Holocaust denial.

For example, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, billed as a “new history of the world”, completely eliminates the uniquely Jewish factors of the Holocaust and instead interprets what happened to the Jews as an unfortunate by-product of Germany’s food shortage in June 1941! I call this kind of “history” (one of many, all very trendy) attempts to turn history upside down and fabricate new truths to accommodate political or social agendas.

We know all about short memory. In the Torah, after Bnei Yisrael were liberated from bondage in Egypt and crossed miraculously into Sinai, they almost immediately complained about the lack of water, forgetting all they had overcome and achieved, through God’s help and Moses’ leadership. Such is human nature, as we learn from the Rabbis. We forget perspective, we forget what has only just happened.

Judaism has always attempted, through observance of our festivals and even in the weekly recounting of the Torah tale of our ancestors’ travel through Sinai, to preserve memory as the link to understanding. We have yahrzeit, we have yizkor. We try not to forget our loved ones’ lives. They may no longer be physically here but they remain preserved in our hearts and souls.

We do not let go. We remember. At Purim, we go back some 2,400 years to remember how the foreign minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. The story of the Book of Esther is not the first or last time this has happened in the course of our people’s long history. We take seriously the episodic attempts to destroy us as a people. Purim celebrates a miraculous deliverance.

And is it not interesting that in today’s Iran, as in ancient Persia, the ruling theocratic regime continues to declare its desire to destroy the State of Israel? They are quite open about it. Iran is the only nation state since the Second World War to declare openly its desire to destroy another nation state.

What is our response to all this? Like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish people today are ready to meet the challenge head on and to remind the world of the real danger of the rhetoric of hatred and destruction. Yet we celebrate raucously, to emphasise our will to live and outlive any tyrant’s or antiSemite’s ambition to stamp out the Jewish people.

From the story of Passover we learn the struggle for true freedom, which brings with it responsibility.We also learn how our ancestors viewed the importance of establishing a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, the land promised by the Almighty.

The battles with hostile neighbours, the readiness to fight for our right to be free in our own Jewish land, all this is reflected today in Israel’s struggle for true security and peace in our ancient homeland.

The reminders of the past are current and real today. The Jewish people have survived because of our special relationship with the strength that comes from memory. May it long continue.
Please join us for yizkor/mazkir at the end of Pesach. When we remember our loved ones no longer with us, their souls remain as vibrant and real as ever.

May you and your loved ones enjoy the festivals. May they usher in a new understanding of our faith and values, signalling a new era of freedom, secure from hatred and accepting our obligationtowards our fellow man.

Mo’adim l’Simchah,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

5777 and the paradox of honey

Shalom and my wishes to all of you and your loved ones for shana tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet year (5777)

From the outset of my remarks, it is clear that the way we Jews welcome the new year is unique to the Jewish people and our Judaism, and to no other faith.

Normally, the passage of time is marked by raucous celebrating, imbibing, eating and dancing – a logical way to mark the coming of a new year and the blessing of life. However, in Jewish tradition our celebration is not with noisy drinking and dancing but by sitting with our families at the festive dinner table, dipping our challah into honey and thanking God for the renewed possibility of a good and sweet new year.

I can also understand why we wish our friends and loved ones a “good” year because, in Jewish terms, if we do not add goodness to our lives, the new year is just another day, a part of the cycle of nature. When we come to synagogue to pray, it is not to ask God for material needs but spiritual strength, new ideals, gratitude for what we have, a changing and healthier perspective on our lives and the world around us.

We study and hear the words of Torah reconnecting us to our past and to our people. We all know that the example of spiritual and religious resolve set by our Jewish ancestors at the start of our recorded history has stood the test of time.

They knew the power of words, that ideas are stronger than the sword. So Babylonia is in rubble, the remains of Assyria are in museums, Greece, Rome, Persia, the Holy Roman Empire, Islamic Empire, Communist bloc, Nazi Third Reich are all gone and we, the Jews, less than %.002 of the world’s population, are still here.

The theme of this year’s Holy Days is “The Importance of our Vision: Finding Meaning”. On Erev Rosh Hashanah we will introduce our journey into why ideals and dreams matter, by focusing on a talmudic text that tells us exactly what we should be praying for on Rosh Hashanah.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the subject is “God: Why do our Beliefs Matter?” They certainly matter a great deal to the dregs of extremists and terrorists today, but what about us? Do we have any core beliefs? Why God? And what kind of God it is that I reject or accept?

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we turn to our texts, the stories and history that give us vision.

On Kol Nidre: What is the mission of the Jewish people? Is it important to articulate what exactly we, the collective whole of the Jewish people, want for this world? What is the purpose of remaining Jewish? Plus a few words about how Belsize Square Synagogue fits into our people’s vision. Does our Synagogue need goals and a mission?

For Yom Kippur, what does all this search for meaning and vision mean to me as an individual? What do I live for? Should I be a part of something greater than myself?

At Yizkor, remembering: the importance of incorporating our memories of loved ones into our ideals and aims. Yizkor is all about remembering the past for the sake of our future.

At Neilah, before we say goodbye to our holiest time of the year, we will summarise and contemplate where we are headed as individuals and as a community.

We all begin our new year by dipping our challah into honey, which is perfectly kasher! Why is that an odd thing? Because normally something that is tamei (ritually impure) is forbidden, treif!

Milk products, eggs of kosher animals are just fine, but how can the product of a non-kosher creature – a bee – be considered kosher? (footnote: I love honey – good decision, Rabbis!) but why did they come up with a ruling that not only allows us to eat honey all year round but tells us we should eat it specifically at Rosh Hashanah? Why is it made the exception to the long list of prohibitions in Maimonides, Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3?

According to the Rabbis, honey represents a food which turns “bad, non-kosher” into good – and kosher. That is the concrete form of what we express in our prayers: there is always a future for happiness. Good will emerge from past unhappiness, suffering and dissonance.

So what are our greatest hopes and dreams at this time of the year? The food – the honey – symbolises our quest for 5777 to see good emerge from our misfortunes, wars and crises; to see taharah (purity), the good, emerge from tumah (impurity) and our world move toward the fulfilment of our hopes and ideals.

See you all in our beautiful Sanctuary.

Ketivah v’chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The responsibility of safeguarding freedom

Passover is coming soon, later than usual this year because of the extra month, a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so we are already well into the swing of spring, sunshine and the renewal of greenery all around us.

The overall theme of Passover is not only particular to the Jewish people, as we retell the story of our nation’s origins from slavery in Egypt to freedom on the road to Eretz Yisrael. It also has universal implications.

Freedom, both of the physical and spiritual kind, is a special gift. We know that the human soul cannot function for long without it. Unfortunately, even today, most people on this earth of ours do not enjoy full freedom.

We also know that even when democracy takes place at the ballot box, there is no guarantee that freedom will flourish. The will of the people can be a dangerous thing, as we know from 20th-century history, when the National Socialist Party – the Nazis – gained power in Germany under the guise of a fair democratic election. In Gaza, Hamas, a violent terrorist organisation, was “elected” by the people. And now we are experiencing the wildest election campaign I can ever remember in the United States, with all the features of mudslinging, baiting, occasional violence, promises that can never be fulfilled and plenty more.

Freedom can also lead to a breakdown in Jewish education and commitment. Physical freedom is not enough to sustain our faith and people. As a result of our love affair with being unburdened from the weight of commandments, study, tzedakah and all those other obligations that Jewish tradition imposes on us, we are liable to disintegrate quite quickly.

That is why Passover leads into Shavuot, why we carry out sefirat ha’Omer, counting the Omer for 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in order to remind us that freedom without the acceptance of responsibility cannot sustain itself. It is our ability to accept the notion that with freedom comes the mitzvah, the sense of obligation to others, that ensures our survival not only as Jews but as a viable society.

Making Visits Meaningful
We have yet another month at Belsize Square offering opportunities to make this Nisan/April, the month of Passover, a meaningful one for us all.

Firstly, Dr Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, will be our scholar-in-residence and special guest. On Friday night, 1 April, after the evening service, there will be a Shabbat dinner when Professor Wertheimer will speak on Judaism in an Age of Recession. Next morning after Shabbat service and Kiddush, he will address the congregation on The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews.

At the Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group from 10.00am-12.30pm on 3 April, he will present Orthodoxies in Transition, followed by a discussion. In the evening there will be a reception at the home of Miriam and Richard Borchard for those who contributed to making this weekend possible, and an opportunity to hear a final talk in an intimate setting on Community in an Era of “Do-it-Yourself” Identity.

Do take advantage of this incredible opportunity to learn from one of the scholarly luminaries of our day.

Secondly, on Sunday 10 April and Tuesday 12 April we will be visited by Reverend Craig Brown, a Methodist bishop from Southern California, who is coming to London with a party of 30, including leading Christian clerical figures. Rev’d Brown, who is a dear friend of mine, will speak to our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group on 10 April. On 12 April the whole group will visit our synagogue to meet me with Reverend Paul Nicholson of St Peter’s (Church of England) and anyone who would like to join us. Another great opportunity!

And thirdly, Passover. It is time to clear the house of chametz and make the final preparations for Pesach, which begins Shabbat evening, 22 April. There is a wonderful mitzvah that is too often neglected, the mitzvah of Ma’ot Hittin, selling the chametz and making a wonderful contribution to the poor. This is a great way to make the message of Passover clear and relevant.

The freedom we have must be shared with those who have less than us, and we are collecting funds for Manna, an organisation that raises critical funds for Jewish poor in Israel, and with a special purpose of subsidising Holocaust survivors. Ten per cent of these now elderly survivors, mostly from the former Soviet Union, live in poverty conditions. Help them celebrate the yom tov!

A time for renewal, new hopes for freedom and a greater commitment to Judaism and to our shul. Come and learn and give to those in need.

I wish you and your loved ones a delicious and blessed Pesach.

Chag kasher v’sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Chanukah and the battle against evil: then and now

Certain events in history are watershed occurrences. Some have moved us forward, some weigh heavily on the souls and fibre of civilisation. The horrific Paris terrorist attack by ISIS, or ISIL, is one such tipping point.

Suddenly there are declarations of World War III, a security crisis and the massive human problem of dealing with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Our eyes have been opened to the necessity of waging war against radical extreme Islam.

ISIS now controls a territory larger than Britain, has recruited at least 60,000 militants and thrives in the heart of Iraq and Syria. It is bent on re-establishing the Sunni caliphate and destroying the “heathen” West. And now it threatens our nations, cities and way of life.

Well, it is Chanukah. The holiday begins on the evening of Sunday 6 December, when we light the Chanukiah, sing, eat latkes and doughnuts and retell the story of the Maccabees’ brave stand for freedom against the Greek Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 164 BCE.

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The pre-eminent lesson of Chanukah is that in order to retain our values and live as Jews, freely practising our religion, we have to fight for the right simply to exist.

The war of the Maccabees was an existential fight, not so much for numbers, though scores of thousands died, but for the preservation of our Jewish soul, our right to live as Jews.

After being prevented in 168BCE by the superpower, Rome, from pursuing his dream of conquering Egypt, Antiochus returned to his Syrian realm to find that his Jewish subjects had reacted to a false report of his death in Egypt by ousting his choice of High Priest and reinstating the previous holder.
He vented his fury and frustration on Jerusalem’s Jews. Some 40,000 men were executed, around the same number of women and children sold into slavery, and their homes demolished.

He then turned on Judaism itself, banning Torah study and circumcision as well as converting the Temple to the worship of Zeus, with a daily sacrifice of a pig – he had already stolen the Temple’s golden treasures.

We learn from this heroic episode of Jewish resistance that evil exists, that our people have had to fight against those bent on destroying us.

Earlier this year, archaeologists discovered under a parking lot in Jerusalem the remains of the “acra” fortress built by Antiochus between Ir David, the City of David, and Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, on the site of demolished Jewish homes. It is all there, an archaeological miracle: the barracks, the watch towers, the spying on all Jewish activity – symbols of despotism and brutality.

In Israel Chanukah will be celebrated in grand style as Jewish history seen from the Israeli view, reminding us of Israel’s past and ongoing fight against forces bent on its destruction not just as a sovereign state but increasingly for the right of Jews to be Jewish.

Alarming claims from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority that the Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, is an “Islamic shrine”, is the clearest denial of Jewish ties to Jerusalem, both historically and religiously.

The western world has been increasingly shocked by ISIS brutality. Its origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was carried out by a member of a Brotherhood offshoot. The 1979 Iranian theocratic revolution supported Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot, in Gaza, as well as the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. All these factors have crippled the last remnants of “secularism”. Yes, even the brutal dictatorships of Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein and others are looking less threatening than ISIS madness.

The Jewish people, with our experience of fighting terror and evil around Israel, can play a crucial role in giving others strength and hope against pure evil.

  • We light candles to keep faith in our ideals, while never losing sight of the practical and brutal realities needed to stay alive as Jews.
  • We light candles in the hope that the Almighty will give us the strength to protect the persecuted and pray that we never give up our hope in a better tomorrow.
  • We light candles to remain strong in our Jewish convictions and determined to maintain our way of life.
  • We light candles so that we can continue to be a “light unto the nations” and teach our compatriots in this country, in France and throughout the free world that we can and will win this battle. We will never surrender to evil.

God bless our people, Israel, our families, our loved ones, and the vast majority of Christians, Jews and Muslims who desire not war, not terror, but peace.

Chag Chanukah Sameach
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

How Our Congregation gets recorded

Community care co-ordinator Eve Hersov explains how we produce the audio version of Our Congregation monthly magazine.

Each month four BSS members gather in a small recording studio at the KC Shasha Centre for Talking News and Books in Golders Green to produce an audio version of Our Congregation.
It takes our speakers about an hour to read the publication. Their work is recorded by experienced sound engineer, Adam Bradley, and the finished product (USB flashdrive or CD) is posted to our listeners.

Who are our listeners? Basically, they are our visually impaired members but there are also others who share a link with our community. One avid listener comments: “Klopstick brings back such
memories of my parents.” Another adds: “The first time I listened to Klopstick, it made me cry because his voice was so like my Tante’s husband.”

The recording experience is also valued by our members who volunteer as the voices of what is familiarly known as Our Cong. Antony Godfrey finds it a “privilege to read the incisive and wise words of Fritz Klopstick.” Jackie Alexander enjoys using her voice that she has often been told “sounds like a Weather Girl on the radio”. We have also recently introduced our listeners to new voices as we train members as readers. The range of voices has delighted our audience.

Readers Henny Levin, Jackie Alexander and Eve Herzog and Antony Godfrey record Our Cong

Readers Henny Levin, Jackie Alexander and Eve Herzog and Antony Godfrey record Our Cong

  • If you are interested in receiving an audio version of Our Congregation or know someone who might like to, please contact Eve Hersov or Lee Taylor in the Synagogue Office.

Centenarian dies

Condolences to the family of Henry Stenham, who died on 25 September, having celebrated his 100th birthday three weeks earlier, on September 3.

Henry Stenham celebrating his 100th birthday with community care coordinator Eve Herzov and cantor Paul Heller

Henry Stenham celebrating his 100th birthday

The son of a Hamburg importer and exporter, Henry was sent to England in 1936 to continue his business training in an export company in a safe environment. On his visits home he managed to persuade his parents and younger sister to follow two years later. The family rented various rooms in Aberdare Gardens – if the name sounds vaguely familiar, think of the Abernein Mansions address of our columnist, Mr Klopstick. By good fortune, one of their neighbours worked as a secretary in the office of the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin. She obtained visas for them as friendly aliens, so Henry and his father, Arthur Sternheim, were never interned.

While Mr Sternheim senior worked in the fruit trade, Henry joined the Pioneer Corps in 1940, changing his surname to Stenham. In August he married Marion Gestler, whom he met through mutual friends, and took two days honeymoon in Minehead in Somerset before returning to camp in Scotland. She had left Dresden in 1937. Henry was posted to Normandy after the D-Day landings of June 1944, moved with the fighting to Germany and stayed on after the war to report on the situation in such details as the number of cart horses in use and the opinions expressed in church sermons.

He was finally demobilised in 1948 and joined his father in business. He started importing Danish whisky to fill the gap left by wartime interruption to Scottish production but he moved to the Real Thing as soon as Scotch started up again. His agency handled 50 labels, which he was involved in marketing. He named two blends as Henry Vlll and Queen Mary, creating labels which those in the know understood as referring to himself and his wife.

He celebrated at his birthday party at his home in Elstree with family and friends, including his wife of 74 years, Marion, their daughter Jennifer and her husband, children and grandchildren, plus the children and grandchildren of their late son, Tony. (Total of five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.)

A time to look forward, a time to look back

Shalom Chaverim,

It is indeed that time of the year. We are approaching our summer break and taking stock of what has transpired over the past year and what we plan for the future. Here are some reflections on past events and future challenges.

Religion & Judaism: We had a busy schedule with an overflow of B’nei Mitzvah celebrations, aufrufs, baby naming, conversions, new members, anniversaries and special birthdays. Our High Holiday attendance keeps growing, our Friday night attendance is creeping upwards and on Shabbat morning is improving. We continue to get amazing feedback, especially from guests. We will continue to work on increasing participation.

Education: I still measure the uniqueness of a congregation by its commitment to Jewish education. We are doing better all the time but still need to inspire more people to take advantage of our educational opportunities. We have seen steady growth in our Sunday morning study group. We held a more than successful Lehrhaus in November, attracting people from across the community for a stimulating day of learning. The fourpart course taught by Reverend Nicholson and myself, alternating between next-door St Peter’s Church and Belsize Square Synagogue was a real treat.

Our Monday night Introduction to Judaism course, designed for converts but open to all members, continues to enjoy steady growth. Four students have passed through the door of the Bet Din to throw in their lot with the Jewish people. I am proud both of them and the way they have been integrated into our congregation. They are a huge part of our future.

Next year: a Cantor’s class on learning to leyn; three Hebrew Reading Marathon sessions; a trip led by our member, Professor Antony Polonsky, and myself to Warsaw. Professor Polonsky, the world’s leading authority on Polish and Eastern European Jewry (I read his work long before I came to Belsize Square Synagogue) is now Director of the new Jewish Museum in Warsaw. Stay tuned for details.

Community Relations: Thanks to so many people’s efforts, our synagogue continues to lead in teaching the lessons of the Shoah to London youth.

With the help of Reverend Paul Nicholson, I have begun a Camden Area Interfaith Forum. Starting in January with six clergy members, we now have over 20 from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim (Shia and Sunni), and Jewish communities, including two local Orthodox rabbis.

I would like to develop our Social Justice Committee and make those efforts a greater part of our synagogue mission. Our religious vision depends on our efforts towards tikkun olam, making the world a better place.

Music: A real highlight this year were the four superb concerts. The peak, of course, was the playing of the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, with the famous duo of Maxim Vengerov, world-renowned violinist, perhaps the finest in the world today, and …. your rabbi! I’ve given many sermons, led many services and had to officiate at some very difficult funerals but this concert was the real crucible for me.

Time now to thank our brilliant Cantor, Music and Choir Directors, our three choirs and all who make Belsize Square Synagogue the centre of London’s Jewish music. We are indeed blessed with a high calibre of musicianship.

We have mourned pillars of the community, Norbert Cohn and Herbert Levy, all shining stars and angels who continue to bless us. We will never forget them in our prayers and memories.

We have battled anti-Semitism this year at the Tricycle Theatre in the debacle of the UK Jewish Film Festival boycott and seen the rise of anti-Semitism at home and across Europe. We have taken part in the General Election and seen Israel’s election give a fourth term for Netanyahu – love him or hate him, Israelis have spoken at the ballot box during difficult times. There’s Iran, ISIS, beheadings, the continuous threat of terror – and then there are our prayers and our deeds.

Let us keep our faith, our faith in each other, our faith in our Judaism, a religion that goes back further than any other “ism” in history. With God’s blessing, we face our future with joy and shalom.

Have a wonderful summer of reflection, learning – and peace.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Two Major Anniversaries

Dear Chevra,

This month of May marks two outstanding accomplishments and features of Jewish history: Israel and the giving of Torah at Sinai. Frankly, my love of Israel (both state and people) and my love of Judaism have been pillars of strength every day of my life. And both, Torah and Israel, are miracles outside the logic of history and ideas.

On Thursday 14 May, the secular date, we celebrate the 67th anniversary of Israel as a modern nation state. No state was ever established by any people after a 2000-year hiatus of dreams and hopes. In 1948, when Israel was founded, the population was approximately 660,000. Today it is a state of more than eight million.

In 1948, six Arab armies attacked Israel, vowing to destroy the fledgling nation state – just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz. With one tank and a completely volunteer army, Israel defeated its attackers and has sought security and recognition ever since.

In 1948, Jerusalem was divided into two sections, separated by barbed wire, and the ancient Jewish Quarter evacuated. Despite guarantees of Jerusalem’s international status and the protection of religious sites, all synagogues were destroyed and cemeteries desecrated. Until the miraculous restoration of 1967, Jews – and not just Israelis – could not even visit our most sacred sites.

And when Israel’s place among nations, alongside a new Arab state, was approved by the United Nations on 29 November 1947, the Arab nations rejected the very idea. In consequence, 650,000 Arabs became refugees, a situation still unresolved. We all know that as long as the goal of Israel’s neighbours is its destruction, there will be no peace.

One day there will be security and room for both peoples. One day Israel will not have to spend 18% of its hard-earned GNP on defence. Children on both sides will grow up in peace and with respect for each other. Hatikvah – that is our hope on Israel’s 67th birthday.

And then there is the miracle of Torah, celebrated this year from the evening of Saturday 23 May right through to Monday 25 May, the holiday of Shavuot, Matan Torateinu, the gift of receiving the Torah at Sinai. On that day, 6 Sivan, in approximately the year 1290 BCE, our people received a Law, a Scripture, an ethic, a theology, a constitution that revolutionised humanity. The dignity of all human life was emblazoned into the hearts of our people to share with the rest of humanity.

I measure my own success as a rabbi not only by the numerous services and life cycle events that I officiate at, but in large part to the students I teach. In fact, every service, every sermon is a learning opportunity to my mind. And there is nothing more precious than delving into Talmud Torah, the study of Judaism, with full resources and depth.

So after the 6.45pm evening service on Saturday 23 May, and a break for refreshments, our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot sessions will begin with the first of our five distinguished speakers. This year’s theme is ethics and the role of justice. Please join us. This is an enormously popular part of our annual schedule and an enriching experience for us all. There will be plenty of coffee and scrumptious dairy desserts and delights.

My thanks to our Shavuot Tikkun chair, Alasdair Nisbet, as well as to Claire Walford, organiser of our thriving Adult Discussion Group. They are gifts to our community, helping to perpetuate our most important agenda – Jewish learning.

So to us all, in celebration of two miracles: the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and the gift of the Torah, around 1290 BCE. We should never forget who we are and the glory of what our people have given to the world.

I wish all of you and your loved ones a delicious, meaningful and blessed Shavuot, filled with Jewish learning and celebration.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler