Author: Hilary Curtis

Chairman’s message 20 May

Dear Friends,

It is 8 weeks since we all went into lockdown and I am surprised at how quickly the days go. I seem to spend a lot of time catching up on things that I have been meaning to do for ages. This week we sorted out our books and 30 paperbacks went out into the street with a “take me” sign and were gone within a day. However, none of them were cookery books, I enjoy them too much! With Shavuot approaching next week I wanted to share with you my very quick and no-bake cheesecake recipe. I would love to say that it is an old family recipe but actually it comes with thanks to Mary Berry from one of her cookbooks and with a disclaimer that we like the cake and can only hope that you will too. You can find the recipe below the Gardening Tips.

Still on the subject of books, we have many authors in our community and if you have recently published a book please let me know and I will include it in my email. You will already have seen Victoria Slotover’s book in News From the Square under our new charities section. Two other books have also been published recently, although buying them does not include a charitable donation. Ben Ford, grandson of our members Helen Grunberg and Sue Arnold and son of Kim Milton has written a cookery book “Wings and Things: Lip-smacking chicken recipes” and our member Naomi Stadlen has written : What Mothers Learn: without being taught”. Both can be found on Amazon.

Last week I talked about our own planning work for the High Holydays and wanted to let you know that the Government have now established a Places of Worship Taskforce. This Taskforce will develop a plan to enable the phased and safe reopening of places of worship, which will happen “when the evidence shows it is the right time to do so” and in any event, not before early July. The Taskforce members are:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Cardinal Vincent Nichols,
  • Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis
  • Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf, The British Board of Scholars and Imams
  • Rajnish Kashyap, Hindu Council UK
  • Jasvir Singh, City Sikhs
  • Daniel Singleton, Faith Action

Cheder is now on a two week break for half term but families are invited to join Caroline Loison at 4pm on Sunday 24 May for a Zoom Dingbats session. Everyone is welcome and no previous knowledge is needed although you do need to be able to read. Please bring a pen and paper, plus any drinks and nibbles to enjoy, as Caroline leads adults and children alike through a fun world of word puzzles before she reveals all the answers. Contact Caroline (Caroline@synagogue.org.uk) for the Zoom Login details and feel free to invite other friends and family to join.

One of the hardest parts of lockdown is not being with your family and friends and for me the wider Belsize family. The Shabbat Candle lighting Zoom Group have been meeting for the past eight weeks. Numbers vary from week to week with so far a maximum of 14 people joining in. There is something magical about seeing all the candles lit simultaneously and singing Sholom Aleichem and kiddush together. The group start at 7.30pm straight after Cantor Heller’s Live Kabbalat Shabbat. If you miss talking with friends and other congregants, as you used to after services, this is an opportunity to do so. The group have got to know each other better and started developing new friendships which I’m sure will last long past this pandemic. All are welcome. If you want to give it a try (whether or not you have any candles) please contact claire.walford@yahoo.com.

I want to remind you that Kikar Kids continues to zoom along every Shabbat for children 7 and under. It’s a lovely chance to meet up, sing songs, learn new ones and hear stories. Every Shabbat at 11am. If you haven’t tried it yet please come – complete with your own saucepan and toy food for virtual chicken soup making. And if you have come, then help to spread the word. Any questions or if you want the Zoom details then please – email Richard Pollins rgpollins@gmail.com and if you want to be added to the Kikar WhatsApp group let him know too.

That is it from me for this week. Please keep your information about activities, books and volunteering opportunities coming to me, I love including them in my emails.

Stay safe and stay well

Jackie

Click here for full information on how we are operating.

Gardening Tips

From Henny Levin

Although the sun has been shining this past week it has been quite cool, especially at night, so don’t plant out very tender summer bedding plants for another week.

Wonderful news, Garden Centres are now open again. If you can get to one, why not try to grow some vegetables. The satisfaction of grow-your-own and the pleasure of picking and eating tender and tasty naturally grown vegetables is a wonderful experience.

  • Cherry tomatoes bought as small plants can be transplanted into a growbag, pots or a trough making sure the trough has drainage holes at the bottom. The plants will need to be staked as they grow so that all the tomatoes get some sunshine. Liquid feed once a fortnight also helps them to produce more fruit.
  • Peppers, again bought as small plants, can be potted on into a larger pot and kept on a windowsill. If it becomes very hot in the summer, the pots can be transferred into the garden.
  • A variety of mixed herbs can be planted in pots outside or inside on a windowsill and can be picked as and when needed.
  • And, finally, when buying plants always read the labels so that they are planted in the best place, sunny, half shade or shady.

From John Alexander

We are sadly missing out on our annual visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. A virtual show with specialist presentations can be viewed this week on www.rhs.org.uk . Also, most of the regular suppliers have their usual Chelsea offers available on line.

  • Some gardeners favour the ‘Chelsea Chop’ – cutting back some perennials now, such as sedum, to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show, to lengthen their flowering season and create more compact, self-supporting plants with more (but usually smaller) flowers – but I’m not keen!
  • Use organic slug pellets weekly whilst new fresh shoots are growing.
  • Plant up pots for the patio now that frosts are behind us, and water daily. Annual bedding plants work well, including trailing lobelia, alyssum (scented) Nicotiana (tobacco plants- for evening scent) and Marguerite, Fuchsia, Lavender, and Geraniums.
  • If you want to propagate from existing plants, e.g. Buddleia, Fuchsia, Hydrangea, Lavender, Penstemon and Pelargonium, now is the time to take cuttings of soft, flexible, young shoot tips. Plant them into compost and keep it moist until well rooted, usually two to four weeks, then plant out. Alternatively you can just cut off growing stems and pop them in moist earth – some may take!

Mary Berry Easy Lemon Cheesecake

For the base
10 digestive biscuits crushed
50g melted butter or similar
25g demerera sugar

For the cheesecake
150ml single cream
1 x 379g can of condensed milk (do not use evaporated milk, I made that mistake once! The cake does not set)
175g low-fat soft cheese
Juice of 3 large lemons

Mix together the biscuits, butter and demerara sugar for the base. Put into a 23cm flan dish (or similar) and press evenly over the base and sides. Leave to set.

For the cheesecake filling, mix together the cream, condensed milk, soft cheese and then add the lemon juice a little at a time, whisking until the mixture thickens. Pour into the biscuit case and leave to chill in the fridge for 3-4 hours or overnight.

An invitation to Biblical scholarship

Now that the Holidays have passed, it is time to reflect on what is ahead. With Brexit in the air, political quagmire in Israel, Turkish President Erdogan’s invasion against the Kurds in northern Syria, and political volatility in the United States, we all are deserving of a respite. Perhaps it is time to study, to learn about Judaism, our heritage and past.

There are many opportunities ahead. Our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group is always open to newcomers and there is not a subject that we miss. Our two core classes are on Jewish Prayer and the Shoah, and I encourage all of you to join us in an exceptional learning environment. In addition to our regular class from 10-11:15am, we always have wonderful guest speakers, and I would ask you to consider coming on Sunday 3 November to hear John Ware, a well-known journalist whom I have come to know through our mutual time on the Israel-Diaspora Trust.

It was John Ware whose Panorama BBC news investigation programme exposed the corruption and blatant antisemitism in the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. He will be with us for a behind-the-scenes look to see what has happened in the aftermath of his coverage of the Labour Party.

On Sunday 8 December, we welcome Professor John Barton, Anglican priest and professor of Biblical Studies at Oxford University, recently retired as Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. If you have not yet read his magnum opus, A History of the Bible, you should. I have arranged for Professor Barton to join our discussion group in his only appearance at any synagogue since the release of his best-selling book.

In his book Professor Barton takes the reader through every critical scholarly debate regarding the biblical text, including Christian Scripture. Not only is his scholarship superb, he is incredibly sensitive to the Jewish essence and roots of Biblical texts, including Christian ones. He is well versed in Judaism and I have complimented him on his knowledge of everything Jewish.

Professor Barton takes on the fundamentalist religious crowd that ignores modern scholarship in archaeology, comparative literature and history when dealing with Biblical texts. He equally challenges the “secularists” who know little about the breadth, scope and contribution of the Bible to western civilisation. Here is a sample of how he deals with our misunderstanding the Bible – his challenge to biblical purists, especially Christians:

“There are versions of Christianity that claim to be simply “biblical” (no versions of Judaism do so), but the reality is that the structures and content of Christian belief…are organised and articulated differently from the contents of the Bible. This can be seen most clearly in Christian fundamentalism, which idolises the Bible yet largely misunderstands it…The description of the Bible (warts and all) which follows will necessarily make disconcerting reading for those who idealise it, but I will also show that it is not and cannot be the whole foundation of either Judaism or Christianity.” As reviewer Kirsty Jane Falconer wrote, his “handling of Jewish Scripture is sensitive and informed.” 

This is a special treat, to have Professor Barton come from Oxford to be with us. Do consider joining us on 8 December.

I wish you all a wonderful couple of months of learning, peace, commitment, prayer and thought. Rejoice in your health and in your many blessings.

B’shalom,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

New year 5780 – time to repent and forgive

It is that time of year, with the cycle of time spinning so fast, when summer passes and we come upon the Jewish New Year of 5780.

What are we meant to do in Elul, the last month of the Jewish year? This is a good moment to review the traditional motifs that mark a sacred time in our lives. Let me share some thoughts that will be expounded more deeply during the solemn Yamim Nora’im which follow.

Teshuvah: There is no greater moral and spiritual urgency in this penitential season than the power of teshuvah, “repentance” but literally “return” or “response”. We are frail, prone to hurt others by word or deed, even those we love. Through teshuvah God enables us to redeem ourselves by returning to our true selves, to each other and to our Creator.

Judaism believes at its core that we are not destined to wrongdoing, that society as a whole can change for the better. Teshuvah is more important than ever in a society that increasingly tells us we are doomed by history. We see celebrities and politicians destroyed by some decades-old deed or statement. With the power of social media, nothing escapes the public domain.

We live in a very judgmental society, with no escape for anyone, present or past. Whole societies and historical figures are targeted – Cecil Rhodes with less than righteous views on race, Winston Churchill’s old-fashioned attitude to imperialism and colonialism or, from America, the 18th-century slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. There are problems in seeking comfort from great leaders and thinkers of the past.

Our Torah teaches that all our Bible heroes and sages had the capacity to sin. But they also had the ability to change and to grow. That was the greatness of Jacob, whose life began with deception but ended with blessing; of Joseph, who abandoned his Jewish background for Egyptian culture, yet did teshuvah and returned to God and his family when his brothers came back to Egypt; of Moses whose temper stopped him from entering Eretz Yisrael but whose leadership brought him to receive the Tablets at Sinai; of David who effectively murdered the husband of his love, Batsheva, yet found redemption as the greatest king of Israel.

Selichah: The second immensely powerful motif at this time of year is selichah, forgiveness. As we seek to improve ourselves, aware of our capacity to do wrong, Jewish tradition tells us to recognise that same trait in others. Both Torah and rabbinic tradition instruct us to seek forgiveness from and for others – and even forgive God for making us and His creation less than perfect!

This is the time to think of relationships with family and friends that need repair, the power of selichah. The daily shofar blowing during Elul urges us to come closer to each other and make peace. When we say “Shanah tovah”, “Have a good year”, are we aware that the root meaning of shanah, the Hebrew word for year, is “change”? Can we find our teshuvah and realise the better part of ourselves? Do we have the capacity to forgive others, to release us from grudges and enmity?

May this year, 5780, allow us to truly hear the sound of the shofar, to reach up to the heavens with our prayers to find the blessings of teshuvah and selichah. Life is short and uncertain but we should recognise its sanctity and preciousness and embrace it. May this New Year be a year of blessing, health, life, goodness and shalom for all of you and your loved ones.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Books for Summer Reading

We are entering the quiet summer months and I hope this is a time for physical and mental recovery, surrounded by friends and family.

I will be away to see my family in the United States and look forward to some precious moments with my children, my grandchildren, my cousins, my friends, my brother and my mother who will be 98½ years old on 5 August. She is still going strong, if physically weaker, but her mental state is as vibrant as ever. We are all so proud of her love of life.

Not only is this the time of year to reconnect with loved ones, it is also a time for walks, time to meditate, to think about the state of our lives and, for me, to read and read yet more. I hope you will take time this summer to read some Jewish content and I am always here to recommend my favourite books.

Among my chosen subjects would be Bible, rabbinics, liturgy, history, Zionism and Israel. For Bible interest I highly recommend A History of the Bible by theologist and Anglican priest John Barton, published earlier this year. It is a fascinating account of basic biblical scholarship in both Jewish and Christian Scriptures, with the most accurate and interesting chapters on how the biblical texts were canonised and edited in the forms that we are familiar with today.

For rabbinics, There We Sat Down by Jacob Neusner is still the standard classic on how rabbinic literature was written and what it is. Also anything written by Adin Steinsaltz.

For liturgy, I recommend my teacher Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s excellent commentaries on Jewish liturgy. On Amazon there is a full selection of his commentaries on the High Holiday liturgy, the Siddur and much else.

For history, I recommend Martin Goodman’s History of Judaism, an excellent overview of how Judaism evolved and achieved the forms that it embraces today.

On Zionism and Israel, David Gordis’s Israel is a must-read, a stirring account of Israel’s history which distinguishes between fact, fantasy and myth.

Of course, there are many other books to read and we should not be limited to just those with Jewish content. So enjoy the thrill of the intellectual journey and let me know what you think of the books you have read this summer!

Another thing we will be doing is to plan our calendar for the forthcoming year. Please share any suggestions for themes or topics for our Sunday morning study group.

And let me know what you think of these:

  • A study of the Siddur: an extensive conversation and examination of each part of our prayer book. Why? When? How?
  • From Moses to Ben Gurion: famous Jewish personalities through the ages from ancient to modern times.
  • Jewish Ethics.
  • Shoah: a detailed study of the worst catastrophe in world history.

On that note, I wish you all summer months of peace and blessing. Please come to shul, enjoy the quiet, and stay in touch.

Kol Tuv, only blessing and peace,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler


The Vicar of Baghdad to speak to us

Let me take this opportunity to tell you about our exciting programme ahead.

At our Shabbat evening service on 11 January, we will have a very special guest speaker, Canon Andrew White, a highly esteemed Anglican Church leader. My thanks to Susan Storring for making the connection.

Canon White is a seminal figure and true friend of our people and State of Israel. As Vicar of St George’s Church in Baghdad, he led the local Christian community at the height of Iraq’s conflict with ISIS. The turmoil requiredhim to have 35 bodyguards.To those who have met him – virtually every leading world leader, political and religious – he is a larger-than-life figure. He left for Britain in 2014 because of the risk to his and his family’s lives.

Andrew White is a supporter of Israel, navigating the extraordinary hostility toour Jewish State. He will tell us the story of his connection with Judaism and Israel. Fluent in Hebrew, he has studied at an Orthodox Yeshivah and the Hebrew University, knows Talmud and sacred texts, keeps Shabbat, loves Israel and was even kashrut mashgiach (supervisor) for Cambridgeundergraduate Jewish Society.

He and his wife adopted five Iraqi children, two of them named Yossi and Jacob. He wrote his thesis on The Role of Israel in Christian Theology for his Cambridge doctorate and has written an incredible history of Christian anti-Semitism. His multiple sclerosis has not stopped him engaging with world leaders and promoting Judaism and its people. You must hear this extraordinary man!

The next morning, 12 January, Belsize Square Synagogue will join other congregations to increase awareness of mental health needs. We must always be sensitive to mental health issues and those suffering from them, including in our community.

For those who would like to (finally!) learn to read Hebrew and enjoy participating in our services, I am holding a Monday evening 4-week crash course, 7.00-8.15pm on 14, 21, 28 January & 11 February. If you plan to join my regular students let me know and I will prepare extra texts for you.
Stay tuned for our annual Interfaith Class with St Peter’s Church and Reverend Paul Nicholson, along with Imam Mehmed Stubbla. Last year’s class was a real treat. Further details to come but this series takes place in March-April, before Pesach.

On 1 March we usher in our 80th anniversary festivities with a special Shabbat service and dinner, joined by the children’s choir of the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue from Berlin, along with their parents, and listen to their minister, Rabbi Jonah Sievers. The date coincides with Shabbat UK.

My final announcement is really exciting! Our trip this year (Wed 15 to Mon 20 May) will take us to Prague with its Jewish history from the Middle Ages till today. We will see the Jewish Quarter and Museum with the leading guide, my colleague Rabbi Ronald Hoffberg, and visit Kafka’s House and the 16th-century Jewish cemetery.

We will spend Shabbat in Prague and listen to concerts and talks from, among others, Dr Tomas Halik, Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Univerzity Karlovy, and Helga Weiss, survivor and preserver of the art created by the children of Terezin (Theresienstadt).

If you are interested, please contact Claire Walford by sending her an email to: claire.walford@yahoo.com. I do hope these opportunities inspire your enthusiasm and interest in exciting Jewish experiences I aim to provide.

In shalom

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Campaigning for Dignity, Truth, Action and Study

I was moved by the speakers at the Campaign Against Antisemitism demonstrations in March and April.

Some of the most moving words were delivered by a survivor of the Shoah, Agnes Grunwald-Spier. Born in Budapest in 1944, she survived and has been a witness in writing and speaking of the horrors of the Holocaust. She quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the noted Christian theologian and scholar and one of the few church leaders to speak out against Nazi antisemitism in Germany during the 1930s. He was eventually arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he was hanged in April 1945, a month before the end of war.

Bonhoeffer said: “Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act.” In other words, silence and apathy, “the bystanders”, as Elie Wiesel labelled those who let the forces of evil overwhelm Germany and Europe, bear the greatest responsibility for the unfolding of the greatest murder of a people, the Jewish people, in the history of civilisation.

Not only do these words ring true in so many ways in the historical and political realms, they also resonate in our daily lives. Without the commitment of action, of standing by what we believe in, our ideals fade, our principles wither, our lives stand for little.

The lesson to us is not only to stand up and react to the virulent antisemitism spreading in many sections of the Labour Party but also to support those in the Labour Party who are working hard to protect the dignity of both party and country in combatting this grotesque antisemitism and hatred.
It is now May and this is the point when we, too, can make a stand. The secular date of Israel’s 70th anniversary is 14 May. Be proud of your Jewish state, even with its imperfections. It is ours and, had there been a Jewish state in 1938, six million Jews would probably not have been murdered before the eyes of a silent, apathetic world, the bystanders who let this catastrophe happen.

We are going to Warsaw and Vilnius from 10 to 15 May, when the celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary will take place around the world. We are going to Poland and Lithuania at a most interesting time, when we read almost daily comments such as those from Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, who said that “Jews were worse than animals.”

This is Poland, where my father’s maternal family resided for centuries. The Shelabovs of Pinsk, then in south Poland, all disappeared off the planet because of the silence of the world, immobilised by the sadism and violence of Nazi Germany reaching across the whole of Europe.
Their story is now mine. I can never be silent, I can never let what happened during World War Two ever happen again to our people or to any other people. But as our member and tour leader, Professor Antony Polonsky, an expert on Polish-Jewish history, told us at an advance meeting, East European antisemitism has moved Jewish guilt on from capitalist exploitation to Communist oppression.


Shavuot, the celebration of Matan Torateinu, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, begins Saturday night 19 May. Stand up and be counted by coming to our annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot which begins after our 6.45 pm service. Sitting on the sidelines of the adventure of Jewish learning, feeling that the evening belongs to “them” and not to “me”, is not the way to perpetuate Jewish life. Not to study is to study – but study nothing.

The theme of our sessions this year is War and Peace and we will look at different aspects of this topic in five sessions led by Antony Polonsky who will examine the role of Jews in the First World War, while Cantor Paul Heller will look at the Sim Shalom (Make Peace) prayer in the Amidah.

Jonathan Paris, academic researcher and specialist on regional political, security and development issues, will talk about Jewish ethics in international relations. He is our only outside speaker.
Susan Storring and Claire Walford will concentrate on heroines in battle, and I will wind up with Jewish law and ethics when it comes to making war and peace.

There will be plenty of cheesecake, coffee, tea and excellent company. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Engage in the journey of Jewish learning, one of the greatest journeys you will ever make. It will change your life.

My wishes to all of you for a Chag Shavuot Sameach and for lives that make a difference to the rest of the world.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

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