Author: Hilary Curtis

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

Rabbi’s Monthly Message: May 2014

TWO ENTWINED ANNIVERSARIES

Shalom Chaverim

In the month of Iyar/May, we celebrate two significant anniversaries.

First, and precious in the hearts of all our members, is the continued consecration of the 75th anniversary of our synagogue’s founding on 24 March 1939, when it held its first Shabbat service. Secondly, on 6 May we celebrate the 66th anniversary of the State of Israel.

These two seminal events have a symbiotic relationship, historically and spiritually. Both Belsize Square Synagogue and Israel were established out of and alongside the ashes of the Shoah, the most devastating horror ever inflicted on any people in the history of humanity.

Both were Jewish responses to tragedy — to continue our faith, our dreams, our hopes, our Judaism, our moral and spiritual vision, despite the tragedies, displacements and murder that our people had to  overcome.

A Jewish response to any death is more life. “Choose life” our Torah reminds us when receiving our mandate from God. The Jewish people have done just that for all the years of our existence.

Those fortunate enough to escape the impending doom that hung over German Jewry created a  congregation in 1939 to continue to teach Torah, celebrate Jewish life, renew our covenant with God and provide a home and family for so many people separated for ever from their loved ones.

Israel, fought for by the survivors of the ovens of Auschwitz and flames of the Warsaw Ghetto, became a reality after years of struggle against neighbours determined to destroy the last flickering flame of Jewish
sovereignty in our ancient homeland. That was in 1948. Against all the odds, Israel survived and continues to this day to struggle for acceptance by its neighbours as a Jewish state entitled to live in security and dignity.

We wish Israel a year of successful negotiations — if such a miracle were ever to come about — a year of
tranquillity, peace and improved relations with its neighbours, while never losing sight of our Jewish values that encompass the inviolability of every human life. We also pray that Israel’s neighbours will surrender their aim of destroying the Jewish state and stop waiting for the day when it disappears from the map.

When that happens, there will be true and lasting peace for all. God bless Israel, its citizens, its defence forces and all of us who know that without Israel our lives would simply not be the same.

We wish Belsize Square Synagogue another 75 years and more, to continue the task of teaching Torah, of embodying Theodor Herzl’s motto: “If you will it, it is no dream” and showing that it is still possible to bring beauty and hope into a world that looks to us to set an example of spiritual strength.

Here is a good prayer we could all recite before our grand Civic Service on Sunday 18 May. Make it a part of your Shabbat dinner tables that weekend:

“It is at Belsize Square Synagogue that we shall learn who we are and whence we come. Here we shall seek a glimpse of our destiny. Through knowledge and practice, we shall transform a congregation of Jews into a
Jewish congregation, transmitting our tradition with love to our children.”

Recalling King Solomon’s Temple, we pray that the work of our hands will also be blessed and we repeat the words of King David to his son Solomon, who undertook its construction:

Revere the God of your fathers and serve Him with a whole heart and with a willing mind. For the Lord searches all hearts and understands our innermost thoughts. If you seek Him, you will find Him, but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever. Take heed now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a sanctuary. Be strong and do it.

We praise the good and generous men and women who have gone before us, as well as those in our midst who labour on behalf of the community. We are grateful to our God for the blessing of their lives. May He always bless us with such people, to lead us from strength to strength.

Help us to live by Your teaching, so that our synagogue may harbour and inspire reverence, dignity, comfort,
peace, sanctity and joy.

Praised are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us in health, and enabled us to reach the 75th anniversary of our beloved Belsize Square Synagogue.

May we always draw strength from each other. God bless the work of our hands.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s Monthly Message: November 2013

Usually our “Hanukah messages” arrive in December, but not this year! Perhaps this is the earliest Hanukah on record, consistent with the early date for our Rosh Hashanah. The Hag Urim–the Festival of Lights again reminds us of the need to keep kindling the lights of our Jewish heritage so that future generations may benefit from the greatest gift we could leave behind for them—the treasure of our rich wisdom, learning and historical experience. Is there a legacy so enriching as the story of the Maccabees, who in the latter part of the 2nd century BCE believed that the freedom to be Jewish required a forceful response to their oppressors?

Their heroism enabled Judaism to survive then for all future generations and inspired our people throughout history to never take our precious existence for granted. In fact, it was the Maccabean resolve that has enabled our brothers and sisters in Israel to keep their heads up in a pool of enmity and to continue to battle for the right of differing peoples and religions to be free.

I am pleased to inform you about a charitable fund that is being revived thanks to the guidance of Peter Leon, David Rothenberg and Peter Summerfield who, together with myself, are the Trustees of the Fund. It is the Frieda Graumann Travelling Scholarship, and it will each year be providing one or two scholarships for worthy young persons here at Belsize Square Synagogue to further their Jewish experiences, including trips to Israel and elsewhere.

For those interested in applying for such a Scholarship of up to £1000 each, here are the requirements:-

  • By the end of February 2014, our deadline, each applicant will send to me, the Rabbi, a summary of his or her involvement in some aspect of Jewish life: it can be academic, activity in the Jewish community, involvement with Belsize Square Synagogue, and any leadership qualifications. Each application must include the reasons why the applicant is deserving of the scholarship and how and where that individual would like to use any designated funds.
  • Each candidate’s application will be evaluated by a Committee formed from the Trustees of the Fund as well as Cantor Heller and our Education Director, Jeanie Horowitz. Once a candidate is chosen, there will be a formal announcement made to the congregation and plans will also be made to honour recipients at a Shabbat service.
  • Successful applicants will, after their travel adventures, be expected to write an article for Our Congregation or make some other presentation, perhaps to our Adult Discussion Group on Sunday morning, about what they learned during their travel regarding Jewish life, Jewish history, Zionism, or Judaism, depending on the nature and place of travel.
  • We will be looking for those young adults who have invested or still invest in the life and future of this congregation and regular attendance at services, now or in the past, may well be a factor taken into account.

So, send in your applications. I would be glad to discuss your efforts in my office with each and every one of our candidates, with some helpful hints as to the course you should be pursuing.

To our young Maccabees, our future leaders of this community, may your efforts lead to success!
My wishes to all of you for a joyous and uplifting Hanukka, the first candle lit Wednesday night 27 November!

Hag Hanukka Sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s monthly message October 2013

A taster for the year ahead

Shalom Haverim,

This might surprise you. The most important month is not Tishri, the month of the High Holydays! The most important month of the year is this one, Cheshvan, better known as mar Cheshvan, “bitter” Cheshvan, because this is the only month of the with NO holidays, no fast days, no commemorations, just weekdays and Shabbatot.

So, why is this month of “bitterness” the most important month of the year? To teach us that the sanctity of our holy days must now be translated into the everyday of life – at work, at school, at home, every day, every hour.

The platitudes and vows we made on Yom Kippur to change, to be more involved with our community, to study Judaism, to correct the flaws in our souls, must face reality in our daily conversations, our hourly directives, our thoughts, our regular routine.

I hope this coming year is a good one for our Belsize Square Synagogue and I want you all to take note of what lies ahead. Here is a taster. Please, do contact me to offer your support.

UK Jewish Film Festival Comes to BSS

We have partnered with the UK Jewish Film Festival and begin our series with the showing of Live and Become on Sunday 13 October.

Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Class

1st term – a continuation of our class on a “Jewish Perspective on Islam”;

2nd term – Zohar study, an introduction to the Zohar and Kabbalah

Volunteer Shabbat

Once a month Cantor Heller and I will invite our talented lay people to lead parts of the service, including the delivery of sermons.

Women’s Participation in Services

Beginning the Shabbat after Simchat Tor ah, mitzvot during the Torah service will be available to all. This is an important milestone in the history of our congregation, difficult for some to absorb, a source of joyful tears to others. Now it depends on you. Call the synagogue office if you would like to be honoured with an aliyah.

Monday Night Conversion Class

Introduction to Judaism, 7pm each week. We welcome back members of our community who have studied for the past year or more and who have embraced Judaism and the Jewish people. Please contact me for more details.

Young People’s Concerts

This is a programme in its early stages of planning which, along with many other musical offerings, is due to the yeoman work of our new Music Committee and its chair, Phil Keller. In addition to a concert line-up, I am working, with the help of some very influential figures in music, on bringing leading Jewish wonder-children to perform at our synagogue. If you are at all interested in seeing this become reality, please let me know and we’ll get to work together!

75th Anniversary of Belsize Square Synagogue

Yes, on 22 March, 2014, we will be marking the 75th anniversary of the very first service held as a congregation. We have a highly distinguished rabbi-scholar due to be with us that weekend. I sincerely hope that some of you might be interested in helping make this a Shabbat and weekend memorable for the entire community. The rabbi-scholar in question is probably the leading authority on the history of German Jewry, including the history of the German backdrop of our own Belsize quare. I will need all available help to bring this to fruition.

Our Annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah Anniversary Service

This will honour our B’nei Mitzvah of 2013: The service takes place on 31 May, 2014.

Shabbat Dinners

We will be having more Shabbat dinners here at the synagogue. Anyone interested in helping in this direction, please contact me.

Travel

Our trip to Krakow in Poland in April 2012 was an enormous success and it is time to plan another Jewish heritage outing. If anyone is interested in helping this endeavour, please let me know. Where to? Berlin? Vilna? Jerusalem? France? Spain? Italy? Turkey? Tell me.

Committees

Step up and get i nvol ved. Our congregation needs you, your ideas, your renewed enthusiasm. Education, liturgy and ritual, membership, finance, youth? Let me help you choose where to help the most.

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot

Our next annual Shavuot study session, will be 3 June, 2014, 7:30pm till midnight! We were packed last year and will again have a great variety of sessions. Limmud, Belsize Square style.

As I said, there will be more surprises and events. Stay tuned and let’s make this year the very best for our beloved congregation. Spread the word about what we are doing here, bring in new members, enlarge our BSS family, and enjoy the ride!

A meaningful and uplifting Cheshvan to you and yours,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler