Author: Hilary Curtis

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