Shalom Belsize Square Synagogue,
I am writing this message while still in isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and hope that perhaps during the span of this Our Congregation, we will be able to return to our normal routines, open the doors of the synagogue and share time together.
Around this time we mark some crucial historical moments in the life of the Jewish people, beginning with Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers of the state of Israel and victims of terror) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). Those are followed by Yom Yerushalayim, the celebration of the capital of the Jewish people since the time of King David. This year we celebrate on 22 May. The reunification of the city enabled our people to rebuild the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and tear down the barbed wire and barriers that kept us from the Kotel (Western Wall). Now the city is home to all three monotheistic faiths, a city undivided and free.
Then, on 28-30 May, we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, Matan Torateinu, ‘Giving of the Torah’. The purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to enable the Jewish people to receive the Torah from God and become a ‘light unto the nations’ (Isaiah 2).
I have had some memorable opportunities these past few weeks while in isolation to engage in some interesting discussions regarding the state of Israel. Thank you to those of you who wrote me such wonderful notes on the subject. I want to let you know why I am a passionate Zionist and devoted to the cause of ‘ahavat Yisrael’ the love of Israel. I was raised in a wonderful Jewish home in Los Angeles,where Israel was core to our very existence. My parents were very involved in Zionist causes. My mother was president of her Eilat Hadassah group for more than 20 years; my father was involved in every Zionist organisation in the Los Angeles area.
My great-great-uncle Samuel Altshuler in Kaluga, Belarus, was among those early halutzim (pioneers) to go to the malaria-infested, Ottoman Empire-controlled Eretz Yisrael in the 1880s. After the great pogroms unleashed by the assassination of Alexander II, and the publication of Auto-Emancipation, a pamphlet by Dr Leo Pinsker arguing for Jewish self-determination, the Zionist movement began to form in this region. Samuel went with four other families and were the first settlers in a place they named Rehovot, today a city of 135,000 people. Mr Altshuler bought land that no one else wanted, paid a steep price to corrupt Ottoman absentee landowners, and planted orange trees there. Those orange groves still exist today.
According to our family history, when Theodor Herzl visited the area on his only visit to Eretz Yisrael in October 1898, he heard Hatikvah for the first time, sung for him by none other than Samuel Altshuler. Herzl loved it and immediately adopted it as the Zionist movement’s anthem. I still get chills each time I sing Hatikvah.
My cousin, Nakdimon Altshuler, was born in 1886, in Rehovot and continued the work of his father in planting orange trees. I had the chance to meet the elderly Nakdimon when I was a rabbinical student in 1977, and what a character he was! He prided himself on having only one suit, one pair of trousers, one pair of shoes: ‘That’s all I need, that’s all we needed, we were building a nation.’
Nakdimon’s son, Gideon, and Rutie and their five daughters showed me what a miraculous place Israel is and the sweat and labour that went into building it. My cousin Mor Altshuler was a scholar of Jewish Thought. My cousin Gideon, a highly decorated veteran of Israel’s wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, was Ariel Sharon’s second in command, putting into action all of General Sharon’s orders, including the daring surrounding of Egyptian troops that brought an end to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I will never forget this bravery and it is embedded in my soul to this day.
My daughter Elana Rahel was born in Jerusalem, probably the ﬁrst Altshuler from our side of the family born in Israel since our family left Judea in 70 CE. My son Eitan Meir lived in Israel for seven years and now, having received his Master’s degree in the US, is moving back. By the way, on my daughter’s birth certiﬁcate issued by the United States Consulate in 1978, the location of her birth was given as ‘Jerusalem’ only – at that time, the US did not recognise that Jerusalem was a part of Israel. It still hurts, but thankfully as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim this year, not only does the US recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it now has not a Consulate in Jerusalem but its Embassy.
Yom Ha-Atzmaut Sameach to all of us. Israel’s birth, and her incredible story of existence, is perhaps the greatest miracle of all Jewish history. I cherish it and wanted to share why. I hope you are staying well during this coronavirus plague and that we will be back together as a community in our beautiful synagogue soon.
Yours in shalom,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler