Category: Rabbi’s Monthly Message

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


Season of painful memories – and hope

This is a unique time in the Jewish calendar, with such a variety of emotions, memories and experiences. During these next two months we will be marking Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Shavuot.

Yom Hashoah, 2 May – the oldest established day for remembering the Shoah and the memory of the six million. It is 74 years since the end of World War Two when we began to count the numbers of Jews murdered. As our survivors disappear from among us, we have an ever-growing obligation to keep their memory alive so that such a Shoah never happens again.

It is almost incomprehensible that within so short a time since the greatest mass murder in world history, the first attempt to exterminate an entire group of people – men, women and children, all Jews – no matter where or how they lived, today, before our very eyes, over the last year and more we have seen a vast increase in Shoah denial and massive ignorance about the fate of Europe’s Jews. That phenomenon, in addition to the appalling increase in antisemitism in this country and throughout Europe, should make us all aware of the need to let the world know what happened only a few decades ago.

That is our sacred obligation to those who have no one to narrate their horrific story, and to honour those non-Jews who sacrificed their own lives for the sake of saving Jews during the Shoah. Their heroism must never be forgotten.

Those memories lead to the second major calendar event of the coming months, Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day, 8 May) which precedes Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) the following day. Yom Hazikaron commemorates over 25,000 Israelis who gave their lives in combat or were victims of terrorist attacks. Yom Ha’atzma’ut on 9 May marks Israel’s 71st anniversary.

With declining Shoah memory and an increase in vile antisemitism, our support and love of the State of Israel and what it means to every Jew in the world must never be forgotten. Israel is our beacon of sanity in an insane world, a place of hope for every Jew seeking his or her home, a miraculous prosperous Jewish state that rose literally from the ashes of the Shoah.

No matter what our political views are regarding Israel and her recent election,we all know that Israel’s viability and safety is vital not only to Israel’s future but to our own security, safety and future living in the Diaspora. May this bea year of celebration for what Israel has accomplished, its wonderfully creative population and its diversity of peoples, with Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druze, Circassians and students from all over the world, who come to study in Israel, to live and be a part of the greatest miracle of the 20th and 21st centuries, a tikvah, a hope for everyone.

We will continue our solidarity with the State of Israel at our annual Israel Dinner at the Synagogue on Thursday 9May. Thanks to everyone who makes this celebration possible each year.

Then comes Shavuot (9-10 June) the celebration of matan Torateinu, the giving of our Torah at Har Sinai, starting this year with evening service on Saturday 8 June. I hope you will join us for our successful annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, our evening study sessions. It will begin at 7:30 pm after our ma’ariv (evening) service that ushers in the festival.

This year our theme is Relationships and, as I write this address to you, the schedule is still being finalised. But we will be covering the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel, past and present; our relationship to Judaism’s sacred texts (Midrash, Talmud and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah); our relationship with other religions; our relationship today to the Jewish past; our relationship to music on Shabbat; our relationship between Jewish law and secular national law….and more!

Certainly, Shavuot is a reminder of the preciousness of study, of discovering each day more of our Jewish heritage and compelling tradition. Pick up a good Jewish book and share it with others! And kol hakavod to all our many Sunday morning attendees at the Discussion Class. This year we have delved into the history of Ancient Israel and made the Bible come alive.
To remember, to learn, to think, to commit, to act – all these components form part of our months ahead. May they be fruitful and uplifting months for each and every one of us.

My wishes for Shalom and Brachah as always,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Purim and Passover: two festivals confronting antisemitism

In the coming months we celebrate Purim and Passover, two very different chagim (holidays) but with common themes and lessons. Both point to two real challenges to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Both tellus that Jewish history contains real and brutal efforts to destroy our people, pointing to a constant aim in the arc of Jewish history – the attempt to hurt us, destroy us, wipe us off the map.

The book of Esther, which contains the story of Purim, reminds us of Haman’s attempt some 2,500 years ago to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child. It is the first description of the existential threat that springs up periodically, reminding us that Jew hatred can arise at any juncture, often without much of a coherent ideology. As scholars of antisemitism have correctly suggested, it is also a barometer of society, an indication of an inherent weakness in the society from which it originates.

Perhaps that is why we are so troubled today because we know that the dramatic rise in antisemitism across Continental Europe, the Arab Middle East and even in Britain as well as the USA, indicates fundamental weaknesses at the core of our society. Going after the Jews never ends well for anyone – certainly not for the Jews, but not for the rest of society, either.

What saved the Jews in ancient Persia, before the rule of Ayatollahs? The drama of Esther points to the heroic behaviour of the Queen who, with the support and direction of her cousin Mordechai, went straight to the King, Ahasuerus, and demanded freedom for the Jews of Shushan. When she realised what was really afoot, she was not afraid to speak out and expose Haman’s murderous plot. In other words, the message of Megillat Esther is that cowardice and fear of exposing antisemitism allows Jew haters to succeed. Stand up and speak out, yesterday, today and tomorrow!

At Passover the Jewish people, as we read in the Haggadah, faced excruciating bondage in Egypt, whips and burdens that constituted our people’s unbearable suffering at the hand of others. But through Moses’ courageous leadership and his challenge, together with his brother Aaron, to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Israelites, precursors of the Jewish people, were liberated from bondage and found the gift of freedom that enabled them to create a nation state based on Torah and the word of God.

One of the most startling facts of the Exodus is that the Israelites celebrated Passover, the Seder, BEFORE they left Egypt, not after liberation. The reason, according to our Sages, is that the value of freedom had to be articulated first, assimilated inside every member of Israel, before they could be truly free. In other words, freedom begins from inside. No external enemy can defeat us or destroy us if we are free inside, if we stay loyal to our religious values and heritage. No enemy can destroy us if we remain true to ourselves.

So, to Jeremy Corbyn and all his antisemitic followers,to so many in the Arab Middle East, to supporters of the rising BDS movement, we must affirm our commitment to pride in ourselves, to combat assimilation and rampant acculturation, the breakup of the Jewish family, and the scourge of Jewish selfhatred. The internal struggle against all thosefactors that weaken Jewish observance and understanding of who we are and what we represent to the rest of the world, will be the test as to whether antisemites succeed in weakening us. From Esther and Mordechai, Moses and Aaron, and the resolve of all those Jews who knew who and what they were, we are here today, under orders to keep our Judaism and Jewish identity strong and mighty, impenetrable to attack.

The argument as to which factor is more important, freedom from external threats or from internal weakness and assimilation, is clearly spelled out in the Haggadah. Shmuel (2nd century rabbi) argues that the greatest threat to the Jewish people is the external enemy (“We were slaves in the land of Egypt”). Rav claims it is idolatry or, in modern terms, our abandonment of Judaism, our exit from Jewish life (“My father was an Aramean”, meaning an idolator, as Abraham was brought up to be).

What do you think is the greater threat to Jewish existence? Enemies bent on destroying us or the enemy within us? There is ample material here for a good discussion in synagogue when we celebrate Purim in March, and at your Seder tables in April.

I extend my warm wishes to you and your loved ones for a joyful celebration of Purim and a meaningful and blessed Passover.
Mo’adim l’simcha (times for joy)

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

Our struggle for 5779

Anti-Semitism surrounding Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, continued threats to Israel from Gaza’s border with increased hostility to the State of Israel,the wild antics of President Donald Trump which, like them or not, are changing our world each day, and the failure to see light in the Brexit negotiations.

All this has us living with great uncertainty about the future, and then the usual blights on civilisation – disease, hunger, poverty, oppression, homelessness. It all adds up to the world we live in today. Yet we return to the shul to restore the seeds of our strength, resolve and faith, which enable us to combat the challenges of despair and anguish.

There are personal struggles as well. Some of us have lived through financial uncertainty this past year, loss of job and security, failed relationships and marriages, illness or death. No one evesaid life would be easy and that is why we need a spiritual response to all thesethings that have weighed upon us during the past year. We all know that our Judaism and Jewish tradition are virtual treasure chests of wisdom and strength. Our people have been there before and have always risen to new heights of strength. We will be calling upon ourselves to do the same.

During these Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) ahead of us, I will be speaking on my usual themes: God (on first day Rosh Hashanah), Israel (on second day), Judaism and Jewish identity (on Kol Nidrei), existential truths (on Yom Kippur), life and death (at Mazkir/Yizkor) through the prism of people. Not all the individuals I will be speaking about are well known. Some are, some are known only by a few. But I hope that their stories will inspire us to rise to new heights and understanding of ourselves.

At Selichot on 1 September our shiur at 9.00 pm, to which you are all invited prior to the service which starts at 10.00 pm, will explore how individuals, teachers, parents, relatives and friends have influenced our views of ourselves, our Jewish identities and life itself. So, think about which people through your years have inspired you the most and shaped your destiny, your thoughts, your lives, your faith.

A prayer for the Yamim Noraim:

May we hold lovingly in our thoughts and prayers this 5779, those who still suffer in this world from tyranny, who are subjugated to live in cruelty and injustice. Let us resolve to work every day towards the alleviation of suffering wherever we see it and experience it.

May we pursue the biblical prophets’ vision of peace that implores us to live harmoniously with each other, to respect the differences of opinions and beliefs that exist among us, to be forgiving of those whom we believe have hurt us. May we always cherish diversity, respect all forms of Jewish life, work continuously for the unity of the people of Israel and always seek to find the Divinity that resides in the human soul.

May we struggle against injustice against our people, in this country and in Israel, fighting hard for the dignity of our people and making it clear that we will never again tolerate the hatred and anti-semitism of previous generations or today’s willingness to destroy our only Jewish state. May our commitments to Israel, our Judaism and our fellow Jews increase this year.

May we disdain gossip and realise again and again how thoughtless rumours and words can destroy good people and distort truth.

May we act with greater purity of heart and mind this coming 5779, despising none and loving all.
May the Jewish people and this Belsize Square Congregation be beacons of light to the world, to our community and to the State of Israel.

May we all have the honour of fulfilling the words of the Torah and of our rabbis to pursue peace in all our actions, loving our neighbour as ourselves, cherishing the gift of life that God has given to us and never taking for granted our health, our will, our spirit or our love.
May God bring peace to us and to all humanity this new year, 5779.

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

Exodus: from Egypt or the USSR

Looking back at my own experiences, the events that led to my deep appreciation for our religious tradition, law, narrative and faith that make up Judaism, I would say that despite my many trips to Israel and the incredible times I had travelling, studying, living there and marvelling at the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, nevertheless, the trips I made to the former Soviet Union were the most significant Jewish experiences in my life.

I went numerous times between 1984 and 1992, some visits more successful than others: visiting refuseniks, teaching Judaism, Hebrew and Jewish history to young and old, dissidents and students, and smuggling dissertations, books and photos, which have become part of the legacy of our people’s freedom movement for Soviet Jewry.

Between 1988 and 1992, almost 1½ million Jews found their way to freedom in Israel and outside it. As I said in the introduction to my book, From Exodus to Freedom, the liberation of Soviet Jewry will rank as one of the greatest miracles of our people’s history, second only to the founding of the modern state of Israel. Israel absorbed almost a million Jews, the equivalent of the United States absorbing the entire population of France into its borders, and within just four years!

My many visits to the USSR enabled me to understand what it is like to live in a nation of oppression, of suppression of basic human rights. They could not study, speak the language of their choice or learn about their religious faith without fear of arrest and imprisonment. The bravery of the Jews I met, from Sharansky to Begun to Edelstein to Astrakhan, is forever emblazoned in my heart and soul. They taught me what the struggle for freedom is all about, the strength that comes from a deeply rooted faith in right versus wrong, and the sacrifice necessary to protect the freedom of Jewish life today.

It is an amazing narrative we are about to tell once again to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren, how 3,300 years ago, a small slave people, powerless, without territory or army, left the mightiest empire in the world, Egypt, strengthened by hope and faith in an unseen God and unseen virtues, taught in our Torah.

We learn from the story of the Exodus from Egypt that the strength of our people which has enabled us to outlive every mighty empire since the beginning of time is based not on chariots, arms or armies, not on statues or monuments, power or wealth, but founded upon the humility of belief in the power of God, a God of redemption, history and vision who has taught the world that the sanctity of human life is non-negotiable, and that human beings are destined to be free, not slaves. This is the story of a God who has maintained this special relationship with the people of Israel, to be His eyes and ears to the rest of humanity until our world is redeemed for all.

And we tell the story of Passover around our dinner tables, focusing on the future, on our children. We parents and grandparents teach them that our memories will not be held in monuments but carried through the generations in words, values and hope. This is a faith greater than anything on earth, that binds the past and future, forever a witness to the human spirit and its connection to a God Who is the greatest Power on earth, the unseen force of life as we know it. Our task is to build a world of human freedom, based upon responsibility and the dignity of all.

When we open the Ark in readiness for the Torah reading, we sing, “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kumahAdonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.” (Whenever the Ark set out, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee before You.”)

I never understood what that verse from the book of Numbers (10:35) meant until I went to the Soviet Union. How can the Torah scroll “scatter our enemies, cause those who hate us to flee from us?” On all my trips to the USSR, I brought siddurim, tallitot, Bibles, sacred Jewish texts. And on almost every entry into the country I was grilled, at times for hours, asking me what I was bringing and told how “dangerous” these books and items were to the mighty Soviet Empire. I wondered how that was possible. How could an empire with nuclear weaponry be afraid of any book, especially a prayer book or chumash?

But then I understood the fear. Authoritarian regimes are paranoid about “ideas”, about values that challenge the supremacy of might and power. And then I knew the power of my Judaism, the power of the word, the spirit, of God, without armies and nuclear bombs. The fear was palpable, the fear that Jewish ideas might destroy the basis of oppression.

What has changed in 3,300 years? Virtually nothing. Our religious tradition stands as strong as ever today, our mission the same: to bring about a world based upon God’s might and not the ephemeral power of weapons and war. Some day, Elijah will come and the Jewish people will be free, and then all humanity will be free, under God. Next year in Jerusalem!

My wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a blessed, joyous and meaningful Passover 5778.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The Essence of Judaism

I have often been asked if Judaism has an essence, a central doctrine that runs through from Orthodox to Liberal?” The answer is yes and is spelled out in a text from the Babylonian Talmud: In the hour when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, he is asked:

  • Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?
  • Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
  • Did you involve yourself in your children’s upbringing?
  • Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?

Note that the first question on “arriving in heaven” is not “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you observe the ritual commandments?” but “Were you honest in your conduct of business?” In other words, the essence of Judaism is behaviouristic and, specifically, the primacy of ethical action. Our Jewish understanding of religion is that without the quest for moral life, a Jew cannot truly be “religious”. We are defined not solely by our synagogue attendance or observance of Shabbat or kashrut. Commitment to the core values those rituals represent is indeed important but ultimately they prod us towards a more sanctified and ethical life. The goal is decency, as I have stressed many times from the bimah, quoting the great psychologist, Dr Viktor Frankl, who taught that the world is divided into just two groups, “decent” and “indecent”.

The second question asks about our commitment to Jewish study. Rabbinic wisdom holds that study is critical because it leads us to greater selfawareness and a more moral life. Two recent books well worth reading are Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism and Simon Schama’s Belonging, the second part of his trilogy on the Jewish people. Study, learn, come to our Sunday morning and Monday evening classes and our four-part series in March with St Peter’s Church and our Muslim neighbours.

The third question asks whether we have devoted our lives to children, fulfilling our covenantal obligation to pass on our Jewish values and dreams to the next generation. For those unable to have their own children, our tradition teaches that this duty can still be fulfilled by assisting the children of our community and beyond. Plant those seeds in the next generation. A Jew can never be oblivious to the need to pay attention to the future.

The fourth question challenges us in an extraordinary way, asking whether we worked and hoped for a better world than today’s world. In other words, a Jew is not allowed to stand aloof as the world bleeds. The world is fractured in so many ways and we must ask ourselves what we are doing to improve things. The threat of global terror, global warming, world hunger, crime on our streets, the struggle for Israel to survive, the challenge for freedom (the list goes on), is not “their” struggle, it is “our” struggle.

Rabbi Tarfon, of the 2nd century CE, taught: “It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world but neither are you free to desist from doing all you can.” We are also guided by Rabbi Hillel (1st century BCE), who wrote that the greatest principle of the Torah is “Love your neighbour as yourself” and Moses Maimonides (12th century): “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

I wish you all a good start to the new secular year 2018. May it be a time for growth, education, and goodness, the core of our Jewish commitments.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Looking back 100 years to November 1917

This month of November 2017 is historic, for it was on 2 November 1917, one hundred years ago that the Balfour Declaration was delivered to Lord Rothschild, committing the British government to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

On 7 and 8 of November of that same year, 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky and changed the world in a dramatic sweep of power.

On 9 November 1938, the Nazi regime led a nationwide pogrom against every Jewish community and Jew in Germany and Austria, in a horrific foreboding of the coming Shoah.

These three watershed events affected us all. The Balfour Declaration set in motion the realisation of 2,000 years of Jewish dreams, the return of our people to the Land of Israel, and recognised the nationalist aspirations of the Zionist movement. It cemented international recognition of the plight of the Jewish people, as confirmed by all the leading Western nations at the San Remo Conference, held in 1922.

The British government accepted a mandate to lead the Jewish people to statehood. The government also made promises to the Saud and Husseini families, leaders of the Arab world at the time, which created much of the tensions that ensued in the region. Jewish history and life was never the same after 2 November 1917. Zionism, the sanction for a future Jewish state, became embedded in the hearts of the Jewish people.

The Bolshevik Revolution marked the end of Russia’s brief experiment with liberal democracy, the end of its tsarist monarchic rule and beginning of the profound experiment of Communism.

The Bolsheviks, who seized power without much popular consent (a littleknown fact), took over the apparatus of government and the media by force and bloodshed. The country lost millions in a civil war lasting till 1924.

The Jews, mostly still in the Pale of Settlement in poverty-stricken rural areas, were caught between the White and Red Armies. They suffered from both sides, which viewed the Jewish population with equal contempt.

I should know. My maternal grandparents left Ukraine in 1924, young and fit enough to leave pogrom-filled Russia, walking across Ukraine and the rest of Europe to arrive in America on a rat-infested ship in 1924.

The ultimate failure of the Soviet Union experiment, the outrageous years of famine and terror during Stalin’s long reign, the decimation of so much of Russian life and lives, the economic failure, the virtual imprisonment of its people, had an enormous impact on our own development: the nuclear arsenals, clashes of economic systems and the demise of religion, especially the practice of Judaism.

And then there is Kristallnacht, the events of November 1938, when the Jewish world was set on fire. We know the details: arrests, destruction of Jewish property, street gangs, imprisonment in vile conditions, and the announcement to the world that Jews were facing a war of destruction. All became clear in November 1938, 79 years ago.

We are honoured to welcome Ambassador Peter Ammon, Germany’s Ambassador to the UK. He is a true friend of our community and looks forward to addressing us at our synagogue. Not only has he turned down many other invitations, he is missing the major Germany-England football match at Wembley, all just to be at our Kristallnacht Service on Friday evening 10 November!

Do come to welcome the Ambassador. He is a fine speaker, but, most importantly, a true friend of ours. This is a historic event for our congregation.

My best wishes to all of you for a month filled with historic memory and reflection.

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