Category: Rabbi’s Monthly Message

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

2017: year of anniversaries

We are headed into our quiet summer months, a time for reflection, reading, travel and enjoying this time of year.

On Monday night 31 July we will be here to remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively. As an astonished Napoleon commented on arriving in Jaffa in 1800 to find Jews remembering the Temples and Jerusalem: “A people still weeping over their holy places after so many years will be a people that will indeed return to their holy places and regain sovereignty in their national and historic homeland.” Napoleon was no prophet, he was simply observing the inexplicable. The Jewish people never forgot its ties to Jerusalem, to Eretz Yisrael.

This is the year of special anniversaries and a good time to reflect on them, as we will at the High Holydays. What do we remember this year?

1897: 120 years ago in Switzerland, against all the naysayers, Theodor Herzl assembled the First Zionist Congress in Basle. Over 200 delegates attended and the gathering received good media coverage, to the surprise of most, since no one expected to see a Zionist movement started.
It was due to Herzl’s organisational and promotional genius that two powerful emblems were introduced: a Magen David painted onto a tallit unfurled at the Congress and the singing of an inspiring Hebrew poem, Hatikvah (The Hope), written in longer form in 1878 by the Central European-born wandering writer, Naftali Herz Imber, and set to music 10 years later in the new religious agricultural settlement of Rishon LeZion in Palestine by Romanian-born Samuel Cohen, using a tune he remembered from childhood (as did Smetana in Bohemia around the same time).

It was at Basle that the Jewish state began, together with its flag and national anthem and Herzl’s promise that there would be an independent Jewish state in Palestine “in 50 years”. Almost to the exact date of the prophecy, Israel came into being on 14 May 1948.

1917: Besides being the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution which forever changed the 20th century (not for the best, with its slaughter of millions), 2 November 1917 was the date of the Balfour Declaration proclaiming the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people on its historic soil without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.

That Balfour Declaration was confirmed by the Allied victors of the First World War at the San Remo Conference in Italy in 1920, the forerunner to the granting of a mandate over Palestine in 1922 by the newly created League of Nations, which again confirmed Britain’s promise. The sanction of the nations of the world paved the way for the realisation of the “hope” of the restoration of the Jewish people.

1947: 29 November 1947, 70 years ago,when the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in Palestine together with an Arab state, giving a future Jewish state yet another sanction from the international body of nations. The British were to leave on 14 May 1948 and a Jewish state would be resurrected on its ancient soil after a hiatus of sovereignty from 63 BCE when the last Jewish state came to an end under the Roman general, Pompey.

We know the rest of the tragic story. The Arab nations rejected the creation of their own state in order to destroy the Jewish entity and, until this day, Israel’s recognition and acceptance in the region is still not a certainty.

1967: 5 June 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War when Israel’s existence was again called into question by Arab nations, led by President Nasser of Egypt calling for the destruction of the 20-year old Jewish state. The story is a heroic one. Israel, fighting for its survival, defeated the Arab armies in six days, in the process occupying the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights and West Bank, and unifying Jerusalem on 7 June. This brought to an end the barbed wire and artillery pointed at civilians in Jerusalem, and liberated the occupied Jewish Quarter, including the Kotel, the Western Wall which forms the ancient remains of Beit Hamikdash, the Temple and Temple Mount.

It’s all in our memory. We do not forget what has happened and we never will. I do hope that all of you will draw strength from our Jewish memories because, despite all the odds against our survival, we have proved wrong every prognosticator of our demise. Our religious truths have survived to bless the world and Israel remains a shining light to the entire world.

Enjoy the summer months ahead and we will be back in September, ready to prepare for the coming of another New Year 5778.

Blessings and peace

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

Purim and Passover: the lessons of history

Over the next two months, we will celebrate Purim and Passover, both festivals laden with meaning relevant to us today. Yet, we often mark them without considering their importance to our collective being. Remembering what they mean to us is critical because we live in an age increasingly forgetful of the past. The new “histories” are mostly attempts to rewrite the past, often bypassing truth, especially regarding Holocaust denial.

For example, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, billed as a “new history of the world”, completely eliminates the uniquely Jewish factors of the Holocaust and instead interprets what happened to the Jews as an unfortunate by-product of Germany’s food shortage in June 1941! I call this kind of “history” (one of many, all very trendy) attempts to turn history upside down and fabricate new truths to accommodate political or social agendas.

We know all about short memory. In the Torah, after Bnei Yisrael were liberated from bondage in Egypt and crossed miraculously into Sinai, they almost immediately complained about the lack of water, forgetting all they had overcome and achieved, through God’s help and Moses’ leadership. Such is human nature, as we learn from the Rabbis. We forget perspective, we forget what has only just happened.

Judaism has always attempted, through observance of our festivals and even in the weekly recounting of the Torah tale of our ancestors’ travel through Sinai, to preserve memory as the link to understanding. We have yahrzeit, we have yizkor. We try not to forget our loved ones’ lives. They may no longer be physically here but they remain preserved in our hearts and souls.

We do not let go. We remember. At Purim, we go back some 2,400 years to remember how the foreign minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. The story of the Book of Esther is not the first or last time this has happened in the course of our people’s long history. We take seriously the episodic attempts to destroy us as a people. Purim celebrates a miraculous deliverance.

And is it not interesting that in today’s Iran, as in ancient Persia, the ruling theocratic regime continues to declare its desire to destroy the State of Israel? They are quite open about it. Iran is the only nation state since the Second World War to declare openly its desire to destroy another nation state.

What is our response to all this? Like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish people today are ready to meet the challenge head on and to remind the world of the real danger of the rhetoric of hatred and destruction. Yet we celebrate raucously, to emphasise our will to live and outlive any tyrant’s or antiSemite’s ambition to stamp out the Jewish people.

From the story of Passover we learn the struggle for true freedom, which brings with it responsibility.We also learn how our ancestors viewed the importance of establishing a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, the land promised by the Almighty.

The battles with hostile neighbours, the readiness to fight for our right to be free in our own Jewish land, all this is reflected today in Israel’s struggle for true security and peace in our ancient homeland.

The reminders of the past are current and real today. The Jewish people have survived because of our special relationship with the strength that comes from memory. May it long continue.
Please join us for yizkor/mazkir at the end of Pesach. When we remember our loved ones no longer with us, their souls remain as vibrant and real as ever.

May you and your loved ones enjoy the festivals. May they usher in a new understanding of our faith and values, signalling a new era of freedom, secure from hatred and accepting our obligationtowards our fellow man.

Mo’adim l’Simchah,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

“Settlements” and the history of conflict

Shalom Chaverim,

I have been asked by several congregants to explain the Israeli “settlements”. What are they? Why are they an international problem? Why are Jewish organisations so upset with the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 declaring all Israeli “settlements” beyond the borders of 4 June 1967 to be “illegal”.

I particularly recommend Alan Dershowitz’s brilliant legal analysis for those following these aspects of events (look it up on Google). But my concern is broader. I worry about what it means for the future of our people as antiSemitism increasingly takes the form of attacking our institutions as “Zionist”. What happens at the UN or in Jerusalem affects us all.

Israel itself contains divergent views on settlements. Are they out of control, an obstacle to peace, a mistake, illegal? Or, as many believe, do Jews have a right to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael, so long as their presence is legal. In fact, many cases of disputed legal rights have come before the Israeli Supreme Court. So here is a brief history.

“Palestine”, covering most of today’s Jordan and part of today’s Iraq, was governed by pagan, Christian and Muslim rulers, starting from the Romans’ destruction of Judea in 74 CE. Apart from the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1187, no group ever claimed Jerusalem as its capital. “Palestina” was mainly governed from Damascus as a province. Its population was sparse, mostly Bedouin nomads who lived off the land. Landholdings belonged to absentee landlords.

The Zionist movement brought Jews to settle in the area from the late 19th century, starting the process that led to the Jewish State of Israel. In 1917, as an ally of Germany in the First World War, the Ottomans lost their empire and Britain took over colonial oversight of Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon, under the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.

To accommodate Jewish aspirations in Palestine, Lord Balfour declared on 2 November 1917 that Britain supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, meaning both sides of the Jordan. That plan was altered in 1922 by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to enable Britain to create a further Arab state in addition to Iraq and the future Saudi Arabia (formed 1932), in fulfilment of promises made during the war to tribal chieftains, including the Bedouin Husseini family.

Thus we had the arbitrary creation of Transjordan while Palestine was officially shrunk down to west of the Jordan. During the British Mandate of Palestine, granted by the League of Nations in 1921, Jews settled throughout Palestine, including in today’s “disputed” areas. Huge pockets of Jews lived around Jerusalem, in Gush Etzion and Hebron as well as other areas.

Arab opposition to growing Jewish immigration, especially from central Europe after Hitler came to power in 1933, resulted in the 1936 general strike, which turned into a three-year revolt. Britain responded with a Royal Commission of Inquiry, headed by Lord Peel. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended partition. The Jews were offered 20% of mandatory Palestine, a compromise they accepted. The Arabs rejected their much larger share.

The outbreak of the Second World War put the issue on hold. On 29 November 1947, the two-year-old United Nations voted for the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state. The Arab nations quickly prepared for war to destroy a new Jewish state.

On 14 May 1948 the British left and Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. The very next day seven Arab nations attacked Israel, vowing to destroy the Jews and drive them into the Mediterranean. That effort failed and, in talks in Rhodes from February to July 1949, Israel and her Arab neighbours signed a series of General Armistice Agreements. These armistice lines have never been formally recognised as borders.

After 1948 Jews were driven out of the “West Bank” and the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish holy sites and synagogues were completely destroyed. The Kotel (Western Wall) was turned into a donkey latrine, the cemetery at the Mount of Olives destroyed and desecrated. Not one UN resolution ever called upon the “occupier”, Jordan, to allow Jews to worship in Jerusalem, a supposedly international city. Not a single one.

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank were illegally occupied by Jordan (only two nations recognised that occupation, Pakistan and the UK). Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire, no-man’s land and artillery fire. Jews were not allowed even to visit the Old City – all Jews, not just Israeli Jews.

In 1967, Nasser and the allied Arab nations were again bent on destroying Israel, cutting off its southern port, Eilat, to choke its economy. Not one UN resolution condemned this barbarism. On 5 June 1967, in a war that lasted six days, Israel made its pre-emptive strike, resulting in the capture of the Sinai, Golan Heights and West Bank. Levi Eshkol’s government warned Jordan not to enter the conflict but King Hussein rejected the advice. Responding to Jordanian fire, Israel liberated Jerusalem and returned Jews to the Old City, Jewish Quarter and Mount Scopus.

We know the rest of the story: terrorist attacks, the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, repeated threats to wipe out Jews, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic extremism, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the early 1970s, Israel’s Labour government decided to react to the Arab world’s “Three Noes” passed at their Khartoum conference some two weeks after the Six Day War (No Peace with Israel, No Negotiations with Israel, No Recognition of Israel). They asserted the right of Jews to settle in areas whose status needed resolution but technically and legally belonged to no one.

Since then, two sets of negotiations, offering to return over 98% of the disputed territories for the creation of a Palestinian state, have been turned down: by Arafat in 2000 (involving Israeli Prime Minister Barak and US President Clinton) and by Abbas in 2005 (Sharon and George W Bush). The result is the stalemate we see today.

Israel’s peace movement was shattered by the Palestinian rejections. Israelis increasingly feel that Jews have as much a right as anyone else to live in “disputed” territories. Almost all Israelis feel that resolution can only come through direct negotiations and recognition of two peoples and two states. Abbas and the Hamas organisation have clearly rejected that essential path to peace. They have
attempted to isolate and delegitimise the Jewish State under the aegis of international bodies.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have frequently stated that no Jewish Israelis would be permitted in the West Bank, including the pre-1949 Jewish areas. Sadly, that was the sentiment expressed in last December’s UN Resolution 2334.

In my view, there is no reason why Jews cannot live anywhere in the world, even in a future State of Palestine, just as Arabs should and do live in the Jewish State of Israel. I see the vehement and violent rejection of Israel, not the “settlements”, as the heart of the conflict. Israel dismantled settlements in Sinai and Gaza in order to open up negotiations. She was met with increased violence and terror.

I hope this brief review helps. It is a complicated situation, where passions run high on all sides. Whatever your thoughts, the facts of history are crucial for understanding the difficulty of creating peace for all.

God bless the State of Israel, one day, with real shalom, peace, as we also pray for the peace of Israel’s neighbours. Dignity, peace, security and freedom for all.

B’shalom, Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Up and down, in and out, Why we need our Jewish faith and values

Shalom Chaverim,

Some of the conversation surrounding the Brexit vote (shock) in the UK, followed by the Presidential vote (further shock) in the United States, has been quite startling. There’s been a significant questioning of democracy, of stability, of our values with a not so subtle dose of uncertainty and anxiety about our collective future.

My own view is that we have not even come close to reaching catastrophic results in either country. However, this is as good a time as any to take stock and be aware that history can change dramatically, unexpectedly, and catch us all off guard.

We Jews know that reality more than any other people. Safe in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE, suddenly there arose a Babylonian Empire to destroy the Temple and exile two thirds of our people.

A Jewish state, Judea, the last sovereign Jewish state until 1948, existed in strength and in peace until the expanding power of Rome in the west eroded Jewish independence, leading to the outbreak of the doomed Jewish revolt in 66CE and destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.

Our entire history since those debacles, while living in galut (exile) or diaspora (dispersion), has been a story of “security and safe haven” one day, only to be eventually shocked into disarray.

Jews lived in Baghdad for centuries until they were caught up in its gradual decline and finally invasion by Mongol invaders in the 13th century.

The Jews of Spain, who lived in relative comfort for centuries, bouncing between Muslim and Christian overlords, found themselves cut off by the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, culminating in their expulsion from the entire Iberian peninsula, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Jewish havens in Poland and Ukraine also came to a sudden end.

In our own lifetime, Jews who had lived in Germany since the 9th century and by the 20th century had reached positions of influence, creativity and even power, became the centre of Nazi extermination designs.Then came the virtual end of Russian Jewry.

And that is a major reason why we should remember the lessons of the coming festival of Chanukah. Before Antiochus Epiphanes IV began his religious persecution, his Seleucid predecessor, Antiochus III, followed up his victory over the Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt in 198 BCE by giving the Jews freedom of worship and relief from heavy taxation.

Antiochus IV continued this policy for the first seven years of his reign. But in a complete reversal, in 167 he initiated the first major pagan persecution of any Jewish community, forbade the study of Torah, prohibited circumcision and forcibly imposed emperor- worship on the Temple in Jerusalem.

What happened in so short a period of time? There are all kinds of explanations – unrest in Egypt following his incursions, leading to fear of another war there; souring of the economy; and most importantly, a growing intolerance towards the “differing practices” of the Jews

Hence, the first religious persecutions in history, the three-year Maccabean revolt and the subsequent cleansing of the Temple, leading to our holiday of Chanukah.

So, what does this all mean for us? To me, it means that there are no guarantees in history; that things can change rapidly; that we need to be ever alert and ready to check any emergence of anti-Semitism.

We must always be mindful that the countries we love so much and which have given us abundant freedom, hold no rock-solid guarantee that this will last forever.

What is forever is God, Torah and the people of Israel. We must never forget that reality. So light those Chanukah candles, cherish our current freedom, implant in our children the resolve to resist any onslaught on our people and faith. Let them know that our spiritual strength and vision will last for eternity.

My wishes to all of you for a festival of light and hope, of lots of oily food (latkes, sufganiyot) and the joy of freedom.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Kristallnacht onwards – how anti-semitism continues

9 November 1938 will forever remain indelibly etched into the consciousness of world Jewry. For on that day the “night of broken glass”, Kristallnacht, was launched throughout Germany and Austria. Synagogues were burned to the ground, thousands of Jews arrested, many more beaten in the streets and humiliated. But most of the world, witness to the destruction of Jewish life, did nothing to alleviate the violence.

“It is an internal affair of the German government” was the mantra of the day. With the world’s passiveness and inability to respond to the impending demise of German and Austrian Jewry, the tools were put in place for the first steps towards the Final Solution.

Belsize Square Synagogue will not forget that night. Our guest for Friday night’s service on 11 November will be Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Jonathan has been a courageous and visionary leader, almost single-handedly taking on the anti-Semitic outrages of the Labour Party, unafraid to address attacks against our Jewish past and attachment
to Israel, and challenging Mr Jeremy Corbyn on his failure to understand the stain of anti-Semitism. We are honoured to have him join us and I look forward to welcoming him. Our thanks to Robert Sacks and Eric Moonman, our Board representatives, for arranging this.

The onslaught against Jewry has not gone away. It is just repackaged differently, centred round Zionism and Israel. The BDS boycott movement and UNESCO’s resolution on 13 October denying any Jewish link to Jerusalem, especially the Temple area, was frightening and hateful. I hope you will all protest to your neighbours and MPs that erasing Jewish history is just the latest example of the 3,500-year-old obsession with Jew hatred. It’s real.

Only six countries voted against it: Estonia, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, the UK and USA. We should express our gratitude to them for their sanity and resistance to base anti-Semitism in the United Nations. There were 33 in favour, including France, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, and 17 abstentions. Many other countries not on the governing board, including the Czech Republic, solidly denounced the vote.

Two other points of interest: Irina Bokava, UNESCO’s director, disavowed the vote and called it a disgrace to the world’s nations and the UN. And a Jewish member of Mexico’s UNESCO delegation, on the point of resigning in protest at his government’s support for the resolution, stayed on to fight at the urging of Israel’s delegate. Oddly, Mexico renounced its earlier support but fired its courageous Jewish delegate.

There is so much else going on this month, notably the US Presidential election, where we pray the winner will help our troubled world. But we still have a full programme with Shabbat UK, Adult Discussion on philosophy and Bar Mitzvah services. Come to our services and activities and become part of the Belsize miracle! Wishes for a joyous month of learning, goodness, mitzvot, reading and friendship.

B’shalom
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

5777 and the paradox of honey

Shalom and my wishes to all of you and your loved ones for shana tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet year (5777)

From the outset of my remarks, it is clear that the way we Jews welcome the new year is unique to the Jewish people and our Judaism, and to no other faith.

Normally, the passage of time is marked by raucous celebrating, imbibing, eating and dancing – a logical way to mark the coming of a new year and the blessing of life. However, in Jewish tradition our celebration is not with noisy drinking and dancing but by sitting with our families at the festive dinner table, dipping our challah into honey and thanking God for the renewed possibility of a good and sweet new year.

I can also understand why we wish our friends and loved ones a “good” year because, in Jewish terms, if we do not add goodness to our lives, the new year is just another day, a part of the cycle of nature. When we come to synagogue to pray, it is not to ask God for material needs but spiritual strength, new ideals, gratitude for what we have, a changing and healthier perspective on our lives and the world around us.

We study and hear the words of Torah reconnecting us to our past and to our people. We all know that the example of spiritual and religious resolve set by our Jewish ancestors at the start of our recorded history has stood the test of time.

They knew the power of words, that ideas are stronger than the sword. So Babylonia is in rubble, the remains of Assyria are in museums, Greece, Rome, Persia, the Holy Roman Empire, Islamic Empire, Communist bloc, Nazi Third Reich are all gone and we, the Jews, less than %.002 of the world’s population, are still here.

The theme of this year’s Holy Days is “The Importance of our Vision: Finding Meaning”. On Erev Rosh Hashanah we will introduce our journey into why ideals and dreams matter, by focusing on a talmudic text that tells us exactly what we should be praying for on Rosh Hashanah.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the subject is “God: Why do our Beliefs Matter?” They certainly matter a great deal to the dregs of extremists and terrorists today, but what about us? Do we have any core beliefs? Why God? And what kind of God it is that I reject or accept?

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we turn to our texts, the stories and history that give us vision.

On Kol Nidre: What is the mission of the Jewish people? Is it important to articulate what exactly we, the collective whole of the Jewish people, want for this world? What is the purpose of remaining Jewish? Plus a few words about how Belsize Square Synagogue fits into our people’s vision. Does our Synagogue need goals and a mission?

For Yom Kippur, what does all this search for meaning and vision mean to me as an individual? What do I live for? Should I be a part of something greater than myself?

At Yizkor, remembering: the importance of incorporating our memories of loved ones into our ideals and aims. Yizkor is all about remembering the past for the sake of our future.

At Neilah, before we say goodbye to our holiest time of the year, we will summarise and contemplate where we are headed as individuals and as a community.

We all begin our new year by dipping our challah into honey, which is perfectly kasher! Why is that an odd thing? Because normally something that is tamei (ritually impure) is forbidden, treif!

Milk products, eggs of kosher animals are just fine, but how can the product of a non-kosher creature – a bee – be considered kosher? (footnote: I love honey – good decision, Rabbis!) but why did they come up with a ruling that not only allows us to eat honey all year round but tells us we should eat it specifically at Rosh Hashanah? Why is it made the exception to the long list of prohibitions in Maimonides, Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3?

According to the Rabbis, honey represents a food which turns “bad, non-kosher” into good – and kosher. That is the concrete form of what we express in our prayers: there is always a future for happiness. Good will emerge from past unhappiness, suffering and dissonance.

So what are our greatest hopes and dreams at this time of the year? The food – the honey – symbolises our quest for 5777 to see good emerge from our misfortunes, wars and crises; to see taharah (purity), the good, emerge from tumah (impurity) and our world move toward the fulfilment of our hopes and ideals.

See you all in our beautiful Sanctuary.

Ketivah v’chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Setting our goals for 5777

Shalom Chaverim

This month begins our time for introspection, spiritual, moral and personal. Called heshbon hanefesh, or the soul’s account, it is considered in Jewish tradition to be the most intensive spiritual self-judgement of the entire year.

The theme of this year’s High Holyday sermons and services will be aims, goals and ideals. How does our faith that we are moving towards something l’eila u’l’eila (higher and higher), influence who we are?

We, the Jewish people with our Torah, left the world an array of gifts that had never before appeared to humanity: belief in One God (monotheism), belief in revelation (the still, quiet voice that addresses humanity), belief in messianism (the view that history moves toward a peaceful and idyllic future).

That last contribution is known as a linear view, the idea that history and humanity move toward a culmination. The pagan world had a “cyclical” view of history, meaning they believed in the cycle of nature, with nature making our lives spin round like wheels without end or resolution.

Then came the Torah, in which God begins Creation and moves matters forward to the family of nations, moral principles and law in a narrative, Exodus, which sees the beginning of a people’s history, a people destined to lead nations to unity and harmony.

We take seriously the words we recite from the prophet Zechariah at the end of every service in the Aleinu: Bayom hahu y’heyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad, On that day God shall be one and His Name one.

As you see, I am in a frame of mind to look forward and I ask us all to do the same. It takes a lot of hard work but also encourages us to do real heshbon hanefesh, constantly examining our souls and destiny. Failure to do so decreases our spirit and diminishes our souls. I would love to hear your passions and thoughts on where our community should be going. Here are some of my ideas:

1) I want to keep investing in the highest goals of our tradition, and central to that aim is education. We will have four Sunday sessions from 12.30- 2.30pm teaching our members to read Hebrew. Our Sunday adult education class from 10.00am-12.30pm will look at modern philosophy and the Jewish responses over the last 200 years. This is one of the real highlights of my tenure at this synagogue.
There will also be a joint class with Revd Paul Nicholson of next-door St Peter’s Church in an intensive examination of our religious traditions and more Lunch ‘n’ Learn sessions after Shabbat services.

Our ongoing Monday night Introduction to Judaism, from 7.00-8.15pm, fills the Library with 14 candidates and their partners. But I would like to encourage any of you interested in a full survey of Judaism – its values, theology, holidays, life cycle, history, Bible and literature – to join an enthusiastic and bright class.

2) We need to continue to enliven our services and to think of new possibilities for participation of both young and old.

3) Music: Our ambitious plans continue with our concert on 25 September with my friend, the violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov, along with my wife, Ella Leya, a recording star in her own right.

4)Youth: Under our new Youth chairman, Simon Cutner, plans are afoot to revitalise our youth groups.

5) Social Justice/Tikkun Olam: With the amazing Eve Hersov, our Community Care Co-Ordinator, spearheading our Bereavement and Compassion Committee, I am hoping to establish a Social Justice Committee to re-ignite a passion for social awareness and gemilut chasadim, acts of kindness to others – refugees, the poor and homeless. We need to improve our profile in this area and if someone is keen on this, tell me.

6) Travel: Our trip to Berlin in May was an extraordinary success. We hope to visit Israel next and want to see who is interested in joining us for a 2017 trip. This will not be your normal trip to Israel. We will meet rabbinical, political and archaeological personalities and the human rights right activist, Natan Sharansky.

This is the month of Elul, a time for selfevaluation, for communal evaluation and renewal of our vision for 5777, the new year which comes in next month. I look forward to seeing you in synagogue.

B’shalom always,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler