Category: Rabbi’s Monthly Message

Chanukah and the battle against evil: then and now

Certain events in history are watershed occurrences. Some have moved us forward, some weigh heavily on the souls and fibre of civilisation. The horrific Paris terrorist attack by ISIS, or ISIL, is one such tipping point.

Suddenly there are declarations of World War III, a security crisis and the massive human problem of dealing with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Our eyes have been opened to the necessity of waging war against radical extreme Islam.

ISIS now controls a territory larger than Britain, has recruited at least 60,000 militants and thrives in the heart of Iraq and Syria. It is bent on re-establishing the Sunni caliphate and destroying the “heathen” West. And now it threatens our nations, cities and way of life.

Well, it is Chanukah. The holiday begins on the evening of Sunday 6 December, when we light the Chanukiah, sing, eat latkes and doughnuts and retell the story of the Maccabees’ brave stand for freedom against the Greek Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 164 BCE.

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The pre-eminent lesson of Chanukah is that in order to retain our values and live as Jews, freely practising our religion, we have to fight for the right simply to exist.

The war of the Maccabees was an existential fight, not so much for numbers, though scores of thousands died, but for the preservation of our Jewish soul, our right to live as Jews.

After being prevented in 168BCE by the superpower, Rome, from pursuing his dream of conquering Egypt, Antiochus returned to his Syrian realm to find that his Jewish subjects had reacted to a false report of his death in Egypt by ousting his choice of High Priest and reinstating the previous holder.
He vented his fury and frustration on Jerusalem’s Jews. Some 40,000 men were executed, around the same number of women and children sold into slavery, and their homes demolished.

He then turned on Judaism itself, banning Torah study and circumcision as well as converting the Temple to the worship of Zeus, with a daily sacrifice of a pig – he had already stolen the Temple’s golden treasures.

We learn from this heroic episode of Jewish resistance that evil exists, that our people have had to fight against those bent on destroying us.

Earlier this year, archaeologists discovered under a parking lot in Jerusalem the remains of the “acra” fortress built by Antiochus between Ir David, the City of David, and Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, on the site of demolished Jewish homes. It is all there, an archaeological miracle: the barracks, the watch towers, the spying on all Jewish activity – symbols of despotism and brutality.

In Israel Chanukah will be celebrated in grand style as Jewish history seen from the Israeli view, reminding us of Israel’s past and ongoing fight against forces bent on its destruction not just as a sovereign state but increasingly for the right of Jews to be Jewish.

Alarming claims from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority that the Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, is an “Islamic shrine”, is the clearest denial of Jewish ties to Jerusalem, both historically and religiously.

The western world has been increasingly shocked by ISIS brutality. Its origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was carried out by a member of a Brotherhood offshoot. The 1979 Iranian theocratic revolution supported Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot, in Gaza, as well as the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. All these factors have crippled the last remnants of “secularism”. Yes, even the brutal dictatorships of Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein and others are looking less threatening than ISIS madness.

The Jewish people, with our experience of fighting terror and evil around Israel, can play a crucial role in giving others strength and hope against pure evil.

  • We light candles to keep faith in our ideals, while never losing sight of the practical and brutal realities needed to stay alive as Jews.
  • We light candles in the hope that the Almighty will give us the strength to protect the persecuted and pray that we never give up our hope in a better tomorrow.
  • We light candles to remain strong in our Jewish convictions and determined to maintain our way of life.
  • We light candles so that we can continue to be a “light unto the nations” and teach our compatriots in this country, in France and throughout the free world that we can and will win this battle. We will never surrender to evil.

God bless our people, Israel, our families, our loved ones, and the vast majority of Christians, Jews and Muslims who desire not war, not terror, but peace.

Chag Chanukah Sameach
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The right sort of fear: our High Holydays theme

Shalom Chaverim
As the days become shorter, we settle back into our routines. The test now is to infuse into our daily lives a spiritual and moral dimension. So here is a brief summary of the journey we made in our sermons during the High Holydays.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
I welcomed 5776 by introducing the theme of fear, because these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Fear (or Awe) when we confront our basic fears. But this should be put into perspective. While we have legitimate fears about health, finances, children or politics, when compared to earlier generations we are far better off in life span, health and security. We have the State of Israel and no longer need fear the pogroms and genocide endured by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

First Day Rosh Hashanah
On Rosh Hashanah, I expanded on our legitimate fears – including dentists and heights! – and looked at how our ancestors reacted. They were guided by a biblical fear, the fear of God (yir’at shamayim – the fear of heaven) the fear of doing the wrong thing. My examples were the midwives in Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s orders at risk of death because of yir’at Elohim, fear of God, and then the command in Leviticus not to “put a stumbling block in front of the blind nor curse the deaf … because you shall fear God”. No fear of thunderbolts here, just an awareness of doing the right thing.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah
Here I spoke about parents’ fears for their children’s future. This is the era of the “selfie”, of incredible narcissism, cynicism and a jaded attitude towards goodness. We need to ensure that our children do not forget their Jewish heritage and values or lose hope in the vital belief that they can make a difference through fulfilling the mitzvot.

Kol Nidrei
With antisemitism rising, another fear is a repeat of the Shoah. What lessons can we learn? My hypothesis is that, by dwelling on the means – the depraved torture, terror and murder of six million – we are in danger of forgetting the most important issue, the end. The aim was to annihilate Judaism as well as the Jews. On Kol Nidrei, the holiest night of the Jewish year, we must increase our support for the synagogue and what it represents. Especially in this congregation, we must be more determined than ever to make living Judaism our greatest priority.

Yom Kippur
Here I suggested we have two sides, as shown in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I was once asked at a Bar Mitzvah whether I really believed that the kind of ethics I had taught mattered because, as the guest said, “That’s not my world, Rabbi. My world is about success and achieving”.
In Genesis 1 we are told to “conquer the world”, using our powers to conquer space, disease, etc. In Genesis 2, we are told we are nefesh, soul, and must be joined to another soul to develop and nurture our love for others. Genesis 1 symbolises our power. Genesis 2 is Shabbat, a reflection of the part of us that lives for others. I asked you to be a part of “my world”. We are more than figures and achievements, we are also love and soul.

Yizkor
I addressed our concerns as to how to keep our loved ones alive in our minds. To keep their memory fresh by recalling their values and beliefs. Through living by their principles, we continue to be with them. And if we live in such a way, with love and devotion, our children and grandchildren will in turn remember us.

Neilah
I ended by reviewing our journey of fear. Despite terror, economic uncertainty or worry about our loved ones, we need to confront fear in the right spirit – with renewed hope, strength, faith, love of humanity and love of God. We become the “god” we worship. If we are cynical and negative about our power for good, that is the god we create. The God with whom our ancestors communicated is an optimistic God, believing in the power to make the world better, rather than dimming our vision and reducing our faith, confining us in a world of negativity. Have hope, courage and faith before the gates close!

Thanks
There are so many people to thank for our High Holyday experience but I do thank all our daveners, Torah readers, Haftarah chanters, shofar blowers, the leaders of our Youth Services, the children who led Yom Kippur Minchah, our Succah decorators, the professional and community choirs, our caretakers, crèche workers, security, youth leaders, sound equipment people, wardens, webcasting crew, our music director Ben Wolf and Cantor Paul Heller.
Join us each Shabbat and send a wish and prayer for your dear ones. A special prayer for peace for the people and State of Israel. You are constantly in our prayers and thoughts.

B’shalom

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Law, custom and folk belief

The problem of the “Mazkir Exodus”

We are still very much into our Holiday season, having just completed our Yamim Noraim and now entering the festivities of the Succot week, culminating in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Please come to our synagogue and rejoice in the Holidays.

What I thought would be of most value to you is a little guidance on the following question: what exactly does Judaism require of me? What is law? What is custom? What is bubbe meise, or folk religion? The reason why I share this lesson with you is that each year at Yom Kippur, at Yizkor or, as we say at Belsize Square, Mazkir, there is a mass exodus from the synagogue as we begin to recite the memorial prayers, meditate upon the lives of our loved ones and recite our affirmation of love and faith with the words of the Kaddish, always in their memory.

The exodus from shul is one of the most interesting examples of how folk religion has in many ways come to replace the dictates of Jewish law and normative minhag, or custom. There is no good reason why it should have become such an odd replacement of traditional mandated behaviour, since there is no prohibition in any shape or form on reciting Kaddish and being in synagogue with living parents to remember our departed loved ones.

There is always someone for us to remember – a grandparent, friend, Jews of the past, anonymous individuals who need to be remembered. We miss a great opportunity, an essential part of our spiritual beings, in leaving just at the time we need to remember and do right by those no longer with us. Leaving is entirely bubbe meise, an unnecessary superstition.

There are three categories that dictate Jewish behaviour: halachah (Jewish law), minhag (normative custom or convention) – and then there’s bubbe meise. Halachah is mandated, required for each and every Jew after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Halachah is mitzvah, commandment.

The halachot are rooted in the 613 Torah Mitzvot, a large chunk of which we can no longer fulfill because they require the existence of a Temple. In addition, there are later rabbinic halachot, such as lighting Shabbat or Chanucah candles, which carry the same weight as a Torah commandment.

Halachot are both ethical and ritual and they run to a long list. To take some well-known examples: asking for and granting forgiveness (Teshuvah), ethical business practices, giving to those in need (Tzedakah), studying Torah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, refraining from gossip and slander (lashon harah), and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Halachah is required of us but halachah changes. Some halachot fall out of use or lose their relevance, such as shatnez, the Torah prohibition against mixing wool and linen, which pales into insignificance in today’s wide range of materials. But these emendations to halachah are part of a process of legal interpretation, growth and evolution.

As an example of the evolution of rabbinic understanding of Jewish law, take the participation of women in Jewish ritual life. Not until the late 19th century were Jewish women allowed to study Torah in major Eastern European communities. Yet halachah has never restricted women in any way.

Minhag is a tougher definition since some “customs” do eventually find their way into normative Jewish practice while others fade away. We bow during the Aleinu, we eat honey and apples at Rosh Hashanah, we refrain from eating meat in the nine days before Tisha B’Av, we cover our mirrors in a house of mourning, we do not eat dairy after eating meat for either one, three or even six hours depending upon local minhag, we come the long way to the Torah for our Aliyah, we recite early morning prayers before the formal call to worship, and so on.

There are different customs for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as for Jews living in Israel today. All these customs have a vital role to play in how we as Jews express our commitment to halachah and Jewish values.

And then there are Belsize Square customs, customs that belong to no other Jewish community! Yes, we have our very own. You might have your favourites, here are some of mine: bowing at the Ark before the Torah scroll is removed, the Cantor shifting the Torah scroll from the right to left shoulder before the blessing of the coming month (birkat hachodesh), not announcing page numbers (in common, admittedly, with most British synagogues), calling Yizkor – the normal term for the Memorial Service everywhere else – Mazkir, and … starting services punctually on time and, following unspoken guidelines, taking one hour on Friday evening and two hours on Saturday morning!

Finally, there are superstitions, pure and simple, developed over the years. Many originated from the kabbalistic movement in the late mediaeval shtetls of Eastern Europe. They are mostly concerned with graveside and mourning practices. One belief I heard recently is that it is inappropriate for a grandchild to recite Kaddish for a grandparent while the parents are still alive. That’s totally superstition.

Reciting Kaddish is binding on the deceased’s children, siblings, parents and spouse. But there is nothing that precludes a grandchild, or anyone for that matter, from reciting Kaddish at the cemetery, in synagogue or in a minyan.

There is no bar on remaining in synagogue, even if both parents arealive, for the Mazkir/Yizkor service,which is also recited on the three Pilgrimage Festivals. And only superstition would stop a pregnant woman coming to the cemetery.

I hope this synopsis helps. If you have any questions about what Judaism requires of us through halachah, or suggests that we do because of minhag, or seems to prohibit by virtue of folk religion, just ask. That’s why I’m here.

My wishes to all of you for a week of Succot joy and celebration. To rejoice is a mitzvah. It’s an order! So mo’adim l’simchah (fixed times for joy). May your Holidays be celebrated with simchah, with joy.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Ushering in New Year 5776

We are just a couple weeks away from ushering in another new year, 5776. These Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) will be my fifth with the congregation and I, as each year, look forward to our sacred time together.

So much that has occurred during the past year – the terror threat of ISIS, or Daesh, streams of Middle Eastern refugees, continuing Israeli tensions, a likely change in Western relationships with Iran’s Shiite theocracy, the Greek financial crisis, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Elections at home highlighted worries over immigration.

For Belsize Square Synagogue, there were more triumphs than not – increased membership and continued enthusiasm for our beloved congregation and its activities, with celebrations galore and glorious musical offerings from our multi-talented members, young and old.

The challenges remain the same: enhancing Jewish identity, raising educational levels, offering a vital home for our youth, developing leadership and new volunteers, and never taking our future for granted.

We may approach the holidays with our usual presumptions but there are ways we can improve. For many the holidays are an ordeal, attendance something we “have to do”, services boring and prayers written in a time hard to relate to. We are unaware of the symphony, history and moral genius of the liturgy. We come late, leave early and let our minds wander or talk to our neighbours.

Despite the regular assumption that I must be disheartened by the lack of attention, I am fully aware how difficult it can be for some of you. The Hebrew is difficult, translations even more so, and services are long. And while I spend days and weeks writing my sermons, it is always a wonder that anyone really listens to my words, whose theme this year is Fear: Fear of God (the Yamim Nora’im), terror, loss of health, life, relationships.

The biggest challenge for us is this: we have too blithely turned our services into a spectator sport. People come to watch the action take place on the bimah instead of in the seats! You can change that by doing something to make our time together more engaging.

  • So make some noise at services! They are not supposed to be quiet. I hope for a constant buzz of people singing along with the choir and Cantor and it is OK to chat to our neighbours, so long as we avoid long conversations that detract from the focus of the services and disturb others.
  • Make the services more meaningful before you even get here! Find someone to whom you owe an apology. Ask forgiveness and forgive others at home, work and synagogue. Do real cheshbon hanefesh (scrutiny of our lives and souls) to put us in the right frame of mind to use the service as a catalyst for self-improvement.
  • Da lifnei mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand. If you are distracted in synagogue, have negative thoughts, get annoyed with this or that, say to yourself: “I stand here before my Creator and I must take account of who I am.” It will jolt us into experiencing truly meaningful prayer and devotion.

There is a tale of a wagon driver who took a rabbi from town to town. Passing an orchard. the driver said: “I’ll get some apples.” As he climbed a tree, the rabbi yelled: “He’s watching!” The driver scrambled down and ran. The rabbi drove till he caught up. “Rabbi, why did you yell: ‘He’s watching’? There was no one there.” The rabbi said: “I wasn’t talking about the farmer. I said – and he pointed upwards – ‘HE’s watching!’”

Come to our synagogue, a haven of sanctity. I want them to have a constant buzz, with all of you singing, thinking, engaging with God, Torah and the Jewish people. Then our ushering in of 5776 will be the best ever!

My wife Ella and our son Micah, with my daughter Elana and son Eitan, and I wish you all a sweet, healthy, blessed and peaceful new year 5776

Bivracha, shana tova u’metukah
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Exciting times ahead

Shalom Chaverim,

This is a wonderful time of year to recharge our batteries and begin planning our Synagogue calendar for next year, 5776.

Let me share with you some of my ideas to ensure that our congregation remains at the forefront of leadership, especially in Jewish education and affirmation.

Our Shabbat calendar is already almost filled with Bnei Mitzvah. I am also booked for weddings and speaking engagements.

We will continue our weekly exploration of The Great Thinkers and Jewish Responses in the modern period: Hume, Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau Voltaire and Sartre, with their Jewish counterparts: Mendelssohn, Hirsch, Zunz, Graetz, Frankel, Rosenzweig, Buber, Kaplan and Heschel. Sunday mornings sessions are followed by guest speakers and special events.

Field trips are planned to the Cairo Genizah at Cambridge, the British Museum and British Library.

Also in the planning stage is a visit to Poland with Professor Antony Polonsky, our distinguished member who is the world’s leading expert in Jewish Eastern European History, specialising in Poland, and recently appointed head of the Warsaw Jewish Museum. Together we will lead a BSS group on a unique tour, which will include the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek camp on the outskirts of Lublin.

Let me also invite you all to Cantor Heller’s autumn leyning class. Learning to read from the Torah gives us the skills to take a greater part in our services.

Our music programme continues, with a surprise concert bringing us the very best in the classical music world. We have an outstanding Music Committee chairman in Philip Keller. Stay tuned!

I will be away in July and August visiting family in the US and attending a Bible conference in Germany. While in Los Angeles, I will meet Rabbi Professor Elliot Dorff, head of the Committee of Laws and Standards for the Conservative Movement international. With a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University, Professor Dorff teaches Judaism and Legal Ethics at UCLA Law School and is a prolific writer and good friend of your Rabbi. I hope to arrange a visit for this leading Jewish philosophy scholar to speak to us. It will certainly enhance our educational profile.

One of the things I have initiated for the benefit of our wider community is the Camden/Hampstead/Belsize Park Interfaith Matters, an inter-religious clergy association. From a handful in January, we have extended our reach to leaders in over 15 religious institutions: Jewish Orthodox (2) and non-Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim Shiite and Sunni. The group has enabled us to hold important religious dialogue on extremism and the need to combat anti- Semitism.

Through this body, I spoke at the Islamic Centre of England (in Maida Vale), where I called for dialogue with a Sunni mosque which had invited a well-known anti-Semite from Qatar to London. Dialogue can make people aware of the dangers and reduce the damage.

In May we hosted the outgoing Mayor of Camden’s Interfaith Dinner, with 25 religious lay leaders of all faiths. I took the occasion to introduce them to Judaism. Such interaction is invaluable, and I firmly believe BSS can play an important role. It is a little known fact that one of the major failings of Jewish life in Berlin was the absence of inter- religious dialogue. By remaining insular, with no meeting ground to cultivate friendship and mutual respect, any possibility of averting the destructive hatred against Jews that led to the Shoah was lost. We are hoping to put together a Limmud-type study day for all religious faiths, as a huge step towards fostering better relations.

So there’s lots to do. Just a note: Yom Kippur services will begin at 9.30am rather than 10.00am. Pseukei d’Zimra (early morning Psalms) will be abbreviated to make time for later parts of the service and a 45-minute discussion before Mincha on The Jewish Future. We’ll uplift our services even more spiritually and intellectually.

My very best to you and your loved ones for a joyous and fulfilling summer.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

A time to look forward, a time to look back

Shalom Chaverim,

It is indeed that time of the year. We are approaching our summer break and taking stock of what has transpired over the past year and what we plan for the future. Here are some reflections on past events and future challenges.

Religion & Judaism: We had a busy schedule with an overflow of B’nei Mitzvah celebrations, aufrufs, baby naming, conversions, new members, anniversaries and special birthdays. Our High Holiday attendance keeps growing, our Friday night attendance is creeping upwards and on Shabbat morning is improving. We continue to get amazing feedback, especially from guests. We will continue to work on increasing participation.

Education: I still measure the uniqueness of a congregation by its commitment to Jewish education. We are doing better all the time but still need to inspire more people to take advantage of our educational opportunities. We have seen steady growth in our Sunday morning study group. We held a more than successful Lehrhaus in November, attracting people from across the community for a stimulating day of learning. The fourpart course taught by Reverend Nicholson and myself, alternating between next-door St Peter’s Church and Belsize Square Synagogue was a real treat.

Our Monday night Introduction to Judaism course, designed for converts but open to all members, continues to enjoy steady growth. Four students have passed through the door of the Bet Din to throw in their lot with the Jewish people. I am proud both of them and the way they have been integrated into our congregation. They are a huge part of our future.

Next year: a Cantor’s class on learning to leyn; three Hebrew Reading Marathon sessions; a trip led by our member, Professor Antony Polonsky, and myself to Warsaw. Professor Polonsky, the world’s leading authority on Polish and Eastern European Jewry (I read his work long before I came to Belsize Square Synagogue) is now Director of the new Jewish Museum in Warsaw. Stay tuned for details.

Community Relations: Thanks to so many people’s efforts, our synagogue continues to lead in teaching the lessons of the Shoah to London youth.

With the help of Reverend Paul Nicholson, I have begun a Camden Area Interfaith Forum. Starting in January with six clergy members, we now have over 20 from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim (Shia and Sunni), and Jewish communities, including two local Orthodox rabbis.

I would like to develop our Social Justice Committee and make those efforts a greater part of our synagogue mission. Our religious vision depends on our efforts towards tikkun olam, making the world a better place.

Music: A real highlight this year were the four superb concerts. The peak, of course, was the playing of the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, with the famous duo of Maxim Vengerov, world-renowned violinist, perhaps the finest in the world today, and …. your rabbi! I’ve given many sermons, led many services and had to officiate at some very difficult funerals but this concert was the real crucible for me.

Time now to thank our brilliant Cantor, Music and Choir Directors, our three choirs and all who make Belsize Square Synagogue the centre of London’s Jewish music. We are indeed blessed with a high calibre of musicianship.

We have mourned pillars of the community, Norbert Cohn and Herbert Levy, all shining stars and angels who continue to bless us. We will never forget them in our prayers and memories.

We have battled anti-Semitism this year at the Tricycle Theatre in the debacle of the UK Jewish Film Festival boycott and seen the rise of anti-Semitism at home and across Europe. We have taken part in the General Election and seen Israel’s election give a fourth term for Netanyahu – love him or hate him, Israelis have spoken at the ballot box during difficult times. There’s Iran, ISIS, beheadings, the continuous threat of terror – and then there are our prayers and our deeds.

Let us keep our faith, our faith in each other, our faith in our Judaism, a religion that goes back further than any other “ism” in history. With God’s blessing, we face our future with joy and shalom.

Have a wonderful summer of reflection, learning – and peace.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Two Major Anniversaries

Dear Chevra,

This month of May marks two outstanding accomplishments and features of Jewish history: Israel and the giving of Torah at Sinai. Frankly, my love of Israel (both state and people) and my love of Judaism have been pillars of strength every day of my life. And both, Torah and Israel, are miracles outside the logic of history and ideas.

On Thursday 14 May, the secular date, we celebrate the 67th anniversary of Israel as a modern nation state. No state was ever established by any people after a 2000-year hiatus of dreams and hopes. In 1948, when Israel was founded, the population was approximately 660,000. Today it is a state of more than eight million.

In 1948, six Arab armies attacked Israel, vowing to destroy the fledgling nation state – just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz. With one tank and a completely volunteer army, Israel defeated its attackers and has sought security and recognition ever since.

In 1948, Jerusalem was divided into two sections, separated by barbed wire, and the ancient Jewish Quarter evacuated. Despite guarantees of Jerusalem’s international status and the protection of religious sites, all synagogues were destroyed and cemeteries desecrated. Until the miraculous restoration of 1967, Jews – and not just Israelis – could not even visit our most sacred sites.

And when Israel’s place among nations, alongside a new Arab state, was approved by the United Nations on 29 November 1947, the Arab nations rejected the very idea. In consequence, 650,000 Arabs became refugees, a situation still unresolved. We all know that as long as the goal of Israel’s neighbours is its destruction, there will be no peace.

One day there will be security and room for both peoples. One day Israel will not have to spend 18% of its hard-earned GNP on defence. Children on both sides will grow up in peace and with respect for each other. Hatikvah – that is our hope on Israel’s 67th birthday.

And then there is the miracle of Torah, celebrated this year from the evening of Saturday 23 May right through to Monday 25 May, the holiday of Shavuot, Matan Torateinu, the gift of receiving the Torah at Sinai. On that day, 6 Sivan, in approximately the year 1290 BCE, our people received a Law, a Scripture, an ethic, a theology, a constitution that revolutionised humanity. The dignity of all human life was emblazoned into the hearts of our people to share with the rest of humanity.

I measure my own success as a rabbi not only by the numerous services and life cycle events that I officiate at, but in large part to the students I teach. In fact, every service, every sermon is a learning opportunity to my mind. And there is nothing more precious than delving into Talmud Torah, the study of Judaism, with full resources and depth.

So after the 6.45pm evening service on Saturday 23 May, and a break for refreshments, our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot sessions will begin with the first of our five distinguished speakers. This year’s theme is ethics and the role of justice. Please join us. This is an enormously popular part of our annual schedule and an enriching experience for us all. There will be plenty of coffee and scrumptious dairy desserts and delights.

My thanks to our Shavuot Tikkun chair, Alasdair Nisbet, as well as to Claire Walford, organiser of our thriving Adult Discussion Group. They are gifts to our community, helping to perpetuate our most important agenda – Jewish learning.

So to us all, in celebration of two miracles: the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and the gift of the Torah, around 1290 BCE. We should never forget who we are and the glory of what our people have given to the world.

I wish all of you and your loved ones a delicious, meaningful and blessed Shavuot, filled with Jewish learning and celebration.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Freedom and Election Issues

Dear Chevra,

Spring is in the air. It is Passover, the celebration not only of the change of seasons but also the commemoration of our liberation from bondage to freedom, the beginnings of the Jewish people.

Of course, Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday, steeped in ethics and memories of our own experience. But it is a holiday whose message has resonated in the souls of many peoples and nations, in the quest for freedom.

Freedom, in order to be preserved, requires responsibility to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the unliberated and the oppressed all over the world. The Jewish soul cannot rest until all are free.

“Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The latter part of this famous cry for freedom in the Book of Exodus is often left out. The purpose of freedom is to better the world; we call it “to worship” or “to serve” God in making this world a kingdom of God on earth.

I am writing this message a few weeks before Pesach but I think that this year’s Passover is a reminder in a world often dominated by terror, autocrats and oppression, that we in a few selected countries enjoy the privilege to vote and choose our elected leaders. The Pharaohs of the world are not chosen.

We might complain about our elected officials, but we have the freedom – and responsibility – to choose them from among many. Freedom in the coming election for this nation’s future in May; freedom exercised in Israel – Israel’s democracy is often chaotic and volatile but the people have chosen their next government in a swarm of nations surrounding her that know nothing of democratic choice; and in my country, the USA, next year will see another round of debates, primaries and the final vote in November 2016 for the next President. Cheers to all three nations!

Passover also allows us to ponder why God created our people and to ask what has been the uniqueness of Judaism, our message, since our liberation from Egypt in approximately 1290 BCE. I suggest the following possible answers for what we have taught the world:

  • Freedom must lead to education and learning. Literacy and knowledge leads to the right behaviour among us: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is equal to all other Commandments.
  • Freedom involves passionate and sincere debate. Many points of view, many paths of discovery and respect for the differences among us lie at the heart of religious faith.
  • It is OK to ask questions about everything: faith, religion, politics, social values, history, literature, freedom, justice. A society that suppresses the right to ask questions is a society of Pharaohs. In too many other places in the world, people still do not have the right to challenge what they have been taught and to question whether it is true.
  • Absolutism, fundamentalism, certainty of belief is the kiss of doom to freedom. Freedom means that we continue to search for the truth. It never teaches us that all truth is revealed and known. Fundamentalism of the type the West is struggling against today leads to violence and intolerance, as was the case in the former Soviet Union, today’s Iran and other terrorist-based entities.
  • The chiddush, that which is new, is to be cherished. Religion is not just to preserve the past but is meant to stimulate our search for new solutions, a more just society, a more moral society.
  • Seeking the “good”, morality, is the heart of true freedom, the basis of the Ten Commandments. Ours is a God who “brought us out of the land of Egypt”, not a distant God who created the universe but a God who cares the most about the way we treat other people – the heart of all religious life.
  • Making this world a place where God can truly dwell, a kingdom of peace on earth, is our most important quest and vision. It is our behaviour that counts the most, not what we believe. To seek each day a path that can lead us toward making this world into what it ought to be tomorrow should be the essence of every human being on earth.

Some day … some day … Adonai Echad u’shmo Echad – The Lord is One and His Name will be One.

My wishes to you and your loved ones for a blessed, rich, tasty, freedom-filled Passover with family and community.

Chag Pesach sameach to all.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

SCHOOL VISITS – JOINT SHUL & CHURCH LECTURES – PURIM FUN

It’s all go at Belsize Square Synagogue

Dear Friends,

I am writing this message to you having met with the last of four schools visiting Belsize Square Synagogue for our annual Holocaust Education days. The impact of our outreach to children who never came to a synagogue and who had no exposure to any Holocaust education or testimonies, is a most powerful experience, a reminder, once again, of the role our synagogue and community play in our wider society.

I cannot thank enough Henny Levin, our chief organiser of this event each year, and all the volunteers, who are an integral part of this tremendous outreach. May we all hope for the day when the lessons of the Shoah have truly been understood and that our world will never tolerate again words such as extermination, genocide, Holocaust, anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism and any ideology that disrespects the image of God that is a part of every human being on this earth.

We pray for the four million refugees from Syria, 200,000 killed in the war there, the victims of terror around the world, and those who live in daily fear in Eastern Ukraine, Nigeria and elsewhere around the globe.

It is Purim, after all, that reminds us of the delicate balance between death and sorrow on the one hand, life and celebration on the other. One minute Haman plotted to exterminate the Jews of Persia; the next minute he fell, due to the valour of Queen Esther and Mordechai. We celebrate with song, food and laughter.

This year we will have a special performance of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at 6pm on Wednesday 4 March, followed by a se’udah (festive meal) and the reading of the Megillah. On Thursday we will have a Purim lunch, for music and talk.

As a highlight this month, I am pleased to announce that St Peter’s Anglican Church, under Rev Paul Nicholson, and Belsize Square Synagogue will host our first joint adult education class, with two sessions at St Peter’s and two at Belsize Square. Please take advantage of the tremendous opportunity to learn, share and discover, together with our neighbours at St Peter’s, listed here.

One last note. Passover follows straight after this month. I ask all of you to consider participating in Maot Hittin, the
“selling of hametz”. It is embedded in our Jewish tradition to “welcome the stranger” and to “feed the hungry” and what better way of doing that than to make out a cheque for £10, £15, £25, or whatever amount, to Belsize Square Synagogue – Rabbi Altshuler’s Discretionary Fund.

The money collected will be forwarded to Manna (formerly Meir Panim), a partner group with our synagogue, dedicated to providing food in dignity to those in Israel who are desperately hungry, specifically to celebrate Pesach. Manna began as a response to the many Holocaust survivors in Israel below the poverty line, most of them from the former Soviet Union.They needed help and Manna came into existence. All you need do is fill out the “contract” that allows me to sell your hametz and, with a contribution for Manna, you have more than fulfilled the core mitzvah of this season.

I want to wish all of you a good month of March, a raucous celebration of Jewish survival with Purim, and a meaningful preparation for the coming celebration of Passover.

B’shalom always
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

SECURITY FEARS IN THE MIDST OF TERROR – ARE WE SAFE?

Shalom, Dear Members of Belsize Square Synagogue,

This past month has been a difficult one for us because of the horrific terrorist murders that took the lives of 17, including four Jews simply shopping for Shabbat.

We now know that one of those victims was Yoav Hattab, aged 21, son of the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia. At the start of the supermarket siege he tried to grab the terrorist’s gun. His last text from the shop to a friend, was to “light Shabbat candles to bring peace into the world.”

Such a contrast between the Jewish environment we try to create in our homes and the violent ways of many around us. There has been much discussion about the future of UK Jewry, about the increase in uncertainty and fear that has gripped parts of our community.

While there is some disagreement about the validity of the results, Jews are talking about the recent survey of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, showing 45% of British Jews believe that Jews “may no longer have a long term future in Britain.”

I have been in this country for the past four years and am certainly not oblivious to the dangers of terror and the violent anti-Semitism gripping much of European society, including the UK. But from what I have observed, British Jews are thriving. Never before have there been as many opportunities for Jewish learning, life, observance and participation.

Since arriving, I have personally noticed a greater willingness in our own midst to stand up, to be counted, to participate in demonstrations for Israel and against all threats to Jewish honour and existence. While aware of the reality in London and other parts of the country, I do not believe in any overreaction. This is not Nazi Germany.
We should be grateful that terror threats and the rise of anti-Semitism have met a response from leaders of both major parties, police and security personnel, and our own community. We are not afraid and are protected in our freedom and Jewish life by the rule of law.

As Home Secretary Theresa May declared before the Board of Deputies: “Without its Jews, Britain would not be Britain”.

There is another way of looking at religion, very different from the “religion” of the terrorists or extremists, and that comes from our own Source of Life, the Torah . I am addressing the importance of each of the Commandments on Friday nights. I hope you will all come for the remaining sermons.

A recap thus far – Commandment 1: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. One God, one humanity, the sanctity of all life is the basis of all Commandments. This is a God who cares less about the magnificence of the creation of the universe and who emphasises the importance of freeing slaves from bondage. Our compassion and goodness to all human beings is the gateway to God. That’s what our God expects, everything else is secondary.

Commandment 2: You shall not make any other gods besides Me (God). In modern idiom, this means that any time we place anything else – even “good” things – at the top of the pyramid of our value system, it leads to ruin. Humanity has tried placing nation, money, art and music, education, science, even love in place of God, and all efforts to do so have failed us. If you replace God’s Law, the supremacy of God over all, if you divide humanity in any way, if you worship replacement gods, you are violating the viability of our world.

Commandment 3: You shall not take God’s Name in vain. This Commandment in no way prohibits “swearing” or “blasphemy”. What it does prohibit is using God’s Name for unjust and immoral purposes. This Commandment is for all those who kill in the name of God, who find no inconsistency between God and using religion and/or God to brutalise other human beings.

Please come and discover the rest of the magnificence of the Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot, and know why these Commandments, given at Sinai, are the foundation of Judaism and, for that matter, human existence as we know it.

My wishes to all of you for a month of learning, increased Jewish awareness, of life, of peace, of goodness, of sanctity in everything we do.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler