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|Rabbi's Message - April 2012|
On April 15, a few days after Passover, 37 members of our congregation will undertake a two-day heritage journey to Krakow. Together with Dr Antony Polonsky, a synagogue member and the highly esteemed professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, I will lead what promises to be a moving, educational and life-changing trip to Poland.
We will be returning to the roots of a proud Polish-Jewish community whose origins in Krakow go back to the early 14th century. We will visit the community’s oldest remaining synagogues and be introduced to its revitalised new congregation by Krakow’s only non- Orthodox rabbi, a good friend of both Ella and myself, Rabbi Tanya Segal.
We will see the synagogue that was home to one of our greatest rabbanim, Rabbi Moses Isserles, whose halachic decisions for Ashkenazi Jewry in the latter part of the 16th century appear in the Shulhan Aruch code of Jewish law.
We will be entertained by klezmer music, visit the rebuilt heart of Krakow Jewry, the Kazimierz area, spend an entire day visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau guided by resident scholars and researchers, have a unique opportunity to enjoy a contemporary production on Polish Jewry, visit the (Oskar) Schindler museum, the former Jewish ghetto of Krakow, and explore the Galician Jewish museum.
An exhausting trip due to the nature of our emotionally draining, but necessary, visit to Auschwitz. I know that this experience will be indelibly etched in the souls and memories of each person reliving the past, both the triumphant and the tragic.
I hope this will be the first of many Jewish heritage trips, for there is no better way of learning about Jewish history and life than actually to be in the places where Jews lived, prayed, studied and contributed to the vibrancy of the Jewish people and society at large.
This is one of the great messages of Passover — that in order for us to feel the deep pangs of our people’s past as slaves in ancient Egypt and sense the triumph of our liberation in the 13th century BCE, we have been instructed to
relive that past by singing it, telling the story (haggadah), and eating foods that are constant reminders of the historical events we will never forget. We relive our Jewish past, and are restored and renewed through the memories we experience. We marvel at the wonder of Jewish existence today and in the future.
Our next trip in 2013 will hopefully be to Lithuania and the rich Jewish world of Vilna, the Yiddish name for the capital, Vilnius. Stay tuned for more information.
Meir Panim – Ma’ot Chittim Passover Drive
Here is a wonderful way to get ready for Passover this year. Seel your chametz, fill out the shtar (contract) and make a gift to those in need.
Enclosed in this issue is a shtar mechirat chametz — contract for the sale of chametz —that allows me to sell your chametz (leavened foods) before Passover in fulfilment of the Torah’s commandment that all leavened food must be removed from our homes.
Alongside this tradition, an obvious subterfuge, runs the even older mitzvah of taking care of our brothers and sisters through ma’ot chittim (literally funds for wheat). Passover is an expensive time.
This is an ingenious way to link the two strands to help those in need. Jewish law and tradition instruct us to sign the enclosed shtar, allowing me to sell your chametz to Gordon. You send the form and a contribution made out to: Belsize Square Synagogue — Ma’ot Chittim Collection. I will send on the amount to the London office of Meir Panim to provide Passover foods I Israel specifically for Holocaust survivors who cannot afford it.
This is the first year we are partnering with Meir Panim, an organisation founded a little over 10 years ago to help Shoah survivors in Israel. Its remit has since widened to include other elderly and needy people as well as youth. There are still 208,000 Shoah survivors in Israel, of whom Gabi Blauer, director of Meir Panim’s London office, estimates 60,000 live below the poverty line.
Meir Panim will distribute food cards to these survivors to help them cover the cost of food for the holidays. This approach both bills a great need in Israel and preserves recipients’ selfrespect as the cards can be used discreetly in nearly every supermarket. The goal for 2012 is to provide at least 1,000 cards for Holocaust survivors.
Send your generous cheques to the shul office and make your Passover more meaningful than ever, as we are instructed in the Haggadah: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Let them truly celebrate Pesach.
On Monday 23 April at 8.15pm we will start another Pesach initiative with a session on the mitzvah of taharah (purification), an intrinsic part of the preparation of the dead for burial. While Belsize Square is blessed with a chevra
kadishah (holy society) that cares for the needs of our deceased women, we do not at present have one for our men. Come on April 23 and see if you might be interested in fulfing one of Judaism’s most time-honoured and cherished mitzvot.
The guiding principle of Judaism is life and its sanctity. Our tradition has therefore developed the principle of kvod hamet (honouring the dead) through washing the deceased, reciting appropriate prayers and giving every Jew a dignified preparation for burial.
Many have commented that in our modern society human life has been steadily denigrated, as evidenced by our insensitive and almost careless treatment of our dead. The famous anthropologist Margaret Meade wrote: “We hustle the dead off without ceremony, without the opportunity for young and old alike to realise that death is as much a fact of life as is birth.” By surrounding death with respect for life and its inviolability, Judaism infuses our communal practices with rites that evince a tender regard for the dead.
Gentlemen, we need you! Taharah is our communal obligation to take care of all our beloved in the love that God has shown for humanity and all his creation. Please come and learn about the mitzvah of taharah. You will not regret it. (Just call the office to let them know in advance.)
My grandmother, Lena Altshuler of blessed memory, spent much of her adult life as head of the chevra kadishah, both in Poland and her new home in the United States. From her sacred commitment I learned a love of life and of God’s creation as manifest in human life. We need a new generation of tzaddikim to step forward.
Finally, Avivit Katzil, co-ordinator of our Cheder Hebrew instruction, is offering a three-week course in Hebrew language, starting on Monday 30 April at 8.15pm. Avivit, a skilled professional with vast experience in tutoring and teaching Hebrew, will teach the foundations of modern Hebrew, spoken and written. Students will also develop the necessary skills to read and understand the liturgical Hebrew used in synagogue services.
The course will begin by teaching the print and script versions of the aleph-bet, enabling students to read and write Hebrew without vocalisation (vowel signs). They will learn basic verb forms and develop vocabulary for basic conversation.
Classes will be for beginners and those with a basic knowledge of the language. Hebrew, our lashon kodesh or holy tongue, is our link to Torah, the Siddur, our history and to the modern State of Israel. There will be a charge determined by enrolment numbers. If you are interested in learning Hebrew, please let us know by calling the offices and signing up
So sell your chametz, learn about taharah, study Hebrew. What better way to renew ourselves with the coming of Passover than to continue protecting our freedom to be Jews and live Jewish lives as our ancestors would want us to?
My warmest wishes to all of you and your loved ones for a blessed and joyful Passover.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler