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Chairman’s message 24 February

Dear Friends

This week I have been smiling about the Weetabix PR campaign. You may have read that Weetabix posted a tweet showing two of their cereals smothered in baked beans with the caption: “Why should bread have all the fun when there’s Weetabix?”

It is the replies that have made me smile, even in a pandemic humour shines through from unexpected places and can lift our spirits. Here are my favourites:

  • Sussex Police said “nothing warrants this”
  • The Royal National Lifeboat Institute said “our volunteers are prepared to brave all sorts of windy conditions. But not this”.
  • Sainsbury’s told Weetabix that “Beans have no authority here, no authority AT ALL” (referencing Jackie Weaver and the parish council meeting of course!)
  • The US Embassy tweeted that the pairing was not the US-UK “collaboration we were hoping for”. To which the British Embassy responded with: “Strong opinion from the nation that makes tea in a microwave.”
  • Israel used its official account to say: “Finally something that all Middle Eastern countries can agree on. Just no.”

Turning to the Synagogue, we are looking at when we can reopen as the national vaccination programme starts to have a real impact. There is very little guidance that has been produced so far but we expect to have more news for you over the coming weeks. We also have a problem with our sound system in the synagogue, which we hope to have repaired ahead of returning. In the meantime our Shabbat services continue on BelsizeLIVE and as I have said for the last few weeks please do join us for Purim tomorrow at 7pm. (To tempt you, I understand that we may hear some jokes from Rabbi Altshuler so come and listen in person).

Another synagogue event for your diary was recently announced and if you didn’t see it, on Sunday 7 March at 7pm, Music at Belsize is very excited to bring you the Pizmon a cappella group, from the USA to your home! Pizmon is the co-ed pluralistic Jewish a cappella group of Columbia University, Barnard College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. There is no charge for this event but Pizmon will include a payment link at the end of the concert for anyone who wishes to support them. If you are interested you can join on Zoom.

Following on from Rabbi Altshuler’s announcement last week, I am happy to tell you that Rabbi Botnick and his family are now living in the UK. There will be an article in the next Our Cong telling you more about them, so do read it when it comes out. In the meantime, Rabbi Botnick is taking this time to settle into UK life and I would ask you to please give him some space to do this. He will start with us after Pesach and although I am in contact with him regularly, I would ask that for now please do not contact him directly to ask him any questions. If you have anything you feel needs answering immediately, then please come to me by email or phone. As keen as we all are to welcome him, we need to be respectful of his personal life at this time.  

Lastly, this Shabbat is the start of Jewish Book Week and its Festival, if you are interested in finding out more about the programme it can be found on https://jewishbookweek.com/

That is all from me this week. Stay safe and stay well.

Jackie

Chairman’s message 17 February

Dear Friends,

The weather is getting warmer and some of us are vaccinated and the schools may go back, so all in all things are improving. I came across an article last week written by three individuals who work for Potential Projects: Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Nick Hobson and it starts “…it feels as if the world we know is faltering… now more than ever it’s imperative to demonstrate compassion.” That made me sit up and think! Here are some points that I took from it that you may find interesting and which I am now trying to put into my day-to-day living:

  • Compassion is the quality of having positive intentions and a real concern for others
  • Compassion on its own is not enough it must be combined with wisdom
  • To have wise compassion you have to have compassion for yourself, don’t let yourself get out of balance, don’t self-criticise all the time
  • Check your intentions before you speak
  • Compassion is a trainable skill, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone
  • Develop a genuine caring for people’s feelings and well-being

Turning to the Synagogue, as you know we are represented on the Board of Deputies by three people. Sadly, both Robert Sacks and Carol Cohen are stepping down from their position as Deputies. Deborah Nerva-Cohen is continuing. It is so important that we have a voice in this forum and can raise key issues that concern us. Please can I ask you to contact Lee if you would like to explore what this involves and Deborah or Annette Nathan will be happy to talk to you about the detail. We need your help! In the meantime, can I thank Robert and Carol for all the work that they have done for the Synagogue.

I am so proud to tell you that in spite of lockdown and school disruption, our Holocaust Memorial Day Programme for schools is being delivered virtually and has been very well received. We have already delivered to South Hampstead High School and there are some other schools who would normally attend the Synagogue, who have also asked us to do the same. An enormous thank you goes to Peter Bohm who is the driving force behind this project (never taking a “no we can’t do it” for an answer), to Cantor Heller for spending hours putting together much of the material, to presenters Rob Nothman and Hilary Solomon, and everyone else involved.

Our member, Alisa Jaffa, is in conversation at AJR online on Thursday 4 March from 4-5pm. She will be talking about how her early experiences in Nazi Germany have affected her life and perspective, and what it feels like to give testimony for the AJR Archive. Please use the link below to register for the talk which is free:

www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/voices-from-the-archive-a-conversation-with-alisa-jaffa-tickets-141414846613

World Jewish Relief have a number of online events over the coming months that you might be interested in – www.worldjewishrelief.org/get-involved/events/1102-globetrotting-with-world-jewish-relief

I have had some enquiries about Pesach. More will follow in the next few weeks but we will be holding a Zoom Communal Seder on the second night, Sunday 28 March. Pop this in your diary.

Lastly can I remind you again that it is Purim next week on 25 February at 7.00pm. As I said last week it will be run by the children, with the children and for the children but held virtually. This promises to be a special event so please do plan to join us and send pictures of your fancy dress to Lee (lee@synagogue.org.uk).

That is all from me for this week. Stay safe and stay well.

Jackie

Chairman’s message 10 February

Dear Friends

I love snow!! The current weather, which I know is not welcome by many of you, has lifted my spirits. I love the mountains (yes, I know there aren’t any in London!), I started skiing when I was six, so as soon as I see snow I literally smell the mountain air and imagine that I am gliding down a gentle path to a warm and welcoming lunch. It also makes everything look pretty, the trees are magical and the London grime is hidden. I am easily pleased!

Anyway, that is enough of my musing for this week, I have a few things to tell you. We held our first Shabbat Schmooze Zoom after the service last week and I want to remind you that it is taking place at noon every Saturday after the service. It’s a chance to make kiddush and chat with friends. Claire Walford’s Candle Lighting continues on Friday evenings at 7.45pm, after the Erev Shabbat Service. This is another opportunity to see each other at the end of the week. Two opportunities for you to speak to each other and feel part of our community, please do join in. 

We are hoping to bring you live Shabbat Services on BelsizeLIVE this week with the Rabbi, Cantor and Ben Wolf broadcasting from the Synagogue. Our livestream is in the process of being fixed and in the event it is not ready we will have recorded Services for you to watch instead.

Coming up fast is Purim on 25 February at 7.00pm. This is our usual Purim – run by the children, with the children and for the children but held virtually. We would love parents and grandparents to send us in pictures of your children/grandchildren in fancy dress and/or waving groggers, or munching on hamantaschen. Or you can send us pictures of yourselves doing the same! The best pictures will be put into our magazine, Our Cong, although they will be too late for the upcoming edition. This promises to be a special event so please do plan to join us and send your pictures to Lee (lee@synagogue.org.uk).

If you have spare books that you no longer need, Langdon have a book warehouse in Harrow and would welcome donations. They have an amazingly large space filled with shelves of catalogued books, which they sell online. They also supply books to residential care homes and no books go to landfill. The warehouse has Langdon residents working alongside volunteers. To make it even easier for you to donate they will collect books from your homes . Please contact Langdon on 020 8951 3942 and ask for information on New Chapters. It’s not just books – they will also collect CDs, DVDs and records.

Finally, I wanted to let you know that the Kirsh Foundation run weekly free lectures, as the Lockdown University, on a range of fascinating subjects. If you would like to get onto their mailing list please contact Judi Ferreira at judi@parway.co.uk

That is all from me this week, stay safe and stay well

Jackie

Chairman’s message 3 February

Dear Friends

As Holocaust Memorial Day arrived my thoughts inevitably turned to my parents, grandparents and the many great aunts and great uncles that I never met. The various on-line memorial services were very moving to watch but as the week progressed I realised that the current Covid vaccination programme has given me an emotional insight into what they might have experienced. Many of my phone calls with friends currently consist of comparing notes on who has and has not been vaccinated, who has or has not had a second vaccination date given to them, where excess doses might be available for those who just turn up and so on. We spend so much time and energy talking about it and yet we have no influence over it. Just as I started to go down this particularly dark rabbit hole, along came Kosher Kingdom in Golders Green to brighten up my day, make me smile and make me realise how fortunate I am to live here and now. Jewish News published an article to say that Stamford Hill’s leading Chasidic singer Shloime Gertner has recorded a jingle to play in the store, to remind Kosher Kingdom shoppers to follow coronavirus restrictions. Here is the link to the article, scroll down and you can hear the jingle, I hope it makes you smile too – https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/chasidic-singers-catchy-tune-promotes-covid-compliance-in-golders-green-store

Anyone who watched our Shabbat Services on BelsizeLIVE would have noticed we had some technical issues. One of the main components that is used to stream the Services is faulty and needs replacing. Unfortunately it won’t be replaced in time for this week’s services so we will be playing a pre-recorded Service to you with the Rabbi recording his sermon and the Torah reading from home. I hope that we will be back live from next week.

I am delighted to be able to announce that from this Shabbat onwards, until regular services resume, we are introducing a Social Zoom that will allow safe, socially distanced, interactive on-line schmoozing. Justyn Trenner has organised this for us and it will take place at 12 noon for about 20 minutes. There will be kiddush and hamotzei followed by a chance to chat to friends. Don’t forget that Clare Walford’s Friday evening Zoom kiddush continues too.

I want to thank Caroline Loison and Frank Joseph for organising a great Zoom Quiz last Sunday, we had so much fun even if we couldn’t work out which flag belonged to which country. If you couldn’t make it, then hopefully you will be able to join us on something else soon.

Coming up this Thursday evening at 8pm is the talk organised by the Tikkun Olam Committee with JAMI on “Getting Through Lockdown”. If you missed the flyer, then please contact Adam Rynhold who can send you the Zoom details. You should also have seen that we are holding our Purim Service virtually this year on Thursday 25 February at 7pm. A date for you to put in your diary.

I have spent some time listening to on-line talks run by the How to Academy, my next one will be to hear Bill Gates talk about how to avoid climate disaster. They have an extensive programme and ticket prices vary but you can go onto their mailing list for free. https://howtoacademy.com/

That is all from me for now, stay safe and stay well
Jackie

Chairman’s message 27 January

Dear Friends,

First of all thank you to everyone who took the time to email me last week, to say how much you enjoy my emails and are pleased that they are back. I really do appreciate it and it makes me feel very connected the Community.  

It is almost a year since John and I decided to shield ourselves and I find that is extraordinary as the weeks pass in our lockdown routine. However, I am sure that my week is like a Harry Potter staircase (always changing pace and direction) as the day to do the ironing seems to come round quicker than any other day. I think that I am fortunate as I have John to keep me company, my HR work and the Synagogue to keep me busy and no children living here to home school. I know that for many of you it is not so easy and I was recently sent this quote, part of which made me think “just don’t patronise me!” and part or which resonated with me. I hope some of it resonates with you too. The ideas come from Gyles Brandreth – writer, broadcaster, former MP, founder of the National Scrabble Championships. Here are some of his ideas to help us through lockdown: 

  • Be a leaf on a tree: belong to something bigger than yourself, a community of some sort. 
  • Cultivate a passion: have something in your life you really love doing. This can be anything, no matter how mundane or esoteric.
  • Break the mirror: we should stop thinking about ourselves, look up and turn our attention outwards. 
  • Audit your happiness: make a list of the things that make you happy and make a list of the things which make you unhappy, then try to make the first list longer than the second. 
  • If you want to be happy, act happy: it is possible to tell yourself to cheer up. A quote from the Dalai Lama adds to this: ‘Choose to be optimistic, it feels better’.

I hope by now that all those of you who are older members will have received a phone call from a volunteer who work with the Tikkun Olam Committee. We want to check that you are OK and just have a chat. If you haven’t had a call or know of anyone who hasn’t then please let Lee know in the office. 

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. The AJR held their remembrance service yesterday on Zoom with Rabbi Altshuler and Cantor Heller taking part. We are sorry for posting the wrong details in last week’s NFTS but you can watch a recording of it here – www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsoqrSG7d4o. We will mark Holocaust Memorial Day this coming Friday night at our Erev Shabbat Service.

On 11 February at 7.30pm the Jewish Musical Institute are holding a gala evening, which is free to join. The gala concert will be available on all JMI platforms worldwide – you will be able to simply click on either of the following links from 7pm and click in. www.jmi.org.uk/worldtour or www.facebook.com/events/1087998298325214/

The Leo Baeck School in Haifa is holding a free Zoom event on Sunday 7 February at 2pm: Rabbi Leo Baeck, Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times. This will be a conversation between author Michael A. Meyer and Lord Daniel Finkelstein. If you would like to attend this then please contact Adam Rynhold who will send you a link to register.

Lastly please don’t forget our synagogue events, The Big Belsize Square Synagogue Quiz this coming Sunday at 7.30pm (register for it by contacting the office) and our session with Jami on mental health, Getting Through Lockdown: taking care of myself and my friends. 

Stay safe and stay well,

Jackie

Chairman’s message 20 January

Dear friends,

With encouragement from the Board I am starting my weekly email again during this lockdown. I had thought that the quote: “just when you thought it was safe to go into the water again…….” came from the 1975 film Jaws but on checking Google, I find that this is a warped version of the original. Jaws in known for two quotes: “ You’re going to need a bigger boat” (not really relevant to us!) and “You’ll never go in the water again” (also not relevant!). So I’m am going to stick with the first version, it summarises my thought that I hope you didn’t become bored with my last set of emails.

I think this current lockdown is harder than the previous ones and I am not quite sure why. Maybe it is the shorter and darker days, the unknown length or the constant stream of contradictory stories in the press. I have days when I am optimistic and days when I feel quite low, and on those low days I look forward to the familiarity of the Shabbat services which are so reassuring. I hope you are continuing to watch them on BelsizeLIVE even though none of us can attend in person. I would like to remind you that Claire Walford continues to run her Zoom Shabbat Candle Lighting and Kiddush on a Friday at 7.45pm. Please do join if you can.

We are working on providing some more Zoom activities/events for you, social and educational. We hope to do something linked to the service and also maybe a speaker during the week. More information will follow soon. As well as this, please do send me any information that you have on interesting events and speakers and I will add them to this email. Please do book into the Big Belsize Square Synagogue Quiz taking place on Sunday 31 January at 7.30pm, it is free and you just need to let the office know that you want to be part of it.

This coming weekend is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. Jami are putting on a number of events and you can check these out here – www.synagogue.org.uk/news/mental-health-awareness-shabbat

I am going to keep these emails short and for now there are no gardening tips, as my resident expert tells me there is nothing much to do at this time of year.

Stay safe and stay well.

Jackie

A time for reflection

Despite the darkness of these Covid-19 days, with the quiet, the isolation, the uncertainty and the fears that I have along with all of you, they have given me a chance to reflect on my ten years with the congregation, as my family and I prepare to leave Belsize Square Synagogue by the end of June this year.

I am most grateful for the many friends we have made during these years, bonds that will come with us when we leave for the next part of our journey. I have tried to make this synagogue a centre of pride for the whole of our community, a place that is noted for its learning, Jewish commitment, idealism, warmth and vision. In trying to remember the things of which I am most proud, I have assembled the following:

  • Moving the congregation past its noted split on the issue of women’s participation in ritual and liturgical matters was a monumental development that was settled peacefully, despite the many warnings that it would lead to an irreparable breach in the community. That did not happen. In fact, it has accomplished the opposite — it has led to an increased enthusiasm, participation level and ideological consistency that had long eluded the congregation.
  • Since I arrived, our adult education offerings have not been matched by any other congregation. Our sessions on Sunday mornings have covered a vast array of subjects from Talmud to the History of Ancient Israel and seen the visits of many distinguished speakers along the way.
  • We continued our annual class with our neighbours at St Peter’s, led by Reverend Paul Nicholson, and over the past few years we added the participation of Imam Mehmed Stubbla. These opportunities for interfaith learning and dialogue are critically important for darkei shalom, the making of peace and better relations within our community. In the earlier years we enjoyed Lunch ’n’ Learn and have seen a steady growth of our annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a true highlight of the year.
  • Belsize Square Synagogue now has one of the largest conversion programmes in the London area, if not the largest. Our Jews by Choice have become integral parts of our congregation, three have made Aliyah and the others who had to leave the area for personal reasons have continued to be in touch with me as they all have continued their commitment to Jewish life. This outreach is critically important for the continued growth of the congregation. It has been a privilege to practice the mitzvah of keruv, of bringing newcomers to the Jewish people with warmth and with full hearts.
  • I am very proud of all our B’nei Mitzvah through these ten years. I have tried to make sure that each and every one had a positive experience, highlighted by their growth in Torah and their embracing and understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the future. Each young man and woman has been given personal attention, with the knowledge they have a home in the Jewish world, a sense of family and pride.
  • Liturgical changes: I am pleased that we formalised our annual reading of the Torah to ensure that the entire Torah was to be read over the course of a three-year period with no gaps at all. I have also tried to ensure that leyning is always done directly from the Sefer Torah itself, without the aid of a Chumash. Our services are filled with beautiful music on a weekly basis because of the wonderful guidance of our Cantor, Musical Director and choir, and I have tried to make sure that our services run smoothly, at a good pace, and always filled with learning and perhaps some inspiration as well.

In the next Our Congregation, I will touch upon some other areas – leadership, Cheder, Life Cycle, social action and others – that I believe need more attention: projects still unfinished.

I have purposely not mentioned any names because once you begin that process someone is inevitably left out, but I will compile all my appreciations before leaving. There are just two people I want to thank now, who rarely get the attention that they deserve: Gordon Larkin and Paul Rowland, our caretaker and assistant caretaker. These two gentlemen have been gifts to me and to the entire congregation since I arrived. They serve us way beyond the call of duty and I am grateful for all the assistance they have given to me personally, while also meeting many demands from the entire congregation. Thank you, Gordon, thank you, Paul!

I hope these two months are times of healing and health, for looking forward to better days and for enjoying the blessings of our Shabbats, families and friends.

B’shalom, Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The privilege of freedom

Following our intense time together during the Holyday season – from the serious observation of our lives during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the celebration of joy, nature and gratitude during the Sukkot week, to the reflections of Shemini Atzeret and then to the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle marked by Simchat Torah – we are now back to the days of routine, or as routine as they can be during this strange pandemic.

It is one thing, say our Sages, to have heightened spiritual and Jewish awareness during these moments of celebration, and another to take the affirmations we made, the prayers we uttered, the hopes that we shared, and to inculcate them all into our daily lives. That is the challenge for each of us, and I hope that these days are used to learn, bond with our Jewish heritage, affirm our relationship with God, increase love and justice in the world, and to enable us to always be mindful of the preciousness and sanctity of each passing moment of our lives.

This month there is an important Presidential election in the United States and, regardless of the result we would like to see, it is good to remember that there are precious few nations in the world whose citizens can freely choose their leaders. I am often expected to ‘answer’ for America – its President, the country, its people, its faults and blemishes, along with its strengths, of course. It’s an unfair burden on me, one of over 330,000,000 citizens of a country as diverse as any in the world. I do hope that no matter who is elected to take on the next four difficult years, they will always heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, in his address at his inauguration for his second term as President in March 1865:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Those words were delivered as the United States was in the last throes of a brutal Civil War, a country divided by internecine conflict that took the lives of almost a million citizens. The message is a reminder to us all about the value of democracy, of our values, of healing wounds rather than stoking mindless hatred and violence. This is my prayer for the United States, and for every nation in the world. As many of you know, I recently became a citizen of the United Kingdom, in addition to my United States citizenship. Both countries have provided our people with the freedom and dignity that few places around the world have given to Jews.

But democracy, as we all should know, is a fragile institution that will rise or fall depending on the values of its citizenry and we must protect it. That protection comes from each citizen accepting responsibility for the culture and values of decency and goodness. That is the only way our great nations can survive.

My own appreciation of democracy and freedom was crystallised in the 1980s, when I made numerous trips to the former Soviet Union, a country that deprived its citizens of basic freedoms of speech, of the media, of culture, of language, of religion. I saw first-hand what oppression was all about, especially the way the Soviet regime persecuted and tyrannised its Jewish citizens. During those trips I was reminded why my own grandparents left Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to seek freedom in the United States, and why my grandmother kissed the soil of a country that gave her family freedom, Jewish freedom. I am certain that we all have similar feelings regarding our families that sought haven here in the UK from Germany, from Austria, from Eastern Europe, or earlier from tsarist Russia. I believe that we should express our gratitude each day that our ancestors had the courage and resolute will to leave the past behind and seek a better future for us, their descendants.

Therefore, regardless of the challenges facing the United States and the rest of the world, let us remember where we are, the context of history which brought us to these lands of freedom, and do everything in our power to sustain that gift. And in the spirit of Chanukah, when our Maccabean ancestors battled for religious freedom, let us also remember what it was and is like to fight foes who try to take those freedoms from us.

May you all have a wonderful couple of months. Celebrate Chanukah and rejoice in the freedoms that we too often take for granted. Remember our history and our heritage.

In shalom always,
Rabbi Altshuler