What is Shavuot? And what do milk and flowers have to do with it?
As we draw near to Shavuot, in this video Rabbi Botnick asks us to focus on Malkhut – how to rule and elevate ourselves to receive the Torah.
Shalom, Belsize Square Synagogue,
What do you say when it is your last time to address the congregation you have served for the past ten years? Sadly, this is our last communication in Our Congregation and time for me to let go and move on.
Looking back over a decade of the privilege you have bestowed upon me as your spiritual leader, your rabbi and teacher, I can only thank the Almighty for the vast experiences and triumphs we have shared together. There are so many things to remember. I have given over 1300 sermons, led over 1500 services, channelled through the education, Bet Din and mikveh for over 60 Jews by Choice, four of whom became Israeli citizens and made Aliyah. We have had hundreds of classes and some incredible trips abroad to Jewish sites in Berlin, Israel, Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.
Our congregation has grown in size and stature since I started here in January 2011. Belsize Square Synagogue is a recognised voice and presence for Israel Bonds, the Zionist Federation, Faith Matters of Camden, the Israel Diaspora Trust, the Masorti movement and more.
We have heard the voices of Natan Sharansky and Maxim Vengerov here, two of the Jewish world’s most famous and talented persons. Who will forget the concert that my friend Maxim gave a few years back, and then played his violin at the Israel Embassy residence for Ambassador Mark Regev. We have welcomed Douglas Murray, Professor John Barton, Dr Alan Mendoza (Henry Jackson Society), Rabbi Dr Ismar Schorsch (former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), Dr Jack Wertheimer (former provost and professor of Jewish history at JTS), and many more leaders in the wider Jewish world. And what an honour it has been to have among our very own members Professors Tessa Rajak and Antony Polonsky, two of the Jewish academic world’s most outstanding scholars.
We have had over 200 B’nei Mitzvah, countless weddings, too many sad times together at shiva minyanim, but celebrations at the synagogue for sacred life cycle moments.
Most importantly, it is the strength and will of all of you—as much as I have tried my best to give you my heart and soul, completely and totally, each day, each year, it is your friendship, support and encouragement that made that task one of total joy and fulﬁlment.
I am not going to even try to mention all the people here who have so enriched my rabbinical life at Belsize Square, so I will just mention those who have worked with me in a professional capacity: Gordon Larkin and Paul Rowland whom I thanked in my January letter. Jennifer and Varsha in the ofﬁce – thank you for all your help through the years, Jagdish from the years past. Ben Wolf – our incredibly talented music director. Cherish him and keep him here for years to come. We will continue to collaborate on future music projects, no doubt. The choir—I am going to miss them so—they are all gifted and have brought the voices of angels into our midst each week.
Adam Rynhold: my able assistant, my partner in making sure that the Torah scrolls were set, keeping me straight with our honours, with services, with communication, with all problems and situations that needed attention. His father, Isidore, z”l, welcomed me from day one and I will never forget his kindness and his wisdom May he always be remembered. So, thanks Adam.
Lee Taylor (and Henny Levin from my early years), thank you for our work together. Lee is not only a talented and devoted administrative director, he is a dear friend of mine and I will miss working with him—we have been in communication virtually each day since he has been with Belsize Square and every moment, every challenge has been a partnership.
Cantor Paul Heller: I knew Paul years before he joined us here at Belsize Square Synagogue. We have always meshed well together and he has brought his incredible voice and talent to us each and every week. It is not always easy to ﬁnd rabbis and cantors who get along as well as we have over the last decade and more. He will always be my friend and in touch regularly. I feel that Cantor Heller’s arrival at our synagogue was one of the milestones of my tenure.
And much thanks to everyone who been a support along the way: Rabbi Emeritus Rodney Mariner; Mike Cayton, the brilliant musician/organist who is a gem to us all; Eve Hersov and Dorothy White for their devotion to our congregants; Cantor Norman Cohen-Falah, who was a superb partner my during ﬁrst years here; Jeanie Horowitz for the tireless devotion and support over all the years she gave to our children and their Jewish education; and Caroline Loison who has been a light of enthusiasm since she began her tenure as our Education Director. I will always remember the smiles on the faces of our youth whenever they shared their learning with them. To your continued success. Finally, Jelena and Misha for being the kindest people a rabbi could know.
To all our lay leaders, too many to mention by name, thank you for everything you have done for me and my family, in service to the entire community of Belsize Square.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick – you have the same privilege that was given to me ten years ago. You will see that you have been blessed with a wonderful and unique community. Hazak v’Amatz – as Moses gave that charge to Joshua before he left our people, the same to you: be strong, be resolute in your love of the Jewish people, of Israel, and of our Judaism. God, Torah, Israel – that triad has served us well throughout our history, may it continue to guide you and the congregation for years to come. As Rabbi Tarfon said almost 2000 years ago – it is not our obligation to complete the work, but to plant the seeds for the future. May you and the entire congregation continue to plant those seeds of growth, of Yiddishkeit and devotion to God that will ensure our survival and strength for many years to come.
Please stay in touch, everyone, as I leave for my new home in Sarasota, Florida. There’s still much work and writing for me to do and I will be sharing all that with you in the years ahead. If anyone is interested in joining the ﬁrst trip I have planned for next July 2022 to Budapest, Vienna and Prague, please let me know.
L’hatzlaha to Belsize Square Synagogue – blessing, shalom and success.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler
Members receive a bi-monthly magazine, Our Congregation and weekly email News from the Square. If you do not receive this, please email the office to request it.
You will have seen the email on Monday letting you know that we are reopening from this Friday for services and I am so happy that we can do this. With the reopening and the easing of lockdown I shall stop the weekly emails, this will be my last for now. I will of course let you know if anything important happens and can always be contacted on my email (email@example.com).
Can I remind you that all the same protocols still apply with social distancing, wearing masks and arriving on time if you want to be admitted into the service. We have worked hard to ensure that everyone who attends feels as comfortable as possible and the feedback we received when we last opened was excellent. If you have any questions regarding our procedures then please contact Lee. For those who prefer to watch from home we will continue to stream all of our services on BelsizeLIVE.
As we are open we will also be able to hold all our Pesach services in the Synagogue, with the exception of the second night which will be on BelsizeLIVE only as we will be holding our Zoom Communal Seder at the same time. Watch out for the booking email for details. For full information on our Pesach activities check the synagogue website.
Can I remind you that we have our comedy evening coming up this Sunday 21 March. It promises to be a fun night with three fantastic comedians who will entertain us all. Please do join us and if you can, make a small donation through the synagogue website (https://www.synagogue.org.uk/payment-step1/?paymenttype=6109).
Lastly, I would like to thank Peter Bohm and his HMD team again for continuing to deliver our on-line HMD into a number of schools, through various virtual platforms. Thank you to Rob Nothman, Hilary Solomon and of course Cantor Heller.
That is all for this week, stay safe and stay well.
Last week was Special Education, Autism, Dyslexia, and ADHD awareness week. A Sussman cousin posted this message which I wanted to share with you as I found it made me stop and think.
“When you have a neurotypical child, you feel reasonably assured that class participation and decent study habits will result in good grades. These kids have close friends. They get invited to participate in social things and clubs. But when you have a child with certain differences, this is often not the case. Learning may take longer, both academically and socially. Despite their tremendous efforts, results are often a fraction of their peers and social acceptance is fleeting, setting them up for painful comparisons and bitter frustration. It is exhausting for parent and child alike. For all the children who struggle every day to succeed in a world that does not recognise their gifts and talents, and for those who are walking beside them, please let this be a gentle reminder to be kind and accepting of ALL people.”
This Sunday, Cheder is holding a very special Pesach J-POD session ONLINE from 11am. Susannah, one of our Cheder teachers, will be leading everyone in an 18-minute Matzah bake. Following that, everyone will split into Breakout Rooms to learn about Bedikat Chametz with Cantor Heller and the Seder Plate with Caroline. J-POD sessions are open to the whole Community and aim to be an opportunity for everyone to come together and learn as one whole “Belsize Community”. Anyone wishing to join the session should contact Caroline (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the Zoom details. You will need plain flour and water (plus salt and oil if wanted) to make your own Matzah. No yeast required!!!
Last Sunday, Music at Belsize hosted the Pizmon choir. There were 31 screens watching the concert, probably more than 50 people. Pizmon have written to the committee to say: “I hope all is well with you! I just wanted to reach out on behalf of myself and everyone else in Pizmon to say thank you once again for having us today. I know we all had a ton of fun interacting with the Belsize Square community and are so grateful for having had the opportunity, and I hope we get the chance to perform for you all again in person sometime soon! Wishing you all the best :)”
You should have seen the email about our virtual Pesach. Also, please remember there is a Zoom COMEDY EVENING – Sunday 21 March at 8pm. Join us for a fun evening of laughter as with professional comedians Philip Simon, Mark Simmons & Joe Bor. Recommended age 16+.
This weekend we have an Officers meeting and we will be discussing the possibility of our Synagogue re-opening for Shabbat Services. More will follow.
That is all from me, stay safe and stay well
Sadly, we are moving towards the end of my tenure at Belsize Square Synagogue, but my hope is that new opportunities and discoveries will open for both the congregation and for my own rabbinic journey that begins abroad on 1 July.
In the last Our Congregation I began to review my thoughts on some of the achievements and, at the same time, challenges that there have been and
those that lay ahead for the congregation.
A few more areas for us to consider:
1. Israel: You all know that Israel is a passion of mine. I am proud that many people in the congregation have told me that they have learned so much about the State of Israel, its history and reason for being, from our classes, sermons and time together.
Israel will continue to be a major source of debate in the community, but I do hope that we will all realise, regardless of our political leanings, that there is a general assault against our Jewish state that is not going away. In fact, it may get more heated as tensions brew with Iran and there may be less support from the new administration in the United States.
We have to be smart, informed, vigilant and ready for the arguments and the political posturing that may attempt to undermine Israel’s very existence. My hope is that you will all remain part of the front line against these abuses and canards as Israel will need every single voice of support, given the powerful vitriol against her. I am thankful for those who have cared for Israel during these past years and grateful for our trip there some five years ago and our meetings with Natan Sharansky, Ambassador Michael Oren, Rabbi David Rosen and other dignitaries. I am grateful for all of you who have made our Yom Ha’atzmaut dinners so successful, raising precious funds for our worthwhile Israel charities. But I am also grateful for the dissenting voices who have disagreed with me: the way we grow as a community is to invite healthy debate. Continue the good work. As the Psalmist says, If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…
2. Leadership: I am thankful that there have been so many wonderful leaders, committee chairs, members of the Board and Honorary Officers with whom I have enjoyed working over the past ten years. These are people who give their time and energy on a daily basis, just because of their love of the congregation. I would encourage you all to get more involved, to sign up for committees and get your voices heard. A vibrant congregation needs a constant stream of involved members.
3. Cheder and youth: I am grateful for having worked with the heads of Cheder, Jeanie Horowitz and now Caroline Loison. They have both brought their passion for teaching our youth and their love of Jewish life to the Cheder. Parents, stay involved, let your children know you support the efforts at making sure they have a good Jewish education and experience. It will happen with your involvement and assistance to Caroline and the teaching staff. Of course, as a rabbi, I hope that we will continue to “raise the bar”, extend our goals for Jewish education and think of ways we can keep our postBar/Bat Mitzvah young adults on a Jewish learning path. It is vitally important to have the youth more involved in a wider community youth movement, as it is virtually impossible to sustain vibrant youth groups as single entities. I hope that the synagogue will be able to find a way of making this happen.
4. Life cycle: I would have loved to have seen more weddings at the synagogue – the ones we have had have been so precious and beautiful. At the end of life, we have had amazing representation in the running of Edgwarebury Cemetery. Our funerals, our shiva minyanim and our marvellous Bereavement Support Group spearheaded by the brilliant Eve Hersov, have been shining lights of my time here at the synagogue. Keep up your wonderful work.
5. Social action: This is one area that needs a great deal of commitment and attention and I am pleased that the Tikkun Olam Committee has been set up, led by Deborah Cohen. We could be doing much more to reach out to other faith communities, to support our already existing programmes with St Peter’s and the local mosque and to make the sort of Mitzvah Day activities in which we have excelled a more regular part of our community agenda. As Rabbi Tarfon taught us: The work is much, we will never fulfil everything but we should try to leave a beginning for future generations.
By now you will have heard that I shall be starting my new position in Sarasota, Florida in July, so the next piece I write for Our Congregation will sadly be my last.
I wish you all a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler
This email is short as work and family life have taken up so much of my time this week. We have a new grandchild born at the weekend and I can’t resist the opportunity to share the news with you. Something to smile at I hope, rather than focussing on the pandemic and vaccinations.
In the odd minutes that I have found to relax I have been following, on TV, “Married at First Sight, Australia”. For anyone who doesn’t know the programme, a number of couples meet for the first time at a “wedding” (not legally binding) and then the show follows their progress as married couples. Lots of tantrums, partner swaps and general insight into human behaviour. I would love to say that I watch it to understand human psychology for my HR professional life but actually it is just jaw dropping and fun. We all need that distraction and I hope you have found your programmes too!
I have a huge thank you to send to everyone who was involved in the Purim Zoom, it was a joy to watch and I felt very connected. Cantor Heller tells me that we had over 120 people attend. My phone rang just afterwards and I did a video call with someone, still wearing my ruby Princess crown and earrings. They were far too polite to comment and I didn’t think about it until after the call was finished!
Can I remind you again that this Sunday 7 March, at 7pm, Music at Belsize is very excited to bring you the Pizmon a cappella group, from the USA . Please do join and in case you didn’t read it last week 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.
We are planning a Comedy Evening on 21 March with three comedians booked to entertain you. Compered by the hilarious Philip Simon, we promise you an evening of fun and laughter. Details will be sent shortly but please put the date in your diaries.
Our virtual Kikar Kids service returns this Shabbat morning at 11am.
This week Cantor Heller started his Siddur workshop, it is not too late to join it. It runs on a Tuesday for the next three weeks from 8-9pm. Please contact Cantor Heller if you are interested: email@example.com
That is all from me for this week. Stay safe and stay well