Category: Rabbi’s Message

Shalom, Belsize Square Synagogue

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

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

The High Holydays: a time to remember

L’shana Tova to all of you,

We are approaching the New Year 5781 and my last year with you, my dear Belsize Square family. I look forward to sharing with you all the theme of my High Holyday sermons this year, ‘What Matters’’: God, Israel, being Jewish, Judaism, family, community, synagogue and our own lives. Despite the limitations on public gatherings, we will be with you via our livestream—a High Holydays for us all to remember.

That word ‘remember’ is a special one and particularly important for the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). After all, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Zichron Teruah—A Day to Remember and to Hear the Sound of the Shofar. So, what shall we remember as we prepare for the coming of the new year and what does the sound of the shofar have to do with our remembrance?
There are quite a few indications in the Torah as to what we should be remembering, but let’s share a few:

1) Remember the Shabbat Day – Shabbat is the day for us to remember the blessing of creation and the miracle of life. It also embraces our highest ideals, of social equality and peace. So what shall we remember? The Fourth Commandment teaches us ‘Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt’— remember who you are, what you believe in, what your ideals and values are, and those values and teaching that are eternal. And in case you think this is just a cerebral exercise, we have the reiteration of the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, reminding us to ‘Keep the Shabbat Day’ – you need to do it, you need to hear the sound of the shofar to heal the world, to pursue peace in every path of our existence.

2) Remember what the terrorist Amalekites did to our people in the Sinai desert on their way to Eretz Yisrael. What do we remember? That there is much that is wrong in the world, that there is violence and evil. So embrace good causes, do not be blinded by forces that endanger innocent lives or by organisations that promote terror, violence and antisemitism. Sound the shofar! Be aware, get involved in Jewish responses to hatred, do not sit on the sidelines of our people’s righteous cause for our dignity and safety. As the Torah says, ‘Blot out the memory of Amalek.’

3) Remember what Miriam did to her brother Moses – her transgression of slander. So we remember the price paid by the innocent for gossip and smearing of reputations, so that we might become more sensitive to others. Sound the shofar! Let us improve our relationships and be careful not to hurt others, especially those closest to us.

4) Yizkor/Mazkir – finally, we will be remembering our loved ones who are no longer with us in the land of the living. In the traditional meditations we recite for our parents, spouses,siblings, children and loved ones, we pledge to give tzedakah in their memory. We remember our loved ones in order to sanctify their values and through us, to make this world a better place. That is the way we Jews remember.

So, the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah will remind us to ‘Remember’. This year we will be blowing the Shofar only on the second day as the first day is Shabbat. Whether we come to synagogue or remain at home we should try to remember what is crucial in our lives. Individually, the shofar call on us to do serious heshbon hanefesh, scrutinising our souls, to remember what we have done, in order to do better in the coming year.

Remember, remember who you are – remember the Jewish people, our relationship with God, the Covenant that was made with Abraham, how our people survived throughout history despite enormous pain and suffering and with obstacles that no other people on earth had to overcome.

In conclusion – hear the sound of the Shofar in order to do teshuvah, to return or repent, a proper return to where one should be before God. To ask ourselves how we can be better, but also to cherish the good that we did during the past year. We must all remember the preciousness of life and think of the pain that has been endured by millions across the world because of the coronavirus. We will hear the sound of the Shofar and remember, but also look forward to a better world, a new beginning and new life for the world, our own country, Israel, the Jewish people all over the world, our congregation, our families and our friends.

L’shana tova tikatevu – may you all be inscribed in the Book of Life, thankful for health, life and the blessings surrounding us each day of our lives.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

A Jewish response to current crises

Shalom Haverim

We are entering the summer months and, as I write, it appears we are still far away from being able to resume normal synagogue life. The uncertainty in many ways is worse than all else. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world, we have also witnessed social unrest in response to horrific police brutality/murder in Minneapolis.

This is a good time to stress some Jewish responses to both crises – the spiritual uplift and reminders can help us during difficult times to absorb the changes in our lives and the world.

First, the coronavirus pandemic:

1. This horrendous disease that has taken the lives of thousands of people here and around the world reminds us of the precarious nature of life. Being alive today is no guarantee of tomorrow. We learn to take each day as a gift, a miracle. That is why our ancestors were so committed to prayer: acknowledging each day, thanking God for allowing us to breathe, talk, study, walk, see, hear and all the miracles that we too often take for granted. Limnot yameinu – the Psalmist tells us to ‘count our days’. Make each moment count, stop to recite a bracha when you eat and drink, acknowledge that it can all be taken away so quickly. By doing so, when we are able to return to normalcy, we will be able to embrace our lives with a renewed feeling of exhilaration at being alive and be sensitive to everything we say and do.

Expressing our gratitude for everything we have, we become more sensitive to those who have lost their livelihoods and health during this difficult period. We must use this time to grow closer to the ones we love, thankful for the short time that we have with each other.

2. The time at home has given us the opportunity for silence and quiet, perhaps for more study and reading. It certainly has been a time of reflection about our lives, what they mean, how we shall live in the years ahead. Studies have shown that people across the globe have used this time to ask more questions about God, humanity, morality, to undertake serious
philosophical and religious meditation. We have slowed down enough to realise how crucial it has been to spend this hitbod’dut (solitude time) to try to understand ourselves and what life means to each of us.

3. This pandemic has also taught us the importance of community, congregation, our tradition of linking with a minyan, being with our fellow Jews. Our sense of hevruta, of being bound together, reminds us of our obligation to each other. I have been very proud of the number of volunteers who have come forward to deliver food, make phone calls and simply to bring cheer to so many of our Belsize family unable to leave their homes at all.

Second, the issue of race:

1. We Jews know that the first premise of our Torah is that ALL human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that every human being carries within him or her, no matter our race, background, religion, ethnic group, physical abilities and more, a part of God. Therefore, every human life is inviolable and sacred; the loss of one human life is as if an entire world is lost (Mishnah Sanhedrin). We must show that
racism of any sort is intolerable, not just for a week but each and every day, in the way that we conduct ourselves on the street, at home, at our places of work. It’s the basic supposition of our entire religion, it is the Torah, and what flows from that principle is our obligation to treat every human being with dignity, ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself’ (Lev.19). There should, one day, be no such thing as race, because we are all part of the human race. Black-white distinctions, prejudice, are harmful to the human soul and must be eradicated. There is no debate about that at all. Moses, after all, married a Cushite woman, Tzipporah, who was black, and Judaism knows no racial boundaries.

2. Judaism rejects violence as an answer to social problems, the needless deaths, looting, rioting, burning, attacking law enforcement officers. Responding to justifiable anger about racism should not lead to reverse hatred and violence against innocents. Martin Luther King Jr is my spiritual
guide here. He worked hand in hand with one of our great rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He taught all rabbis who had the privilege of getting our rabbinic education at the Jewish Theological Seminary that peaceful activism and protest was the answer to social woes that needed addressing, vigorously but not by violence or terror.

That principle of non-violent protest has been ingrained in the Jewish people throughout our history, by Yohanan Ben Zakkai and the Rabbis who established the first rabbinic yeshiva in Yavneh in the first century CE, who taught us that the way to God would ultimately be through study of Torah, prayer and mitzvot.

The state of Israel, which has been called upon to defend the Jewish people’s right to exist as a sovereign entity in our native land, has had to use force to protect lives, the security of the Jewish people and all its citizens. We should reject all organisations that are built upon violence as a means to address social problems.

3. We should also be very concerned about randomly knocking down statues, banning books, removing films of a different era because of racism. In the process we will be destroying much of our past, and if Christopher Columbus is an outrage to Native Americans, then there are all kinds of statues that will be offensive to a vast array of people. If Winston Churchill’s statues are removed, because Churchill did make some demeaning racial remarks during his career, what do we do with statues of people who did good for a certain part of the world, but who were inherently antisemitic? In my view, there will be no end to our rage and I am worried about where this will lead. We are living in history-changing times. What I would like to see happen is a complete transformation in how our leaders and society deal with these attacks against civil stability.

We need to hear language of comfort, hope, uplift, of a renewed sense of idealism, compassion for each other. We need to hear once again the language of the prophets – to work for justice, for the day when there will be no violence or war any longer, when the world will fulfil the moral mandates of the Torah, to exercise love for our neighbour and not hate.

That will be my goal when we usher in the new year 5781, my last with Belsize Square Synagogue. Hatikvah is taken seriously – hope should replace malaise and darkness.

My wishes to each of you and your loved ones for better days ahead – health, safety, shalom. May we all be ever sensitive each day of the year to those different from ourselves, to strive for a better world than the one we live in today, to learn together, and grow together.

Shalom for us, the Jewish people, Israel and all humankind.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

For the Love of Israel

Shalom Belsize Square Synagogue,

I am writing this message while still in isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and hope that perhaps during the span of this Our Congregation, we will be able to return to our normal routines, open the doors of the synagogue and share time together.

Around this time we mark some crucial historical moments in the life of the Jewish people, beginning with Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers of the state of Israel and victims of terror) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). Those are followed by Yom Yerushalayim, the celebration of the capital of the Jewish people since the time of King David. This year we celebrate on 22 May. The reunification of the city enabled our people to rebuild the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and tear down the barbed wire and barriers that kept us from the Kotel (Western Wall). Now the city is home to all three monotheistic faiths, a city undivided and free.

Then, on 28-30 May, we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, Matan Torateinu, ‘Giving of the Torah’. The purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to enable the Jewish people to receive the Torah from God and become a ‘light unto the nations’ (Isaiah 2).

I have had some memorable opportunities these past few weeks while in isolation to engage in some interesting discussions regarding the state of Israel. Thank you to those of you who wrote me such wonderful notes on the subject. I want to let you know why I am a passionate Zionist and devoted to the cause of ‘ahavat Yisrael’ the love of Israel. I was raised in a wonderful Jewish home in Los Angeles,where Israel was core to our very existence. My parents were very involved in Zionist causes. My mother was president of her Eilat Hadassah group for more than 20 years; my father was involved in every Zionist organisation in the Los Angeles area.

My great-great-uncle Samuel Altshuler in Kaluga, Belarus, was among those early halutzim (pioneers) to go to the malaria-infested, Ottoman Empire-controlled Eretz Yisrael in the 1880s. After the great pogroms unleashed by the assassination of Alexander II, and the publication of Auto-Emancipation, a pamphlet by Dr Leo Pinsker arguing for Jewish self-determination, the Zionist movement began to form in this region. Samuel went with four other families and were the first settlers in a place they named Rehovot, today a city of 135,000 people. Mr Altshuler bought land that no one else wanted, paid a steep price to corrupt Ottoman absentee landowners, and planted orange trees there. Those orange groves still exist today.

According to our family history, when Theodor Herzl visited the area on his only visit to Eretz Yisrael in October 1898, he heard Hatikvah for the first time, sung for him by none other than Samuel Altshuler. Herzl loved it and immediately adopted it as the Zionist movement’s anthem. I still get chills each time I sing Hatikvah.

My cousin, Nakdimon Altshuler, was born in 1886, in Rehovot and continued the work of his father in planting orange trees. I had the chance to meet the elderly Nakdimon when I was a rabbinical student in 1977, and what a character he was! He prided himself on having only one suit, one pair of trousers, one pair of shoes: ‘That’s all I need, that’s all we needed, we were building a nation.’

Nakdimon’s son, Gideon, and Rutie and their five daughters showed me what a miraculous place Israel is and the sweat and labour that went into building it. My cousin Mor Altshuler was a scholar of Jewish Thought. My cousin Gideon, a highly decorated veteran of Israel’s wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, was Ariel Sharon’s second in command, putting into action all of General Sharon’s orders, including the daring surrounding of Egyptian troops that brought an end to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I will never forget this bravery and it is embedded in my soul to this day.

My daughter Elana Rahel was born in Jerusalem, probably the first Altshuler from our side of the family born in Israel since our family left Judea in 70 CE. My son Eitan Meir lived in Israel for seven years and now, having received his Master’s degree in the US, is moving back. By the way, on my daughter’s birth certificate issued by the United States Consulate in 1978, the location of her birth was given as ‘Jerusalem’ only – at that time, the US did not recognise that Jerusalem was a part of Israel. It still hurts, but thankfully as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim this year, not only does the US recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it now has not a Consulate in Jerusalem but its Embassy.

Yom Ha-Atzmaut Sameach to all of us. Israel’s birth, and her incredible story of existence, is perhaps the greatest miracle of all Jewish history. I cherish it and wanted to share why. I hope you are staying well during this coronavirus plague and that we will be back together as a community in our beautiful synagogue soon.

Yours in shalom,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

COVID-19: A Difficult Message

Dear Friends,
This is an unusual time in our lives, living under conditions and circumstances we have never before experienced. It brings back memories of historic periods when the world suffered epidemics like the Black Death caused by bubonic plague, smallpox, Spanish flu, typhoid, all of which wiped out masses of the world population. And we Jews were blamed in practically every natural disaster for bringing plague upon the world, even though we suffered along with everyone else.

Thankfully we are no longer living in the Middle Ages and our medical awareness, facilities, medicines and physicians, imperfect as they are, are far better than what was available to our ancestors. Plagues like this have occurred throughout history, which does not mean that we can be complacent. Our insecurity in the face of the unknown is real but humanity has faced these things many times before. Here is my advice, and I thank you for your patience for this unusually long News From The Square, mainly because I will not have much of a chance to see most of you in the coming weeks. So first, the practical advice from your rabbi:

1) Know the facts and stay away from rumours. There are some very good websites for accurate information. There is an enormous amount of panic now and much erroneous information out there. These rumours do not help. Get advice from people you trust the most, especially medical and psychiatric professionals.

2) Practice all the essential hygienic and respiratory self-care. Wash your hands often, keep a safe distance from people you meet by arrangement or bump into.

3) Stay connected. The emotional factor here is so important. We have the phone, facebook (social media, which I normally dread), texting, emailing and other links. We have to learn different ways to break the isolation we can feel when alone. I personally have never talked so much with my children and the rest of my family since this all began, and it is a great source of strength to me.

4) Get in Touch with Nature. Make sure you go for walks, but away from other people, avoiding crowds. We all need the neurotransmitters in our brains to feel the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces. The endorphins, as I have read, make us more buoyant, which is incredibly important for our physical and mental well-being. They are restorative, especially when we are under such stress.

5) Reach out to professionals, even your rabbi, if you are having a difficult time. This is not the time to keep it all inside. Sometimes just speaking with someone you trust is enough.

6) Stay kind. Chesed, kindness goes a long way. At this time of social distancing, we need to be less judgmental of others. We are all in this together.

Which leads me to the second part, Jewish Responses:

1) Pray while you are at home, it’s good to soothe the soul. When Jacob was going to meet his brother Esau, expecting his brother to be ready to murder him, yitzaku el Adonai – he cried out to God. Do it, let your words rise up to Heaven.

2) Jewish Unity – Kol Yisrael arevim seh ba’zeh. Our rabbis teach us that “All Israel is responsible for one another”. This value of Jewish responsibility and unity has been our people’s strength in every crisis and will continue to be. We are in this as one, finding ways every day to help each other. In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pikudei, Moses gathers all the people as one and reiterates the details of the building of the Mishkan, theTabernacle. Despite our differences throughout history, in times of crisis we come together – Orthodox, Reform, Masori, atheist, agnostic, old and young.

3) We are also in the same human boat. The story is told in the Talmud that the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was in a boat with other passengers and noticed one of them drilling a hole through the boat. The Rabbi asked why he was doing that and the man replied: “I needed to drill a hole”, totally unmindful of anyone else in that boat. The Rabbi cried out, “You are sinking us all! Stop at once!” It reminds us that the world is like Noah’s Ark, one boat, and we realise more and more that we are one human family who must fight this scourge together.

4) No one is left behind here, young or old. In the twelfth chapter of Numbers, where Miriam is recovering from skin disease, the Torah says: “The people did not march until she had recovered. “Saving ourselves is not enough.  We must ensure that we take measures to ensure the health and safety of all around us.

5) Talk to each other, as I mentioned above. This is a Jewish ethic from the book of Proverbs: D’aga balev ish yesh chana. (Proverbs 12:25: If there is anxiety in a person’s heart, give him kindness.) In other words, the more we share with others, the less anxiety there will be.

6) The last “Jewish” ethic here is the most important, symbolised by this coming Shabbat Hachodesh, the Sabbath for the month of Nisan, the month of Passover. The word chodesh in Hebrew means renewal, a fresh start, which is what Passover is all about – springtime, greenery, a new reading of history and hope for the future. Psalm 27 tells us: Chazak v’ya’amatz libecha, Let your heart be strong and courageous –  and put your hope in God. Strength and courage are needed. A Jew is never allowed to lose conviction, courage and ultimately hope.

Synagogue life will be quieter than usual but that does not stop our Judaism and practice of faith at home, to pray, study and celebrate Shabbat with our families. We will emerge from this all the stronger, perhaps lighting those candles in our homes to make us realise that the heart of our Jewish identities resides in our homes. We use two yuds in our prayer books to signify the Name of God and the Sages asked: “Why two yuds?” Because it is the last letter of the first word and first letter of the second word in the phrase B’nei Yisrael, the People of Israel.

There are better days ahead, God knows, and our synagogue will again ring with beautiful voices in prayer, learning, and joy.

My wishes to you all for a Shabbat of peace and blessing,

Rabbi Altshuler

An Inter-generational Conversation: Rabbinic discussion through the ages

What is Judaism? My teacher in Talmud and co-signatory of my rabbinical ordination diploma, Rabbi Dr Saul Lieberman z”l, perhaps the foremost talmudist of the 20th century, was interviewed by Time Magazine in the 1970s in his office, crowded with books. Asked if he really knew all these books, he replied: “Test me.”

The reporter pulled out two books at random and held up the text. The Rabbi’s immediate response to the first was: “12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Lublin’s commentary on the talmudic tractate of Ketubot, a pearl of wisdom.W His enthusiastic response to the next was: “A 6th-century compilation of talmudic commentary, rare and hard to comprehend, but one of our earliest sources of post-talmudic wisdom.”

Impressed, the reporter said: “I can see you treat these authors and books as classroom mates. It is as if you see Judaism as a conversation between generations.” Saul Lieberman responded: “Young man, that is the best definition of Judaism I have heard. A conversation between generations is exactly what Judaism does.”

That story has influenced my own understanding of Judaism. When I open a page of any sacred Jewish text, I feel I am communicating with tens of generations before me. So I would like to share with you a brief rundown of our most sacred books. After all, we are Am Hasefer, the People of the Book.

  1. Torah means Instruction, not Law. The Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – are our foundation stone, read every Shabbat and Festival.
  2. Tanach, Hebrew Scripture, the threefold division of our Bible, written in Hebrew. The word Tanach is made up of TA – Torah, the Five Books; NA – Nevi’im, the Prophets, from Joshua to the last prophet, Malachi; CH—Ketuvim, the Writings, including Psalms, Proverbs, Esther, Jonah, Lamentations, Song of Songs. We do not call it the Old Testament. That is a Christian term for Hebrew Scripture. For us, there is no “old” Scripture leading to a “new” one.
  3. Apocryphal Literature: all those books written in antiquity that did not make the canon of Hebrew Scripture, such as the books of Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Jubilees and other treasures of the Jewish past such as, for some, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  4. Philo of Alexandria, first-century BCE philosopher and Josephus, the first century CE historian. Both are important historical resources from the turn of the millennium 2,000 years ago.
  5. Mishnah, meaning “teaching”, refers to the Oral Law, finally written down in Hebrew by Rabbi Yehudah, known as HaNasi (the Prince), around 200 CE. The Mishnah is the first code of Jewish law and contains some of the earliest texts of our rabbis who shaped the Judaism still practised today. For example, the Mishnah says it is the woman’s obligation to light Shabbat candles in the home. There is no reference to this in the Torah.
  6. Talmud/Gemara: once the Mishnah was put into writing, the Jews who had stayed behind in Babylonia pored over its words. Gemara, Aramaic for “learning”, covers rabbinic discussion on virtually every facet of Jewish law and practice from 200 to about 550CE, when all 22 tractates were edited by the Saboraim. The earlier “lesser” Jerusalem Talmud, still an important text, also combines Mishnah and rabbinic views.
  7. Rashi, Tosefta/Tosafot: later commentaries (literally, additions) with Rashi (11th century France) the supreme master. He created his own commentators, the Tosafot (Hebrew term) and Tosefta (Babylonian).
  8. Codes of Jewish Law: the Mishneh Torah (Maimonides’ late 12th-century “Torah Repetition”) and Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Caro’s mid-16th-century “Setout Table”) helping people apply Jewish law in a different environment. Maimonides’ codified Jewish law was a master work. Rabbi Caro of Safed’s comprehensive code is still referred to.

With ever-changing circumstances, the conversation between generations never stops. May we hand it on to the next generation! Wishing you all a joyous and healthy winter and a wonderful beginning to the third decade of the 21st century.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

An invitation to Biblical scholarship

Now that the Holidays have passed, it is time to reflect on what is ahead. With Brexit in the air, political quagmire in Israel, Turkish President Erdogan’s invasion against the Kurds in northern Syria, and political volatility in the United States, we all are deserving of a respite. Perhaps it is time to study, to learn about Judaism, our heritage and past.

There are many opportunities ahead. Our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group is always open to newcomers and there is not a subject that we miss. Our two core classes are on Jewish Prayer and the Shoah, and I encourage all of you to join us in an exceptional learning environment. In addition to our regular class from 10-11:15am, we always have wonderful guest speakers, and I would ask you to consider coming on Sunday 3 November to hear John Ware, a well-known journalist whom I have come to know through our mutual time on the Israel-Diaspora Trust.

It was John Ware whose Panorama BBC news investigation programme exposed the corruption and blatant antisemitism in the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. He will be with us for a behind-the-scenes look to see what has happened in the aftermath of his coverage of the Labour Party.

On Sunday 8 December, we welcome Professor John Barton, Anglican priest and professor of Biblical Studies at Oxford University, recently retired as Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. If you have not yet read his magnum opus, A History of the Bible, you should. I have arranged for Professor Barton to join our discussion group in his only appearance at any synagogue since the release of his best-selling book.

In his book Professor Barton takes the reader through every critical scholarly debate regarding the biblical text, including Christian Scripture. Not only is his scholarship superb, he is incredibly sensitive to the Jewish essence and roots of Biblical texts, including Christian ones. He is well versed in Judaism and I have complimented him on his knowledge of everything Jewish.

Professor Barton takes on the fundamentalist religious crowd that ignores modern scholarship in archaeology, comparative literature and history when dealing with Biblical texts. He equally challenges the “secularists” who know little about the breadth, scope and contribution of the Bible to western civilisation. Here is a sample of how he deals with our misunderstanding the Bible – his challenge to biblical purists, especially Christians:

“There are versions of Christianity that claim to be simply “biblical” (no versions of Judaism do so), but the reality is that the structures and content of Christian belief…are organised and articulated differently from the contents of the Bible. This can be seen most clearly in Christian fundamentalism, which idolises the Bible yet largely misunderstands it…The description of the Bible (warts and all) which follows will necessarily make disconcerting reading for those who idealise it, but I will also show that it is not and cannot be the whole foundation of either Judaism or Christianity.” As reviewer Kirsty Jane Falconer wrote, his “handling of Jewish Scripture is sensitive and informed.” 

This is a special treat, to have Professor Barton come from Oxford to be with us. Do consider joining us on 8 December.

I wish you all a wonderful couple of months of learning, peace, commitment, prayer and thought. Rejoice in your health and in your many blessings.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

New year 5780 – time to repent and forgive

It is that time of year, with the cycle of time spinning so fast, when summer passes and we come upon the Jewish New Year of 5780.

What are we meant to do in Elul, the last month of the Jewish year? This is a good moment to review the traditional motifs that mark a sacred time in our lives. Let me share some thoughts that will be expounded more deeply during the solemn Yamim Nora’im which follow.

Teshuvah: There is no greater moral and spiritual urgency in this penitential season than the power of teshuvah, “repentance” but literally “return” or “response”. We are frail, prone to hurt others by word or deed, even those we love. Through teshuvah God enables us to redeem ourselves by returning to our true selves, to each other and to our Creator.

Judaism believes at its core that we are not destined to wrongdoing, that society as a whole can change for the better. Teshuvah is more important than ever in a society that increasingly tells us we are doomed by history. We see celebrities and politicians destroyed by some decades-old deed or statement. With the power of social media, nothing escapes the public domain.

We live in a very judgmental society, with no escape for anyone, present or past. Whole societies and historical figures are targeted – Cecil Rhodes with less than righteous views on race, Winston Churchill’s old-fashioned attitude to imperialism and colonialism or, from America, the 18th-century slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. There are problems in seeking comfort from great leaders and thinkers of the past.

Our Torah teaches that all our Bible heroes and sages had the capacity to sin. But they also had the ability to change and to grow. That was the greatness of Jacob, whose life began with deception but ended with blessing; of Joseph, who abandoned his Jewish background for Egyptian culture, yet did teshuvah and returned to God and his family when his brothers came back to Egypt; of Moses whose temper stopped him from entering Eretz Yisrael but whose leadership brought him to receive the Tablets at Sinai; of David who effectively murdered the husband of his love, Batsheva, yet found redemption as the greatest king of Israel.

Selichah: The second immensely powerful motif at this time of year is selichah, forgiveness. As we seek to improve ourselves, aware of our capacity to do wrong, Jewish tradition tells us to recognise that same trait in others. Both Torah and rabbinic tradition instruct us to seek forgiveness from and for others – and even forgive God for making us and His creation less than perfect!

This is the time to think of relationships with family and friends that need repair, the power of selichah. The daily shofar blowing during Elul urges us to come closer to each other and make peace. When we say “Shanah tovah”, “Have a good year”, are we aware that the root meaning of shanah, the Hebrew word for year, is “change”? Can we find our teshuvah and realise the better part of ourselves? Do we have the capacity to forgive others, to release us from grudges and enmity?

May this year, 5780, allow us to truly hear the sound of the shofar, to reach up to the heavens with our prayers to find the blessings of teshuvah and selichah. Life is short and uncertain but we should recognise its sanctity and preciousness and embrace it. May this New Year be a year of blessing, health, life, goodness and shalom for all of you and your loved ones.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler