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Recognising sacredness

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Building a future of hope

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation. But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment. Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted. Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election. We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue. I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace. It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19). As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear. We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11). Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Chanukah

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Reflecting on the story of Chanukkah

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.
                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.
                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.
                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Sat, 24 October 2020 6 Cheshvan 5781