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Memories of a member

Friday 1 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Today I officiate at the funeral of one of our members who died at the age of ninety-two. I arrange a meeting with her two nephews, her closest relatives, via Zoom and they share warm and affectionate memories of her.

They have few details about her early life. She was born in Vienna, an only child to her parents, but brought up near her cousins and other family members to whom she was close. Her nephews recall family occasions here in the UK, her warm and vibrant presence and the influence of her Viennese upbringing – her love of central European food and the high neck collars that she used to wear. They know that she trained as a nurse and midwife, had travelled extensively during the early years of her profession, returning to the UK to become head of midwifery at the hospital where she worked. And they tell me a little about her retirement; her Open University degree in general arts and how she continued to satisfy her thirst for knowledge through the University of the Third Age.

I ask them what they know about her early life – the names of her parents, their professions. She was their great-aunt and her nephews can’t be sure of the years before and during the war. Her parents died in Auschwitz and are vague about how their aunt survived. She never spoke about this period in her life. They speak about the closeness among the cousins who had survived, who never lost that warm kinship with each other and who shared an unspoken sense of loss.

When I knew her, this remarkable woman was already becoming frail and it was difficult to ask her about her past – I sensed a huge reluctance to be drawn into any conversation about the Shoah.

I am struggling to write the hesped (eulogy) for her funeral. She is born, she grows up among family – and then there is a void, a huge gap in her life, before the years come into focus during the lives of her two nephews. And of course, that is the case – part of her own childhood and teenage years was spent incarcerated in the hybrid concentration camp and ghetto established by the SS in the fortress town of Terezin in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.  How did she survive? How did she escape deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz? Her story has gone to the grave with her and we will probably never know.  All we do know is that she returned to Vienna at the end of the war without her parents.

I am curious about her parents and eventually I search the website of Yad Vashem, the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem to see if there is any record of them. Her surname – she never married – comes up several times. After clicking on the same surname several times, a form appears on the screen, with her name and signature at the bottom and an address I recognise as being her home.

She has filled in the names of her parents, their dates of birth and where they were born, the names of her grandparents and the dates of her parents’ deaths – in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Autumn 1944.

There are two submissions – one in 1978 and one in 2005. My heart misses a beat as I stare at her handwriting; it is painful to think of her recording the life and death of her parents on this brief form. At the foot of the form are some printed words: one she has crossed out, the other she has left for later generations to read: I am a survivor.

I am grateful for this crucial record that allows me to enter a minute part of her world – the anguish and pain of being a survivor of the most unspeakable and unimaginable horror of the Shoah. She, like so many other survivors, lived with the trauma of losing her parents and other members of the family and surviving the terrible conditions of Theresienstadt.

Yet, here is a woman who also made it to a senior level of her profession as a midwife – bringing new life into the world. She travelled to parts of the world where she could employ her nursing skills to bring reassurance, healing and hope to impoverished and desperate communities. I imagine her as a young woman, cheerful, vibrant, warm-hearted and with a robust sense of humour.

She is no more, but her words and deeds will endure and provide a moving inspiration and glimmer of light for all of us in times of uncertainty, hardship and distress.

וְנָתַתִּ֨י לָהֶ֜ם בְּבֵיתִ֤י וּבְחֽוֹמֹתַי֙ יָ֣ד וָשֵׁ֔ם ט֖וֹב מִבָּנִ֣ים וּמִבָּנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם עוֹלָם֙ אֶתֶּן־ל֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֥א יִכָּרֵֽת

‘I will give them, in My House and within My walls, A monument and a name (Yad Vashem) better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish’ (Isaiah 56:5).

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Caring for ourselves and others

Friday 8 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

In speaking to my sister a few days ago, as we both struggled to remember which day of the week it was, she shared with me that she has just decided to call every day while in quarantine “blah-day”. It is hard to differentiate one day from the next, weekend from the workweek. I find that each day passes very slowly, yet it also feels as though time is passing too quickly without the ability to really be actively living life in a way that was once normal. It is difficult. And yet, somehow, all of us through staying physically distanced are making an active choice to protect one another.

In this week’s parashah, Emor, we learn about the passage of time and some details around marking sacred time. We learn more about Sukkot, the festival of booths that Jews still honour to this day during the autumn. The text shares “God commands the Israelites to observe Sukkot by taking up the lulav and rejoicing. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God."

I remember building our sukkah at the LJS this past autumn. It was raining outside, but some courageous volunteers helped to lay the roof and all the Rimon classes visited the sukkah that morning adding their decorations. I remember sharing Kiddush with the community after festival morning services as we passed the lulav and etrog around from person to person, shaking the symbolic ritual greens in every direction. Only a few months ago, yet seemingly a world away. We could never have guessed while building our temporary booth, that a few months later we would be reading this week’s parashah about Sukkot while being quarantined in our houses, six or so weeks from any in-person contact with those outside of our dwelling place.

"I made the Israelite people live in booths"; what does this phrase from our text mean? Rabbi Akiva believed that these booths were the shelters built by the Israelites in the desert. Whereas Rabbi Eliezer believed these booths were the pillars of cloud and fire that appeared above the travelling mishkan (tabernacle) which protected the Israelites. Rashi sides with Eliezer sharing, "The Clouds of Glory are more likely deserving of commemoration than the booths in which the Israelites dwelled during their sojourn in the desert" (Rashi on Leviticus 23:42).

To Rashi and Rabbi Eliezer the booths that were worthy of commemoration must be the supernatural columns of smoke and fire. These miraculous pillars, they argue, are worthy of remembrance. Akiva argues it is the temporary shelters built by the Israelites in their time of wandering that are worthy of remembrance.
 
I’m with Akiva on this one; in a time of uncertainty the Israelites worked together to build shelters for one another - makeshift, impermanent, fragile shelters - but they were shelters none the less. This is the work of God, and the work of humans at their best; in a time of uncertainty and fear, a time of unknown future and existential threat, to have the courage to shelter one another however possible. And we are all trying to do just this by holding steadfast to the guidance that is keeping us and others as safe as possible in these times. And we must continue to do so.

Rabbi Billy Dreskin offers this commentary on the parashah and the discussion around which booths we are commemorating:

The way I figure it, God can whip up a pillar of cloud or fire any ol' time. But people building community? Looking after each other, tending to their sick, sharing their meagre resources to protect one another from the harshness of life in the desert? If we're seeking God's Presence in our world, we need look no further than the men and women seeing to one another's welfare.The desert is all around us, all the time. Its shifting, sweltering sands are never far from our doors, and a sandstorm can engulf us at any moment. The purpose of life is to hold the desert at bay - to build sukkot that will provide us with sanctuary and permit us sufficient safety so that we can rest, even learn and grow, hold one another and love, despite the harshness in the world.

Let us all continue forward in the coming days, weeks, months - doing our part not only to care for ourselves but also to care for others, by reaching out and staying connected by phone or email, and also by continuing to do what is necessary to slow the spread of this virus.
 
None of us is alone, however lonely this time may be. Continue to reach out to any of us at the LJS if you want to have a conversation or if you want some help understanding how to get involved with the online worship and educational programs available. Though we are separated in space, we are together as an LJS family under a shelter of communal care.
 
Just as we reflect now on the shelters that our ancestors created in Egypt, so too will our children and their children reflect on the way that we are striving to create some security and safety in these uncertain times.
 
Wishing you all continued strength, health and hope.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
 

Elana

Max and Keira’s Law

Friday 15 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

It may seem an odd time, during the pandemic, to think about organ donation, but this week, on May 20th, a new law, Max and Keira’s Law – the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act – is due to come into effect.  The law is named for two nine-year-olds; Max who received the heart of Keira who died in a road traffic accident in the summer of 2017.

Under the new law, all adults in England will be considered as having agreed to donate their own organs when they die unless they record a decision not to donate (known as ‘opting out’) or are in one of the excluded groups.

Those excluded will be people under 18, those who lack the mental capacity to understand the new arrangements and take the necessary action; people who have lived in England for less than 12 months or who are not living here voluntarily and those who have nominated someone else to make the decision on their behalf.

Many hospitals around the UK have closed their transplant programmes because of Covid-19, yet there are 4,790 people waiting for a transplant in the UK and only 140 people who have received a transplant since April 2020.

What is a Liberal Jewish view on organ donation?  For a considerable time, Liberal Judaism has regarded organ donation as a mitzvah on two grounds:

i) the duty to save human life – pikkuach nefesh; and
ii) the commandment to heal.

The commandment to heal is derived from a verse in Exodus (21:19) – the case of a victim who has been assaulted, but not seriously hurt.  In this case, the Torah tells us that the assailant should pay for any loss of earnings and medical expenses incurred.  From this is derived the duty to seek a physician who can heal.

The obligation to save human life is derived in part from Leviticus 19:16: ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.’ In other words, if you see a person in mortal danger, you must save that human being and all the commandments can be broken in order to save human life, except for three – murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.  But the Talmud adds another verse from Deuteronomy to justify this obligation to save human life: ‘You shall restore it [something that has been lost] to him/her’ (22.2).  This verse is interpreted by the Rabbis in a more far-reaching way than its plain meaning, a reference to the restoration of lost property to an individual.  They read the verse to mean that we are obligated to restore a person’s lost ‘body’ (gufo) to them, that is, to save a person’s life.

So there is a very clear mandate in Judaism to encourage organ donation on the basis of these principles which can override the objections to any unnecessary interference with the body after death, and the requirement for immediate burial.

Of course, many will have worries and concerns about donating organs – our own or those of a loved one. If we give consent, are we being consistent with the honour and respect we believe is due to the dead (k’vod ha-meit)?  How can we sure that death has occurred before an organ is removed?  Will we still be able to hold a funeral and prayers?

Organ donation is dealt with in a highly sensitive way in this country, with great care and respect and in consultation with close family.  Most donated organs in the UK come from people who die from severe brain injury, which has damaged the vital centres in the brain stem, vital to maintaining life.  This is called ‘brain stem death’ and tests are carried out to show conclusively when that has happened.  And because organs must be removed quickly, a funeral and prayers can then take place, respect accorded to those who have died and comfort for the bereaved (nichum aveilim).

There is one further consideration that is raised in this week’s Torah portion, in Parashat B’Har, which deals with our communal and public obligations towards each other, particularly the poor and disadvantaged and towards the land which must be allowed to lie fallow every seven years – ‘for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me’ (Leviticus 25:23).

Protecting individuals from permanent poverty and servitude is not an act of altruism, but an obligation, an act of tz’dakah – ‘justice’.   So too, we may argue, is the act of organ donation – yes, it is a gift, but it is also for the public and communal good, extending and giving back the gift of life to those in need.

Today, we might think, too, of those on the front line caring for patients who are suffering from Covid-19.  Theirs is an obligation to save life; not via organ donation, but by putting themselves in extreme danger and risking their own lives in order to bring healing and recovery to others.

Our own times shed a new light on organ donation and the gift that can be offered to others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Shavuot and Living in the Present

Friday 22 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Judaism helps us to process our feelings and thoughts about the world. Every year we read the same texts, ask the same questions - and yet every year they seem different. All festivals and texts of our tradition gain an additional meaning in 2020 as we live through the world’s struggle with COVID-19.

The lockdown started just before Pesach – the time when we think about freedom. ‘You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt’ is one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the Hebrew Bible. All of us had no choice but to reflect on notions of freedom, responsibility, and restriction. This year all of us went on a journey towards freedom, as our ancestors did.
Seven weeks after Passover the Jewish world celebrates Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The LJS will celebrate it on Friday 29 May, with the tradition of studying all night, Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.

This year’s theme is 'New Realities'. A wide range of speakers will help us to reflect on the world we are living in and talk about the new realities of staying at home, climate change, education, care and visiting the sick etc.

Many synagogues have collaborated to create an exciting programme. Please register for the event here.

There is a strong link between Passover and Shavuot. On a ceremonial level, it is reflected in the counting of the Omer, the 49 day period of semi-mourning from the second day of Pesach to Shavuot. How is the idea of freedom connected to the receiving of the Torah? Jewish thought came to the understanding that the liberation from Egypt becomes purposeful only after the Israelites take on responsibility for their own Law at Sinai. Judaism teaches us that freedom finds its full expression only in our willing commitment to standards of behaviour and action. These standards are not determined by an individual, but by the set of collective rules and principles of our society. In other words, the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we take.
The first shock of the rapid change is over. We are given a little more freedom and begin to think about life after coronavirus. What will it change in our lives? Will it be the same as before? How will it affect each of us, our communities, and our loved ones? These questions did not seem relevant just a few weeks ago, but they begin to emerge now.

It is natural to see texts of our tradition as stories from the past or utopian dreams of an ideal future. Similarly, during the time of a world’s crisis, it is natural to live your life in memories of the past or dreams about a better future. Perhaps, Shavuot should become the time when each of us takes responsibility and accepts the new reality. Perhaps, Shavuot should become the time to processes emotions and feelings which have been suppressed by the trauma of danger and uncertainty of COVID-19. Shavuot is here to remind us that harmony in life includes the present, however difficult it might be to see and admit it.

Shabbat shalom

Igor Zinkov

Shavuot

Friday 29 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

It is seven weeks since we came out of Egypt and celebrated our Passover sedarim, many of us alone, sitting at our computers, zooming in with family, friends and community – the seder plates and glasses of wine visible on each screen. Then, we spoke of coming out of Egypt, of taking the first steps into an unknown desert, fearful and apprehensive about what the future might hold. We awaited our freedom at the height of the pandemic – our physical freedom, that we might grasp hold of our lives again, living day to day as we once used to, doing the things that gave us pleasure – seeing family and friends, taking exercise, gathering together at the LJS for services, kiddushim and classes, eating together, looking after our guests at the Drop-in or the Out and About Club, Video and Tea or Singing for the Mind (which, by the way, is now meeting online).

Seven weeks of incarceration for so many of our community, of waiting until it is safe to venture outside; seven weeks of placing our freedom into the hands of others, watching while businesses fold, as too many lose jobs, losing precious shared learning at university or school. While there are many who remain careful, unwilling to risk their health, there are too many here in London, who are disregarding the lockdown, gathering in groups in open spaces, brushing past others on the streets and in the supermarkets, embracing long lost friends or colleagues and behaving as though the drama of these last weeks were nothing but a passing dream, a figment of imagination.

At this critical moment of easing the lockdown, when that freedom to step outside has partially been restored to us, we are suddenly made aware of our moral freedom – our capacity as spiritual, moral beings, authors of our own will, to influence the path of the pandemic. This, perhaps, is the hardest moment – for so much is at stake: it is in our hands to keep the numbers of those becoming infected with Covid-19 low, or to allow a second spike that some believe will inevitably take place in a few months’ time.

The festival of Shavuot which begins on Thursday night 28th May and which we will celebrate at the LJS on the second day, with a service on Friday 29th May at 6.45 pm, leading into a full programme of discussion, interviews and study sessions all night, is inextricably linked to Pesach. If the Exodus from Egypt is a moment rooted in time, not historic time, but memory-time, the collective memory of our people, then Shavuot, associated with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai in post-biblical texts (although not in the Torah itself), is about the experience of the present. It rests, as Franz Rosenzweig said, ‘on the presence of a past’, but ‘nevertheless does not make its home in it but walks in the light of the divine countenance.’

In that extraordinary Talmudic tale of Moses walking into a classroom where Rabbi Akiva was teaching centuries later, unable to comprehend the lesson from beginning to end, we learn that the revelation on Mount Sinai is not only a meta-historical event embedded in the distant past, but relies on our present interpretation of the Torah – its laws and narrative. The two are inextricably tied to each other. God gives, guides, inspires, but we must be prepared to receive and act on what we hear and imbibe from the Divine.

How it comes to us – whether it is through prayer or contemplation, through music or birdsong, through the beauty of nature or art, through stories and poetry, or through our love for those close to us – let us pray, as we celebrate this festival of revelation, that it will revive the soul, enlighten the eyes and purify our hearts to serve God in truth.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Alexandra Wright

Mon, 3 August 2020 13 Av 5780