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The Resilience of Rimon Students

3 July 2020

Dear Members and Friends

This Shabbat will be the last Rimon cheder session of the year. I want to share with you some words about the resilience, creativity and community of our youngest members.  It has been a year full of learning and community, a year when friendships have been formed and our sacred texts and values have been imparted upon the next generation. It has been a year of song and laughter, a year of social action and a year of celebrating the life-cycle events of our children; though they are the youngest members of our community they have brought wisdom, passion and integrity to their year of learning. All of this thanks to the amazing teachers that give their intentional thoughtful care to our students.

I imagine that if someone climbed out from under a rock, having no sense of what the world was going through and happened upon our Zoom Rimon sessions (I realise how ludicrous and implausible this actually could be) they would see a community of children learning, laughing and enjoying themselves. There would be no clues, from the energetic faces on the screen, that the world was in the midst of a pandemic and that these children were facing a new terrifying 'normal'.  During the first week of lockdown I felt such fear for our young people, how would they maintain their well-being during these unprecedented and confusing times, how would they stay connected to the community, how would they tackle the very real fear and worry that was thrust upon them as their young lives were turned upside down? It must be said that my fears for our young people at the LJS were unfounded, week by week I have been inspired by their resilience. They have signed onto the Rimon sessions eager to learn and joyful. When I have had the chance to have one-on-one conversations with our young people most have reflected that they have been enjoying this time with their families, they’ve shared new hobbies they have learned or books they have been reading, their new favourite board games. It is a testament not only to their courageous spirit but also to the loving parent community that we have at the LJS. The parents of our young people have worked tirelessly to give their children a sense of normalcy and it has been humbling to be in community with these young people and their parents.

Before moving to London, George and I were concerned about how our children would handle the transition. We sought guidance from a friend who was a children's therapist and she shared with us that as parents there is no way to know which variables of a decision are the ones that are going to most impact your child and it is often the unexpected and unplanned that will have the greatest influence. Her guidance? Do what you can to build your family as an emotional anchor, so long as a child feels anchored within their family they will be better able to overcome whatever obstacle they might face. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during these times as for many of our young families at the LJS this has been an unasked for, forced upon them time of anchoring for their family. Of course, it has also been very difficult for our families, some are in mourning, others are struggling with the balance of homeschooling and work, others are worried about the financial stability of their family in these difficult times. But even so, it has been a time of togetherness. My hope and prayer for our Rimon families is when (please God soon) we are able to be engaging in the world again and our children are able to live their lives without the fear and restrictions that are dictating these days, that they will have a stronger anchor because of this time of forced togetherness and slow-paced living.

What will the world look like 40 years from now when these young people are adults? I wonder how it will impact them. Maybe they will have a greater sense of their responsibility to care for others because of their experience of staying home to protect their neighbours. Maybe they will be more resilient because of this lived experience. Maybe, hopefully, they will be skilled at finding ways to smile, laugh and build together even in the midst of adversity.

For the last few weeks of Rimon we have begun each session looking at a text from Pirkei Avot 1:2. “The world stands on three things, on Torah on Avodah and Gimmilut Chasadim.” On Torah, on worship and on acts of loving-kindness. As we have looked at this text at Rimon we have stretched the meaning of each of these three pillars that the world stands on. Torah-can mean our sacred text but it can also mean the act of learning, acquiring wisdom to better inform the life you are living and the world you are building. Avodah- traditional worship and prayer but also feeling connected to those around you and feeling the presence of the divine in your life. Gimmilut Chasadim-acts of loving kindness, giving of yourself for the betterment of others. Each week we ask our students to find the chat box and to share: something they’ve learned, a time they felt connected and a way they helped someone else. We have found this to be a helpful structure in encouraging them to focus their days. Their answers each week show the diversity of the interests of the students and show how thoughtful they are in caring for others.

In this week’s Torah portion, we have the story of Balaam who was sent to curse the Israelites but instead offers these words of praise, 'Mah Tovu ohalecha yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael'. How good/beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” We recite these words in our morning prayers. Before this year if we were to imagine what our Jewish dwelling places look like we might imagine the beautiful sanctuary at The LJS, or the sanctuary in the synagogue we grew up in, or the worship spaces at Jewish camps we attended. Oh, how different our tents have looked these last few months!  But in looking at the way that the community gathers in prayer over zoom for Shabbat services or a screen filled with faces of young people ready to learn, we can surely now say “How beautiful are your dwelling places.” Someday in the future, the community will gather together in a shared space but until then….these tents are also beautiful.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal


The daughters of Zelophehad

10 July 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we are given the narrative of the courageous and forward-looking daughters of Zelophehad.This portion includes a census of all the males over age twenty. In this census, we learn about Zelophehad who had no sons, only daughters. Zelophehad had five daughters, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.
 
At the conclusion of the census Moses receives an instruction from God ‘Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares.’ The recipients of the land shares will be the males listed in the census. The five daughters of Zelophehad would receive no land shares as an inheritance.
 
What unfolds is a narrative of bravery as these five women break the expectations of quiet and compliance to ensure they inherit their father’s land shares. They boldly stand before Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole assembly at the Tent of Meeting, the gathering place of those in power.  ‘Our father died in the wilderness’, they say. ‘He has left no sons. Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.’
 
Moses brings their case before God and God supports these women and demands a new law to secure an inheritance for daughters in this situation.
 
It is a text that shows, quite simply, the power of voicing concern and dissent when the status quo seems unfair or even more so unethical.

To me, the actions of these women are representative of what it means to be Jewish. To hold closely to the traditions passed down to us but force these traditions to be ever-evolving and reflective of the ethical demands of our day.

Recently I watched this talk by Ilana Kaufman, the director of the Jews of Colour Field Building Initiative. She uses the daughters of Zelophehad as a model for advocating for more awareness of the demographic diversity within the Jewish community. It is a very provocative and eye-opening talk, I highly recommend watching it. Here is the link:  https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/who-counts-race-and-the-jewish-future-eli-talks/

Too often the non-progressive Jewish demographic criticizes progressive Judaism for being inauthentic or for not holding tight enough to tradition. These arguments always baffle me as these narratives of shifting understanding of law and practice are present throughout our Torah and throughout the prophets. The rabbinic discourse in the Mishnah and Talmud often focuses on developing new or shifting old understandings in order to be more relevant, more just. Of course, progressive Judaism is innovative and constantly striving to bring new ways of connection, but we are rooted in our most ancient texts. We are not turning tradition on its head but rather we hold fast to the approach laid out in our most sacred texts, that being God’s partner requires of us to be willing to adapt and shift to become more just as a people.

We are the children of Moses but we are also the children of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Justice and Righteousness

17 July 2020

Dear Members and Friends

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the notion of justice. People refer to justice when they are treated badly, when the law is unfair according to their opinion or when somebody uses an inappropriate word on social media.

What do we mean when we say ‘justice’? Is it a concept of moral rightness, the principle that people receive that which they deserve, fairness, lawfulness, all the above?

In his book ‘The Prophets’, Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that Hebrew has two words for justice – tsedek and mishpat, which are derived from nouns shofet and tsaddik accordingly. The noun derived from shafat (to judge) is shofet, which came to mean a judge or arbitrator; while the noun from tsadak (to be just) is tsaddik, a righteous person.

Our tradition sees justice as a multi-layered concept. It begins with formalities of the law but goes far beyond that. Justice as mishpat is about acting according to the law and the court system. Justice as tsedek is righteousness. It goes beyond justice. Justice is strict and exact, giving people their due. Righteousness implies compassion, kindness, and generosity. Both tsedek and mishpat can be translated as justice, but they are two different layers of understanding of the concept of justice.

This week’s Torah portion and, indeed, the book of Numbers, ends with an act of righteousness. In the world of Torah the law of inheritance excluded women from receiving their family’s possessions. Five daughters of Zelophehad, whose father died and had no sons, approached Moses and appealed to him about the unfairness of the law. Moses listened to them and ruled that they should receive their father’s land. Moses could have followed the law and excluded the five women from the inheritance, but instead he went beyond the letter of the law and demonstrated true righteousness, compassion, and humanity.

Heschel writes: ‘Justice dies when dehumanized, no matter how exactly it may be exercised. Justice dies when deified, for beyond all justice is God's compassion. The logic of justice may seem impersonal, yet the concern for justice is an act of love.’ (The Prophets, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001 p. 201)

The book of Numbers begins with the census of Israelite men over the age of 20 but ends with the inclusion of women. The strict census in the beginning of the book is juxtaposed with a compassionate act of righteousness at the end. Only men count in the beginning and all are included at the end. May this Shabbat unite us and remind us that compassion, kindness and humanity is the path to righteousness and true justice.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Beginning to Plan for the High Holy Days

24 July 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I expect you are wondering whether we will ever be returning to our beautiful building and Sanctuary for our services, Rimon Religion School and all our social, cultural, community and educational activities.

Today, Rabbi Igor, Cathy Heller Jones and I did, in fact, spend some time at the LJS discussing plans for the next few weeks and the High Holy Days.

I wish I could tell you that we will all be back in our Sanctuary at a designated time. I wish I could tell you that we will be sitting around tables in the Montefiore Hall with friends, drinking coffee and eating biscuits before the service, streaming into the service for 11.00 am, listening to the music played and sung by our wonderful musicians and enjoying a sumptuous Kiddush afterwards.

We are making plans, but cautiously. We are conscious of many losses that have occurred within our own congregation and in the wider community on account of COVID-19.  Our COVID-19 Compliance Group is developing a strategy and completing risk assessments that will allow us to return to the synagogue, but with fewer people, helping to keep all of us safe.

But when will that be?  We would very much like to test our new live streaming technology when it is installed – mainly cameras – that will allow those who wish to remain at home to live stream the service in the way that we have been doing over the last four months. We hope by the beginning of September – provided the rate of infection continues to remain low and it is safe for us to re-open – to admit a limited number of congregants into the Sanctuary.  Like many synagogues, you will need to ‘book’ your place, and we are working out a system to allow this.

For those of you at home and who wish to remain at home, you will be able to live stream the services and to participate. We hope there will be a number of mitzvot to distribute for the High Holy Days – perhaps not as many as we usually have, but enough to provide a variety of different voices.

Because of the restrictions on singing, all our music will be pre-recorded – as it has been up until now.

Our services for Shabbat and the festivals are going to feel very different.  They will be shorter, limiting the time those of us at home spend in front of a screen.  The grand moments of high tension and emotion will be more intimate and quieter, more like the Shabbat services we have experienced over the past months.

Many of us will have to continue to create our own spiritual bubbles at home, opening ourselves to a different kind of experience and relinquishing our annual expectation of the kind of High Holy Day services we are used to at the LJS.

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim – the first parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy – Moses recalls the burden of leadership, which becomes too much for him.  Lo uchal l’vadi s’eit et’chem – ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself,’ he says.  Wise and experienced leaders and judges are appointed as heads over the community.  ‘You will hear out your fellow Israelites and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or a stranger, Moses tells the new leaders. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.’ (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).

Ya’akov Yosef of Polonnoye relates a teaching based on this verse which he heard from his master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.  With regard to the ‘case that is too difficult from you’, he says, translating the word mikkem  (‘for you’) literally – when you are uncertain about the choices before you, know that that uncertainty arises ‘from you’.  The choice you make may not be impartial; you may make it because it brings you pleasure.  Therefore, remove your honour and your pleasure from the action; make your action for the sake of heaven, without any ulterior motive or pleasure, then you will hear how to behave. (Quoted in The Aura of the Torah, Rabbi Larry Tabick).

Many of us are deeply attached to our festival services – the prayers and music, the extraordinary atmosphere of being in our beautiful Sanctuary, of being among friends and a community, all sharing in the experience of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

What I understand from this teaching of Ya’akov Yosef, who died around 1782, is that we have to let go of what we know gives us pleasure and all the expectations that we have for these days. This year, we may not have the freedom to choose whether to come to synagogue or not. That decision may well be made for us by the restrictions imposed by our COVID-19 Compliance Group.

We must remove ourselves from the choices we have previously had and eliminate any sense of self-interest.  All of us will be able to celebrate our festivals, perhaps not in the way we might initially expect or want, but in a different way, more intimate, more quietly, more personally, with time for personal recollections and reflections on these last months and what they have meant to us.

I think we will all need this time to acknowledge our losses – the loss of close friends or family, the loss of our freedom to move about and do the things that gave us a purpose in our lives.  But also to reflect on how we have changed over these past months, how our priorities have – perhaps – shifted a little.  None of us knows what the future looks like, let us hold on to the present, for it is precious to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright 


•    Tisha B’Av – Wednesday 29th July at 8.30pm.  Please join the congregation for a Zoom service at 8.30pm, acknowledging past losses associated with the 9 Av and our current losses and at 9.00pm a discussion, facilitated by Harriett Goldenberg during which we can share the experience of the past few months that have affected us personally and as a community. Please register with Abi Rose, rabbispa@ljs.org. Abi will send you the Zoom link to the service.

The Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av: from Lament to Consolation 

31 July 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

On Tuesday, I was privileged to take part in a seminar organized by the Council of Christians and Jews for clergy – Jewish and Christian – entitled, ‘Living with Lament: Resources for Faith Leaders in Time of Reconstruction.’  The seminar fell just a day before the Eve of the Fast of Av and allowed me to reflect on the significance of the three weeks that have just passed – a period of deep mourning in the Jewish calendar – but also to think of the anticipatory seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
 
The process of grief follows its own rules: shock and numbness, grief and anger, sadness and resignation and back again to incredulity and grief.  We face our losses in different ways, both according to our temper and the triggers that unconsciously give expression to our heartache and sorrow.  Such pain and anguish are unprescribed, unanticipated; they catch us unawares, we lose our foothold.
 
These are our private burdens that we carry deep within our heart – the losses of family members or friends, recent or in the more distant past, those who died peacefully in old age, and those who had another song within them, lives cut down in the midst of their days.  Their memory is with us daily and in the moments of ritual remembrance at home or in the synagogue – lighting a candle or reciting Kaddish on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.  Such rituals may help us move from our sorrow to the nurture of enduring love, from pain to gratitude and a sense that all life is part of a natural cycle  – ‘our days are as grass, we blossom like a flower in the field, the wind passes over it and it is no more.’
 
But there are, too, the burdens and sorrows we bear as the Jewish people, with days of remembrance, fasting and lamentation embedded into the liturgical calendar.  And the darkest part of the Jewish year comes at the brightest and hottest time of the summer in late July or August.
 
Oblivious to the carefree weeks of the summer holidays, the long days and short nights, in the northern hemisphere at least, we are burdened with three weeks of mourning, known simply as the ‘Three Weeks.’  They begin on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz and culminate with the fast of Av, known simply as Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av.  The first of these dates commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the 9th Av marks the destruction of both First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
 
Late on the eve of  Tisha B’Av, as the sun begins to set, congregations gather in the synagogue to sit on low stools or on the ground, to listen to the Book of Lamentations, chanted in a mournful tone, its trope like a woman keening over and over again.  This is the book, says Shaye Cohen, that ‘is the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present and future.’
 
And so Tisha B’Av is commemorated, not only for the catastrophe of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the people from their land in 586 BCE, but also the Second Temple in 70 CE, and countless other tragedies that have beset the Jewish people from the massacres of whole communities during the Crusades, to the murder of Jews who were held responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, pogroms in Poland, Ukraine and Russia and the murder of six million Jews during the Shoah.
 
At the height of the summer, when we should be throwing off the fetters of our work, the Jewish people enter a cycle of sorrow and remembrance of past calamities.  In more recent liturgies, we have commemorated not only our own tragedies, but more universally, the August nuclear decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Zalman Schachter- Shalomi expresses the obligation of global remembrance in this way: ‘At a time when the sun is burning hot, we must mark Hiroshima Day, not retreat into a bleak vision of our place in the world.  The teshuvah (repentance) for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular.  In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens’ (Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld, p. 86).
 
Tisha B’Av’s strict mourning practices restrict even the study of Jewish texts – considered a joyous practice -  apart from the Book of Job, parts of Jeremiah that describe the destruction of the Temple and the sections of the Talmud that deal with the destruction. 
 
But of course, we cannot remain in this dark and bleak moment for ever.  God cannot continually shut out our prayers; God’s anger, driving the author of Lamentations into unrelieved darkness, deceiving him into believing that his strength and hope have perished before a hidden God, is finite.  At his lowest ebb, the weeping poet recalls the kindness of God, whose ‘mercies are not spent… but are renewed every morning.’ 
 
It is here that the mood of the day begins to turn and lift; an expression of hope lightens the darkness and relieves the pain.  The howling lament recedes; the mourner sits alone and waits patiently for pardon and relief, praying that God will take back His people and renew his people’s days as of old. The late afternoon and evening of Tisha B’Av begin to bring balm and consolation and the hope of redemption.  And healing and anticipation come in the weeks that follow with seven Haftarot read on the seven Sabbaths between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, all from Second Isaiah, all on the theme of consolation , beginning with Isaiah 40: Nachamu, nachamu ammi amar Eloheychem – ‘Comfort, O Comfort my people, saith your God.’ 
 
We move from darkness to light, from mourning to rejoicing from the Three Weeks to Av Menachem – Av, the month of comfort, and into the sixth month of the year, Ellul and a period of repentance and the hope that comes with a New Year that awaits us.
 
The feat – if I may call it – of entering this season of mourning is not easy.  Our tempers may be at odds with the liturgical mood of Tisha B’Av, just as we may find it difficult to find the energy to celebrate on the festival of Sukkot, the Autumn harvest festival, that commands to rejoice before God.  As Liberal Jews, we live between two calendars – the Jewish lunar-solar cycle of Sabbaths and holy days, and the Gregorian solar calendar – aware of the history of our own people, but at the same time, conscious of our obligations to all humanity.  And we live, too, in the consciousness of this new world, in which something familiar has receded into the past, and something new has entered into our own time.  And we cannot see its beauty or meaning; we feel only the strains of recent losses and the uncertainty of future times.
 
Like the generations that lived in the aftermath of Roman destruction of the Temple, we are silent, in a place of bewilderment and fear; yet in that silence may we sit and wait patiently for God who will help us to return to Him and renew our days as of old.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Mon, 21 September 2020 3 Tishrei 5781