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Shabbat Re'eh

6 Aug 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

About ten years ago, I was asked to prove the Jewish status of a young man who was an asylum seeker and was about to be deported back to the country of his birth.  His father had been killed and his mother had died; he had no other family and had been sent abroad by his mother who knew that his life would be in danger had he remained at home. He was stateless; the government of the state did not recognise him as a citizen of the country where he had been born and he had no status in the UK.

Although he knew very little about Judaism, he understood that there was something different about him and his parents’ origins.  He had a Hebrew name as well as Arabic name.  Taunted at school with the label ‘Yehudi’ (Jew), he understood that he was different from the other children and that his family had assimilated, fearful of revealing their Jewish identity in a deeply hostile environment.

Over a period of time, I got to know the young man and was asked to provide a witness statement proving his Jewish identity.  His Jewish status was recognised by the Beit Din and I attended court in Newport, Wales, in order to deliver my statement proving his Jewish identity and thereby providing evidence as to why he should remain in the UK.

He won his Appeal and was allowed to stay in the UK.  The long, protracted and detailed process had been successful, but it opened my eyes to a certain hostility and culture of suspicion around asylum seekers.  This young man was lonely, desperate and impoverished and it was fortunate that he had the support of a wonderful solicitor and barrister who were able to overturn the deportation order so that he could remain in the country which he now regarded as home.

The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently at committee stage in the House of Commons, has made me wonder whether this young man’s experience would have been different had he been applying for Leave to Remain now. What kind of support and protection would he have received in the current climate?  What chance would he have had to remain in this country, get a job and contribute to the economy and well-being of the UK as he is now doing thanks to sound legal help and a judge who ultimately saw him as an individual and was willing to show him compassion, dignity and respect?

The Nationality and Borders Bill will assess those seeking asylum differently based on their means of arriving in the UK, rather than the circumstances they have fled from.  It will not reduce the number of desperate people who are smuggled into this country by people traffickers?

Jewish organisations and individuals often look back at the Kindertransport, when 10,000 Jewish children were allowed into this country in 1938-1939.  These were children who were parted from their parents, many subsequently became orphans of the Shoah, their parents murdered in death camps.  Their schooling was interrupted, many were shipped from one host to another, or from one hostel to another.  Yet, their contribution to this country has been nothing less than monumental – economically, academically, professionally and in so many other ways.

The new Bill will increase uncertainty for already traumatised families and individuals.  It will limit access to family reunion for many people granted refugee status because of how they arrived in the UK. The suggestion that the UK’s indefinite immigration detention system expand into offshore facilities is nothing less than callous, rejecting the tradition of this country to provide refuge to those fleeing conflict and persecution.

Liberal Judaism, together with the Board of Deputies, JCore (the Jewish Council for Racial Equality) and others are coordinating a response to the Bill in order to protect the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees to this country. There need to be safe ways to bring people into the UK and a recognition that the few in number individuals and families who seek asylum here just want to lead settled lives, to raise their children safely and contribute to the success of this country.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Shabbat Ki Tetzé

20 Aug 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God. 

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.
A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in. 

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield. It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’  

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Preparing for the High Holy Days

27 Aug 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

We are only 10 days away from Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the solemn period of Yamim Nora'im – The Days of Awe. Today we know this period as a time of contemplation and prayer with the main themes of repentance and atonement. The main purpose of this period is best expressed in the Hebrew word teshuvah. On the one hand it comes from the root meaning ‘return’ and it emphasises that it is not too late to turn towards the path of virtuous deeds and righteousness. At the same time, teshuvah means repentance. During the High Holy Days, we come together to reflect on the past year and our behaviour towards others and towards ourselves.

Like other sacred moments, this chain of festivals has its periods of preparation.

Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter once said: ‘Most people repent during the week preceding Rosh Hashanah; the more pious during the month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah; but I say that one should begin to repent immediately after Yom Kippur.’

It is hard to disagree with Rabbi Salanter’s wisdom. It seems superficial only to have 10 days a year when we reflect on our deeds and improve our behaviour. Every day should have a moment of reflection, it is never too late to apologise and become a better person. This is why this period was extended and the preparation begins with the month of Elul – 30 days before Rosh Hashanah. In liturgical terms, we recite Selichot - penitential prayers. The Sefardi Jews begin reciting Selichot on the first day of Elul; the Ashkenazi - one week before Rosh Hashanah.

Over time, it has become customary to hold a special Selichot service on Saturday night, a week before Rosh Hashanah. This year the Selichot service will take place on Saturday, 28 August at 8.30pm. You can join Rabbi Alex and me for the 45-minute service online by going to the LJS YouTube Channel. All other Festivals will be available in hybrid mode – both in person, on Zoom, and streamed on the LJS YouTube Channel. We need to make sure that our services are as safe as possible. If you would like to come in person and have not sent your application form yet, please visit the High Holy Days section of the LJS website to download and send your form to the LJS office by 3pm, Friday 27 August. We will do our best to accommodate as many people as we can. Alternatively, please join all our services and study sessions on the LJS YouTube Channel or on Zoom.

The key points of the High Holy Days liturgy is that most prayers about repentance and Viduy (confession) are articulated in plural. We do not say “I have done wrong,” but rather “We have done wrong.” It is important to be a part of the community and feel the connection and support of others. I hope that after an extended period of isolation and uncertainty, all of us will be able to come together – online and in person - and have a meaningful, intellectually challenging, and deeply spiritual experience.

Ktiva VaHatima Tova! 
May all of us be written in the Book of Life and affirmed for a kind judgement.

Igor Zinkov

PS. If you would like some book recommendations for the period of the High Holy Days, please consider these two books:

Alan Lew ‘This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation’ 

Isaak Klein ‘A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice.’ Chapters ‘The Days of Awe’ 

Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784