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Mental Health Shabbat

7 Jan 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Jami is a charity that provides practical and emotional support for the mental health of the Jewish community. Jami initiated a Mental Health Awareness Shabbat on 7-8 January 2022.  

They chose this week because of its Torah portion - ‘Bo’. It tells of the last three Plagues. One of them is the plague of Darkness, which has resonance with mental illness. 

According to Jami’s interpretation of this week’s parashah, ‘the darkness was so intense that people couldn’t move from their position…Living through the pandemic has affected all our mental health, and this special Shabbat is an opportunity for the entire community to focus on and raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing.’ (

On a surface level, darkness may seem to be just a regular night. But the Torah text emphasises that it was a different kind of darkness: “they did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from their place for three days” (Exodus 10:23). This led some commentators to assume that this darkness was mental distress that stopped people from doing the simplest of tasks. Sometimes, darkness is not only about lack of light, but about the fright that paralyses people from doing anything. 

The Talmud has a similar story. It expounds on the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. The Rabbis tried to imagine how the first human beings felt when they experienced night for the first time: 

‘On the day when Adam and Eve were created, when the sun set upon them, they cried out in anguish, saying: "Because we sinned, the world is becoming dark around us, and the world will return to a state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon us from Heaven.”' (Avodah Zarah 8a) 

This story had a happy end. The sun eventually rose, and Eve and Adam realised that this was the ordinary course of nature and there was no reason to be afraid. But the idea of the depressing nature of dark times remains relevant. 

This is why, even though we know that night always turns into day, we often still feel vulnerable and unsafe in times of darkness. Therefore, we add a special blessing after the evening Shema every night, asking for protection and support in the uncertain time of darkness: 

‘Grant, Eternal God, that we may lie down in peace, and let us rise up to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace; guide us with Your wise counsel and, for Your name's sake, be our help. Shield us from sickness and war, from famine and distress, and keep us from wrongdoing. Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings, for You are our Guardian and Deliverer, a gracious and merciful God. Guard our going out and our coming in, that, now and always, we may have life and peace.’ 

Not all stories about dark times end in the same way. Fear and mental distress do not always pass with time. This is why organisations like Jami are important. They support our community and help people return to a healthy life. You can read more on Jami’s website.

I hope that this Shabbat can remind us to be each other’s guardians. Let us help our neighbours go through challenges. It is easier to be the source of light during a bright day. Let this Shabbat be a source of inspiration, peace and support for all of us, and let us be the source of light for others in their time of darkness. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Igor Zinkov 


Shabbat B'Shallach/Shirah

14 Jan 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

I moved into my new home just over a month ago.  The pressure of packing up the house, reducing and decluttering the place where I had lived for nearly 34 years to move into a much smaller property, prevented me from bringing two very precious items with me.  I couldn’t see how I could uproot them, and I didn’t have the time to plan for their removal.

I knew that the new owners were redeveloping the property and would be razing these items to the ground.  I needed to design a rescue mission to save them from the bulldozer.  I texted the new owners to ask permission to remove the two items and bring them to my new home.

And so it was last Friday, that the elegant magnolia tree, its flowers already in bud, encased in their tight furry sleeves and the unruly, wild rose bush that puts forth an abundance of pink buds throughout the summer, were transplanted into my new garden.

They look a little awkward in their new home – and in truth, I am not sure that either of them will live.  The magnolia probably should have gone into a pot but there wasn’t one big enough for its roots and the rose bush had its first pruning for quite a few years before finding its home at the bottom of the garden.  But I have given them a chance, for the old garden has been ploughed, its remaining rose bushes and a rosemary bush flattened under furrows of earth.

It seems a timely moment to celebrate their move and hope for their continued life as we look forward to Tu Bi’Sh’vat – the New Year for Trees which falls on Monday 17 January.   Like other significant festivals, Tu Bi’Sh’vat (15th day of the month of Sh’vat) falls on the full moon and originally was a way of marking the age of a tree – an important task because the fruit of trees planted in the land of Israel was forbidden for the first three years of their life.  In the fourth year, it would be offered to the priests in the Temple and in the fifth year it was permitted to the farmer.

Fruit trees occupy an important position in Jewish law. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 prohibits wielding the axe against fruit trees during times of war: ‘You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?’ asks the Torah.

What does this verse mean, asks Rashi, the 11th century French commentator?  He sees the trees as vulnerable living things which, unlike human beings who can flee from their attackers and withdraw into a besieged city, are defenceless and cannot move.

But Abraham ibn Ezra reads the verse differently.  The verse is not asking rhetorically is the tree of the field human, he says in his commentary, but rather states, ki ha-adam etz – the tree is a human being, that is, the life of human beings is supported by trees. These trees are a source of sustenance for all human life – and indeed for the creatures who live in and around them.

I am watching the magnolia carefully and speaking gently to her. She is not quite upright and leans a little towards the hedge at the end of the garden.  I stroke the furry swathed buds and pray she can put her roots down in her new home.  I grieve for the forsythia and wisteria removed to make way for a paved car park in front of my old house, for the fragrant roses and lavender that spilled out over the little brick wall that separated the beds from the pavement.

I go to the website of Trees for Cities to buy four trees on behalf of a friend who is preparing for a long and serious cancer operation.  I know this is a very small gesture, but if all of us could purchase just one tree to plant in our cities and elsewhere, to mitigate against forests destroyed, perhaps then the trees’ continuity and sustainability would enable human beings to continue to eat their fruit and breathe their oxygen for many generations to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

The Jewish Response to Hatred

21 Jan 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Less than a week ago, four people were held hostage at an American Progressive synagogue, ‘Beth Israel’, in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. After ten hours, all the hostages were freed, unharmed. However, this news left many Jews with heavy thoughts and feelings. Synagogues are supposed to be safe places for us to gather and pray; is there anything we can do to ensure that this does not happen again? What is the Jewish response to antisemitism?

In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people prepare to receive the Ten Commandments. This text became the basis of morality for all Abrahamic religions and the Western world. Shortly before the Ten Commandments are given, God addresses people in an unusual way. God calls the Israelites segulah (סְגֻלָּה):

‘Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My segulah among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.’ (Exodus 19:5-6)

The Hebrew word segulah can be translated as ‘possession, property, treasure’. How can it be that God’s treasure, a special possession, can suffer from hatred? How can it be that God’s people can be in danger of physical and emotional abuse? Such questions are not new. In the past, there have been many occasions where antisemitism has showed its face on Earth. 

The most natural response to hatred is to close your doors and become suspicious of others. Unfortunately, such an approach is necessary. At the LJS, we do a lot to ensure the safety of our community – professional guards, security volunteers, CCTV, close contact with Community Security Trust and the local police.

However, this should not be the only reaction to antisemitism. There is a reason why in this week’s Torah portion, we are called ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ What response to hatred would you expect from a religious leader? Surely, it is not the one of closure and animosity. 

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the Rabbi of Beth Israel synagogue, was one of the hostages. After the event, he gave an interview, where he reflected on his experience and said: ‘you do what you have to do. As part of Rabbinic training…we talked a lot about the idea of being a calm, non-anxious presence….’ I found his words grounding and wise. 

We live in a world where many people seek quick responses, make generalisations and want rapid reactions. Sometimes we need to take time, be with each other and not talk about solutions. Sometimes the solution is not about accusations, but about building relationships. Sometimes it is more important to open our doors to others and learn about each other. Sometimes we need to be a calm and non-anxious presence in the world. 

At a time when many would choose to close their doors and be suspicious of others, we need to come together, express our solidarity and support each other, extending a hand of friendship to all peoples and nations.

Shabbat Shalom,
Igor Zinkov

Click here to see the full interview with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

Shabbat Mishpatim

28 Jan 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

‘I have to explain the unexplainable.’  These are the words of Lily Ebert, one of the speakers at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony that took place online on Thursday evening, the day designated as a day of remembrance of the murder of six million Jews, of Roma and Sinti people, people who were physically or mentally disabled, LGBT people and people who disagreed with the ideology of Nazism.  And it is a day on which we also remember the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.   

‘One day in Auschwitz,’ said Lily Ebert, ‘were selections.  They selected people whom they wanted to keep alive for a bit longer and those who they wanted to kill straight.’ She arrived with her family, her mother, her brother and three younger sisters.  Lily and two of her sisters were taken to work in the sewing factory.  ‘Most of my family did not survive.  It happened so quick that we could not even say a word to them… I have to explain the unexplainable.’ 

After the war, there was the hope that the world would become a better place; that there would be no place for hatred and prejudice, that perpetrators would be brought to justice – ‘never again’ would populations such as the Tutsis or Bosnian Muslims suffer the fate that the Jewish people and others suffered between 1933 and 1945.

Var Ashe Houston had been a teacher of French and English in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. She remembered the day on which the Khymer Rouge captured Cambodia on 17 April 1975 and the four years they tried ‘to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages.’ Cambodians were forced to work 12 hours a day and were only given a bowl of watery rice porridge to eat in the evening.  One day, her hungry six-year-old daughter was caught eating a small cucumber from the field where she was working. They tied her to a tree and beat her with a stick.  ‘Can you imagine,’ she asks.  ‘It was happening right there in front of me, and I could not do a thing to protect my little daughter.’

‘One day…’  This was the theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day.   Survivors recalled the traumas of terrible loss, of fear and helplessness, but also conveyed a determination to survive, to enjoy life and to love, and to teach the next generation of children and young people that it is wrong to oppress, that we must overcome hatred, resentment and prejudice.

‘You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 22:20).  These are the words that lie at the heart of our Torah reading for this Shabbat.  ‘You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth…’ (21-23).

We are witnesses to the stories of these survivors and others, many of whom were children when they endured the unimaginable.  To be able to relive their trauma, to speak of their losses and their helplessness must take immense courage and strength. 

The obligation to speak, not in anger or hatred, but out of a sense that no child, no woman or man should ever be killed or beaten, hurt or traumatised, belongs to all of us.  And as witnesses to these stories, we pledge ourselves that no people should, ever again, endure a genocide like the Jewish people experienced, like the Cambodians, the Rwandan Tutsis, the Bosnian Muslims and the Darfuri people of Western Sudan suffered at the hands of those who oppressed and mistreated and murdered their families and whole communities.

No one should ever have to endure such suffering or explain the unexplainable. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Fri, 24 May 2024 16 Iyar 5784