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The Seder as a Model for Inclusive Education 


5 April 2023

 

Dear Members and Friends,

This evening we retell the story of Passover, the spring of our people, as we transitioned from enslavement to being a free people. The Passover seder is full of rituals involving our senses encouraging us to connect to both our gratitude for our freedoms and our obligation to be freedom makers for others.

In terms of options for educational engagement the Passover seder is remarkably crafted to encourage the participants to engage with the lessons of Passover. There are three main types of learners. Visual learners, those who learn best through visual displays, can engage with the written text of the seder. Auditory learners, those who learn best from listening, can connect with the stories and discussions from the seder. Kinaesthetic learners, those who learn through doing and feeling, have a plethora of ways to connect- eating the ritual items, imagining themselves as slaves, singing, leaning, searching for the Afikomen. The rabbinic creators of the rituals of the Passover seder seem to have had a good sense of how to teach and lead to give many ways to engage. 

However, the traditional representation of the four sons in the Passover seder is dated and does not reflect the inclusion or teaching methods that we, as modern Liberal Jews, hold at the centre of our learning ethos. Our traditional seder presents:

1.    The wise son who asks about the specific testimonies, statutes and laws that God has commanded upon us. To which we are told to respond with an explanation of the specific laws.
2.    The wicked child who questions why this is relevant to him? We are instructed to tell this child that had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
3.    The simple son who questions what Passover is about? To this son we are meant to share the basic lesson of Passover- that we are commemorating God freeing us from slavery.
4.    Finally the child who doesn’t know how to formulate a question. There is the instruction to make an opening for the child to start engaging.

The suggested approaches to each of these four sons may have fit a more didactic, somewhat “one way” flow of information from teacher to student, that might have been more typical of teaching several centuries ago.  Even so, for these four sons, we can see how these four patterns of questioning can actually apply to the ways students of today engage with new or challenging material. In each classroom you can probably find modern representations of these four sons- the one who is asking high level questions about the presented material, the one questioning the relevancy of the material, the one struggling to understand the material and needing a simpler presentation and finally the one who does not even know how to engage with, or start understanding, what is being presented. Engaging with each student, individually, at the level they are requiring, is an important part of teaching and learning, and each of these four perspectives are required. Each of these approaches, presented together in the context of each other, adds depth to the learning environment- ensuring the lesson is content rich, making clear the relevance and implications, while also teaching the basics, so that the lesson is meaningful for all students. 

As a member of the Rimon staff team we speak often about inclusion and embracing different types of learners- each with their own gifts. My guess is we can all think of times or subjects in schools or community programs where we have felt like each of these four sons. The student who is the ‘wise son’ in maths might also be the ‘son who doesn’t know how to engage’ in football during break. The Torah scholar who can lead parashat hashavua might wonder about the relevance of learning traditional musical nusach. 

As a teaching staff we strive to see our students as whole people and accept that the way they are engaging with our class that day is part of who they are and it is our obligation as teachers to ensure that we are presenting the material in a way that is relevant to their needs. 

During our teacher training at the start of the year, our wonderful Kitah Aleph teacher Rosie Cohen (who grew up at The LJS), gave us a session on behaviour management in class. She taught us to think, or even ask, ‘What do you need from me?’ when a student is struggling in class. Considering this question can often be helpful in giving the student agency and encouraging them to articulate what they need to better engage. I wonder how each of the four sons would respond to the question ‘What do you need from me to help you engage in this seder?’. 

Let these four ways of learning and engaging, as presented through our seder, encourage us to embrace all those within our community as they approach our rituals and our traditions through their own educational needs. 

And may we all ask yourselves what we need to fully engage in the depth and lessons of our Passover festival.

Chag Pesach Sameach,

Rabbi Elana

 


Shabbat Shemini 


14 April 2023

 

Dear Members and Friends,

Last week, as the Muslim community were marking Ramadan, fasting from before sunrise to after sunset, and the Christian and Jewish communities were preparing for Easter and Pesach respectively, I felt for a brief moment that sense of our three great Abrahamic religions unified in time by the holiness and preciousness of our respective faiths and observances.  One God, one humanity binds us together in our daily lives, in our encounters with each other.  And while, at the same time, we are distinctive in our prayers, the dietary restrictions that we impose on ourselves, the ceremonies and the narratives that lie at the heart of each of our religious faiths, in that moment, I felt blessed to be part of something greater than myself, open to learning about the ways individuals serve God, are faithful to their ancestral traditions, and wanting to find ways that might heal historical and current wounds.

In the background, I was aware of the boiling tensions in Israel and Palestine, praying for some calm that might occur as families settled in their homes to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder, retrace the death and resurrection of Jesus, and awake early before dawn to share a meal and contemplate the emphasis on purification and almsgiving that Ramadan and its practice of fasting teaches.

On Friday came the tragic news of the death of two British-Israeli sisters, Maia and Rina Dee who were shot as they travelled in a car with their mother, Lucy, who succumbed to her wounds on Sunday.

Rabbi Leo Dee, the husband of Lucy and father of Maia and Rina, served as rabbi of Hendon United Synagogue before moving to Radlett – the open-minded, friendly, orthodox community, neighbours of the Reform synagogue where I served for 14 years.

There are no words for the callous and cruel brutality that causes the death of a mother and her two daughters – 20 Kalashnikov bullets that brought their vibrant and beautiful lives to an end.  What can one say to their husband and father, to their surviving siblings and community? 

Rabbi Dee, who made Aliyah with his family to Israel eight years ago, is associated with the The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and is co-editor, together with Rabbi Yonatan Neril of two volumes of ecological commentary to the Torah, Eco Bible. It is a practical manual that draws on traditional and classical biblical commentary and philosophy, as well as contemporary reports on the environment, drawing together the deeply rooted love of the natural world that is characterised by Tanakh and an awareness of the harm that we are doing to the world.

I turn to this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, in which two of the four sons of Aaron die suddenly as they re-enter the Tabernacle after their ordination. In the aftermath of these heart-breaking deaths, the Torah says only with a raw concision: Vayidom Aharon – ‘Aaron was silent.’

The editors quote from Rabbeinu Bachaya (13th-14th century) who explain that the biblical law of mourning requires silence before the body is buried, and from a contemporary teacher, Azriel ReShel who writes about the modern-day health risks of noise pollution which can cause elevated levels of stress hormones and is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and loss of sleep.  Silence, says, ReShel can ‘open us up to inspiration and nurtures the mind, body and soul…’

There have been both Israeli and Palestinian deaths over this past week. As Jews, the sound of mourning among our own has eclipsed the death of a fifteen-year-old Palestinian boy in Jericho, and there have been many more deaths on both sides this year.

I wonder if we can silence our own deeply felt and justified anger at the murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee. They are innocent victims of the hatred and resentment that exists against a supremacist and oppressive occupying force that is Israel.

How do we end this terrible conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?  These words by Sulaiman Khatib, one of the Palestinian founders of the peace activist organisation, Combatants for Peace, form a moving note at the beginning of Penina Eilberg-Schwartz’s memoir about him in her book In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation:

‘By telling my story, I want to humanize the headlines as much as possible. To show the complexity and the beauty and the ugliness and the pain and the hope to share what I went through, what our communities – both Palestinian and Jewish – continue to go through. I hope to use my little bit of knowledge to give a different look, from different sides… To hold multiple narratives is not easy. It is not easy to carry contradictions in your soul. It’s much easier to see one side of the story, to blame the other, to live in victimhood, to feel that all the world is against you, that everyone wants to kill you. But this is not reality. The history of Palestine and Israel has been told in many ways, and if we want a better future, we must gather the pieces and form them into a new shared story.’ (Quoted in Profiles in Peace, by Ron Kronish).

 
Shabbat Shalom.

Alexandra Wright

 


Jewish Reunion - Journey Towards the Creation of a new progressive movement in the UK

21 April 2023
 

Dear Members and Friends,
 

Some of you might have heard the exciting announcement that Liberal Judaism and The Movement for Reform Judaism will work together to create one unified Progressive Jewish movement for the UK. This week I would like to reflect on this news and encourage all of you to support this forward-looking and positive vision. Let’s begin by looking at the history of Liberal and Reform Judaism in the UK.

On 24 October 1969, Rabbi John Rayner gave a sermon at the LJS entitled ‘Jewish Reunion?’. In it, he talked about divisions within the Jewish people throughout its history. Eventually, he spoke about the division between Liberal and Reform Judaism in the UK. He said:

“One such division occurred in this country at the beginning of the 20th century when Reform and Liberal Judaism parted company. The circumstances are not very important. In brief, the Jewish Religious Union (JRU), which was at first a kind of society for the revival of Judaism transcending organisational boundaries, sought permission to hold its experimental Saturday afternoon services at the West London Synagogue. The Council of the West London Synagogue agreed but laid down conditions which the JRU did not feel able to accept, for example, that men and women must be segregated, as was then still the custom in the West London Synagogue, that all the major prayers must be recited in Hebrew, and that the liturgy to be used must be approved by the Synagogue Council. Unable to accept these conditions, the JRU, which otherwise might have been absorbed into the Reform movement, started off on a career of its own and, a few years later, decided to establish its own synagogues, of which ours was the first.”

At that time, 60 years after the establishment of what is now Liberal Judaism, there were serious talks about the reunion of the two movements. As an argument for the reunion, Rabbi Rayner said: ‘I suppose one reason is the very general one that unity, if attainable, is always preferable to disunity; that Anglo-Jewry is already overly fragmented, and that it would be a good and healthy thing to diminish the number of 'sects' or 'denominations' into which it is divided… In addition, the Liberal and Reform movements have become involved, in recent years, in so many cooperative projects that they have learnt from experience how much more can be achieved together than separately… So the case for the reunion is a very strong one, provided that the two movements do in fact have enough in common with each other and that whatever differences there are can either be overcome or allowed to co-exist within a united movement.’

Rabbi Rayner also listed a few differences between our movements, which existed in 1969, and concluded that they could be overcome if the majority of congregations would wish so. He also added:

‘I think we must continue to hope and grope for the day when we shall recognise that we are kinsmen, not only ethnically but also ideologically and that the spirit of ecumenism, with healing in its wings, will establish itself among us and bring unity, not only to Liberal and Reformers but to all the divisions in Anglo—Jewry.’

This week, 54 years after this sermon was delivered at the LJS and 121 years after the establishment of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Rayner’s vision is very close to realisation. On Monday, 17 April 2023, Liberal Judaism and The Movement for Reform Judaism announced that they would be working together to create one single unified Progressive Jewish movement for the UK.

What follows below is a selection of possible questions you might have about the upcoming reunion and co-creation of the new movement. It has been written by the leadership of both movements. I hope this will address some of your concerns and answer your questions about the exciting future of the UK Jewish community. 

What does this mean for our own community? Will we need to merge with our nearest Liberal/Reform community? Will our services change?

Our 80+ Progressive communities up and down the country will retain their individual identities, names, services and practices.

There will be no changes to prayer books, culture or minhag – and we certainly aren’t asking anyone to remove Liberal or Reform from their synagogue names.

This is about having a new national movement to increase our voice and our reach, but our constituent members will retain their incredible and eclectic identities.

Just as the World (and European) Union for Progressive Judaism has members that are Liberal and Reform communities, so will British Progressive Judaism.

How about youth movements? Will LJY and RSY still exist as their own entity?

We are so proud of everything achieved by LJY-Netzer and RSY-Netzer. We have two wonderful youth movements who do different things and cater to different audiences.

The only change going forward is that they will now benefit from better resources and stronger support to improve the life-changing experiences our children and young people enjoy.

We are also excited to invite young Progressive Jews to help us vision what the next steps look like.

Why aren’t you calling this a merger?

We are keen to stress that this isn’t a merger or a takeover but the formation of a brand new movement, Progressive Judaism, to represent the 30% of British Jews who define themselves in that way.

Our Reform and Liberal clergy and communities will now work together to build a joint vision for a new entity for Progressive Jewry.

Will converts, same-sex couples, mixed-faith families, children of Jewish fathers (but not mothers) and others who found their homes in Liberal or Reform Judaism be accepted by the other?

Of course!

This is currently the case anyway and always will be going forward.

On issues of conversion, Jewish status, LGBTQI+ inclusion and the welcome of mixed-faith families, Liberal and Reform Judaism already have identical or almost identical policies and affirmations.

Put simply, if you are a Liberal or Reform Jew, then you are a Progressive Jew. If you are a member of a Liberal or Reform community, then you are a member of a Progressive community.

What are the differences between Liberal and Reform Judaism?

That is very hard to articulate, which is one of the reasons why we are creating Progressive Judaism.

The differences are mainly historical. We will always honour that history, which will always be part of who we are, but now is the time to build the future.

Why did I have to find out at the same time as everyone else?

We appreciate that this may have come as a surprise to some of you and hope you understand that we have shared the news as soon as possible.

In order to try and reach as many people as possible, we informed our rabbis, staff, councils and the media at the same time and as soon as we were able.

We didn’t want the news to leak out or rumours to start, and this was the best way to ensure it.

How long will this take? Can I be involved? 

We anticipate it will take around 18-24 months to get everything in order.

This means that there's plenty of time for discussion and agreement, and we would love for as many people to get involved as possible.

We will hold numerous briefings, calls and forums to discuss the formation of Progressive Judaism, and details will be sent around in due course.

Will my fees change?

We don’t envisage the creation of Progressive Judaism will have an impact on individual membership fees.

Why are you doing this?

Together our hopes and plans for Progressive Judaism are so similar. We share the same core values and outlook. 

As a unified group, we will be stronger, and our voices will be clearer and louder. As a result, we will be able to make an even bigger contribution to the wider Jewish community both in the UK and beyond our shores.

By working together, we can better support our communities and enable our rabbis and cantors to work more sustainably and powerfully.

We want our children and grandchildren to have a positive, Progressive Jewish outlook. This move at this time will help deliver L’dor Vador.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

 


Reflections on Kabbalat Torah

28 April 2023
 

Dear Members and Friends,
 

This weekend five LJS members will celebrate their Kabbalat Torah, formerly known as Confirmation. For our synagogue, this is much more important than B. Mitzvah. 

Confirmation originated in the 19th century as part of the Reform movement. The idea of this ceremony is to mark the completion of a course at a synagogue’s religion school. Confirmation is not a biblical or rabbinic commandment but rather a modern innovation that reflects the values and goals of Liberal Judaism.

The history of confirmation can be traced back to Germany, where the first confirmation service was held in 1810 in Hamburg. The school's director, Israel Jacobson, was a prominent Reform movement leader who sought to modernise Jewish worship and education. Jacobson introduced confirmation to celebrate the religious maturity of his students, who had studied Hebrew, the Bible, Jewish history, and ethics for several years. He modelled the ceremony after the Christian tradition of confirmation, which he had witnessed as a child.

Confirmation soon spread to other progressive congregations in Germany and beyond. It was seen as a way to renew and inspire Jewish identity and loyalty among young people exposed to secular influences and assimilation pressures. Confirmation also served as a substitute for B. Mitzvah, which was considered by Reformers to be outdated, misogynistic and inadequate for modern times. At that time, Bar Mitzvah was only for boys. Instead of introducing Bat Mitzvah, the ceremony was never equal and egalitarian. In addition, Jewish girls only had access to Bat Mitzvah anywhere in the world in the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, the introduction of Confirmation was seen as the next and more advanced ceremony that marked the coming of age. 

Many confirmation ceremonies were held on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the Torah giving at Mount Sinai, and incorporating themes of learning, order and ethics. This is why the later progressive Rabbis gave another name to Confirmation – Kabbalat Torah, Receiving (or accepting) The Torah. 

Confirmation has undergone various changes and adaptations over time, reflecting the diversity and evolution of Jewish thought and practice. Some Jews have rejected confirmation as a Christian imitation or a deviation from tradition. Others have embraced confirmation as a meaningful and relevant expression of their Jewish identity and commitment. Some Jews combined confirmation with a bar or bat mitzvah, creating a dual ceremony honouring ancient and modern Judaism.

Today, Kabalat Torah is still practised by many Jews worldwide, especially in Liberal, Reconstructionist, and some Conservative communities. It typically involves a group of students who have attended Cheder. They study various Judaism-related topics, such as theology, ethics, history, culture, Israel, and social justice. They also participate in communal activities, such as services, social events, volunteer projects, and trips. The confirmation ceremony usually occurs in the synagogue. The students lead parts of the service, read from the Torah, recite prayers and blessings, deliver speeches or presentations, and receive certificates and gifts. The ceremony is often followed by a festive meal or party with family and friends.

Confirmation is not only a celebration of Jewish knowledge and achievement but also a declaration of Jewish faith and responsibility. Through confirmation, young Jews affirm their connection to God, Torah, Israel, and the Jewish people. They also commit themselves to continuing their Jewish journey and contributing to their community and the world. 

I like that the LJS has both B. Mitzvah and Kabbalat Torah. For me, B. Mitzvah is an individual event that symbolises the personal choice of a teenager to be Jewish and lead a Jewish life. On the other hand, Kabalat Torah is a collective event and, therefore, a symbol of the conscious choice to be a member of the Jewish community.

I hope we will celebrate many Bnei Mitzvah and Kabbalot Torah at the LJS and be proud of Liberal Jews that celebrate tradition and live modern visionary, and ethical lives. 

Mazal Tov to our Wonderful Kabbalat Torah students and their families! 

Shabbat Shalom to all,

Rabbi Igor

Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784