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Shabbat Pinchas

7 July 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

I am seated in the Head Room Café in Golders Green, not far from where I live. During the successive lockdowns, I would walk past regularly, noticing how the shop was struggling and I wondered how it would survive not being able to provide a space for people to come in, have a cup of coffee or engage in the programmes it had started before Covid-19.

Now, they have re-opened as a social enterprise café, provided by the mental health charity, Jami, one of our High Holy Day charities for this coming year.
 More details will come about the other charities we have chosen. Today, it occupies not just one outlet along Golders Green Road, but two, and serves teas and coffees, as well as an ‘All day brunch’, which I have just enjoyed, seated in a corner at one of the tables on a comfortable long sofa that stretches along part of the back of the café. The place is filling up with people, inside and outside, where guests sit at tables on the pavement outside the floor to ceiling glass windows. We are all generations, two women of a certain generation, seated opposite each other, enjoying soup of the day, a couple not far from me, ordering a coffee and perhaps having some kind of business meeting. And individuals for whom this is a safe place, their community hub on the high street, where they can feel safe, have conversations and make connections, their dislocated lives valued.

What is it like to live without a sense of well-being and mental health? How do people cope with anxiety, with fear of others, being frightened of going outside their front door? How do individuals emerge from depression, from cycles of acute and intense fever on the one hand, and profound despair, on the other? 

In March, a friend of mine who had lived with many different challenges over the years, culminating in a failed relationship, took an overdose of her medication, and was taken into hospital where she was placed in an induced coma in the intensive care unit. From time to time, the doctors tried to bring her out of the coma, but she struggled with the breathing tubes, trying to pull them out, and each time, they would place her back into the coma. There were glimpses of hope, but two months after she had taken the overdose, despite monumental efforts to save her by the medical staff, she died. She was barely forty.

Although she lived abroad, I think she would have benefited from the Head Room Café. I like to think that she would have joined the Art 4 All group on a Monday afternoon with someone to talk to, a way of processing her feelings creatively. Perhaps she would have stopped to have something to eat, and stayed on for the Writing and Performance group, with an opportunity for creative writing and improvisation games. The latter would have made her laugh; we often laughed when we met up every time she came to London.

On Tuesdays, she could have joined the coffee and connect space in the café, and on Thursdays a community walking group, meeting outside the café for a leisurely stroll on Hampstead Heath nearby. And if she hadn’t felt like going out, she could have joined the Peer Support Group online.

How many others are there like my friend, who felt she had reached the end of the line? This is a place for everyone, not only those who are suffering from mental anguish – it is as the ‘menu’ tells me, an inclusive place for everyone. People don’t need to be made to feel different; they don’t need to be alone with their suffering, although many are – so unutterably lonely and isolated from others.

After the lockdowns, we are all grieving in some way, all desperately trying to process what happened to us when we were confined to our homes, when we couldn’t see close family or friends, except online, when we were so constrained by the impositions that were placed on us – no celebrations, not even the comfort of a gentle touch or hug for those who lost family and friends during that period.

I am here on this busy high street, but there is something comforting and holding about sitting here, even though I’m alone. People smile, they acknowledge their own and others’ vulnerability. No one needs to be stigmatised here. We are one community, one humanity here at Jami’s Head Room Café.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

P.S. Our service this Friday evening will include a prayer in memory of those who died 18 years ago in the July 7 bombings in London.


Thoughts About Ukraine

14 July 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Forgive me for a long thought for the week. This week I decided to write down my thoughts about the past, present, and future of Ukraine and Russia and their Jewish communities. 

As some of you know, I was born in Russia, but my surname is Ukrainian. This is because the Jewish part of my family is originally from Ukraine. Zinkiv is the name of an old former Jewish town in central Ukraine. My great-grandparents escaped the Holocaust by moving to Russia. After the war, part of the family returned to Ukraine, and some of them are still there today. My branch of the family stayed in Russia, where I was born and spent most of my life. This is why my parents live in Russia today, and I have family and many friends in Ukraine. 

I was very active in Jewish life in Russia and Ukraine before the war. To understand Ukrainian and Russian Jewry, it is essential to know its historical and cultural context. After the collapse of the USSR, Jewish life started to grow and flourish in Russia and Ukraine. Many Jewish organisations, such as JAFI, JDC, Hillel, Chabad and World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), invested in a Jewish revival in the post-Soviet states, and it was very successful. Jewish communities built or reclaimed many synagogues, and many educational, religious, and cultural projects were established and attracted large numbers of participants. By the late 1990s, Jewish life in Ukraine and Russia was so rich, that it was considered safe and even fashionable to be openly Jewish in Russia and Ukraine. However, there was a major change that hit Russian and Ukrainian Jewish life - immigration. By the early 2000s, many Jewish people had left Russia and Ukraine and settled in other countries - mainly in Israel, USA, and Germany, countries with dedicated programmes of accepting Ukrainian and Russian Jews. Many used these opportunities and immigrated. About 1 million people made Aliya to Israel throughout the 1990s, bringing a lot of culture, engineering and medical skills and science from the former Soviet Union to Israel. The vast majority of German Jews today speak Russian, and an estimated 20% of American Jews have Russian or Ukrainian heritage.

There is no clear pattern for those who are still in Russia or Ukraine today. Due to their Soviet upbringing, many middle age and older generations of Russian and Ukrainian Jews do not feel comfortable in a religious environment, so they call themselves ‘cultural Jews’.  They would happily attend concerts, lectures and art exhibitions about something Jewish.

Religious life was also rich and flourishing, although less diverse than in the UK. At the beginning of the 1990s, two main movements were developing in Ukraine and Russia – Orthodox and Reform, and they were more-or-less equal. World Union for Progressive Judaism was instrumental in the revival of Progressive Jewish life in Russia and Ukraine and remains one of the key players there today. However, by the late 1990s and early 2000s the Chabad movement had become the dominant form of religious Jewish life in Russia and Ukraine. The reform movement exists and is quite strong, too, but not comparable to Chabad in terms of its membership and influence. Chief Chabad Rabbi Berl Lazar is a regular guest at government events and meets with Putin annually.

Many people ask me about antisemitism in Russia and Ukraine today. Since the break of the Soviet Union, there have been no governmental anti-religious or antisemitic laws. People are free to practice any religion they wish. There are antisemitic groups and occasional local hate speech, but no more than in any European country. 

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, WUPJ set up the Ukraine Crisis Fund with the aim of providing help with rescue and relief efforts for Ukrainian Jewish communities and Ukrainian refugees. Carole Sterling and I co-chair this fund and have regular calls and meeting with many Ukrainians and Ukrainian refugees. There are about 11 active communities in Ukraine today, and many progressive Jews are involved in volunteering and essential support for those in need within Ukraine. The Ukraine Crisis Fund provides emotional and financial support to all of them and other non-Jewish NGOs in Ukraine. Apart from efforts in Ukraine, many European Progressive communities and NGOs set up support for Ukrainian Refugees with the financial support of the Ukraine Crisis Fund. Since the beginning of the war, the fund has allocated over $1 million in 11 countries, helping tens of thousands of people.  I know that many of you have donated money to this cause and I would like to thank you.

It is harder to provide direct support to Russian Jews now. Most international money transfers are forbidden, and even if there were a way to make the transfer, individuals and organisations in Russia often refuse to receive financial aid from the West to avoid additional scrutiny and labels for receiving money from “unfriendly” countries. However, WUPJ continues to support Russian communities financially and morally. One such project is based at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue. Alex Zhyvago, a Ukrainian refugee himself, who was injured in the first days of the war, is a Ukrainian lawyer. With the help of the LJS and WUPJ, he provides free legal advice to Ukrainian refugees. With his help, almost 600 Ukrainian refugees received essential support.

I tried to answer how many Jews are left in Ukraine and Russia today. It is hard and almost impossible to count Russian and Ukrainian Jews. The official census numbers are very low. In the national census conducted in 2021, only 82,644 people identified themselves as Jews in Russia. However, according to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola in 2016, Russia was home to 179,500 Jews, making it the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world.  Some people still believe that the number is much higher and can reach almost a million Jews in Russia, which is very unlikely. I tend to trust available demographic data. I think there are no more than 150,000 Jews left in Russian Federation. Apart from the natural decline, The Jewish Agency reported that around 20,500 Russian Jews had moved to Israel since March 2022, amid fears of persecution, conscription and the ongoing war with Ukraine.  On a personal level, all my Jewish friends have left Russia by now.

A 2020 demographic study of European Jewry estimated that 43,000 Ukrainians identify as Jews, but some estimates of people with Jewish ancestry quadruple that number.  The European Jewish Congress suggests that the number of Jews in Ukraine could be as high as 400,000. I think the actual number lies somewhere in the middle, but it is impossible to know the truth.

The last question I often ask myself is how soon this war will end. Like many others, I pray for peace and hope that bloodshed will end soon so that the Ukraine Crisis Fund and many other Jewish charities can focus on rebuilding Jewish life in Ukraine. However, it is not for me to decide when Ukraine and Russia will be ready to engage in meaningful negotiations. It is the choice and right of the Ukrainian nation to defend itself and define its path. At the moment, I am not optimistic and think that this war has the potential to last for years and escalate further. But as a Rabbi, I am commanded to keep faith and have hope. Let us pray together that this hope will never end, and let us be the exemplar of compassion and kindness to all who suffer and need our support.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor



From Lament to Consolation

21 July 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

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 the 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. Such rituals may help us move from our sorrow to the nurturing 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, in fact at this very moment in time.

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, 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. 

The three Sabbaths that occur between the 17th Tammuz and the 9th Av, which this year begins on Wednesday 26 July and ends at nightfall on 27 July, are distinguished by three prophetic readings (Haftarot), two from Jeremiah and the first chapter of Isaiah – each one of them passages of admonition and rebuke addressed to a sinful people.  Isaiah 1 gives its name to this Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Chazon – the Sabbath of vision.  Although Isaiah lived a hundred years or more before the destruction of the First Temple, this chapter serves as a prelude to the reading of the Book of Lamentations, associated with and read on Tisha B’Av, the tone and imagery preparing us for the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting, lamentation and mourning.  Isaiah, like the poet of Lamentations, contemplates in elegiac form the suffering and dislocation that occurred after the destruction of the Temple and the exile that followed.   

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.  This is the book, says Shaye Cohen, that ‘is the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present and future.’

Tisha B’Av is commemorated, not only for the catastrophe of the destruction of the First Temples 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 would like to be throwing off the fetters of our work and thinking of our holidays, we 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).

But 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, wearing away his flesh and skin, shattering his bones, 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.  Healing and anticipation come in the weeks that follow with seven prophetic readings 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, a period of repentance and the hope, we pray, that wars will cease, violence and conflict be replaced by dialogue and understanding, and poverty and suffering with prosperity and well-being, and the climate emergency with the saving of all planetary life.

Shabbat Shalom,
Alexandra Wright

Please join Rabbi Igor and LJS Member Stephen Blumenthal online on Wednesday 26 July at 8.00 pm for a brief service to mark Tisha B’Av and a discussion on the significance of Tisha  B’Av for us today in this post-pandemic world. . Please use the usual Shabbat Zoom link or watch along on our YouTube channel The Liberal Jewish Synagogue - YouTube


Reflections on Israel, Hate and Love

28 July 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

A few days ago, we marked Tisha B’Av – the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is a collective day of mourning, of remembering all disasters and persecutions which happened to Jewish people throughout history. Not many people know that just six days after Tisha B’Av, we celebrate the festival of love - or Tu B’Av, the 15th day of Av.

Most Jews today hardly ever hear about this day. Tu B’Av was almost unnoticed in the Jewish calendar for many centuries, but it has been revived in recent years, especially in the state of Israel today. In its modern version, Tu B’Av has become a Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.

There is no mention of this day in the Hebrew Bible. The first mention of it is in the Mishnah, where Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted saying:

There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur since, on these days, the daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. What were they saying: Young man, consider whom you choose. (Ta’anit, Chapter 4)

The notion of love and relationships can be a source of many issues, especially in modern society. I am sure many of you think that the idea that a man should choose a woman is problematic and sexist. Perhaps, it was relevant and regular then, and we might take some of the wisdom and transform uncomfortable sides. As with many other parts of the ancient world, it should be developed, changed, and adjusted for the modern world.

I think there is an important message in the fact that the festival of mourning and sadness is juxtaposed with the celebration of love and partnership. 

In his work “The Beloved Ego: Foundations of the New Study of the Psyche”, prominent Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote:

“There is no love without hate, and there is no hate without love. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference; the opposite of feeling can only be the absence of feeling. Disinclination, which is coloured by feeling, often only serves the purpose of concealing and protecting oneself against an inclination. Love and hate must go hand in hand, and the people we love most we hate also because hate is grounded in the nature of love.”

Later, this idea was repeated by Holocaust survivor, activist and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel. There is something fundamental in this message. You cannot remain indifferent to their mistakes if you love something or someone. You may even sound angry and hateful, but anger sometimes comes from a place of love.

Perhaps, this is why many people misinterpret criticism and confuse love with hate. One example of such confusion is the current crisis of Israeli democracy. As some of you know, on Monday, the Knesset voted to pass the first part of the judicial overhaul, abolishing the reasonableness clause and, in doing so, significantly diminishing the power of the Supreme Court.

This week, two poignant pieces were published in the Jewish News. One is an article by Jonathan Wittenberg from Masorti Judaism, Rabbi Charley Baginsky from Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Josh Levy from Movement for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Lea Muhlstein from Arzenu UK. The piece ends with these wise words:
“Though it is the bleakest fast of the Jewish year, Tisha B’Av ends not in despair but in hope. We herald the rebuilding of a new Jerusalem, the capital city of a country based on justice, human dignity, equality and freedom, and filled with life and joy. This is the outcome for which we protest and for which we pray, and we invite and encourage all those who care about Israel’s future to join us in doing so.” (read the full text here)

The other piece is an open letter to Knesset signed by over 100 Rabbis, including Rabbi Alex and me. The letter ends with these words:
“Together, we can strive for a better future – a future where Israel continues to be a beacon of democracy, justice, and equality. Let us ensure that future generations inherit a nation that upholds the principles upon which it was founded – a just and democratic state with checks and balances and a source of pride for the Jewish people worldwide. With hope for unity and democracy.” (read the full text here)

I hope that this time the voice of criticism will not be mistaken for the voice of hate and will be taken seriously. We express love to the state of Israel when we are not indifferent to her shortcomings. As we say every Shabbat ‘May its leaders strive to be true to its founding principles of freedom, justice and peace. May its citizens uphold a vision of equality and understanding, removing all fears and healing all wounds. And may we, through our loving attachment to the land, remain unprejudiced and clear in our pursuit of peace and justice. ‘Let peace be found within her walls and safety within her borders.’ 

Ken Yehi Ratzon,
May this be God’s will.

Rabbi Igor 

Wed, 27 September 2023 12 Tishrei 5784