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T’tzavveh/Zachor
     

3 March 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

This Shabbat at the LJS we are celebrating 30 years since the completion of ‘Chairscape.’ Have you ever wondered how the chairs on the bimah in the Sanctuary were designed and stitched, how long it took and who were the people behind a remarkable project that began with the eight chairs on the upper and lower bimahs and was continued twenty years later with ‘Seatscape’ the covering of 100 seats in the body of the Sanctuary?

It seems particularly appropriate to be marking the anniversary this Shabbat with our Torah portion, T’tzavveh, in which the Israelites receive instructions about ritual items in the mishkan – the Tabernacle. Later on, in Exodus, we will learn about the designers, endowed with ‘a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft’ – whether in precious metals, cutting stones for setting, designing the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting or the sacred vestments worn by the priests.

Our own project, commenced in 1989, was led by four remarkable women, Jane Finestone (the designer of the chairs), Diana Springall (who designed the Torah mantles) and the late Ruth Ive and Rachel Caro (zichronan livrachah).

The inspiration for the design of the eight chairs came from the quarry from which the original Jerusalem stone was hewn – ‘graceful swathes of rock strata represent[ing] the layers of civilisation.’ And resonating, of course, with the Jerusalem stone lining the walls of our own sanctuary.

Each of these chairs is detailed with a small vignette representing a festival in the Jewish year and the colours evoke the seasons – the sombre colours of blue, purple and dark green swirl round an embroidered illustration of the shofar and the word selichah – ‘forgiveness’ for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Warmer gold, orange and red hues represent the autumn festival of Sukkot, with its appliquéd vignette that includes the word sasson – ‘rejoicing.’ And the lightest colours are reserved for the chairs nearest to the Ark.

Before me lies the beautiful book that tells the story of Chairscape, with photographs of members and friends of our community, stitching their canvases, smiling, laughing, reflective, concentrating on the task at hand. One page is devoted to the fifty ‘key stitchers,’ and another page to the seventy-five ‘token stitchers.’ So many familiar names, some of them sadly no longer with us, but others still at the heart of our congregation.

And that was what this project was about – bringing together a community, each person with their own task, overseeing one of the panels, looking after the wool, undoing and re-doing the stitches that weren’t quite up to scratch, adding stitch after stitch until the whole project was complete.

And the book is not without humour – not only those laughing faces of the stitchers, clearly enjoying each other’s company – but a number of cartoons, which include a ‘tapestry open day party’, with stitchers working on their panels in the background, while a concerned couple are addressing our late Senior Rabbi, David Goldberg, with the words ‘We heard that new members have to take a sewing-in test?’

The parashah for this week ends with a description of the parochet (curtain) that screened the most sacred area of the mishkan, and was made of blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen, done in embroidery and with a design of cherubim worked into it. The 18th century Hasidic Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach reminds us that decorated linen panels lined the walls and roof of the tabernacle, made from the same colours and twisted linen as the curtain that concealed the Holy of Holies. And he links the design, aesthetics and creation of this material to our service of God, to Torah and prayer.


These material things, he says, every bit of the sanctuary and our involvement in its creation are acts of holiness for the higher good of our service to God. 

This was a project that came from the heart of our community, from women and men, and later on the children of Rimon. The chairs – their design, the colours, the swirling shapes, the detailed vignettes of our festivals – embody the beauty of our tradition and the immeasurable value of being part of a community of friends, sharing together acts of prayer and study and all our communal endeavours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 



International Women's Day and
Israeli Democracy Crisis     

10 March 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

A day marking women's rights and achievements, International Women's Day is celebrated in many countries on March 8th. It began over a hundred years ago as an annual call to action by suffrage and labour activists. 

The idea of having an international celebration was first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century when rapid world industrialisation led to many worker protests. In 1910, the Socialist International proclaimed a Women's Day during its annual meeting. It called for a day to honour the women's movement and to build support for universal women's right to vote in political elections. 

International Women's Day also became a time to demand peace during World War I. In early March of 1913 and 1914, women across Europe organised demonstrations to protest the war to express solidarity with other activists. 

In 1917, an International Women's Day protest played an important role in the Russian Revolution. Russian women chose March 8 to strike for ‘Bread and Peace’ in St. Petersburg. The strike merged with riots in the city, now known as the February Revolution. The czar abdicated just four days later, and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. The first Soviet government marked March 8 as an official Communist holiday to recognise ‘the heroic woman worker’, and the day continues to be celebrated as a national holiday in all post-Soviet countries today.

The celebration was revived in other Western countries in the 1960s with the rise of second-wave feminism. The feminist movement used the opportunity to recognise women's advances and support women's rights.(Encyclopaedia of Gender and Society, vol. 2 pp.465-466)

The struggle and demand for women’s rights has been long and painful. We are lucky to live in a country where women have equal rights, but there is still a long way to go. There are many areas of our lives today where women still have no equal access to opportunities. 

Unfortunately, religion is often used to undermine women’s rights and define women’s role in society. This week’s Torah portion opens with the census, where only men were counted:

יהוה spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrolment, each shall pay יהוה a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. (Exodus 30:11-12)

Ironically, modern Israel is one of the few countries where women are conscripted in the Israeli army alongside men. Despite many attempts to introduce gender segregation and other oppressive laws towards women, so far, the Israeli democratic system has been more or less successful in defending women’s rights. However, the new Netanyahu government poses a threat to Israeli democracy. The new coalition includes ultra-orthodox religious parties and some radical right-wing and racist ministers. They have proposed very worrying changes to the Israeli legislative and judicial system. They are planning to overrule the Israeli system's main checks, and balances tool – The Supreme Court - and practically give the Knesset unprecedented and uncontrolled power. If this happens, it will allow radical and oppressive changes in Israel very soon, and the country will be unrecognisable. As a result, women’s rights, LGBT+ and Palestinian rights are under threat.

Karen Maxwell, The LJS Deputy for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote a letter where she expressed a view that is very close to what I think and believe in:

‘Every week at our Shabbat service, we recite a prayer for the state of Israel and say: ‘May its leaders strive to be true to its founding principles of freedom, justice and peace.’  

Over the years, many actions have been taken by the Israeli government, with which many of us will have felt uncomfortable.  As Liberal Jews, we may have taken various actions or positions, vocal or silent, active or passive.  With the threat that the new government poses to some of the core founding principles of the State, through its intention to disempower the Supreme Court – along with its plans to disenfranchise many minority communities, including the progressive and moderate centrists, maybe we need to take a different stance.

I believe that as Liberal Jews, we have an imperative – to act in whatever way we can to help Israel refocus on its founding principles of freedom, justice and peace. I believe that we need to be more direct and impactful in our reactions.  The Knesset are due to vote imminently on changes to the Supreme Court. If we wish to be heard, it needs to happen now.’

There are a few ways you can express your solidarity and protest now:

There is an online petition that you might like to sign: https://choosedemocracy.org.uk/

Attend a demonstration, ‘Defend Israel’s Democracy’, opposing the Israeli government’s proposed changes to the country’s legislative and judicial system. The demonstration will take place on Sunday, March 12th, at 2pm in London near Parliament Square. Read more about the upcoming demonstration here: https://www.jewishnews.co.uk/second-defend-israeli-democracy-demo-to-take-place-in-london/ 

On one hand, this protest is not about British Jews but Israelis living in the UK. On the other hand, it is wrong to make British Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. 

However, many British Jews have a loving attachment to the Land and are not indifferent about its future. Whether we want it or not, Israel often represents Jewish people, and Israeli political decisions affect the attitude towards Jews in the UK and worldwide. Many British Jews have friends and relatives living in Israel, so we have a right and obligation to express our concern and solidarity with our Israeli brothers and sisters. 

May peace be found within her walls and safety within her borders!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

 



Shabbat Va-yakheil-Pekudey/Ha-Chodesh


17 March 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we conclude our reading of the Book of Exodus with Va-yakheil-Pekudey, a double parashah that introduces us to the designers and craftsmen and women of the Tabernacle.  Donations contributed by the Israelites are used for the coverings, the furniture, the appurtenances and the priestly vestments. Not one detail of their design is omitted, and the book ends with the placing of the tablets into the ark, the poles affixed to the ark which is then brought inside the Tabernacle. The lamps are lit on the menorah and incense is burned on the altar together with the burnt offering.  

This ending of the Book of Exodus is not really an ending, but an intersection between the great narrative which gave birth to the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, the entry into the Covenant at Sinai, and the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we shall begin reading next week.  

What do we learn from this transition, from the cloud of unknowing, symbolising the Divine Presence resting on the Mishkan, to the Voice that calls to Moses, and speaks to him out of the Tent of Meeting at the beginning of the third book of the Torah?  Why should the opening verses of Leviticus that deal with nothing more than the cultic rules of sacrificial worship – whether of cattle or sheep, turtle doves or pigeons, burnt offerings for atonement, brought to the priests near the altar and the whole blood-drenched slaughter that is then smoked on the altar – come immediately after the majestic, mystical verses of the end of Exodus.  Does not the end of Exodus point to the future journeys embarked upon by the Israelites?  Why then not continue with the Book of Numbers and the journey of the refugees through the wilderness?  Would that not be a more logical progression, rather than intercept the narrative with long, tedious lists of different types of sacrifices? 

What is the purpose of this juxtaposition of mysticism and magic, fire and blood, the ethereal beauty of the Tabernacle with its richly coloured and textured hangings, gold, silver, copper and bronze, the mirrors of the laver reflecting the outer court of the enclosure, and the chaotic, noisy, fearful theatre of the cult – dead animals brought to the priest who lays his hands on their heads to make atonement for his own sins and the sins of his people?

I am moved by the closing verses of Exodus – the cloud covering the Tent of Meeting, the Presence of God filling the Tabernacle, so that even Moses is unable to enter.  There is majesty and silence and profound beauty in these words that mirror the order and magnificence of the creation narrative.

So, is it surprising that the first chapters of Leviticus feel like a violent intrusion, where one animal is slaughtered after another, where the priests are dashing blood, flaying burnt offerings, sending up pieces of some hapless creature in the fire – head and suet smoking, drenched in incense to extinguish the odour of blood and guts.

Sir Anish Kapoor, who created the massive limestone sculpture commemorating the Shoah at our synagogue, reflected on the impossible challenge of conceptualising the unimaginable in a lecture which he gave at The LJS on Kristallnacht 2021, to mark the 25th anniversary of the sculpture’s installation.  We carry within us, he said, two opposing modalities:  

‘We human beings hold within us a deep beauty and deep violence. Beauty is around us at every moment and yet somehow, we too often fail to see it, or cannot allow ourselves to see it. Violence is with us as a constant. Violence is the inarticulate, unspoken, or unrecognized known. Violence sits within us waiting to pounce, it readily finds voice in collective acts of horror, political and communal. And yet, violence is deeply generative. It has a pivotal role to play in the formation of art.’   https://images.shulcloud.com/1575/uploads/PDFs/LJS-NEWS-PDFs/2022-JAN-FEB-LJS-NEWS.pdf

Beauty and violence are ‘inextricably linked’, says Anish Kapoor.  Violence can lead to terrible acts of brutality and harm, but also to the disavowal of violence – witness the peaceful protests that are taking place in Israel at the moment, protests against the ugliness of nationalism and racism.  And violence can also lead to the creation of some of the finest works of art. ‘Beauty and violence are in a psychic continuum.’

We live within this continuum daily, perhaps more aware of one rather than another in a world that is hurt and troubled. Yet, it is in our synagogues and communities that we can find beauty in the intimacy and warmth of relationships, in the comfort of prayer and music, in the regular occurrence of Shabbat and our festivals, in times of contemplation and reverie.

Perhaps the messianic vision of a perfect world envisaged by the architects of Liberal Judaism, a progressive world that would leave behind violence and imperfection, exerts a pressure that is impossible for us to achieve, let alone consider.  Perhaps Anish Kapoor’s continuum of beauty and violence reflects more accurately humanity’s capacity for both – for creativity, tranquillity and peace, and for harm and annihilation.  These twin modalities may seem to be in a constant dialectic, in opposition to each other, but they also create the possibility of transformation – a creative spirit at work within the uncertainties of our world, an uncovering of its mystery, beauty and light.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 



Shabbat Vayikra


24 March 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

On Wednesday, I was invited to give a talk at the Sion Centre for Dialogue and Encounter. I called my talk ‘The Twelve Freedoms: A Passover Seder for 2023’ and took the beautiful opening prayer of the Liberal Haggadah, written by Rabbi John Rayner (z’l), and its mention of twelve freedoms to show how they are woven through the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the messages of the Seder.

As we reached the end of the talk, I read aloud the closing prayer, ‘Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in a world redeemed,’ I felt suddenly self-conscious about these words, that bring to a conclusion a story about freedom.  I had begun my talk with a passage from the Mishnah which underlines the fact that no one should be treated differently at Pesach – rich and poor, free and enslaved – all should be invited to recline as free and wealthy people recline when they eat:


‘Even the poorest of Jews should not eat the meal on Passover night until they recline on their left side, as free and wealthy people recline when they eat.’


Can we really speak of Jerusalem in utopian terms – a place of reconciliation and peace, a place of justice and equity?

Last week, I found myself at the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, as the only Jewish individual at a panel of talks about the holy sites of the Jerusalem, still held in trust by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.  At the end of formal addresses by Christians and Muslims from Israel and Palestine, a member of the audience asked, ‘Is it possible for there to be a hudna in the Middle East?’ – using the Arabic word for ‘calm’ or ‘quietness’ or a ‘truce’, an ‘armistice.’

The gently spoken clergy of the Jerusalem Church, its Bishop, its Muslim scholars, specialists in the holy sites of the city, its mosques and churches, replied, ‘There is already a hudna.’ It was a gracious response, acknowledging the various stages of a peace process and agreements between Israel and some of her neighbours, and acknowledging too, the grass roots efforts to create dialogue and build peace between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. 

Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu is in London, meeting with Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. Since the beginning of January, days after the new right-wing government came to power in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest against the judicial reform bill that would give politicians control over appointments to Israel’s supreme court, undermine judicial independence and have a detrimental effect on any future relationship between Israel and Palestine, and Israel and the diaspora.

In London today, there will be a day-long protest, on Richmond Terrace, opposite Downing Street in the morning and, in the afternoon in Victoria Embankment Gardens, behind the Savoy Hotel, where Netanyahu will be holding meetings.  A Kabbalat Shabbat service, led by some of our colleagues from Liberal Judaism, will be held at 5.00 pm and everything will finish no later than 6.00 pm.  You are invited to join in the peaceful protest.

The month of Nisan, which began this week, ushers in our great festival of freedom, Pesach. It is a painful irony to so many that the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, freedom from slavery, the acceptance of moral responsibility at Sinai, has become claimed and weaponised by a few, not as an instrument of parity, but of supremacy and power.

How is it possible that the children of slaves and refugees are creating a travesty of Judaism’s most noble and moral teachings of justice and freedom? Let us not detach ourselves from the State of Israel at this time of crisis, but give expression to what we know are the principles of an ethical and just Judaism, to quote from the end of Rabbi Rayner’s prayer:

 


Freedom from bondage and freedom from oppression,
Freedom from hunger and freedom from want,
Freedom from hatred and freedom from fear,
Freedom to think and freedom to speak,
Freedom to learn and freedom to love,
Freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice.

 


Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 


Four Children of Ukraine - Addition to Your Haggadah


31 March 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Shabbat Hagadol, or the Great Sabbath, is the Shabbat before Passover. The first Shabbat HaGadol took place in Egypt on 10 Nisan, five days before the Exodus from Egypt. Therefore, the story of this day is the story of anticipation, courage, and awe of the great and scary journey ahead.

It is a day of celebration and anticipation but also a day of reflection. It reminds us of the courage and faith that our ancestors had to stand up for their freedom and dignity. It also challenges us to ask ourselves: what are we doing to uphold our freedom and dignity today? How are we using our freedom? How are we resisting the oppression and injustice that still plague our world?

One of the places where these questions are most urgent and relevant today is Ukraine. Ukraine is a country that has been fighting for its freedom and sovereignty for the last 13 months. The Ukrainian Crisis is also a great example that the Western world can be compassionate and supportive of the needs of refugees. If one can do it for Ukrainians, one can do it for others too.

As Jews, we have a special connection to Ukraine. Ukraine is home to many Jewish communities, some of which trace their history back to the medieval ages. Unfortunately, Ukraine is also the site of some of the worst atrocities committed against our people. This is why many British Jews have family roots in Ukraine and feel connected with the struggle of Ukrainians.

Shabbat Hagadol teaches us that freedom is not a gift we receive from others but a right we claim for ourselves. It teaches us that freedom is not only physical but also spiritual. It teaches us that freedom is interlinked with the responsibility to improve this world and humanity. On this Shabbat Hagadol, let us hope and pray for the peace and security of Ukraine and the entire Earth.

I know that some of you are planning your family Seder. Please consider adding ‘The Four Children of Ukraine’ to your Seder - a special one-page Haggadah supplement I wrote for the World Union for Progressive Judaism this year. It is based on real people – Ukrainians, Ukrainian refugees and volunteers who help them in their struggle.

This one-page addition is written to be read after the traditional Four Children of the Passover Haggadah. It serves as a reminder that we should not take our freedom for granted and that some people today still live with anticipation, courage, and awe of the great and scary journey ahead of them. We read their stories as an inspiration to take responsibility for the world.

You can download ‘The Four Children of Ukraine’ here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784