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Planting for Our Future


1 September 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

Through conversations with parents and young people in our community I have gained a sense of what it means to grow up Jewish in London, an experience I never had. Over the course of this past year I’ve heard about the nuance and complexity of living in London as a Jewish child. There are children who are the only Jewish student in their school. Children who only have Orthodox Jewish friends at school. Children who have struggled with knowing how to talk about Israel with their friends. Children who have felt an internal struggle during assemblies in understanding what it means for them to be Jewish. Our hope is that by being a part of our community they will have a deeper sense of knowledge and ownership of their identity while also building positive relationships with other Jewish (as well as non-Jewish) friends their age.

The work that we do with our young people at the LJS is done in partnership with LJY-Netzer, our youth movement. They plan events throughout the year and run Kadimah, a two week summer camp every summer. It is with immense delight that I share the picture above of our 24 young people from the LJS who attended Kadimah this summer, some as participants and some as leaders. From the perspective of one of the congregational Rabbis, I was delighted to see the pictures shared daily of our young people in relationship with one another and with progressive Jews throughout the country. These photos showed children laughing, children engaging in worship, children in discussion, children throwing water balloons, children building relationships and having a wonderful time. They sent daily e-mails with summaries of the intentional and engaging learning and fun that had happened each day. I am pleased to know that such a large group of our young LJS members had this experience. 

I asked a few of the participants to share some words about their experience at Kadimah.

“It was like a second family and it made me feel so much more connected with my liberal Judaism while having the time of my life.”
Baxter, Year 5 

“Camp is honestly my favourite place, I have made so many strong friendships and I know we’ll be friends for life. I feel very connected with my Jewish identity after going to camp for several years, I will continue to go to camp for as long as possible, leading and helping. I highly recommend to everyone.”
Freya, Year 10

“It was really fun. I really enjoyed Shabbat because the whole camp came together and sang songs and it was a great festive time. The people I met were really great people and I enjoyed their company.”
Jonah, Year 7

Two of my own children attended Kadimah this year and I was able to experience camp from the perspective of a parent. The movement workers called me before camp to see if there was anything important to know to ensure a good camp experience for my children. They were available during camp to answer any questions that I had. I saw pictures posted daily of my children having the time of their lives. 

It was at Camp Interlaken, the summer camp in Wisconsin I attended as a child, that I first remember experiencing personal prayer, that I first remember engaging in a conversation about my evolving relationship with God and that I met people who still remain some of my closest friends. Jewish camps have an impact on the individual but also on the Jewish people as a whole. Within the camp structure, young people receive leadership training as they age through the movement and there is a strong sense of justice and responsibility that is shared in the ethos of the Jewish camp movement. LJS parent Harriett reflects on her daughter’s experience growing up within LJY-Netzer by sharing, ‘there are many Jewish summer camps but Kadimah offers something very distinctive and precious. All I can say is that my daughter’s LJY friendships that started when she was eight, are undoubtedly going to be with her throughout her life, which pleases me to no end. What a gift.”

In this week’s parashah Ki Tavo, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites. In this speech he paints for them a very hopeful image that there will come a time after they have crossed into the Promised Land when they will have established a home, planted seeds and witnessed these first seedlings bloom into edible crops. They are commanded to give as an offering some of this first crop. It is a message of hope that Moses is sharing- a vision of optimism for his people that the journey they are on will bear fruits both literally and figuratively. Seeing the happy LJS faces and hearing their stories from Kadimah, I too feel hope in our future and am excited to be a witness to the seeds that our young people plant and the fruit that grows from them.

Kol ha-cavod to all the LJY-Netzer leadership for giving our young people such a meaningful experience.

Shabbat Shalom,
Elana

 

 



Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech


8 September 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

I had not noticed this before – the double parashah that is this week’s Torah portion is called Nitzavim-VayelechNitzavim is the second word in the opening verse of the first parashahAttem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem – ‘You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God’ (Deuteronomy 29:9).  And Vayelech is the first word of the second parashah, Deuteronomy 31:1, Vayelech Moshe va-y’dabeir et-ha-d’varim ha-eleh el-kol-Yisrael – ‘Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.’

It is not that I hadn’t noticed the double parashah, it was the juxtaposition of these two words joined together – Nitzavim-Vayelech. The first carries the meaning of ‘taking a stand’, ‘stationing oneself,’ ‘taking an upright position,’ or ‘standing firm’; the second comes from the Hebrew root meaning ‘to go,’ ‘to come,’ ‘to walk,’ ‘to move’, ‘to set out’ – it is about movement, comings and goings, marching on.

This Shabbat is a moment of both stasis and movement. The stillness is in that moment at the beginning of Nitzavim – ‘You stand this day, all of you…’  Be still, says Moses to Israel, at this moment of entering the covenant; you are one people – heads, elders, officials, women, men and children, the stranger, the woodchopper and drawer of water.  Stand as one people, one beating heart, to be God’s people. Yes, different, diverse, argumentative perhaps, but this tradition that stretches back to the days of the patriarchs, to the moment your ancestors stood at Sinai, these past forty years of wandering in the wilderness, belongs to all of us.  Be still and listen to the air around you, listen to your breath, listen to the mountains around you, the mountain that will call me away from you, says Moses, where God will decree my death.

Moses is 120 years old, but still he walks – perhaps slowly. I can no longer go out or come in, he says to the Israelites, meaning, I am no longer active.  My knees buckle under me, my back hurts as I move, my hands twisted with stiffness and pain, and it won’t be me who will cross over the Jordan to go into the land promised to our fathers by God, but a younger man, Joshua, who will lead Israel in battle and apportion the land.

Yet this declaration made by Moses on the very day it is decreed he will die, say the Rabbis, is contradicted by the closing verses of the Torah: ‘…his eyes were undimmed and his vigour unabated.’  If that is the case, why then does he tell the Israelites that he can no longer ‘go out or come in’ – I cannot do what I used to do. This ‘going’ of Moses at the beginning of Vayelech, what is its nature, asks the author of Keli Yakar, the 16th-17th century Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz?  It is not that I am inactive physically, says Moses, but I am not permitted, I am no longer entitled, because of the danger of making a mistake with you all.  Now, I am going to every single tribe, visiting you all, to show you that my vigour is unabated, but that God has taken away my right to be your leader.

In a few days, we will stand at or own Mount Nevo – facing our own mortality in that moment of stillness:

The air listens.
And the heart.
Has he come? Will he come?
In every waiting for,
a never,
the sadness of Nevo…..
A man and his Nevo
on a wide plain. (Rahel, ‘From Mount Nevo’)

But these festivals of prayer, repentance, atonement and forgiveness are also about movement and transformation – Moses’ addressing each and every tribe, the labour of taking himself to every tent, every family – to say what? To see how they are, to apologise, to seek forgiveness for wrongs, to offer praise for their strength, their love, their loyalty, to say farewell?

This is our journey as well, not a farewell, but seeking forgiveness for the harm we have done, acknowledging family, friends, colleagues, offering words of praise and friendship, amends for hurt done, for words said in haste, in anger, or impatience.

We stand at the cusp of the year, looking back with regret and maybe with longing, but looking forward with anticipation and hope for something gentler, more tender to come.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah ~
Alexandra Wright



The Sound of the Shofar is the Sound of People’s Voices


15 September 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

Last Sunday, I was honoured to speak and blow the Shofar in Trafalgar Square at the end of the demonstration against Israeli judicial overhaul. The day included speeches from Yuval Noah Harari,  the famous historian and influential Israeli author and professor, Liberal Judaism head Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Union of Jewish Students president Edward Isaacs, Masorti Judaism’s Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, the journalist Mika Almog, and former Meretz Knesset member Yair Golan. 

(Read more about the event here: https://www.liberaljudaism.org/2023/09/video-rabbis-speak-at-israeli-democracy-rally/)

Today, I would like to reflect on this demonstration and why I decided to be there. 

Why does the idea of God exist? To remind people that they are not! Any power that remains unchecked tends to become oppressive. This is what I think is happening in Israel now, and this is why so many Israelis are going out to the streets worldwide, to protect the only system of checks and balances in Israel – The Supreme Court. 

As a Rabbi, I am particularly conscious of the role of religion in political and everyday life in Israel and how it affects the perception of Judaism all over the world. I worry that people will only see Judaism from a fundamentalist perspective. The current Israeli government is allied with openly xenophobic and ultra-orthodox Jewish groups. They do not represent me. I am worried that these groups will publicly represent Judaism and create a one-sided and wrong impression of Judaism to the rest of the world.

The shofar, as Rambam said, is a call for people to wake up:

In the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, there is an allusion, as though saying: Awake you sleepers from your sleep, and slumberers arise from your slumbering…All who forget the truth in the follies of the times and err the whole year in vanity and emptiness that cannot benefit or save, look to your souls, improve your ways…(Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

Tonight is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah - the festival of teshuvah, repentance and deep reflection. It is a time for us to wake up and stand for what’s important. The loud voice of the shofar – a ram’s horn - represents this idea.

This year, the voice of the shofar is replaced by the voice of people protesting. The Shofar can produce three sounds, but they all mean, ‘it is time to wake up!’. I hope that this year, the shofar will also be a reminder that Judaism does not have to be xenophobic or misogynistic. Judaism does not have to be fundamentalist and removed from people.

My religion is inclusive. My religion is about people and democracy. My religion is about speaking truth to power, not a political tool. My religion is about the highest ethical and moral standards and equality.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah! May this year be the year when the voice of the people is heard. May this year be sweet and prosperous, a year of compassion, mutual understanding, harmony, and peace.

Rabbi Igor

  

 

 


Shabbat Shuvah/Yom Kippur - 'The Book of Life'


22 September 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

In these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance, I am struggling with the talmudic image of the three books opened on Rosh Hashanah and which lie before the Holy One. Echad shel r’sha’im – ‘one of the wicked’, v’echad shel tzaddikim – and one of the righteous, v’echad shel beynoni’im – ‘and one for those in-between’ (bRosh Hashanah 16b). And I am asking myself, who are these wholly wicked people, whose names are inscribed already in the first book and who are ‘sealed for death’? And who are these wholly righteous people, whose names are inscribed in the second book and who are ‘sealed for life’? And who are the beynoni’im – the ones for whom judgement is suspended, their fate to be sealed on Yom Kippur.  

Surely, we are all middlings? Cannot the guilty turn from their transgressions in penitence and remorse? Can they not do what is required of us at this season – teshuvah? And who is so righteous as to say, I have not sinned, I have not transgressed?


‘I do not understand
the book in my hand.’

These opening words of Cynthia Ozick’s poem ‘In the Synagogue’ express the mystery and elusiveness of the prayers and images of our tradition and machzor - of God as powerful Sovereign, Judge and Arbiter, weighing our deeds in a scale, determining how the years of our lives will unfold, writing our names in these books, as though our lives are already determined. And yet, the dissonance between this metaphor and our own observations and experience leaves us more often with a sense that life is random, that it can be harsh as well as full of surprise and wonder.

Did not our ancestors also struggle with the ‘Book of Life’?  Surely their lives were as complex as our own – the women and men who saw their own children die before them, the communities who were cruelly crushed and swept away in pogroms in the years of the Crusades, or in the Chmielnicki massacres of the 17th century, the millions who died in the Shoah. How did they understand these words? Did they believe that such decrees had come from God, that all was pre-determined?

Our Machzor, which we shall hold in our hands on Yom Kippur, is not a manual to be read literally. It is not a twelve-step programme that will ensure our physical and emotional well-being in the coming year; a prescription offering a moral panacea for the human spirit and the world we inhabit. We should see its pages as blank sheets, for our own words, for how we wish to be remembered and for the promises we will make in the coming year.

I cannot believe in a God who seals us in a holy ledger, for life or death. For I am mindful of the members of our community, family and friends, whose lives have taken a different turn this past year – an unwelcome diagnosis, the return of an illness that had been sent away some years before, the break-up of a marriage, the loss of a partner, of parents or a child, of brother, sister or friend. Is this what God wants of life?  Grief, separation, loss?  The God I believe in mourns with us in our sadness, rejoices with us at good times; the God of the Jewish people is a God who – yes – demands justice and righteousness from all humanity, but is also a God of infinite compassion.

But there is a truth too in this metaphor of the Book of Life; for we are all somewhere ‘in-between.’ Between heaven and earth, between good and evil, between our appetites and aspirations. And how we navigate the bridge that stretches between them is how we choose to live our lives until they come to their end.  We must do our best to inscribe our own stories, our hopes and wishes on to each page of the ledger and work to bring blessing to others and blessing to ourselves.

May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, well-being and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom, Shanah Tovah and G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Alexandra Wright

 


We Are Commanded To Be Together


29 September 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

One of the traditions of Sukkot is the waving of the four species. These four plants are mentioned in Leviticus 23:40 as one of the commandments of Sukkot:

  Etrog (אתרוג) - the fruit of a citron tree, which looks like a large lemon. In the Torah, it is called p’ri etz hadar (פרי עץ הדר), meaning ‘the fruit of a splendid tree’. 

 Lulav (לולב) - a palm frond, which is also called kapot tmarim (כפות תמרים), meaning 'branches of palm trees'. 

 Hadas (הדס) - a myrtle branch with a pleasant fragrance but no taste. It is also called anaf etz avot (ענף עץ עבות), meaning 'a bough of thick/leafy trees'. 

 Aravah (ערבה) - a willow branch, which has neither fragrance nor taste. It is also called arvei nachal (ערבי נחל), meaning 'willows of the brook/valley'. 

The most common explanation for having these four species comes from their different qualities. Etrog has both smell and taste. A myrtle branch has a scent, but it is not edible. Lulav (a date palm branch) produces an edible fruit but has no odour. A willow branch has neither smell nor an edible fruit. Rabbis understand fragrance as a metaphor for knowledge and taste as a symbol of actions and good deeds. Therefore, the etrog is a metaphor for a Jew who knows the Jewish tradition and uses it to do something good. The hadas (myrtle branch) symbolises a Jew who has knowledge but lacks good deeds. The lulav (palm branch) is about a Jew who has good deeds but lacks understanding. And finally, the arava (willow branch) symbolises a Jew who has neither Torah knowledge nor good deeds.

By taking these four species together and waving them in all six directions, we demonstrate our unity as a nation despite our different levels of observance and learning. This emphasis on unity is underlined in the Talmud (Menahot 27a):

the [absence of] one invalidates the others for it is written, ‘you shall take’ (Leviticus 23.40), signifying the taking all of them…. Rabbis taught: Of the four kinds used for the lulav, two are fruit-bearing [the citron and the palm branch] and two are not [the myrtle and the willow]; those which bear fruits must be joined to those which bear no fruits and those which bear no fruits must be joined to those which bear fruits. And a person does not fulfil their obligation unless they are all bound in one band. And so it is with Israel’s conciliation with God, [it is achieved] only when they are all in one band. 

I think this might be one of the most difficult traditions to accept. Sometimes, it feels that there is nothing in common between me, a Liberal Jew and an ultra-orthodox Jew. However, there should be a way for us to be together. We do not have to agree on everything, but we must accept a simple fact – we are commanded to stay together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Igor

Fri, 24 May 2024 16 Iyar 5784