Rabbi Rebecca's Thought for the Week

This week the annual Israel tours for 16-year olds leave for their 3.5 weeks of immersion there. Five FPS young people (including my Ruben) will leave on Sunday with their LJY-Netzer group and leaders (including one leader Rosa Slater, daughter of Miriam Dwek FPS member). Last year’s tour was led by FPS member Jonty Leibowitz. We are good customers. They meet at Luton Airport at 8.30 pm perhaps travelling during the World Cup final, just one taste of many collisions of commitment they may experience in their life time. Israel tour is considered 'a rite of passage' or some describe it as 'the best month of my life’. It is an opportunity to teach love for and connection to the land alongside a rigorous and thoughtful understanding of the politics there and the people who live alongside fighting for their own self determination. It is a complex set of emotions to which our young people will be exposed.

Israel tour 2018 poster.jpg

Last week we learned RSY-Netzer ‘released’ one of their tour leaders just days before the tour was to leave. Nina Morris-Evans had spent the last year in Israel, with deep commitment and devotion to Israel, grown out of her synagogue FRS and RSY-Netzer youth movement. She had also been involved, along with several young people from our Progressive movements, at a demonstration outside Parliament for the Palestinian civilian deaths at last month's violent demonstrations when the Trump administration moved their embassy to Jerusalem. They also called for an end to occupation.

It was political, outspoken and extreme and perhaps naive. None of us deny that. But Nina’s dismissal is sad, and has caused her an inordinate amount of grief and abuse on social media from fellow Jews. That is wrong and I am ashamed for what she is experiencing.

As we send our young people to Israel, I hope we are ready for multiple views and nuanced love for our ‘unruly but beloved relative’. There must be room for it in our movement and our Judaism. We want to raise thoughtful, loving and engaged young people who have an integrated way of seeing their Judaism, their Zionism and their humanity; and learn how to express different views to each other.

 

It is a challenge, but one to which I am committed.  

Nesiah Tovah (a good trip) to all of them and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Rebecca

IS EATING KOSHER STILL LIBERAL?

IS EATING KOSHER STILL LIBERAL?

Rabbi Rebecca’s sermon on the occasion of Ollie Pelham’s Barmitzvah 23rd June 2018

On a hot and humid Cincinnati evening in July 1883, over 200 distinguished guests, Jews and non-Jews alike, gathered at the exclusive Highland House restaurant to celebrate a milestone in the history of American Judaism: Hebrew Union College, which Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise [nearly four decades after his arrival in America from his native Bohemia] founded, had just ordained its initial graduating class. America had finally produced four homegrown, ordained rabbis. It was also the eighth annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the first association of American Jewish synagogues, with much excitement the banquet was served to shocked rabbis.  The MENU included amongst other things;

razor neck clams, shrimp salad, soft shell crab, fillet du boeuf, ice cream and plate de fromage

It’s a great story and it’s true. Controversial and provocative. It was never known if Rabbi Meyer Wise knew of the menu, had been sabotaged by more radical colleagues, or indeed who had arranged it. The Treyfe banquet, as it became known changed Progressive Judaism forever. Whilst it took place in the U.S. It influenced the audacious changes that ULPS were to consider and sometimes make here 20 or so years later. Although the early founders embedded as they were in traditional families were a little more sensitive. Liberal Jews were as brave and principled when it came to change. Following the idea from the American Pittsburgh Platform…..

[rules about diet are] entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. Indeed [laws of kashrut] are apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

Whenever I hear of anything audacious and provocative I think of your father David.  To be honest, if LJ hadn’t already existed I can imagine David creating it. …. he liked to challenge, question, occasionally be stubborn in his highly intelligent way.  He had a clear eye for what was meaningful. So I like that you asked For your Bar Mitzvah question Why food is important to Jews and if the laws of kashrut have a place for Liberal Jews today?  All our B’nei Mitzvah kids ask something they are interested in or bothered by. 

The truth is Torah gives clear but rather unexplained laws; we know the.  Animals must have a cloven hoof, chew cud, blood is considered the life force, “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, fish need fins and scales. Rabbis mostly reinforced this and made comprehensive rules, indeed by the early common era the need to be separate, eat separately, build homes separately was paramount. So intricate dietary requirements helped that.

But there were hints of questioning well too. And this well before Progressive Judaism was so iconoclastic with the treyfe banquet & additions of ULPS just twenty or so years later.  Bereshit Rabbah in the 4 CE asked; What does God care whether we kill an animal this way or that…the important issue is to refine our souls. make us thoughtful and considered…

Philo of Alexandria who lived from 25 BCE to 50CE, always anxious to present Jews in a good light, focused on the spiritual benefits and concerns of kashrut … he suggested; chewing the cud encourages us to consider and chew over our lives and our study and we don’t eat carnivorous animals or birds to demonstrate our commitment to lovingkindness and gentleness.

Everyone was concerned by kashrut. BUT OLLIE. In Liberal modernity KASHRUT has been considered inappropriate and outdated… not in the spirit of openness to the world we live in. We desire to eat with others now not seclude ourselves from them. The laws of kashrut have diminished in importance for many. In a principled and thoughtful fashion many Liberal rabbis have discarded the laws. (even as some with traditional leanings and concerns for community KLAL Israel have kept to them.) My internship in my 4th year at Leo Baeck College began on a Friday night at my new mentor rabbi’s home. Dinner was spaghetti carbonara! We followed it by an enthusiastic and religiously uplifting Shabbat service. South London Lib synagogue made the recent decision not to use kosher wine as its strict rulings on Jews alone, allowed to be part of production did not feel ‘kosher’ for them.  So Liberal Jews negotiate a different set of food concerns. It’s thoughtful. What allows us to feel Jewish but not be at odds with our values for the world.  Rabbi John D Rayner, z’l wrote memorably about being kosher:  Is it worth it? After all religion is not primarily concerned with eating habits, to create the impression that this is one of Judaism’s chief preoccupations is to debase it in the eye of the Jew and the non-Jew

So Ollie, kosher laws have been given the same treatment as all other traditional laws.  Do they stand the test of time? Do they, as they stand, offer any ethical benefit? Is organic and free-range meat more ‘kosher’ than traditionally kosher meat? Are Fairtrade bananas more kosher than others? Is seasonal produce more kosher than fruit available all year round? Eating as a Liberal Jew still requires thinking about food.

But the JOY of food remains the same for all of us. What Jewish function from committee meeting to study session is without nourishment? There’s a multitude of words to reinforce food’s enormous importance. From Pirkei Avot eye kemach ayn torah. no bread no Torah   To Michael Kagan, Nowhere does the Torah say, “Invite your guest to pray”; but it does tell us to offer them food, drink…” or "Eating is the best of prayers.” Fran Lebowitz “Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying. " ~~ "There can be no joy without food and drink.  Talmud, Mo’ed Katan  

In that way your home is a very Jewish home indeed. It’s welcoming, always with good food….when offered a food rota during those dark days last Autumn Ann was insistent, with gratitude, there was no need- ‘food is something we can do well ..’ And I hope you, Ollie, continue to value its importance but also to be thoughtful about what you eat. Be iconoclastic but know you are being so. Channel your dad.

David feels very much with us today; having planned so much so meticulously with Ann.  Your parents booked your date for today more in advance than any family I have encountered in my 17 years as a rabbi! And you have now been called to Torah, led us in prayers, read, translated and brought so much of yourself with such poise. I can imagine your Dad saying, as he did many years ago to Jacqui Bernard in shock , GOOD GOD he does know Hebrew.  And you do Ollie. You have been dedicated and committed in your learning-it helped I know your Hebrew teacher being John and a Spurs fan at that. But you are a so much a child of this community; and you have grown into the pleasure that might bring as well as its demands! So many here are so proud of you for getting to this moment and being so fantastic.

I love when I have witnessed your ambivalence as well as your enthusiasm. Your Dad would have approved of both.  You spoke with a profound poignancy of Moses missing entering the Promised land and David just missed seeing you become Bar Mitzvah. He’s here in so much-the choice of scroll, Ann’s gracious poise, Shabbat Resouled. (Perhaps the only service he genuinely liked). You were named ….Ollie after your grandmother Olive, James for your grandfather…for peace. So much was anticipated and hoped for your life and these 13 years as an ‘ok’, baby, an ‘ok’ toddler & child and now a teenager you have realised that hope.  The peaceful comfort I think you have brought in these past months has been noted as well. Whether you're playing rugby, baking cakes or RELUCTANTLY playing FIFA you have brought normality, routine and courage to Christchurch Avenue.  You are fortunate to have the mother you have who’s worked with you always. And Poppy whom I'm surprised Ann didn't create a policy for being here at FPS. always prepared. with her eye for detail. And never without her dry sense of humour. Strong, brave and loving. I love her being part of our synagogue and becoming more involved.   This is L'dor V'dor – From Generation to Generation. We talk of a river of tears flowing at Bar Mitzvah, joyful, positive tears. This is no exception. The river today flows from ….. Spain, through the North of England, to Finchley. L’dor v’ Dor.

Rabbi Rebecca Birk

 

Rabbi Rebecca's Weekly Thought

PARASHAT BALAK June 30th 2018

I will be at the Biennial this Shabbat with FPS folk so I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from Solihull where we will be from Friday.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.  "Our life is beset with difficulties yet it is never devoid of meaning."

It is so true but not in the way Rabbi Heschel may have meant when he wrote this line in the 1960's  seeing Jews against the world. For me it reminds that we want a life with meaning. This past weekend I was struck by so many in our community leading us to do just that. From Ollie Pelham's Bar Mitzvah where many of us gathered at FPS, thinking so much of our friend David z'l and looking forward and back. 

East Finchley festival 2018 stall.jpg

And then Phillip Raphael's team at Sunday's East Finchley Festival (photos below). One might think, it's a pretty thankless task to make and sell 250 smoked salmon bagels ... but it wasn't. We had a stall proclaiming us as a community, FPS members volunteering with Phillip all of whom, by all accounts, had a great day in the boiling Finchley sunshine. Leaders of our community represented us and modelled such community spirit.! At the other end of town, I was conducting a wedding blessing for new FPS members and then joined Ofra Rosenwasser and Lesley Urbach at a tea hosted by our Syrian friends who have joined and brought so much to our refugee project. We have made such significant friendships across so many bridges. 

Then I returned home Sunday evening to find this email from a member and leader at FPS. I've realised, in my advancing years, the importance of contributing to my Jewish community, and so, to my own Jewish identity.

Be inspired. Come to the AGM on 10 July.  Be in touch. I will happily come to you for a cup of tea for conversations about bringing that meaning we all want.

A very warm Shabbat Shalom to you all.
Rabbi Rebecca

FPS at East Finchley Festival

EYN KEMACH EYN TORAH LITERALLY TRANSLATES AS NO FLOUR/BREAD THEN NO TORAH.

East Finchley festival 2018.jpg

Sustenance is needed for Torah to be learned. We know this to be true. Most of us are involved in earning our living and also practising Judaism, and for a few of us they coincide.  And it appears that it’s a phrase we’ve taken to heart; would we dare have a service without kiddush? A Shabbat without a meal? Even a meeting without biscuits seems a bit iffy!

I wonder whether we believe the provision of food benefits those who provide it, or those who eat it? If we have guests round, are the guests blessed to have been invited, or the host blessed to have friends to cook for? Perhaps this is one of those examples where both giver and receiver feel heartened by their experiences.  

Many ponderings go untested, but this week we offer you the chance to find evidence. This Sunday, FPS will be hosting a Bagel Stall at the East Finchley Festival. Our chance to connect with the community around us, swap stories, meet new people, and sell delicious, fresh bagels. Is it more heartening to prepare the bagels? To sell them? Or to eat them? Try them all out – we need volunteers to prepare bagels on Sunday morning, sell them during the afternoon, and probably buy the odd few, too. Please contact Pauline in the office if you’d like to help out, and do report back!

Shabbat Shalom from Zoe and Rabbi Rebecca

Rabbi Rebecca's Weekly Thought

I was transfixed by Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley last week on the BBC. She demonstrated so brilliantly that the miraculous changes of the past 100 years were not down to a steady atmosphere of progress but rather real and risky rebellions. The suffragettes, as we saw in this documentary embellished with historical drama, were terrified and terrifying. They fought with body and intellect in every way for change.

Jeanette Winterson picked up the Suffragettes and Annie Kenney in particular for her Richard Dimbleby lecture at the House of Lords (the first woman ever to deliver it). I find intriguing antecedents in this week's portion Korach. The rebellion he staged along with Dathan and Abiram against Moses' leadership is almost unanimously critiqued throughout Jewish tradition as not for the sake of heaven, in other words mistimed, misdirected and selfish. But we know from our contemporary stance that speaking truth to power, calling for change and inclusion has become very Jewish indeed. The Suffragettes, and the suffragists who supported them, are forever heroes. They should give pause when we read about other rebellions, even in our ancient sacred scriptures.

A very warm Shabbat Shalom to you all.
 

Rabbi Rebecca

Finchley Food Bank - how we make it work

The Synagogue was recently contacted to report on how we have succeeded in establishing a food collection scheme within the community. Organiser Peggy Sherwood writes:

“In Spring 2014, I read on a local blog site about the Finchley Foodbank which had opened recently.  I immediately contacted our Rabbi at Finchley Progressive Synagogue (FPS), Rabbi Rebecca Birk, to ask her if FPS could get involved in promoting the Foodbank and getting our members to give food donations for the Foodbank.  I got an immediate and resounding “YES!” from her – FPS is very involved in local community projects and Tikkun Olam. 

I contacted Finchley Foodbank and said FPS wanted to be involved.  It seemed a good idea to visit Finchley Foodbank before we got started to see how they go about running it every Saturday morning at St Mary’s Church in East Finchley and it was a humbling experience making me even more determined to help as much as we could.

We agreed that we should deliver donations to St Barnabus Church which is a drop-off point for the Foodbank but also very close to FPS as they do a weekly Friday run with donations to the Foodbank.  We put a large box in the lobby of the Synagogue for donations and then set about publicising it within FPS.

FPS sends out a weekly email update and so we wrote something for this as it seemed a good starting point.  We also put a link on FPS’ website and Facebook page explaining a little about the Foodbank and the collection point at FPS and then from time to time, I write an article for Shofar (FPS’ monthly magazine) about the Foodbank and this always elicits a good response.  I keep in touch with the Finchley Foodbank Facebook page, as they update it with items that are currently needed, and I’m able to let our members know so they can match their donations with the need.

At Yom Kippur (fast day) we also suggested that people brought to FPS the equivalent in tins etc of what they would have eaten on Yom Kippur and again this yielded a lot of produce.  We have recently decided to put a charity collection box above the donations collection box for members who aren’t able to directly donate items to the food bank to put loose change in.  I’m happy to coordinate this and collect the money as and when and buy items that are needed by the Foodbank.  Since this is a new initiative we aren’t sure how well this will work out and we really want people to engage with the concept of buying the needed items rather than giving money for others to buy the items but we’re keen to maximise the donations so will see how it goes.

Once we got into the routine of it, there really isn’t a lot of work involved – publicising it within synagogue processes, and then collecting and delivering the food and household items.  It really is an example of little effort expense for a big impact on people’s lives.

FPS as a community is very proud of its social action work, and the Foodbank fits very well into the synagogue’s philosophy.  For me personally, I find it shocking that in 2018 in London people are relying so heavily on Foodbanks.  A few weeks ago, in blazing sun, there were 49 adults and children at Finchley Foodbank needing food.”

Why Silence is Jewish and very good for us!

As featured in The JC, June 4th 2018, Rabbi Rebecca writes:

At the end of last year, as Chanukah finished, I travelled 7,747 miles not to talk.

Rabbi Rebecca.jpg

I attended a silent meditative retreat at the foot of a mountain. Actually, in the shadow of the clouds surrounded by jungle vegetation and an enormous amount of rain on the island of Bali. For someone who loves to talk, it was surprisingly nourishing.  

I am a congregational rabbi for a North London Liberal synagogue. I didn’t leave my job and journey into the unknown as a mid-life crisis. I was encouraged, even enabled, by my synagogue to do such a thing. 

I have just taken a sabbatical. My congregation, along with many other Reform and Liberal synagogues since the 1980s offer their rabbis sabbaticals every seven years, a month for every year of service for rest and renewal. A Shabbat of Rest, part of a year of shmittah. “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal” (Leviticus 25:3-4).

While the prudence and practicalities of the full agricultural sabbatical in Israel remain up for discussion for many farmers, the spiritual notion of rest captured the heart and intention of synagogue structures. 

Academia offers such opportunities usually tied to expected publications. Rabbis are expected to study, reflect and expand. And return, I assumed, refreshed and ready for the community again.

And this is just what I did. Beginning in silence.

I travelled far because I wanted to use my time to learn something new. The retreat without a guru or a doctrine allowed me to take my own into the silence. And I did. Arriving in the dark and the rain, I was given just a torch and umbrella, both of which proved essential. I found my way to the dormitory and my mosquito-netted bed that would be my home for  a week. Woken at 5.45 each morning, the days had their own rhythm — around three hours of meditation and four of yoga. Both of which were challenging.  

And around these quiet activities I also ate, walked and existed in silence. It was totally new for me. The jungle paths where we were told to take sticks to alert the spiders and snakes. The evening walks through the paddy fields, where you had to walk barefoot through the mud. 
We had a coconut shell each as bowl and filled it three times daily with rice and vegetables, or homemade granola and pine syrup that one of the cooks harvested every morning fresh by climbing a palm tree to “bleed it” for us.

It was a no-waste, vegan dwelling and we had to carry all rubbish away with us as guests. The green vases of edible plants as well as all other foods were grown there and, pleasingly, the staff were paid a living wage. I read several Jews while I was there. The psychologist Eric Fromm, the novelist Cynthia Ozick and Rabbi Art’s Green’s biography of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who all seemed to appreciate being quiet.  

I never spoke to a soul. I greeted fellow guests by smiling. That was all I could do. I wasn’t able to charm or befriend or share my story or listen to theirs. 

Everything I did was without words. It was the fullest time I can remember. 

Elie Wiesel was once asked, “Is there such a thing as a silence in Judaism?” He replied: “Judaism is full of silences … but we don’t talk about them.” How true.

Used to preaching, teaching and speaking frequently, I had wanted a quieter time like Barak Obama insisting, on his retirement, that he wanted a break from “hearing his own darn voice quite so much”. Granted, a break from North London congregational life is not quite the same as relinquishing the duties of the President of the United States, but there was an indisputable link for me.

I didn’t need Proverbs to tell me “Closing one’s lips makes a person wise” (10:19). But it was good to be reminded.  

I am naturally an extrovert. Many of us are who work in community. I like nothing more than to be around people. If not an actor manqué, I certainly love the challenge of making people glad they came to synagogue. When I fail, it cuts me deeply. 

As I have grown older, quiet has become more important for me. Perhaps it’s recovery or renewal time. Either way, it feels very Jewish right now. 

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) mentions it often, teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, “All my days I grew up among wise people, and I have found nothing greater for the body than silence”(1:17).

And so did I. 

https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/rabbi-rebecca-birk-goes-to-bali-on-silent-retreat-1.464957

 

 

The Big Date - Friday 25th May

JOIN OUR MEMBERS IN ATTENDING THE BIG DATE AT NORTH FINCHLEY MOSQUE AFTER SHABBAT SERVICE THIS FRIDAY 25TH MAY.

See what Muslims do during the month of Ramadan, experience the Recitation of Holy Quran (The Holy book of Muslims) & build bridges. Register now and Join us at the IANL on Friday 25th May 2018 (arrival 8:15pm).

This Ramadan IANL will be joining many Mosques around the U.K & Ireland who will open their doors for visitors to come, visit the mosque & join them in breaking their fast.

To register or find more  information click here: https://ianl.org.uk/2018/05/18/the-big-date-fri-25th-may/

 

Finchley Food Bank

Finchley Food Bank

We’ve been contacted by some Jewish students and young professionals working with foodbanks and social action projects.  They say that not many synagogues or Jewish community organisations support their local foodbanks and they think many would be willing to do so and they are starting a network to encourage them. They contacted the Trussell Trust who identified FPS as a synagogue which already collects donations and they have contacted us for information on our experience etc in order to try and encourage other synagogues and organisations to do what we are doing.  FPS leading the way again in social action projects!

Finchley Food Bank posted this on their Facebook page on Saturday 21st April - “despite the amazing weather today we still had 49 Adults and children from homes across the borough leaving stock dangerously low for next week. This week’s most needed items are Tinned Meat/Veg/Fruit/Fish....All Toiletries except sanitary products...Biscuits...Coffee....Sugar...Milk and Rice”

Please buy an extra item when you do your next shop and leave it in the box in the Synagogue hallway – we will ensure that it goes to Finchley Food Bank for distribution.

Thank you for all your help.

Peggy and Alison

PARASHAT K'DOSHIM

Rabbi Rebecca writes:

PARASHAT K'DOSHIM                         27/28 APRIL 2018, 12/13 IYAR 5778

I was reminded this week of Dunbar’s Number. The Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar who first wrote in the 1990’s about the human brain’s ability to only maintain between 100 and 250 human relationships (typically about 150). We do not have the space in our brains for hundreds upon hundreds of relationships. He has of course been ‘unpacking and exploring ‘ what this number means for us especially with the added pressure and (vast numbers) of online interactions. 

Who has time for the 100s if not 1000s of  Facebook friends that might fill up more than your dashboard? If we as human beings have capacity for fewer meaningful connections, what might that mean for us in the lives we build and the reasons why many of us choose to be part of a synagogue? 

Last week I was particularly struck by our Bar Mitzvah inviting a non-related member of the congregation to lead the community prayers. Alex had, he said, become friends with many adult members, not just children at Ivriah, and this made him feel part of the synagogue. Saying Shabbat Shalom set him up for the week ahead. 

Is that true for all of us? Is there a particular place in our brains for congregational connections? Returning to the warmth of community life certainly has had that effect for me. I missed it. 

When I speak about the ‘TAV’, ‘the added value’ of being part of a congregation, as I have done with three new households since returning last week, it’s the relationships I point towards.

This week’s Parashat Kedoshim (we will be in synch again with the Orthodox world next week) ,also known as the Holiness Code, calls on particular social obligations.  The most famous and ubiquitous; Love your neighbour as you love yourself which is approximately the middle sentence of the Torah. 

But it’s not just empty cliche but expounded with practical directives how to fulfil this in community … You must not go about slandering your kin. [19:16] We know the power of unkind words, especially in a small congregation setting. You shall not hate your brother or sister in your heart. [19:17] We know the benefit of speaking when we are troubled directly and with integrity. You may not stand by idly when your neighbour's blood is being shed. [19:16]

Being a member of a community is to empathise with each other’s pain and suffering. How fantastic that this week’s portion speaks so directly, candidly and relevantly to what we know is the greatest joy we create in our lives, the comfort and consolation of friends and those who care about our welfare. 

I hope you have that in your lives, and have found it within Finchley Progressive Synagogue. Let me know if you think we can do better. 

Shabbat Shalom to all

Rabbi Rebecca