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July 12, 2024

12/13 July 2024, 7 Tamuz 5784

I was very moved on Sunday to witness the ordination of 5 new rabbis; joining the progressive rabbinate and ready to take on communities.

Rabbis Daisy, Eleanor, Nicola, Martina and Matt who studied through the Pandemic and the closures all spoke of their trepidation of what it might mean to lead, to give direction, to know where to go – one even asked us the congregation exactly what to do; he felt so uncertain.  They spoke of hoping for encounters with congregants and the opportunities to grow relationships. The senior librarian at Leo Baeck College gave a brilliant address, during which she reminded  the congregation that becoming an accountant is very not like becoming a rabbi.

Because, she said, it is far more intimate, you are bound up with people constantly. The prospect of all those waiting relationships was daunting for each one of the ordinands. 23 years since my ordination I can say that it has been the best part of my role.

The great Civil Rights rabbi German/American Joachim Prinz reflected this understanding when he said, “You cannot be a rabbi unless you love people. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love all of them. [God] says, ‘Thou shalt love the neighbor as thyself.’  [God] doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt like them.’ I have loved all the people with whom I’ve come into contact. Even those with whom I have disagreed and whom I have disliked because I think God wants us to love people.”

This week we read about the waters of Meribah where the children of Israel argued.  They argued so badly that they ignored Moses grief for his sister’s death, they caused Moses and Aaron to lose their right to finish the task.

הֵ֚מָּה מֵ֣י מְרִיבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־רָב֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל

And we know as we read that disagreement is not the sign of indifference, as Prinz identified there can still be love there. And at the end of this story it strangely says as interpreted by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz with these Hebrew words et vahev b’sufa” (Numbers 21:14) “In the end, there was love.”

That is at the heart of these stories and the ones in our own lives and communities.

 

July 4, 2024

5/6 July 2024, 30 Sivan 5784

Why vote?

I have studied attitudes to civic engagement with our teenagers this past month. Jewish tradition has a great deal to say on involving ourselves with the welfare of our cities and the wider community in which we live. As Jeremiah wrote in the 8th century BCE to his anxious and exiled people: But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you [into exile,] and pray to the Eternal on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jeremiah: 29:7]

This feels particularly apposite this week.

In a delightful twist of fate and time, our synagogue Annual General Meeting was booked for the day we will turn out to vote in our General Election. And the effects of living in a democratic society benefits us all.

Our community is a microcosm of our wider society. No organisation is sustained healthily without its members caring for it. In all the 12 years of my serving FPS, I have seen that demonstrated every day – a full, if miniature, democracy. On Thursday, I imagine we will feel similarly about the leadership of our local areas and the country at large.

In Mishnah Avot, we learn that Rabbi Hanina, the vice-high priest insisted: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every person would swallow their neighbour alive. We need good governance  – we know what the alternative is – and we do more than pray for it. Thanks to our new BoD representative Tim Seyner-Harness, our community had access to a local hustings for the candidates for Finchley and Golders Green and those in neighbouring constituencies have had access too. It is deeply Jewish to care what happens around us – Lo Tuchal L’hitalem – Do not become indifferent, says the Book of Deuteronomy in Ki Teitzei.

I welcome this opportunity as you may also do. Do join us on Thursday evening – in between your voting and watching results for the General Election – by expressing your views on our synagogue, its plans and its governance. You are critical to that process too.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

June 27, 2024

28/29 June 2024, 23 Sivan 5784

There are sharp divisions between the Jewish people all over the world.

We might not yet call it a civil war, thank God, but the dissent between us is distressing.

I am not sure about the percentages but a large group of Jews are more, and maybe even exclusively, drawn to the suffering of Jews and the plight we are in; such is the trauma that it is impossible for them to see others’ suffering. The other group feels that pain but also deeply feels the responsibility and values of Jewish life threatened by the suffering unleashed on others. It is safe to say this is a profoundly difficult time for all of us, wherever we sit on that continuum. Dissent troubles us in the British Jewish community, even though our name means wrestling with God – Yisra (wrestle) El (God). I heard yesterday about families torn about these past 7 months or so – families not even caught up in the terrible troubles – just the mere act of talking and conversing has proved divisive and injurious.

In the Book of Esther study group, we have been reading with great interest this diaspora fairytale that speaks so acutely to the news right now.

There have always been passionate differences of views and as always, our Torah portion speaks to this, with the fractured response to those scouts who checked out the land for Moses and the people. The scouts produced bad reports about the land that they had seen (Numbers 13:32). The people began to panic, screaming and crying, and saying they wanted to go back to Egypt (Numbers 14:1). They even threaten to throw stones at anyone who tries to calm them down (Numbers 14:10).

I pray for us to keep talking, keep discussing and keep open to each other’s points of view, however challenging we may find them.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

June 21, 2024

21/22 June 2024, 16 Sivan 5784

I find the idea of complaining rather compelling. You may have seen the cartoon of a New York City Jewish restaurant table with three older women: “Is there anything else I can bring you to complain about?” the waiter asks them.

Complaining is often a pretext in our own lives for finding fault, creating negativity, avoiding gratitude and positivity. This is the scene we find in this week’s portion.

וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים
The people were complaining.

Rashi suggests they were looking for a pretext a reason to fall out of favour, or out of connection, with God.

Complaining was a way of doing that. Recalling the plentiful food in Egypt allowed an amnesia of everything that came with the cucumbers, leeks and meat. They could be cross rather than assess their new situation out of Egypt, with less food but more freedom and safety. Instead, they complain.

The concept of complaining is complicated. Sometimes, it’s indulgent and self-serving. But sometimes, complaining is a form of protest and concern, raising alarms, seeking protection and calling to account. As a veteran complainer, I appreciate this reminder – that it is not only bad.

Last week, a group of parents of soldiers and combatants at the front line in Gaza wrote a letter of complaint (or beseeching perhaps) to the government. They joined with the hostage families critiquing their government’s policy of war and beseeching them for an end to hostilities and a deal that brings home their loved ones and ends the killing. We are out of time, they complained.

What a reminder that complaining can be powerful, heartfelt and hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

April 25, 2024

26/27 April 2024, 19 Nisan 5784

Passover always reminds me why I am a religious person: to be part of a tradition that calls on us to show up and mark time together by sharing ritual, prayers, food and values.

During the Seder and this ‘season of freedom,’ we will retell our story: that’s literally the meaning of Haggadah. This is a story so central to our tradition that it informs our Judaism and our Jewish expression.  We recall that we have lived through generations of suffering and that we know liberation. It’s an energetic remembering, because in every generation, it means something particular to the moment in which we live. We are called to radical empathy at Passover, as the writer Jonathan Safran-Foer describes. This year, the seder and its words freedom, liberation and oppression will have many more layers of meaning for those of us who sit round the table.

I imagine each of us in our own way will manage the commandment:

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themself as if they [personally] left Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)

I want to wish everyone a meaningful and inspiring Passover. I hope your charoset is sweet, your Seder plates full and that you and your guests come to the table tonight, and at FPS tomorrow, with a tender and open heart to all of the questions and remembering that we will do this year.

Rebecca

April 18, 2024

19/20 April 2024, 12 Nisan 5784

On Saturday night, we were having dinner with friends, talking as usual about Israel, the war in Gaza and our Jewishness, when we heard news of Iran’s impending attack. That there were no deaths was the result solidarity across the region, though one young Bedouin girl was seriously injured. So, the start of this week has been infused with concern following Iran’s assault on Israel and with fear of how things might escalate. All the while, our attention remains on the hostage families, becoming desperate for the lack of news or possibilities, as well, of course, on the dire suffering in Gaza. We here are trying to hold steady and continue our work as diaspora Jews, to resist division and to be open-hearted and sensible in our collaborative work with others. With such pernicious news, all we can do is double our efforts to negotiate our Judaism in a thoughtful, open way and to keep optimistic and hopeful.

Passover is here and the line from the Seder and Book of Exodus has rarely felt more poignant:

B’chol for va’dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzar m’mitzrayim.  In every generation each person is obliged to view themselves as if they personally left Egypt.

I want to remind us all of two events that capture us at work and see us doubling down on our Jewish values.

The first is our open doors this Shabbat morning*. We have advertised this and invited to join us folk who want to explore their Jewishness at the moment, as we thoughtfully and courageously arrive at Passover with its invitation to consider redemption, empathy and freedom. As I wrote in London Jewish News last month, Liberal Judaism has much to celebrate. You can carry your Jewishness from either parent, from choosing to convert, from the legacy of family who gave it to you to make something different from it.

This is the moment for Jewish conversations.

 

 

 

 

The second event is on Thursday, 25th April, in the midst of Passover, when I will co-chair the London Mayoral Assembly for London Citizens. We have worked with them for over ten years and have brought so much positive change to London as Jews – remember our success settling Syrian Refugees into Barnet? Jews and our communities need to be proud and involved in London and I feel privileged to lead this event with Mayor Sadiq Khan and mayoral candidate Susan Hall. There are only three places left – if you would like to join me, contact me direct.

* Service 9.45-10.45

Discussions and family activities from 11a.m.

This Shabbat we will be praying for:

Alon Ohel
Avinatan Or
Guy Illouz
Matan Angrest

April 11, 2024

12/13 April 2024, 5 Nisan 5784

The year is marching on.

Passover is fast approaching.

We know the theme – going from a narrow place to a wide expanse. Min Hameitzar karate yah v’anani v’merchav yah. (Psalm 118) The writer Michael Walzer wrote: wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.

That is the theme of the holiday: moving from oppression to freedom; opening our hearts, our homes and our tables, as the Haggadah calls, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

This year, we at FPS wanted to reach out to the unaffiliated – to friends and to family of our members – to open our doors pre-Passover on 20th April – to converse about what it means to be Jewish right now; to meet the central story of our tradition and tell the Seder, “We were slaves in Egypt…”

Because what will Pesach be like this year? What will we add to our telling to reflect what is happening around us? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a thoughtful and interesting Orthodox rabbi, wrote, “the Egyptian experience may therefore be regarded as the fountainhead and moral inspiration for the teaching of compassion, which is so pervasive in Jewish law.” We all know the goal of Jewish law and tradition is to cultivate people of compassion. There are various ways to do that with the Seder and Passover experience.

Some might add a beetroot to the seder plate as a sign of solidarity for the ongoing war against Ukraine – beetroot being an obvious national food – think borscht. Rabbi Igor Zinkov suggests eating it after the bitter herbs and using its Hebrew name selek (סלק) and seeing in it the word for retreat, yistalku (יסתלקו).

May it be your will Eternal God that all enemies will retreat.

Some may set an extra seat for one of the hostages, an initiative by the Board of Deputies, printing a picture and talking about an individual far from home and the redemption and release the Passover story tells.

Some may place an olive branch – the symbol of peace – or a few olives on the Seder plate. Olive trees have long been destroyed by Israeli settlers, leading to Palestinian suffering. Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel (a multi denominational group) often replant them with communities. Now, with the devastation of Gaza and mass starvation there, perhaps some will set an empty bowl on their seder table, or even bird seed, to represent what some are reduced to foraging and eating. This could perhaps open conversations about different suffering as we list the biblical plagues. We’ll have a chance to talk about what we all might like to do.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

April 6, 2024

5/6 April 2024, 27 Adar II 5784

Last week, we hosted an Iftar – a break fast meal for Muslim neighbours fasting during Ramadan, with invited interfaith friends and local politicians. Coming together during these heated times was an uplifting affair. (Thanks to Tamara Joseph, Natasha Kafka, Janine Garai and Citizens UK for pulling it together with a fantastic team). We had just had Purim; Hindus had just celebrated Holi; we were marking the middle of Ramadan; and we were looking ahead to the Easter weekend that would fall just days later. It is, by any reckoning, a spiritual and reflective season and it felt as though we captured it. There is so much that unites us across faiths and cultures and the different paths we may take to the sacred.

I thought about this last weekend as I visited the Chagall Museum of Biblical Memory and also Henri Matisse’s Chapel in St. Paul de Vence. All my adulthood, I have wanted to visit and have finally managed it. Each artist describes how, for him, this place was the pinnacle, the denouement, of his creative life. For the first time, I noticed as an amplification of Jewish suffering the images of Jesus on the cross that Chagall incorporates into his biblical scenes, the shape of God’s cloud by day made up of hundreds of individual faces. Matisse’s focus on the infant and mother, reflected in the azure blue of the windows and paint, echoed the peace and simplicity of the chapel.

“I started with the secular and now in the evening of my life, I naturally end with the divine,” wrote Henri Matisse about the chapel. Both men were proud of their reaching towards God and religion. Following them juxtaposed so beautifully, even in the rain of the Cote D’Azur, the pathways to our faiths and the diverse ways in which we travel.

I was proud of FPS last week as we stood in solidarity and support, appreciating different paths to God, and my heart was uplifted as I was drawn in by the sacred works by those French artists.

Maybe we will manage our own modest stained glass in our renewed and restored synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

March 28, 2024

29/30 March 2024, 20 Adar II 5784

Tzav is interested in the distinction between what is offered and what is eaten. The fat of ox, sheep or goat – all kosher animals – cannot be eaten. In this portion, Torah goes on to investigate what can be eaten.

I suppose we are starting to imagine here ritual meals separate from or alongside sacrificial offerings.

I like this. Post biblical – post priestly ritual – we have to find different ways to engage with these descriptions of animal flesh. We know that gathering to eat is a major part of Jewish communal life. I have loved hosting Shabbat at the Rabbi’s meals in the community, not just Chavurah suppers in the building, which are always fun, but me (and often Anthony too) cooking and preparing Shabbat lunch or Friday night dinner and a few of us eating around my kitchen table. I like investing time and effort in what we eat, which only adds to our conversation and togetherness. Eating together is a key Jewish experience. We are planning our FPS seder 23rd April menu right now. (Remember to book).

We create our own contemporary Ohel Moeid, tent of meeting, for the people we care about. I like cooking my grandmother’s roast chicken recipe for meat eaters, and going rogue into Ottolenghi vegetable recipes for our vegetarian guests.

See what you think of this blessing written by Leah Koenig and Anna Stevenson called the ‘Cooking Bracha’:

“Blessed are You
Creator of the world
Who brings forth fruit from the Earth.
Blessed are You,
Who gives us knowledge of cooking and time to cook
And who has blessed us with the need for nourishment
so that we can fully understand Your gifts.
May it be Your will
That the food that I cook
Bring nourishment, fulfillment, and happiness
to those who eat it
And bring honour to the land and all the people that make this meal possible.”

Here’s to more meals together and remember to book in for the next one Shabbat lunch on 27 April in my kitchen

This Shabbat we will be praying for:

Ron Benjamin
Yair and Eitan Horn
Yarden, Shiri, Ariel and Kfir Bibas

March 22, 2024

22/23 March 2024, 13 Adar II 5784

PURIM

This is the first ‘full on’ Jewish holiday post the massacre on 7th October and the war on Gaza. Chanukah was more gentle in our homes. Purim requires synagogue gathering. This year, we must still ensure our Jewish year gets marked. Our children get to experience the silliness of this unusual book of Esther that captures Diaspora Jewish life, as long as we acknowledge the piquancy of the back drop to Purim celebrations this year. I see Rachel Polin Goldberg, mother of Hirsch, as a modern day Esther, speaking truth to power and calling for an end of suffering for all peoples caught in this horror. We adults can have that sensitivity and as Rabbi John D. Rayner wrote in 1987, as Purim came back into Liberal Judaism:

It is all harmless good fun and salutary way of letting off steam provided that you only do it once in a long while and that you know what you are doing. It is when the Book of Esther is taken in dead earnest and when its Cowboys and Indians mentality is carried over into real life and becomes a basis of judgement in actual political conflict it is only then that it becomes dangerous. 

But we at FPS will be having a brief and engaged Megillah and Spiel to honour our festival and do so in the most thoughtful way possible. Please join us – this year all the more so. Saturday 5p.m.

Tots and Children fancy dress parade, than our Megillah and Spiel, followed by a feast of wine, hamantaschen and snacks.  All will be done by 6.15 / 6.30p.m. and we will have fulfilled the compulsion to hear the Megillat [Book of] Esther.

I wrote for Liberal Judaism a Thought for this Week on Parashat VayikraClick here to read on The Crumbley family convictions and a modern take on Sacrifice. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rebecca