Rabbi Rebecca's Writings

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

June 6, 2024

7/8 June 2024, 2 Shivan 5784

Count all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their parents’ houses; a head count of every adult (of army age) so everyone is counted according to the names of their family.

As we begin the book of Numbers this week, we are reminded to count and be aware of everyone who is in the community – and it couldn’t be more appropriate for our congregation. We also begin this week with newly-received planning permission for our modest, but essential, renovations. This is momentous for us and confirms that we are truly in business. We have a final chunk to raise and will be doing so in earnest with a new Just Giving page and renewed energy for this Fundraising campaign.

We have raised £1.5 million. We need at least another £400,000.00 to ensure the building project can happen fully and include the repairs that we have recently discovered we must carry out to ensure the safety of our building. I am confident, as are the team working on this.

Our architects have gone out to tender; builders have been visiting and continue to do; we are planning when and how we will move out. There is much to arrange but it is exciting and every step confirms our belief in and love for FPS: looking after our Sifrei Torah; setting up Ivriah in our new Shabbat venue; organising where we will be for High Holy Days.

We think we will have all this information for you by next week.

There will be a new fundraising page so that we can share with family and friends and add our sponsored events. We will, we hope, have clear decisions as to when we are moving out and a detailed plan of where we will be for festivals, Shabbatot and all between.

In this week’s portion, as well as the counting and creating of this portable community, is the reference to packing up the Mishkan – Tabernacle – and travelling with it. That will be us in the Autumn and although daunting, it will be exciting too.

When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it.

Although our own James Levy, who is leading the Building Campaign, and many of our numbers may inherit the Levite clan and name, we know that for us Liberal Jews all are responsible for the synagogue, all that is in it, all that it offers and most of all, right now, all that it needs.

We definitely have holy work to do and I am looking forward to it.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

May 31, 2024

31 May/1 June 2024, 24 Iyyar 5784

We are so delighted at FPS to have welcomed Student Rabbi James Feder to be our intern for the next 5 weeks. Please look out for learning opportunities with him – he’ll be leading services this Shabbat, as well as teaching with me at Delving into Judaism (our weekly Adult Ed class for all interested in learning more). He will also be leading Café Ivriah on 15th June, Navigating Communal Trauma: Re-Reading Psalm 23 after October 7th. He introduces himself below.

Shabbat Shalom.

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,” God promises in the opening verses of Parshat Behukotai, “I will grant your rains in their season.” I’ve only been here a few days, but if rain is the litmus test, it seems to me that God is certainly quite pleased with you — and I can see why! I’ve been so moved by the warm embrace I received upon joining FPS last Shabbat, and am really looking forward to spending the next month with you all.

Heading into my fifth and final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Reform Judaism’s seminary in North America, I am so grateful to Rabbi Rebecca Birk for providing me this opportunity to experience the British Jewish community. In many ways, it feels like a homecoming. I spent five years living in the UK, earning an undergraduate degree from the University of St. Andrew’s and a postgraduate degree from the University of Glasgow. Since then, and before beginning rabbinical school, I spent two years working in LGBT journalism in New York City and four years directing communications for an international consortium of non-profits involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. In 2018, I made aliyah to Israel, where I worked with one of the largest civil society organisations aiming to mobilise moderate Israelis in support of progressive causes.

When I’m not here, I’m based in in Brooklyn, New York, and study at HUC-JIR’s Manhattan campus. In the fall, I will be returning for a third year as the rabbinic intern for the amazing community at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Among various honours and fellowships, I am a current fellow in the Tisch Fellowship Programme, which is led by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (himself a big fan of Liberal Judaism and FPS).

Having lived my life between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, I have long said that I want to craft a rabbinate that is truly global. This feels like an important step towards realising that aim. I am so excited to learn from you, to pray with you, and to grow as a leader through our time together.

להתראות \ l’hitra-ot,

James Feder

May 23, 2024

24/25 May 2024, 17 Iyyar 5784

‘That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun,’

or as the contemporary translation offers for Ecclesiastes 1:9 History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.

Usually, I find this line from Ecclesiastes very reassuring. Because it’s true – isn’t it?

May arrives and all of us, in the Northern hemisphere at least, prepare for the last term of the academic year. Our children sitting GCSEs and A levels learn to associate the exams with the smell of the grass being cut (and hay fever for some). If you live in Britain, then the advent of Spring gives an opportunity to talk about the weather, which we all seem to take up with alacrity. Spring brings English asparagus, cricket and renewed interest in our gardens. If you are at school – whether a teacher or a pupil, you go through the seasons. We teach our students that if you work hard, you do well.  None of this ever really changes.

The familiarity of things coming in their expected seasons brings comfort. But underneath that sun, things are changing. 2023 is now officially understood have been the hottest year ever. For some of us, this year feels different, even as we navigate the expected patterns, and many feel a deeper absence of control. With our attention turned to Israel and Gaza, we miss the fact that our earth is changing and too often, crises of a different nature distract us from a responsibility here.  Before he died, Stephen Hawking wrote “At night, the Earth is no longer dark, but huge areas lit up. All of this is evidence that human exploitation of the planet is reaching a critical limit.”

Next week’s portion, which is usually a double with this week’s, Leviticus, packages up the promise that we will go well with the land if we behave: if we keep God’s laws; if we abide by the statues and traditions we inherit. But this is manifestly untrue.  We know this – life does not work so fairly and we have evidence of this everywhere we look.

If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them,

                                                                        גאִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְו‍ֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם

I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit…And I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten [you]; I will remove wild beasts from the Land, and no army will pass through your land;

I found an alternative midrash to these verses that help a little: the Aboriginal, deep seated proverb “Look after the land and it will look after you; destroy it and it will destroy you”.

During the first three years of my life, my father was in Darwin, working on his PHD in linguistics with an Aboriginal tribe. I know how close to Country they are and how much responsibility they feel for the earth.

As our plans firm and become focused for the much-needed renovations of the roof and our heating system, we are committed to a new way that is sustainable and responsible, enabling our synagogue to manifest those values.

So actually we can look to doing things a little differently and defy Ecclesiastes.

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.

We can do it better. I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

May 17, 2024

17/18 May 2024, 10 Iyyar 5784

This week has been for me the blueprint of a rabbi’s life.

The portion that falls this Shabbat is Emor, which describes in detail the marking of Jewish time – the dates and times of the festival year and all important Shabbat. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote all about the power of Jewish time in his book The Sabbath – A Palace of Time. “In a very deep sense Judaism is a religion of time and …[t]he higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

He understood and I have seen it in action this week as a rabbi.

Festivals were critical in Torah but we also know the marking of personal milestones has become a deeply significant way of expressing our Judaism.

I can count key moments in my life – and some of yours too – by using Jewish blessing and tradition.  This week, I led the funeral and Shivah of our beloved member Hélène D’âne and saw the comfort that is created by this Jewish time. I saw the power of marking Yom Zikaron/HaAtzmaut with three other local synagogues, as we did on Monday evening – many of us counting Jewish time and coming together to do so.

That is what we do – and it’s been comforting this week to be reminded of that. I’m counting the 49 days of the Omer with greater intensity this year; watching, waiting and witnessing feels necessary and natural right now, with all that is going on.

The writer Etgar Keret wrote this poem about his rabbit. But actually it’s about waiting. Many of us know what waiting can feel like in the darker moments of life and the counting of days.

Alive

Sometimes,
when I look at my rabbit
lounging on the living room rug,
he seems to be waiting for something.
It only looks like he’s waiting,
he’s living.
With me, by the way, it’s the opposite:
I’m always waiting for something,
it only looks like I’m alive.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

May 9, 2024

10/11 May 2024, 3 Iyyar 5784

I recently noticed that the Quakers have come up with a new tagline: ‘Simple. Radical and Spiritual.’

In the 1930s, many Quakers were involved in kinder transport, sponsoring many children. Their concern for the outlier has not diminished. The Quakers still lead on refugee settlement and support. But they also lead on simple prayer and community.

I think a great deal about what it means to be Jewish right now. What three adjectives might any of us choose? I suspect we will go on thinking about this ad infinitum or l’ad olam in the Hebrew. Prayer, community, courage, action, kindness might be just a few we’d pick.

I’m writing these words on Yom HaShoah, having lit my yahrzeit candle and caught the National event. On the 3rd May 1960, 64 years ago, the Anne Frank House opened its doors to the public. I have taken many groups of Jewish children there and their response is always palpable. When I was a child, learning and talking about Anne Frank as a traditional Jewish woman was de rigueur in Orthodox synagogue’s Bat Chayil ceremonies on a Sunday afternoon-with no prayer leading. Now, I believe we want to honour the memories of Anne and her sister Margot and to teach our own children the gift and responsibility of their Judaism, to spur them to action and pride.  I showed this extraordinary film of Ben Ferencz to anyone I could over this weekend. The legacy he leaves is so vivid right now.

So when this week’s portion K’doshim tells the Israelites – and us of course as we read it now, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), we consider what it means to be holy.

Parashat K’doshim teaches that it’s impossible to separate decent relations between humans from the commandments between a person and their God.

It’s all the same.

Harming or insulting a person is the same as harming or insulting the image of God in that person; therefore, it is harming or insulting to God. Embezzling public money is no different from embezzling that which is holy to God. The reason to “be holy” is because “I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” The holiness of God requires that we lead a thoughtful, sacred life. Part of that is bearing witness to the past, the present and our futures, including today’s recent escalations in Rafah. Let Ben Ferencz show you how.

I cannot say enough how important the concert will be at FPS on 19th May when we will mark Yom HaShoah this year together; as a community there are many stories and connections that we need to hear as well as the music that will accompany. Please join us. I’m proud that we are hosting this.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rebecca

May 2, 2024

3/4 May 2024, 26 Nisan 5784

Last Sunday, I attended a remarkable event – a concert and tribute to the late Alfred Bader CBE, chemist, art collector and generous philanthropist. As a child of kindertransport, his connection to the Quakers continued throughout his life. As I listened to the stories about him and the music honouring him, I thought a great deal about Yom HaShoah 5784 in this year, 2024. Everything is different post 7th October and while the brutal fighting and destruction in Gaza continues. This year, Yom HaShoah falls on Sunday night, 5th May. We have chosen to make our own commemoration with a special concert on 19th May at FPS with our chosen charity, G2G. It will be an afternoon of family stories and music from folk who remember and pay forward their memories. I urge you to join us then. Click here to book.

This Sunday, we are directing people to the National Yom HaShoah commemoration in person or on line. I will offer an online Havdalah on Saturday, 4th May to lead into such remembering. In his book ‘Zachor,’ the fine historian Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi wrote about the distinction between Jewish history and Jewish memory. This year, that distinction feels poignant. Does our remembering affect us now in relation to what is happening in Israel and Gaza? Should it? I looked up Eli Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He looks back on himself as a boy catapulted into the kingdom of the night.

‘And now the boy is turning to me: Tell me, he asks. What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.’

This marking of time is a very Jewish thing and for many of us, a critical part of this endeavour.

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