Thursday, 8 December 2016

And Jacob left for Haran - A Kiss Isn't Just a Kiss

This week’s Torah reading begins with Jacob fleeing his furious brother and deceived father. He heads for Haran, dwelling place of his uncle Lavan. Lavan’s first encounter with this family of Hebrews came when he met Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who came bearing gold to persuade Lavan to let his sister, Rebecca, marry Isaac. The penniless Jacob arrives - already having met his wife to be, Rachel.

[And Lavan] ran towards Jacob and embraced him and kissed him and brought him into his house.

The Rabbis of Bereishit Rabba take the opportunity to paint Lavan as a deceiving moneygrabber. Lavan ran towards Jacob thinking he had come bearing gold. He embraced him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold in Jacob’s pockets. He kissed him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold secreted in his mouth.

It’s a terrific playful interjection, sensitive and sceptical to Lavan’s eagerness and prefiguring Martin Buber by around 1500 years. Lavan’s relationship with his nephew is precisely what Buber had in mind in his analysis of the ‘I-It’ relationship. The relationship based on the single question - what’s in it for me? Relationships founded on self-service are never going to be profound. At their best they are reciprocal. Reciprocity isn’t evil, but it’s a long way from love. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where one seeks to serve another without regard for self-interest is of an entirely different, deeper, sort.

So this is the challenge, when we encounter others do we interact on the basis of what is in it for us, or without regard to our own self interest? Can we crank up the number of interactions we have with others that are based on wilful acts of generosity of deed? How much sweeter, and more surprising, could we make this world if we led with a desire to do things for others, freed of the need to be assured of precise predictable payback. It’s a way of encountering others that will work for nieces, other family members, work colleagues, friends and strangers alike. I commend it.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 2 December 2016

Parashat Toledot - The Children are Revolting

Ve’eleh toledot.
And these are the generations.
Interesting week for Cheder Shabbat.

If last week I spoke about Abraham Zaken - being old.
This week want to talk about being young.
Being a Yeled

Key moment re Isaac
dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

Been filled in, and dutifully, as a good son should, redigs them.
Re-endows the wells of his father as his father’s wells.
Sounds good. This is, is it not, what children should do to honour the name and the triumphs of their parents.
I speak of this, of course, as a parent.

But something feels slightly remiss.
Remiss in Isaac - sense of own narrative disappeared.
Couple of weeks ago he was bound.
Last week, a wife was found for him.
This week redigs the wells of his father.
And he is deceived by his own sons.
Passive existence.
He’s not the hero of his own existence.
Slips betweens the cracks between Avraham Avinu - our patriarch Abraham and his son known as Yisrael - for we are all Bnei Yisrael.

Wonder if a piece of it - and you can’t tell my children I said this - is that just redigging the wells of your parents is not enough.
Recreating the actions of a previous generation, by definition, is a recipe not for bright innovation and hope, but a gentle slide into obsolescence.

I was flicking through Rabbi Jacob’s autobiography when I came across one of his fav stories, a story I last shared on this Bimah ten years ago this week, when I interviewed for the position of Rabbi here. Taken from the section of the autobiography where Rabbi Jacobs is getting ready for his first Yom Kippur at the prestigious New West End Synagogue, and just as he is preparing to go into the service sees one of the enobled members of the community, also just outside the sanctuary.

Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre.
The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service.
His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over.
His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so.
The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.

It’s redigging the wells, it’s humble, but it’s not vibrant. It’s not enough for a child. It shouldn’t be what we expect from our children.
Whisper it, but sometimes, in the words of Tim Minchin’s musical Mathilda, children have to be a little bit naughty.

Of course, certainly in my own house, I’m not such a fan.
Quite like kids to do precisely the things I tell them to do, and promptly, and with a smile on their faces.
And on a superficial level I really like the idea that after I’m gone they’ll do precisely the same things I did in precisely the way I did them, but ....

It’s an old problem.
This is God’s principal experience with the problem - also known as the problem of Free Will.
God puts the first human beings in the Garden and tells them they can have everything they want, apart from the opportunity to want one thing; the opportunity to understand for themselves what good and bad actually mean.
What do you expect happened?
Of course the children wanted to understand things themselves, even if it meant making their own mistakes.
Even if it meant being more than a little bit naughty.
Adam and Eve wanted to be - and indeed became - the paradigms for humanity.

The world turns.
The lives of our children will be unrecognisably transformed from the lives of our parents and they will have to be prepared for challenges so radically different from those of 40 years ago that training our children to redig our wells is simply not good advice..
Not just talking about the transformatory nature of contemporary technological innovation - it’s never been possible to step into the same river twice.
Life is always transforming and the deeper thing to wish for our children is a transformed future.

Here’s another encounter between God and children, dating to the mid Talmudic period, say around the year 300.

Talmudic tale of the oven of Achnai
The Rabbis are arguing. One rabbi starts to call on God to support his claims and God starts to intervene, causing trees to be uprooted, water to flow upstream and even the walls of the Bet Midrash to cave in, until the other rabbis banish God from the argument pointing out ‘Lo bshamayaim hi.’ That the Torah is not in heaven, but rather given to each and every generation to decide it as they - not God, our father in heaven - best see fit.

And the tale continues - nitzchuni banai­ - usually translated, my children have defeated me, ut literally - my chidren have outlasted me.
Irony is that we last longest by ceding to the generations to come, rather than imposing our own take on their futures upon them.
Scary thought - as I said, you can’t tell my children I said this.

Meaning of Yichus
Actually two things - one is the sense of pride taken in those in whose triumphs I see my own triumphs.
But also - and perhaps even more importantly, a sense of wonder as those who are coming after me supercede that which I could have imagined - nitchuni banai

I used to be a huge fan of the George Berard Shaw quote,
When I was 14 I knew my parents knew nothing, by the time I was 21 I was amazed by how much they had learnt in 7 years.
But I think, in honesty, I’m not sure even that is enough.
My hope for my children is that they outdo, out-think and transform any expectation I could have for them.
Because - on this Cheder Shabbat - it’s probably necessary that kids should be revolting

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Fires in Israel - Kehillat Moriah

Many will have read about the fires that caused such devastation in Israel last week. We send our best wishes to everyone affected. In particular I wanted to draw our members’ attention to the devastation caused at the Masorti Synagogue of Haifa, Kehilat Moriah, one of the oldest and largest Masorti communities in Israel.
I know Rav Dubi, the spiritual leader of the community, well. Flames caught hold of a pine tree behind and above the building and led to destruction of the upper floors, including the Noam youthg group rooms, the library and study hall and much else. Haaretz has a full story which you can read either [here -], or if you don’t have a Haaretz subscription you can access the article by googling  ‘the true extent of the wreckage here at Moriah, the oldest active Conservative congregation in Israel, only becomes evident when a visitor sets foot inside.’ The community has embarked on a fundraiser to save their building and repair the damage. I commend it to all. More information [here -].
Tomorrow we will celebrate Shabbat with our Cheder and youngest members. It’s a tremendous pleasure and I’m delighted we have such a dynamic programme for our younger members. We will also be joined by our Noam Movement Worker, Amiel who is introducing himself to the community below.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 24 November 2016

‘Abraham was Old’

Old age, the Rabbis suggest, began with Abraham. It’s a typically rabbinic observation. The word, ‘Zaken’ appears for the first time only in this week’s parasha, and so ...

Perhaps the more historical observation would be that ageing used to be so much rarer than it is today. We are, notes Noah Yuval Harari, the first humans to face age as the greatest threat to our mortality. In generations past violence, pestilence and famine accounted for so many more of us. Now what?

In Bereishit Rabba Abraham asks God for a sign of ageing so everyone will know who deserves more respect when ‘a father and a son go to a place,’ indeed the word Zaken, means both ‘aged’ and ‘wise.’ Zaken also means ‘beard’ - a sign of age? Certainly. A sign of wisdom? Well as long as it’s a reasonably neat goatee, I think so.

The great American teacher Reb Zalman taught much about ‘saging’ a process where the aged are duly celebrated for their wisdom, not only the real depths of insight that come with age, but also the wisdom of declining intellectual perspicuity. And there is the rub.

In ancient times death, in times of peace and plenty, would usually be preceded by illness, untreatable and therefore brief. Nowadays we survive, physically, longer and longer, perhaps outlasting our mental strength, perhaps outlasting financial sums put aside, perhaps outlasting the reservoir of care and love that we imagine our due. The absolute connection between age and wisdom is severely threatened. Indeed this may be the single greatest challenge of our age.

Two thoughts to share, neither renders the work of caring for the aged easy or alters the stark physical challenges so many face, but hopefully thoughts that can ease a spiritual burden.

Firstly when the Talmud discusses the obligation to honour one’s parents - one of the Ten Commandments - the examples cited are without exception about aged parents; perhaps senile and certainly no longer at the height of their power. A jeweller forgoes a significant sale since his father is asleep using his keybox as a pillow. A man watches his mother fan money off the back of a ship without attempting to stop her. When the Rabbis suggested honouring one’s parents to be the heaviest of the obligations they knew the challenges posed by ageing. Acknowledging the gift of our parents is something that takes place not when our parents are at the height of their powers, but afterwards.

Secondly, there is this notion of the creation of the human in the image of the Divine; every human, at every stage in that person’s life. It is the greatest challenge in our faith and it applies equally to the young, the old, the fit, the infirm, the perspicacious and the demented. To bear witness to the divine nature in a person, no matter how challenging they might be, no matter how much a shadow they might be of their former selves, is, I believe, the key to understanding how we should care for our most aged and sage-ed. It is certainly how we should all wished to be cared for ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 18 November 2016

Same Thing Over Again

Every once in a while hope for a progressive orthodoxy in this country bubbles up. Learned, committed self-defined orthodox Jews start talking about changing women’s roles, an openness towards critical scholarship and the like, and a new dawn is heralded. For those - our founder Rabbi among them - who waited for decades for Orthodox leadership to emerge from intellectual culs-de-sac these flickers of hope seem to offer so much. But then pressure is brought to bear from extremists, the so-called middle-ground buckles - not so much from being persuaded of the justification of the right-wingers, but simply from threats of exclusion. And the leaders of any new progressive development are whipped back into place, or cast adrift.
I’ve been reflecting on this pattern, centuries old at this point, this week as I’ve read two very similar stories. One regarding one of the most highly regarded educators operating - or attempting to operate - on this seam. Elie Jesner has found himself banned from the notionally modern-Orthodox, London School of Jewish Studies for the ‘sins’ of teaching at the pluralist Jewish day-school JCoSS and as part of a series organised by the Friends of Louis Jacobs. He’s written about it here.

Miriam Lorie found her invitation to speak with Bat Mitzvah students at Elstree and Borehamwood United Synagogue rescinded for the ‘sin’ of being involved in Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. More here.…/im-on-my-shuls-blacklist-and-it-…/

In a world with plenty of big problems these tiny vignettes can seem petty, but they raise the most important questions about the nature of the religious quest. 
On whose side do we stand? 
Are we prepared to give support to organisations whose intolerant fundamentalist beliefs we do not share and who practice the gentle art of persuasion with threats (and acts) of excommunication?

I fail to understand why the great masses of Anglo-Jewry continue to allow their commitment, their memberships and their money to be attached to a denomination that behaves this way. It’s unacceptable. Since Louis was treated similarly it has happened time and time again and the position of orthodoxy at the ‘top-table’ of both Anglo-Jewry and national religious engagement seems poisoned by such behaviour.

It’s an honour to serve a community founded because of a refusal to tolerate such orthodox bullying. It’s an honour to wear, proudly, the badge of being Masorti and non-orthodox. The badge stands for a willingness to engage with truths from wherever they may be found and a desire to celebrate, within our communities, the broadest range of diversities on issues of gender, sexuality, belief and even commitment. Yes, I believe we are a stronger community because we value ‘even’ those Jews who don’t believe full observance is the only goal of a Jewish life.

If you have friends who affiliate Orthodox, please pass this note on to them. Tell ‘em they are welcome here. Or I can put them in touch with communities more local. And if you share in my fortune of being a member of New London, support us; come more often, give more generously, be more committed to making our future brighter so the ‘other’ option - a Judaism of open-minds and open-hearts can prove ever more tempting to those who no longer wish to affiliate as Orthodox.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 3 November 2016

What does success look like?

The glorious month of Tishrei is over, Rosh Hashanah is a long forgotten memory and even the succah and the flayed willows are tidied up and gone for another year.
What is left?

Measuring the success of the Rosh Hashanah season is a strange business. Did more people come? Did they have more fun? Did they pay more money? Did we finish on time? All important, but drastically incomplete scales of measurement. Maybe better markers of success can be found in these sorts of question; Did more people come the Shabbat after all the festive decorations are dismantled? 
Will we be, as a community, stronger next year than we were last year? 

I never know how to answer the question, ‘are you ready?’ put to me with remarkable regularity in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The answer I usually give is that I have no idea. I’m wholly persuaded by the sagacity of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked in 1972, what he thought of the eighteenth century French Revolution, reportedly responded, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’

But here are a few observations that interest me.
We had visiting grandparents. One of the most savage markers of the decline of a Jewish community is when grandparents leave to be closer to their children and grandchildren. It’s something I’ve seen in a number of provincial communities in particular. For some years we were that community. Our youth went elsewhere and a number of grandparents followed. But now we are experiencing the reverse, visiting grandparents, often, interestingly spending time with us rather than their home orthodox communities because of the welcome we have provided their children, in-laws and next generations.

The new Machzor went down very well. I had only excellent feedback on the new Sacks/Koren Machzor we debuted this year. Well one member raised a concern that the commentary was too interesting and distracted them from prayer, therefore proving that you really can’t please everyone. A development like this is a huge challenge, and the fact that it didn’t feel that way is a testament to the openness of the community (and in particular Ed’s sterling work on page number duty). We know there were a few periods where it was very difficult to follow Cantor Jason’s Routledge-led service in the Koren, and that will have attention over the year. Please do let me have any other feedback.

Some people listened to my sermons. I had a correspondent share they were writing stuff down, in the context of my Yizkor sermon. I found someone using the image of the Port Jew I had shared on Rosh Hashanah. I even had someone share their best advice on how to treat an invasion of drosophila. Most touchingly my sermon on refugee and in particular the work of the Separated Child Foundation and the Asylum Drop-In Centre (which launches this week) seems to have struck a chord. Many of you have been generous with your funds, your clothes and other gifts and your time. I salute your generosity and feel very humbled by the impact the services have made. For more information on ways to support these important projects - in particular for more information on how to volunteer, please be in touch.

There is plenty to do; to continue our open-hearted and open-minded approach to Judaism. We remain utterly dependent on people coming, taking part and supporting the community financially as well as physically and spiritually. To everyone who supported us in this last month in any way, I am deeply grateful.

So normality returns. We need your support on dark Friday evenings, at the start of Shabbat morning prayers, the Cheder is back, we’ve a communal Friday night dinner to look forward to and I hope all this, and so much more, will have your support.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Scrolls of New London Synagogue - Come and Dance with Us & Them

It appears that the Antiques Roadshow is filming a special edition of the show featuring relics from the Holocaust. My mind went straight to the two Torah Scrolls we hold on behalf of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.
In the midst of the Holocaust, Czech Jews worked to bring their most treasured sacred inheritance to the relative security of Prague. Some 130,000 Jews, around 2/3rds of the community, were murdered by the Nazis, but some 1600 Torah scrolls survived. They sat, often in terrible conditions, until the 1960s when they were brought to England. Many have been restored and shared with communities not just back in the Czech Republic, but right around the world. You can read more about the history and work of the Trust [here -]. The two scrolls held by New London are both remarkable. One, from the town of Lipnik, contains all kinds of Kabbalistic scribal notions, strange curlicues on letters and unusual layouts. We don’t know the origin of our other Czech Scroll, but it is one of the most exquisite examples of the scribal art I have seen. You can read a wonderful short talk about Lipnik (given by our member Julian Futter in 2010) [here -].

But if you really want to understand these scrolls and the duty of care we accept for them, clicking won’t do. Instead you have to dance.

This Monday night at 6:30pm (with a tea for Reception-Year 3 from 6pm), we begin our celebration of celebrate Simhat Torah. On Tuesday morning we mark the moment where we finish and begin again our annual journey through our magnificent Torah. And, yes, there will be dancing. We dance because it’s an enormous honour to accept the guardianship of these scrolls and everything they stand for.

We’ll dance with the Czech scrolls.
We’ll dance with the [Kosmin scroll -] - given to the community in 2010, an immaculate piece of work commemorating the memory of Ronnie, a dearly beloved member.
We’ll dance with the Levinkind scroll sent by [Nathan Levinkind -], grandfather of our former member Julius, in 1891 from his home in Lithuania to ensure there would be a Torah scroll in Colesberg, South Africa, where his daughter was to set up her life.

And there are other scrolls we hold, and love and accept as trustees for not only for our members but also on behalf of our people through centuries and across continents. Throughout everything we are a people who have accepted the obligation of being bearers of scrolls that represent so much more than vellum and ink.

To hold these scrolls, to dance with these scrolls, to know what it means to reach the end of the marathon journey through the Five Books of Moses and begin again because you are physically there is an extra-ordinary honour. To anyone who has never experienced it, especially to those who have not experienced Simhat Torah New London style, I urge you to join us. If you have children bring the children (especially if they are on half-term!), they need to understand, to hold and to dance with their greatest spiritual inheritance also.

These scrolls are our most precious physical objects for they are so much more than physical objects. They are our spiritual inheritance, our history as a people and the bridge that connects us to the Divine.

To all our Torah Readers, and especially Lester, who have brought us to the brink of this extraordinary moment, thank you. To our wonderful honourees for the day, Stephen Lerman and Ann Rau-Dawes, thank you for all your support of this community. To us all,

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy
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