Thursday, 26 January 2012

Holocaust Memorial Day


Friday is Holocaust Memorial Day – a day, sponsored by Her Majesty’s Government, and a day recognised by 44 other countries across Europe and the Americas. I will be spending time discussing Holocaust Memorial Day, this Friday, at a Catholic prep school. And on Thursday afternoon an e-mail appeared in my in-tray from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflecting on Pastor Niemoller still astounding poem.


First they came for the communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.


The appointed theme, for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is speaking up against hatred and discrimination and I find myself reflecting in two opposing directions.


The Holocaust is particularistic. It’s a Jewish tragedy in which the hatred and cruelty visited on Jews was qualitatively unlike any genocide before or since. The Holocaust grew through the leadership of politicians who captured the hearts of ordinary Germans by fanning sparks of latent racial and religious antisemitism. It’s not just another genocide. It’s my story, my loss, my people. I reserve the right to be angry, to be bereaved, to find it impossible to ‘move on.’ In his book, The Sunflower, the great Nazi criminal hunter Simon Wiesenthal chronicles how he was taken from his concentration camp hell to the bedside of a dying SS officer. The soldier ‘confessed’ to--and wanted absolution from--a Jew for his barbarous acts. Wiesenthal remained silent. He wasn’t, and I am not, ‘ready to let go.’


But the Holocaust has to, also, be universalised – shackling the Holocaust too firmly to its own historical moment threatens to turn the Shoah into a museum piece. I feel this especially as the generation of survivors dwindle. To keep the Holocaust alive means to line up our own losses next to the Kurds, the Vietnamese, the Tutsis and even those whose losses are less genocidal than our own. For the failure to speak out costs lives other our own and damages lives even without ending them.


There were too many who did not speak out in the 1930s and 40s and we should seize the opportunity to share with as broad a spectrum of those willing to stand up against hatred in every way we can this Holocaust Memorial Day. Our own hurt and loss can be mourned in April when we will mark Yom Hashoah.


Shabbat shalom.



Friday, 20 January 2012

The Aleph Course is Back - And We Have a Quest Lecture Coming Too



Starting on Monday 30th January, for the following five weeks, I will be teaching an introduction to the central pillars of Jewish life, beginning with the Year Cycle. In the following weeks we’ll be looking at the lifecycle, Justice and Kindness and matters theological; ‘God’ and ‘Bad Things’ The Year Cycle is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew, it creates rhythms in the year, it serves as an invisible scaffold around which lives are built. It’s a class for anyone who gets confused as to the difference between Tish B’Av and Tu BiShvat or wants more of a sense of why and how the festivals began and still inspire us.


The previous night, Sunday 29th January, we host our Winter Quest lecture on the future of Jewish Muslim interaction with Dr Ed Kessler, this country’s leading academic working in the field. It’s an important event in the Synagogue’s calendar and I hope everyone will make an effort to come.


And what is the relationship between the two? The Hebrew word for a pilgrim festival is ‘Chag’ but the term has another valence aside from a moment in sacred time. In Hebrew a group of people who would sit around to play bridge or dance would be part of a ‘Chug.’ The root also suggests a sense of circumnavigation.  And this twin etymology is preserved in the Arabic, and Islamic, term Haj. This central pillar of Islam suggests both pilgrimage and circumnavigation – of the Qabba. The point, I think, is this. There is political mistrust and theological difference, but we are, as Jews and Muslims, bound by not so much by sister languages, as sister paths. To understand our own faith better is to get a clearer sense as to our relationship with fellow travellers. And if we can understand that better we may find our theological differences are perhaps fewer than fear, and if that is case we can, perhaps, find ways to ease the political distrust. Now that is something to aim for.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy



Friday, 13 January 2012

Life in bet Shemesh

This is the link to the Channel 2 film on life in Bet Shemesh.

Please post comments.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Secretary For the Rabbi


We are looking for a part time secretary for the Rabbi to start in mid February 2012. The post will be for 8 hours a week, 4 in the office on one morning a week (preferably Tuesdays), and the other 4 to be taken flexibly, with the option of working at home. The rate of pay will be £5,200pa.


The job will need someone with:


  • Warmth, good judgment and discretion
  • An appreciation of the rhythms of Jewish life and in particular the demands made of the congregational Rabbi
  • Excellent attention to detail
  • Excellent communication skills, particularly in writing
  • Comfort working with a broad range of software and computer-based technologies including working knowledge of


If you are interested in this post, please phone the Executive Director, Jo Velleman on 0207 328 1026 between 9.00am and 1.00pm Monday to Friday or email   Applications are required by Wednesday 1st February and interviews will be held on the morning of Tuesday 7th February.






Where Did We Come From


Shimon Peres spoke, this week, at a gala dinner to celebrate the 35 anniversary of the Masorti Movement in Israel. And it gives me an opportunity to share an answer to an oft asked question. When did this type of Judaism start?


The real answer is, there is no date. As Masorti Jews we would claim that what we are doing is what Jews have always done. There was never a single rigid orthodoxy, only ever a process of transmission which as evolved with its feet always turned rooted on Sinai, its heart always turned towards Jerusalem and its responses to the various societies in which Jews have found themselves always marked by the historical, sociological and scientific realities of those various times and places. But let me share three key dates. The 1850s in Germany, 1883 in the United States and the 1960s in London.


Zechariah Frankel, one of the most significant scholars of Judaism of his time, wanted to set up a Rabbinical training Seminary in Breslau. Jews had not long been able to study in German Universities but Frankel believed that this was the time for Judaism to leave the Shtetl and, particularly, the time for those engaged with the study of Judaism to show that this study was of serious academic value. Among the admission criteria to what became the J├╝disch-Theologisches Seminar would be a doctorate. Raphael Shimshon Hirsch, leader of Berlin’s Modern Orthodox community, baulked at the emphasis placed on what was called the Historical method, or Wissenschaft. For Hirsch academic enquiry was all fine and good, but orthodox meant accepting the literal content of revelation and the absolute binding nature of Halachah and that had to supersede the value of critical study. The two leaders fell out and Hirsch supported the foundation of a rival seminary which while certainly modern in its orthodoxy placed no great importance on academic scientific investigation.


Not long after the first American Rabbinical training seminary opened in the ‘New World,’ the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Two kinds of teachers began teaching there. There were the hardline early leaders of American Reform, for whom the New World was a perfect chance to practice the reformed Judaism they believed in, freed from what they saw as out-dated, irrelevant ancient Jewish practices such as Kashrut. And there were practioners of the Historical school of Jewish study, men (only men at that time) of deep commitment to traditional practices, but more open minded in their approach to Jewish scholarship. In 1883 the first class of Rabbis were ordained at Hebrew Union College and, to celebrate, the College threw a banquet – it has gone down in history as the Treifa Banquet. On the menu were clams, shrimp, frogs legs and more. The traditional members of faculty were outraged, and left. They went on to found the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (where I studied).


The final date is, of course, the early 1960s -  ‘The Jacobs Affair.’ Rabbi Louis Jacobs, by common consent a shoo-in to become Chief Rabbi, had published ‘We Have Reason to Believe.’ In the book he argued that it was possible to be an open-minded, intellectually and academically grounded Jew and still be deeply engaged in observance of Mitzvot and deeply committed to the holiness of the Jewish Tradition. But he went too far for the United Synagogue of his time. His ‘Certificate of Competence’ was revoked and he was unable to return to his one-time pulpit at the New West End Synagogue. Some 400 of his supporters founded the New London Synagogue in his honour.


It’s a story worth telling in part because I want our members to feel as proud as I am of the epochal nature of our founding narrative, but also because, to return to Shimon Peres and the Israeli Masorti Movement, Israel in particular is desperately in need of finding what Rambam called the ‘Golden path’ that Masorti Judaism represents; a path of intellectual openness and commitment. On Shabbat I will be addressing some of these issues in the context of the appalling behaviour of, admittedly, a small number of ultra-orthodox Jews in Bet Shemesh and, more to the point, the way in which ultra-orthodoxy is exerting its power over public life in Israel.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

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