Friday, 27 April 2012

Happy Birthday Israel



Today we celebrate Israel’s independence.

We celebrate 64 years not only of survival but triumph. It’s hard to believe looking at the vibrancy and vigour, the economic, cultural and religious successes of what has been achieved in, by the standards of Jewish history, the blink of an eye.


I want to offer a brief perspective and I look forward to returning to address the question of the place of Israel in our hearts this Shabbat and, particularly, next Shabbat when we have a very special guest speaker at New London.


Last week saw a ‘flytilla’ of demonstrators arrive in Israel. They were greeted, at the airport, with a letter on Israeli governmental headed paper.


“Dear activist,” the letter opened, “we appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns. We know there were many other worthy choices. You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime's daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives.  You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world. You could have chosen to protest Hamas rule in Gaza, where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians. But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East's sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.”


A spiky response which has much to commend it, certainly when it comes to matters of proportion, context and the absolute horrors that have been perpetrated by Arab dictators on their own people in many a country and for many a decade. But it is not absolutely true. There are fearful minorities in Israel and embattled NGOs, religious practice is a broad term and some practices justified in the name of religion are proscribed – for both Jews and non-Jews. And there are particular problems surrounding equality for women as ultra-orthodox creep threatens the State’s pioneering support of women’s equality. I’ve no problem with a polemic response proclaiming Israel’s achievements when directed at those whose noses should be directed at other people’s business, but a more sophisticated response is needed for lovers of Israel for there is indeed still much to do.


Arnie Eisen, the 2010 Louis Jacobs Memorial speaker, cited ,in his Yom Hatzmaut message, some words of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, writing about the Messiah.


“I say,” said Ben Gurion, “that the Messiah has not yet come. At the moment that he comes, he will cease to be Messiah. . . The Messianic era is more important than the Messiah, and the Jewish people lives in the Messianic era.”


Eisen’s point is that Israel is Messianic, redemptive, stunning, but it is not the end point – it’s not the Messiah. And if we were ever to suggest that Israel was the end point it would, by definition cease to be so. It’s our spiritual home in the process of being built. We should be proud, hugely proud, supportive and we should all roll up our sleeves to help with the work, now as much as ever. And we should know the work of building the Jewish home continues.


Happy birthday Israel.


Monday, 16 April 2012

Yom Masorti - THIS SUNDAY

From Masorti Movement Director,

Matt Plen

I just wanted to tell you more about YOM MASORTI, being held THIS SUNDAY, April 22 at Edgware Masorti Synagogue. 


It's going to be a full day of ‘limmud-style’ learning, arts, culture, and lots of fun. Some of the lecturers include Senior Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Labour peer Maurice, Lord, Glasman, New Israel Fund Director Adam Ognall, and a special exhibition by Israeli Photographer Merav Stark. 


We also have a special track for children and families - craft, music, games and storytelling activities which you can participate in together with your children, or leave them to it while you attend the sessions you want to!


Finally, be sure to stay for the theatrical performance at the end of the day, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut/Israel’s Independence Day by watching a great show called ‘That’s Why I’m (Still) Here’ by performer Robbie Gringras.  If you can't make the whole day, you can book tickets just for the show.


You can see the entire schedule and bios of presenters by clicking here.

We've extended the special discounted rates for an extra few days - register until Wednesday and get a discount! (You can also come along on the day, but you will not get the discount.)  Sign up by clicking on the banner at

Hope to see you there and bring friends! Call or email me back if you have any questions.




Sunday, 15 April 2012

Thoughts on Freedom, Ai Weiwei, Jafar Panahi and the Holocaust


Freedom – spoken a lot about our national redemption, want to look abroad.

Article in the Guardian by Sarah Bakewell.


In China Ai Weiwei, creator of the glorious field of sunflower seeds at the Tate, and the Beijing Olympic stadium - the bird's nest.

Then arrested, held for 81 days without trial.

Now 'under surveillance.'

Decided to install four mini cams around his house to stream them to the web.

Way for his supporters to see that he is OK.

Way for his soul to laugh at his Chinese oppressors.


Now titled, ‘artist and dissident.’

Chinese shut down the web feed, but the refusal to buckle remains.

Weiwei tweets his resistance. ‘bye-bye to all the voyeurs’

He will be back.


While being arrested for fraud posted in his blog,

‘When I heard that the government were arresting me for fraud I laughed, at least they are sharing their honour with me.’

A first, he says, his friends and family were worried, but he went on to write, ‘I don’t see things that way. I believe that no matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy.’

Ai Wiewei, I salute you and, this festival of Passover, am inspired by you.


Next stop on this Whistlestop global tour of oppression – Iran.

Not sure how much comfort brings to us that President Ahmadinejad’s treatment of his own people is only a little better than the destruction he threatens on Israel.

Jafar Panahi is one of the leading lights in Iranian cinema, director of 11 films, winner of countless awards at international film festivals.


On 20 December 2010 Panahi, after being prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” was handed a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media as well as leaving the country


Began moping around his home with a colleague, unable to do the thing he wanted to do, video camera in hand.

They begin to discuss the script they would make if they could but give up, ‘what’s the point of making film, if you could tell a film’ he says.

Eventually, in a discussion of the nature of filmaking his colleague, with the video camera, and Panahi, with his video recording iphone, begin to make a film about not making a film.

‘When hairdressers have nothing to do they cut each other's hair. His colleague says


The film about the filming he is forbidden to make is called, ‘This is not a film,’

Smuggled out of Iran on a memory stick hidden in a cake.

Shown at Cannes.


In the film he finds a kind of freedom, in a place hidden from oppression, a place where the enslaved refuse to allow the reach of their oppressors.

Jafar Panahi, on this passover day I salute you.


Reminded of two vignettes from inspirational survivors of the death camps of our own greatest contemporary memory of enslavement.


Primo Levi writes in his gripping account of life in Auschwitz, It This is a Man, (at least I think it is If This is a Man) of a Jew in the next door bunk who would end every day of backbreaking unforgiving concentration camp labour with a series of push ups. He would even coral his son into these physical jerks.

It wasn’t about keeping fit, or even developing strength, it was about never letting the Nazis feel that they had emptied him out – he always had a space the Nazis couldn’t get to. He always had a strength that they couldn’t take away from him.


The second comes from Victor Frankl, also a Auschwitz Survivor. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankly skethces out how he was able to survive not so much physically, but existentially, how was he able to keep his soul alive.

He writes,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been a few in number, but the offer sufficient proof, that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of freedoms – to chose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.

In a time of oppression it’s not possible to choose to escape oppression, but it is possible to choose how to respond to the bullies the bigots and the brutes.

It’s always possible to choose not to be beaten down, not to be emptied out.

It’s always possible to choose to be free in a tiny corner inside the soul that no Pharaoh can penetrate.


In this place, in this response to oppression, Frankel advocates a search for meaning.

If we can find something to live for, something for our lives to mean, we can survive any oppression and, please God, even rise to overthrow it.

A  search for meaning, of course, goes beyond merely the removal of oppression, we need to find something to live for, not just something to rebel against.

And it is here that Frankel comes to the centrally Jewish observation of the importance of responsibility in freedom.

His words -

“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[3]


May those of us who have never known the incarceration or abuses that have struck Ai Weiwie or Jafar Panhari never forget that it is responsibility and meaing that give meaning to our physical freedom and, indeed, are even more important than it.


To all of those who have survived oppression.

To those who have escaped in body and those who have only been able to escape in spirit alone.

At this Passover time, I salute you.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rejoicing in the Destruction of Others

The Seventh Day of Pesach marks, in the Rabbinic mind, the date the Children of Israel crossed the Yam Suf and Pharaoh and his armies were destroyed in the sea.

As Moses and Miriam lead the people in rejoicing over the destruction of Egypt, the Rabbis imagine angels wishing to join in, only to be told that angels ought to know better than rejoice in the downfall of others. The Israelites are let off such a lofty demand on account of their experience of slavery, but the intent is clear. Proverbs 24:17 states ‘do not rejoice in the downfall of your enemy,’ but the really holy response is beyond abstaining from celebrating the pain of others. The really holy response is empathy – sharing in others’ loss.

Those in shul on second day Yom Tov will know I bemoaned the lack of contemporary edge in the widely publicised new Haggadah edited by the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. During the week I saw Rabbi Howard Cohen’s review of the Haggadah in the Jewish Quarterly where he makes the same point. Cohen concluded his excellent remarks by noting that ‘at the respective ages of Foer and Englander two of their Jewish American predecessors [Philip Roth and Normal Mailer] were finishing Portnoy’s Complaint and The Armies of the Night.’ Cooper suspects that had Roth and Mailer ever collaborated on a contemporary Haggadah it would have had far more to say about what he calls ‘the greatest Jewish ethical challenge of our times, the plight of the Palestinians’ than Foer’s work. Cooper leaves the precise nature of this ethical challenge unstated. For me it lies in working out how far we, Jews, have moved from our experience in Egypt. Some level of existential threat remains, but we are no longer a people just out of the experience of bondage – we no longer, thank God, have to bake our Matzah on our backs as we flee with nothing. At what point and to what extent should we look first to the angels, who have to find a way to empathise with the destruction of even enemies, and only secondly to the scarred just-liberated Israelites only seven days out of Egypt?

Chag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


Rabbi Cooper's review essay is at

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Pesach Treat

I've put together some images from Zionist pre-state Haggadot.
The tears of the Holocaust, quite literally, fall from one.
As does the pride, the hope and the wit.
I think they are wonderful.
Full translations of the Hebrew are included.
To download go to
And click on the 'download or print' button next to the cloud on the blue background. Don't click in the banner ad even if it says 'download now'.
Hope you enjoy it, and Pesach in all it's glory,
Chag Sameach,

Are you coming


Are you coming?


The Rabbis tell us that not all the Children of Israel left, at the moment of Exodus. Some preferred to stay, almost literally, with the devil they knew – the simple, if foul, life of a slave. The ones left behind preferred the consistency and reliability of slavery to the radical frightening call to hike off into the desert with only a pillar of smoke to lead the way.


There is a comment in one of my many Haggadot which suggests that there were originally five children. The wise, wicked, simple and silent children we all know so well. And a fifth who when invited to join the family on the Seder desisted, resisted, reprioritised or simply wasn’t bothered. Meanwhile the Hagadah text itself demands that everyone has to see themselves as if they themselves went forth from Egypt.


In so many ways this time of year asks the question, are you in, or are you out?


So, and particularly to the conversion candidates, but also the partners, I urge you to count yourselves as insiders. Take this personally. Eat the Matzah as if you personally left Egypt. Avoid the Chametz as it your personal connection to God depends on it. And come to celebrate as if this is indeed your celebration. For indeed it is.


This year three of the four Yomim Tovim of Pesach fall on the weekend. This Saturday and Sunday, and next Saturday includes Hallel and features the special music for a Festival. This Saturday features the Song of Songs. Being at Festival services is an important part of the conversion programme. This year, especially with the way the calendar falls, it’s particularly important to be at Shul for Yom Tov morning services. Seder night is important, but you should join us as a community also.


Chag Kasher v’Sameach,

Have a joyous and kosher festival,


Rabbi Jeremy

Kids' Haggadah

We've done a kid's Hagadah.
Available as a PDF or you can download the larger Word document and customise
Happy Pesach to all

What's New This Year

Peace Now, a pro-Israel, pro-Peace organisation are encouraging us to see Yachatz, the moment when the middle matzah is split in two, in terms of a two state solution in the Land of Israel.


Rabbis for Human Rights and a coalition of agricultural workers in low wage jobs are encouraging us to place a tomato on our Seder plate. The video shows a vast field in Florida and a worker explaining how she has to carry the 32lb buckets for 50c a bucket. It ends with this quote from the farm-worker and civil rights activist, Caesar Chaves, ‘The fight is never about grapes or lettuce, it's always about people.’


Away from the politics the National Library of Israel has digitised and made available some extraordinary manuscripts including the 14th century ‘Wolf’ Hagadah and the 1948 Palmach Hagadah (ah! politics again, you can’t get away from it at Pesach time).


For those who find the Hebrew too difficult, but would love to join in with, particularly, the songs I’ve come across a full transliteration of the Hagadah available for download.


Josephine and I have designed a kiddie-appropriate Hagadah, slimmed down, simplified translations and transliterations. We’ve made it available for anyone to customise and improve as would best work for you.


Same old, same old, always new.

Passover is desperate to be relevant and engaged, from one generation to the next. From the four calls of the Torah that this story should be told to generations to come, to the Mishnah’s call, taken up by the Hagadah that ‘in each and every generation a person should see themselves as if they themselves left Egypt. Please make use of the links below, or anything else that can help you and those you celebrate with, make the most of our most special celebration of the journey from bondage to freedom.


Yom Tov this year falls over the weekend, both our Shacharit services on Saturday and Sunday will feature baby blessings as well as Hallel. All are particularly welcome to ensure Pesach is a celebration for the whole community, not our private Seder tables.


Chag Sameach to all,


Rabbi Jeremy



  • Peace Now, the divided Matzah

  • Rabbis for Human Rights, the tomato

  • National Library’s Collection of Haggadot

  • Seder Transliterations

  • The ‘Goldhurst Haggadah’

As a large word document please customise as you wish -

As a pdf –




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