On Mitzvah Day 2016 eleven SAMS member of all ages took part in the Woodland Trust tree planting event in Heartwood Forest, an event we as a community have been participating in for several years. We were part of a team of 679 volunteers from every walk of life who planted over 6000 trees in the space of just a few hours!
The speed at which the young trees were placed into their new homes was a sight to behold as people of all colours, creeds and faiths literally swept across the fields leaving in their wake thousands of newly planted trees and shrubs.
At 858 acres Heartwood Forest is rapidly becoming England’s largest new native forest. The site contains four small remnants (44 acres) of precious ancient woodland, our equivalent of the rainforest, which now sadly makes up only two per cent of UK landcover.
Ancient Woodlands are more than just places of timeless beauty and tranquillity, they offer stable and natural conditions for wildlife. In fact they are home to more threatened species than any other habitat in the UK which makes them a very valuable resource in need of protection.
Amazingly, it takes just 12 years to turn empty fields into flourishing native woodland, complete with a diverse range of wildlife and tall trees. The first trees planted seven years ago in Heartwood Forest are now more than four metres high.
On our way back from the planting site we struck up a conversation with a group of volunteers from a local Jain Spiritual Group, we talked about the meaning of the word Mitzvah and they explained the Jain approach to caring for all living things.
We all agreed how wonderful it will be to return to Heartwood in years to come with our children and grandchildren to proudly show them the forest we helped to plant. At a time when uncertainty and division seems to be the order of the day every time we look at the news, how refreshing it is to take part in an event that brings people from all UK communities together with a shared sense of responsibility and love for the environment in which we live.
And I’m looking forward to returning to Heartwood Forest with SAMS next year for more tree planting!
Today marks three weeks since we arrived back home in the USA. Before I write one more word, however, make no mistake- SAMS became our “second home” during the six weeks that I served as your rabbi. Judy feels exactly the same. You quickly made us feel part of your community. We rejuvenated long-time friendships and made so many new friends among you. So many of you welcomed us into your homes for delicious meals and drove us around. You did it all with such warmth and kindness. I have never experienced a more welcoming community.
We are also impressed with your empowerment. The numerous dahveners and Torah and Haftarah Readers, the speed with which you laid out the Kiddush after services, the very special Sunflowers program open to the entire community, your extraordinary Mitzvah Day, the seriousness with which you take security, etc. I could go on and on. Even though you were blessed with a wonderful rabbi for many years, you still believe in DIY when it comes to the synagogue. Of course, all of this made my job easier and more pleasant. I even got to sit with Judy during services!
We heard from some of you soon after we returned. In those e-mails you expressed concern about how we were doing after our election.
The crux of it all is the uncertainty about the future which must not be unlike the concern so many of you have about Brexit. One of many worries circulating in the Jewish and general communities is whether we can still talk to each other despite our differences. I am not just talking about the halls of Congress, but around the dinner table. There was a good deal of talk about what kind of conversations would take place around the Thanksgiving table. This American holiday may be the only holiday to be taken in a more serious context. It may be one of the few times that Americans sit as extended families for a festive meal accompanied by serious conversation.
Remembering what happened within the American Jewish community around the Iran deal, I am worried. People could not talk to each other with civility and respect about their significant differences. That issue has raised its ugly head again and the media was full of advice for having a polite conversation around the Thanksgiving table. The Wall Street Journal suggested embracing the Buddhist approach of “divine listening” which means listening with kindness, listening in order to listen. The Chicago Jewish News suggested “a ritual modeled after the Native American tradition of a talking stick, in which everyone is allowed to speak- without being interrupted, comforted or told they’re wrong, but only if he or she is holding the stick. Ground rules are essential.”
It is all the harder to do this when our Presidential campaign was filled with vicious and insulting rhetoric. Dr. Ismar Schorsch, past chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained, has made reference to the “degradation of civil discourse”, a destructive phenomenon widespread in both the public and private domains. The future of the US will depend on doing something about this crisis and so many others. We Jews as well ought to remember that we are as guilty as others of being intolerant of different opinions, especially when it comes to Israel. Our Talmudic tradition reveres lively debate and reminds us in the Ethics of the Fathers that any argument for the sake of heaven, “l’shem shamayim,” any argument which serves a sacred and noble purpose will have a positive result.
I think that is enough venting for now. The Wolkin family is doing well. I think many of you know that our son Joshua became engaged to Aurelia before we came to SAMS. Our son David and wife Keeli who live in Maryland continue in their non-profit work, David in the Jewish community and Keeli for a domestic anti-human trafficking agency. Josh also works as a counselor in a local Jewish agency and Aurelia is seeking a new position which may necessitate them moving far from Chicago. As long as they are happy and healthy and we remain the same, we don’t mind getting on an airplane.
Judy continues her many exercise classes several days a week and after a long break has resumed teaching cooking classes through the synagogue. I continue to be involved in several organizations within our Jewish community and enjoy teaching both at the synagogue and at a Jewish Seniors Residence close-by. We are therefore keeping busy, but there is not day that goes by without SAMS being on our minds and in our conversations.
In addition, I am going to do everything I can on this side of the pond to help you find a terrific new rabbi which is what you deserve. Moreover, from now on when we come to the UK, St. Albans and SAMS will be number one on our list of communities. Most of you know that we started our love affair with the UK over 40 years ago. Our many prior visits, however, were to see places. This last visit was to see people. What could be better! Seeing people lead to new relationships, and there is nothing more important in life than relationships. By opening your synagogue, your homes, and your hearts you have shown us that SAMS truly is “A Home for Jewish Herts.”
We are truly blessed and look forward to our next visit!
This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Debbie Harris
Paradoxically, this week’s sedra Chayei Sara, “The Life of Sarah” deals entirely with events that occurred after Sarah’s death at the age of 127. This started me thinking about the idea of what we leave behind. What will our legacy be? I’m not talking about some sort of master plan or changing the world. There seems to be perhaps too much change going on at the moment with Brexit, Donald Trump, Ed Balls maybe winning Strictly etc!
But how will I be remembered? What difference can I make? What will my legacy be? There’s the environmental view or looking after the world …
We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
And this, of course, fits in with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – repairing or healing the world.
Shakespeare obviously had things to say about legacy. In Julius Caesar, Anthony says of Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them.
On a more positive note Mariana in All’s Well That Ends Wells states:
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
I think that I prefer the author Ray Bradbury’s words:
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
To me how you act, the way you treat others, the relationships you form, the people you support or help, the beauty that you create whether in music or art or knitting or in your garden or by baking a cake is what’s important. That will have an effect on others and our world and so in some way live on after you.
A very significant relationship begins in this sedra. After Sarah is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. So this is an important job. How to find the right woman to marry Isaac and become the second matriarch of Israel? But the servant, Eliezer had a plan. He made his camels kneel down outside the city of Nahor by a well of water in the evening, which was the time when women went out to draw water.
And then he prayed:
“Let it come to pass that the maiden to whom I shall say, ‘Please, dip down your pitcher that I may drink,’ and she shall say, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels to drink also’—she is the one You have appointed for Your servant Isaac . . .”
Never say that God takes his time. Apparently before Eliezer finishes speaking Rebecca comes along. What’s more she’s very pretty, a virgin, Abraham’s brother’s granddaughter – so she’s family too – and she gives water to the animals so she passes the camel test! So no need for dating websites or Tinder just take your camels to a well!
But seriously I think it’s interesting that Rebecca passes the test because she looks after a stranger – as, of course, Abraham had done with the 3 strangers just a few chapters earlier in Bereshit – and she looks after the stranger’s animals too. I think that it is our individual and collective responsibility to respect and care for others particularly the strangers in our midst.
At this point I could go down the very topical line of looking after our modern day strangers, migrants and refugees, but much has already been said on that, so I’m not planning to go down that path. Some of you will know that that I do some work helping people with benefit claims so I will just say that while the Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t have figures on the number of non-UK nationals claiming benefits there are various estimates which suggest that out of the 5 million people who claim welfare benefits in the UK, only 2% are EU nationals so the idea that loads of Europeans are coming over her and claiming benefits is not the case. By contrast around 55% of welfare spending in the UK is paid to pensioners and I’m going to come back to the idea of looking after the elderly in a minute.
So just sticking with the migrant theme for a moment I’ll just use the words of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg who I think expresses our obligations to those who are less fortunate than ourselves very clearly.
I believe we have a constant responsibility to help our own people, and also to help all who are desperate and suffering, whenever we can. All of us are created in God’s image, words which have little meaning unless we live it out through striving for compassion and justice.
So onto a matter which has become very close to my heart recently – how we both individually and collectively care for older people in our society. I suppose that I have to declare a personal interest. I have parents and parents in law ranging from ages 74 to 84 all fortunately in reasonable health at the moment, but Laurence and I have one sibling each both of whom live abroad so the issue of caring for aging relatives has occurred to us! But in a wider context my work with Citizens Advice, Jewish Care and Home Start has shown me the real issues that there are with our benefits system and the vulnerable people that it fails. I haven’t seen the film, I Daniel Blake, yet but from all that I have heard about it, it does seem to portray how thousands of disabled or elderly people are not supported in the way that they should be.
I think that those of us who live in our generally affluent area would be surprised at the number of people in leafy St Albans who struggle with benefit and debt issues or who need the food bank vouchers that are handed out by St Albans CAB.
1.6 million people or 14% of pensioners in the UK live in poverty and a further 1.2 million pensioners have incomes just above the poverty line. These are mainly people who have paid tax and National Insurance and looked after their families for decades – decent, honest law abiding folk.
More worrying is that many older people are missing out on benefit entitlements. The Government estimates that in 2014-15, £3.5 billion of low-income benefits went unclaimed by older people. This is likely to be due to a combination of reasons including: lack of knowledge about the complicated systems, an assumption they will not be entitled, negative attitudes to claiming, or because people are put off by the processes.
I spend a lot of time at Jewish Care completing Attendance Allowance forms. This is one of the few non-means tested benefits and its available to people over 65 with care needs. Care needs is fairly broadly defined so it could be using a walking stick or frame to get around or using a shower seat or grab rails in the bathroom. It doesn’t mean that you need or already have a carer. Almost all of the people I see wouldn’t have known about this benefit if Jewish Care hadn’t told them about it and they certainly couldn’t have filled in the 31 page form without help. And yet the £55 per week Attendance Allowance might make the difference between them staying in their own home or not, or might pay for a taxi fare so they can get out to a see a friend or relative when they otherwise would not have seen anyone all day.
It is often said that the measure of a civilized society is how it treats vulnerable people and I think that there is also an issue about how we treat or view those who work with vulnerable people. There are thousands of poorly paid care workers – often born outside the UK – working here to look after elderly people in care homes or their own homes. And thousands more family members – husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews looking after older relatives.
I think that we should all really value, respect and admire those caring for the elderly whether in paid work or unpaid family members. We should be supporting those people and older people themselves in whatever ways we can. Maybe giving to or volunteering for a charity. Perhaps looking in on an elderly neighbour. Perhaps being more tolerant to our own older relatives!
Personally I think the government ought to be doing a lot more financially to support care for the elderly especially when families are paying for their own carers or providing care themselves and so saving the Government millions in care home or hospital costs – but let’s not stray too far into politics!
So perhaps we can take from this week’s sedra that our legacy depends on relationships that we form, how we behave, what we are able to create and the practical and emotional support that we give to others including strangers or foreigners in our land – and their camels too!
I never thought I would be saying Kaddish in public, standing at a podium with a microphone in a town square in a small picturesque town in Northern Bavaria.
The occasion was the installation of Stolpersteine for my grandparents and uncle. Stolpersteine (literally ‘stumble stones’ ) are small brass plaques set in the pavement in front of the houses of Holocaust victims. It was the end of May and the town of Miltenberg had finally agreed to the installation of these commemorative stones.
It was, appropriately, a Saturday morning. A large crowd had gathered in the square, in front of a house which had belonged to my maternal grandparents. This was the house where my mother had spent the first fourteen years of her life. The house had been a shop which sold leather and leather goods. It still looks like a shop with a residence attached. In the pavement outside the house, three small square holes had been hollowed out the day before, ready to receive the plaques. One was for Rosa Moritz, my grandmother, one for Oskar, my grandfather, and one for my mother’s brother Manfred. Manfred Moritz was deported from an agricultural school in north Germany where he was preparing for life in Israel. He was twenty.
Even those three hollowed out gaps were a potent symbol of loss, of the absence of a family that was once happily together, thriving in the midst of a community.
There had been a Jewish community here since the 13th century. The town, nestling on a bend on the river Main, was home to about 100 Jewish people in 1933 (out of a total population of just under 4,000). By 1938 this number was halved and by 1942 all the Jewish inhabitants had fled or been deported. My mother and her sister left separately, in 1938 and 1939. When they came to England, my mother ‘Trudie’ Moritz was fourteen, her sister Ilse was sixteen. They never saw their parents or brother again.
The stone‐laying ceremony itself was solemn and simple. There were a few speeches interspersed with music played by local schoolchildren. Other pupils from local schools read biographies of the victims which they had researched themselves. My cousin Rosemarie read Psalm 121. I said Kaddish. By now the stones were in place, cemented in by Gunter Demnig, the craftsman who has made it his mission to make the plaques and to travel round Europe six days a week installing them. Local residents who had sponsored the stones placed white roses on the new shiny brass squares. I was struck by the symbolism of mortar, reminiscent of the Pesach story and here used to cement the memories of the victims of genocide.
In a speech at a formal reception the night before, I spoke of our gratitude to the people of the town, especially to the dedicated group of individuals who had worked so hard over the past four years to bring about this moment. The project had adopted the motto ‘Against Forgetting’ (‘Gegen das Vergessen’). I picked up on this theme and reiterated that the event was not just a commemoration but a symbol of tolerance and mutual understanding, a lesson in friendship and peaceful co‐existence. I spoke of the importance of young people in carrying forward this message.
The organisers read out a letter of support from Dr Josef Schuster, head of the Jewish cultural council in Germany. He describes the stones as small, modest mementos which have a huge impact. According to Josef Schuster, the stones help people in the painful task of confronting their past. They remind us that the victims were their neighbours who led normal lives. The brass plaques give the victims back their names, helping to counteract anonymity and to personalise tragedy. He goes on to say: ‘In order to be able to see the names on the stones, we have to bend down. In the process, we bow down to these victims. We move towards them and in doing so, we pay them our respects. That is a wonderful gesture.’
My mother’s cousin, Ernest Moritz, who lived in Munich, used to visit my family as a teenager in the holidays. In his memoirs, he writes movingly:
It is a melancholy thought, but really true: it has taken me a generation before I could visit Miltenberg again, without feeling deep in my heart the excruciating weight of loss for all those simple, hard‐working and friendly Jewish people who were no longer there. The city was still unchanged; it remained exactly as it had been for centuries, barely touched by time: there were the red sandstone buildings, the half‐timbered houses, the castle on the hill, the city walls and the towers — all this had survived the years.
Only the Jews who had been there from the beginning were gone: dragged away, murdered or scattered to the four corners of the earth.
Visitors to the town will now see the three Stolpersteine commemorating my family outside the house on the south side of the square, a permanent and poignant reminder of once happy lives brutally curtailed.