Monthly Archives: April 2017

Apr 25

SAMS Board of Deputies Report – April 2017

By Editor | Blogs

By Haim Ben-Zion

It is a pleasure to once again report on my work with the Board of Deputies (BoD) on behalf of SAMS.

As your deputy I have two roles, one to represent the Board to the SAMS constituency and Trustees of course, and second, equally important, if not more so, to positively represent SAMS at the Board.

So, regarding the first role of representing the BoD to you all.

In brief, a reminder of who the BoD is and what it stands for, namely a democratically elected representative organisation for the non-haredi British Jewish community to formulate policy, programmes and activities to protect and defend our rights as Jews, to civil rights and our right to maintain our customs and practices.

What has BoD achieved over the past year?
The answer is, actually, a huge amount of behind the scenes work by the Education, Defence and International divisions. The list is long, but includes the establishment of Schitah UK and Milah UK, publications such as the ‘Employers Guide to Judaism’, and ‘The Definitive Resource for Judaism GCSE’ by Clive Lawton, now in its second print run.

In the media, we have seen BoD as prominent in addressing issues of antisemitism within the left and in the Labour Party in particular. Under the leadership of President Jonathan Arkush, the BoD has proven itself as an organisation with teeth, and has won the respect of Government as the primary representative of British Jews. The BoD have taken antisemites to task; Naz Shah, Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and others; has directly met with Parliamentary leaders and confronted Jeremy Corbyn over these issues and the whitewash of the Chakrabati report into antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party. Indeed, BoD activity contributed to the redefinition of antisemitism by the European Parliament – the EUMC, which now includes denial of Jewish rights to self-determination and double standards applied to Israel.

On campus, the BoD has discretely supported UJS in combatting antisemitism and anti-zionism, and co-produced the ‘Bridges not Boycotts’ campaign to directly challenge the annual Israel Apartheid Week and activities of the BDS. The key here was to actually listen to our Jewish students and understand what tools they want and not what we adults, including former Jewish student leaders, think they need. In recent incidents the BoD and UJS have together taken Universities to task, including Oxford, UCL and LSE.

Now to my role of representing SAMS on the Board.
In terms of attendance I have only missed two plenary meetings out of 16 over the past two years. I have attended both regional plenaries in Sheffield and Exeter, and have attended additional monthly meetings of the CED Education division.

With the fantastic support of Nina Leigh, and funding from Hertfordshire SACRE, I succeeded in persuading the Board to loan us the excellent JLE exhibition, not just once but twice, and persuaded St Albans Cathedral to host it over three weeks, followed by two weeks in SAMS.

The launch attracted over 50 dignitaries and made a name for SAMS in our local community and beyond. We were overwhelmed by our 30+ enthusiastic volunteers, who talked and walked schoolchildren around the exhibits. Most were SAMS members, yet we had volunteers from the St Albans United shul and another 6 local shuls. The success can be illustrated by numbers – 740 schoolchildren and 80 teachers benefited from the event, and something like 700-1000 members of the public viewed it too at the Cathedral.

I am now actively supporting BoD and others in taking the show to other venues in the UK, including Exeter, Cumbria, Leicester and Sheffield. Maybe next year in St Albans too !

As a regular speaker, and in view of my activity in the Education Division, the name of SAMS St Albans and Masorti are often heard in Board meetings, which has established our reputation as a dynamic and pro-active shul, within an equally dynamic and growing synagogue movement.

With the ability to network as SAMS Bod deputy I have been active in other areas, not directly related to the BoD,

  • FACE interfaith and cultural group
  • Keynote panellists on recent two BIG SAMS debates on ISIS and Israel, and on Anti-Semitism.
  • My part in the Citizens UK Safe Passage project – funds raised by our Masorti movement helped to bring 350 unaccompanied children over from France under the Lord Dubs amendment. Regrettably this project has now been closed by the Government.

To summarise, the Board is as active and dynamic as ever under the Arkush Presidency, and the contribution of SAMS is highly respected. I believe we get our money’s worth from the Board and, in turn, the Board gets considerable value from SAMS.

Apr 23

D’var Torah: Sh’mini

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I know you haven’t asked this question but I want to tell you why I became a rabbi. Yes, you may have heard me talk about the influence of USY through my graduation from High School and my many summers at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. Notwithstanding having grown up in a non-observant Jewish home, in those places I found everything about Jewish observance quite attractive, which is in part the connection to this morning’s portion, Sh’mini in which are the fundamentals of the Dietary Laws.

The other part of that connection has to do with my father, of blessed memory. He did two things in his life which influenced my decision to become a rabbi. As you have read in a previous e-mail, my father saved two people from drowning in a river in the State of Vermont. He saved lives. I realized after I had already become a rabbi, that I was emulating him in trying to save souls. He was also an outstanding salesman of living room furniture. As a child, I travelled with him and watched his salesmanship at work. Here too, I realized later that when I decided as a teenager to become a rabbi that (subconsciously) I had found a “product” I believed in that I could spend my career selling. After all, although it was not that difficult, I convinced my mother to make our house kosher after my first summer at Camp Ramah.

So today my goal is to “sell” you the idea of keeping kosher. I am not here to guilt you into it, nor do you have to purchase the entire package. Any part of the Dietary Laws which I might convince you to adopt will in my mind be a successful sale. So, here goes my sales pitch of several reasons observing any part of the Dietary Laws will add meaning to your lives.

Be aware that the Torah in Leviticus 11:45 offers only one reason to keep kosher. We should be holy because the Lord our God is Holy. All the other reasons I offer today, build on that.

  1. I have spoken before of the idea of “normal mysticism” which is Judaism’s way of lifting us above the mundane to the spiritual. It doesn’t mean becoming ascetics living on a lonely mountain top. It is about in this case making eating more than a biological act. We choose what to eat. Animals don’t. We set limits on what we are allowed to eat. We are constantly reminded to think about it. In today’s word where “mindfulness” is so popular, we are mindful that even eating is a sacred act which elevates us above the animals and reminds us that we are the pinnacles of God’s creation.
  2. Compassion speaks to both our Dietary Laws and Vegetarianism. Although being a Vegetarian involves no killing at all and is high level of keeping kosher, the Dietary Laws remind us that eating meat, etc. is a compromise with us on God’s part. Knowing that we craved meat, fowl and fish, God with the help of the Rabbis required Shechitah, a compassionate form of slaughter, removing the blood from meat before we eat it, not eating animals of prey, and separating meat and milk, the former requiring killing, the latter not.
  3. The Dietary Laws teach discipline and self-control. Today everybody is on some kind of diet whether to lose weight, control cholesterol, avoid substances we are allergic to, etc. In observing a kosher diet, we are disciplining ourselves in a way that creates “sacred spaces” in our lives, again living on a level which transcends the mundane and purely physical.
  4. While at times some have thought the dietary laws were to separate us from our fellow human beings of other faiths, that is not why we observe them, nor is health a reason. Many religions have dietary restrictions, even one of our sister Abrahamic religions, Islam has Halal Meat. Observing the Dietary Laws is a way to creat ethnic distinctiveness and identity, a consciousness of who we are which brings me to the reason that attracted me most of all and continues to do so.
  5. We become part of a community of shared values of responsibility for God’s creatures, which is why I realized that my mother always told me to feed the dog before we ourselves ate. The Dietary Laws make us part of something bigger than ourselves in a world where too many people consider themselves bigger than and more important than anything or anyone else. It feels so good to be part of this larger community who believe in good values and live their lives according to them.

And that is what “closed the sale” for me as a teenager (excuse the commercial language) and led me to becoming a rabbi. I love what I “sell” and hope that even if I have not convinced you to buy into it all, at least I have “opened the door” (pardon the mixed metaphor).

Apr 16

D’var Torah: Shabbat hol hamoed Pesach

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I have decided as of this Pesach that Passover is actually Rosh HaShana. I can substantiate the fact that it is a New Year by a citation from the Talmud, Mishnah Rosh HaShana 1:1. This passage says that there are actually four New Years. The first of Nissan is a New Year for Kings and for the Festivals (Pesach is the first of the three festivals). The first of Elul is a New Year for tithing animals (determining their age for sacrifice). The first of Tishri is the New Year for years, and the first of Shevat (Hillel says the 15th and he wins) is the New Year for trees.

Now that I have properly, if not questionably, put Passover on the same level as Rosh HaShana, I will call it Rosh HaShana #1 and  the first of Tishri Rosh HaShana #2. I am not suggesting one is more important than the other. I am, however, going to rename Pesach as the New Year for Cleanliness and Orderliness. Don’t worry. I am getting to my point which is that for the first time in a long time, I have come to see the value of all of the hard work which goes into getting a home reading for this holiday. Year after year I have asked myself why we have to shlep up all of the boxes of Passover items from the basement, empty cabinets and painstakingly clean them, Kasher silverware and other items, and deal with all of our counter tops. Oy Vey or in today’s language OMG! I will probably continue to kvetch but now I see a new reason for doing all of this.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been a clean freak and compulsive about orderliness. After all, I was brought up by a mother who taught me that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I only learned by googling that. She would also remind me that there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I learned by googling here as well that this may have been coined by Benjamin Franklin. Neither of these guiding principles, however, made me kvetch less about all the work to get the house ready for Pesach.

This year, I took the matter to another level and found an article about spring cleaning on Wikipedia. There I learned that on the Persian New Year, first day of Spring, they “shake the house,” obviously some form of cleaning out. I found out that in the Catholic Church the altar and related objects are cleaned just before Good Friday. The Greek Orthodox community celebrates a clean week often starting April 1. In general before there were vacuum cleaners and it was warm enough to open the windows people got all the dust out of their homes; it was Spring, of course. The last item was, somewhat to my surprise, “Bedikat Chametz.”

The point is that there is a global sense that this season is a time for washing, cleaning, dusting, decluttering, making the house look quite different than it had. The reason Pesach has a new positive meaning for me doesn’t lessen the work. The reason is for me the result. When everything is new and clean, fresh and shiny around us, it can lead to a feeling of renewal and restart within us. Just as nature renews itself around us at this season, we can feel that sense of inner renewal when we look around our newly cleaned and refreshed homes. Combined with the spiritual values associated with the Seder and the foods we eat at it, we can further that sense of inner renewal as we look around the table, a new appreciation for our blessings and for each other.

The bottom line is that beginning this year, I have a new lens through which I can look at Passover as one of two Rosh HaShanas. How fortunate I am then to have two opportunities for renewal and restart every single year!

Apr 10

D’var Torah: Tzav/HaGadol

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In a small town named Whitwell, Tennessee, in the southern United States in 1988, a middle school principal named Linda Hooper had an idea. She wanted her students to learn about tolerance. To that end her students, mostly white and Christian, began a unit of study on the Holocaust. As they learned about the death of the 6,000,000 they struggled to grasp the enormity of that number. To help them she decided to have them collect 6,000,000 paper clips. She chose this seemingly insignificant item because Norwegians wore paperclips as a silent protest during WWII.

The project became a worldwide phenomenon. People sent in paperclips from all corners of the globe to the extent that in 2001 the students of Whitwell dedicated a Holocaust memorial, in the form of an actual German rail car filled with a portion of the 30,000,000 paperclips collected. In 2004 a documentary film about the project was released.

Sometime during this period, we had Linda Hooper as a guest speaker at our synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. There was not an empty seat to be found. After her presentation, I had a moment or two to thank her privately. She came to my office and I expressed our gratitude in glowing terms to which she responded ever so modestly. “It was not about me,” she said. “It was all about the power of one.”

I have never forgotten those three simple words, especially as the global situation increasingly deteriorates into violence, famine and poverty. It is sometimes so overwhelming that as an individual I feel powerless and helpless; what I do won’t change a thing. When I am feeling this way, I think about Linda Hooper, one person in a small town in Tennessee, whose actions made a difference. Each of us can do something to repair the world. When we send a donation to feed people starving in Africa, when we write a letter to a government leader to protest an injustice,  or participate in a march to cure a disease, the power of one plus one plus….makes a difference.

One of the most significant illustrations of the power of one is related to Passover which begins next week. In the 1960’s a movement began to secure the release of our fellow Jews in the then Soviet Union where they were oppressed in ways not unlike our ancestors in Egypt. It took decades and the efforts of both numerous Jewish organizations along with a multitude of individuals who sent donations, marched, and even went secretly into the USSR to contact Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and bring them Jewish religious objects at risk to their own freedom. The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a success because of the power of one.

One of the buzz words of our age is “empowered.” It means an awareness that willingness and commitment to a cause will empower us to act on behalf of that cause. We can each empower ourselves and thereby realize the power of one.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach,

Apr 02

D’var Torah: VaYikra

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

At the beginning of the Torah Reading this past Shabbat, I asked the congregation to think of one word and one word only to summarize the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we began reading. Here are some of the responses I received: Holiness, Ritual, Sacrifice, Cruelty (in killing animals), Guilt, etc. I said that they were all right but that I would give my one word later.

I divide the Sedra into two major themes. The first I call “Korban” because it is the word for sacrifice and that is one of the major themes of Leviticus. It is a word which means “bringing close” and the five different types of sacrifice mentioned in the portion and throughout the book are all meant to bring people closer to God. They offer something earth-bound to lift them up spiritually, something they have raised or grown and might otherwise have eaten (not that God needs to eat). Maimonides says this form of worship was education leading our people from the familiar form of worship of their early days ultimately to prayer in our day.

The other theme is embodied in three words later in the portion- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is otherwise known at the “Golden Rule” and appears in a Talmudic story in another form. When a prospective convert comes to Shammai and asks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai angrily sends the questioner packing. When he comes to Hillel, he is welcomed in and told “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor, the rest is commentary, come and learn.” The questioner who was actually not asking for the Torah literally on one foot but based on one principle is told that the principle which brings us closer to God is also quite earth-bound in how we relate to our fellow human beings.

In the context of these two core themes in Leviticus, what is the one word which I believe summarizes the entire Sedra? The word is “mysticism.” No, I am not talking about Kabbala as practiced by Madonna in California, or the complex and obscure mysticism taught by the traditional Kabbalists of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. I am also not describing the monk on the mountain top who retreats from the community to live a contemplative life, meditating or reciting mantras to climb a spiritual ladder to God.

I am, instead, talking about Judaism’s mainstream mysticism assigned the name “Normal Mysticism” by one of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Max Kadushin, z”l. His philosophy of all of Judaism and certainly the Book of Leviticus is summed by my Masorti colleague and previous SAMS Rabbi Jeremy Gordon who said, “We find meaning and salvation, not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through elevation of the humdrum, not on a mountain top away from the world but by blessing bread, loving thy neighbor, giving Tzedaka.” These are the acts or mitzvot performed with our feet firmly planted on the earth while our souls soar upward. It was the all-natural rush I felt this past week when I made a donation to World Jewish Relief to help those suffering in East Africa. It was as powerful and heady a feeling as the feeling I get when I practice mindfulness meditation.

There are many ways to uplift ourselves but Judaism offers us a normal mysticism which we can practice everyday. True, it all began on the heights of a mountain called Sinai from which Moses brought those commandments down to us so that we could reach the heights, become closer to God, without ever leaving home.