Jun 18

Shabbat – 12th/13th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

The Shema is one of the most important, if not the most important, prayers we have in our tradition. Yet, so much of our time that we spend reading or studying it focuses mostly on the first paragraph. In this week’s parasha, Shlach, we find the source for the 3rd paragraph that introduces us to the Mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of the Talit.

In this paragraph all the way at the end of the Parasha, there is a curious line that always draws my attention.

“That shall be your fringe (Tzitzit), look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Numbers 15:39)”

Why do we need to specifically be commanded to look at them? Surely wearing them would be enough?

When we say the blessing upon putting on the Talit, we would expect the words of the blessing to be “to wear the Talit.” However, the words are actually, to wrap yourself in the Talit. A very unexpected formulation. Yet, if we look at the words from that verse, it begins to make sense.

In and of themselves, the Tzitzit are simply some strings. Yet what they represent is so much more. We can easily be led astray by the superficial things picked up by our eyes, or carried away by the emotions of the moment in our hearts. These pieces of string are there to remind us of a greater responsibility we have, that our thoughts and emotions translate into action, and we must be extremely careful how we act, or interact in the world. If we are simply guided by our hearts or eyes, we will easily be led astray. If we pause to reflect on the larger picture, our actions will be more considered.

The next time you put on a Talit, or see a tzitzit, remind yourself to take that extra moment, to pause and reflect on your proposed course of action, and really think if it is following something of substance, or something superficial.

I would like to wish Arthur Freedman-Bowden a mazal tov on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. Please join me as we come together this Shabbat to celebrate with him and his family.

Jun 11

Shabbat – 5th/6th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Light is frequently the metaphor given to knowledge. Just as light can brighten a dark room, knowledge can help to illuminate the darkness of ignorance, chasing away the shadows and influence of the uninformed. Light or fire can be used to create other sources of fire, kindling other lights, as can knowledge go and inspire other minds and for them in turn to continue that process. Light is a powerful, primal source of wonder and amazement, as is knowledge and the pursuit of it.

In this week’s portion, Behalotekha, the priests are instructed when setting up the Menorah in the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, that the wicks must point their light forward, even if the menorah itself is placed in the rear of the room. The menorah is grounded firmly in the rear of the structure, yet, how does one incline a wick in any particular direction?

The text here is coming to teach us about the balance we must have in our lives. Our tradition, which is seated in our history, in precedent and in our cumulative memories, is our anchor which secures us to our past, just as the menorah is anchored firmly to the ground and the rear of the structure, the back, that which came before.

However, the knowledge and experiences are not simply an anchor but the light. We must use it to illuminate our future, to see what lies ahead, always shining the light forwards, but using the past as a guide. Our success as a people has been because we were able to stay grounded in who are, but always look to the future, always able to kindle the lights of the next generation. Only because of the continual pursuit of knowledge have we been able to evolve and grow as a people, as a community and as families. This common desire is one element of the glue which holds us together, the anchor at the back of the room that shines the way forward.

I pray that we continue to have the strength to stay grounded, but also the courage to look ahead and to give those two qualities to those who come after us; roots and wings! I challenge you to learn something new this and every weekend.

I also want to wish Lewis Herlitz and Anne Barber a mazel tov on their upcoming marriage as well as Lauren McQuillan on her wedding anniversary. Join us as we celebrate together as a community.


Jun 04

Shabbat – 29th/30th May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

This week’s Parasha, Naso, deals with a difficult concept, that of someone with a physical deformity through no fault of their own being exiled from the camp so as not to defile it where God dwells.  God instructs Moses to “send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp in which I dwell among you” (Num. 5:3).  The midrash (an early Biblical commentary) expands on this verse:

“At the time that Israel left Egypt, many of them were maimed.  Why?  Because they were handling clay and bricks and carrying them up to the top of the building and one who builds by carrying up to the top layer will have a stone fall on him or sever a hand or a beam or clay will get into his eye and he will be blinded.  And when these maimed people came into the wilderness of Sinai, God said, ‘what kind of honour would it be for the Torah if I were to give it to such a maimed generation?  And if I wait until others arise, I will delay the giving of the Torah!’  So what did God do?  God told the ministering angels to go down to Israel and heal them. . . . God said to Moshe, ‘before you built the Mishkan I put up with these matters and there were people with abnormal discharges and tza’arat [the skin disease erroneously translated as leprosy] mixed among you; now that you have made the Mishkan and I will be dwelling among you, separate them out from among yourselves and send them from the camp, all the afflicted in the skin and all those with abnormal discharges and all who are defiled by corpses.’  For what purpose?  ‘So that they shall not defile their camp in which I dwell among you’ (Num. 5:3).”

At some point before the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, all these deformities were healed.  Yet if that is so, why then do we have this command to exile those that exhibit these symptoms?  According to the midrash, “but at the time of the Golden Calf, their maimed states returned and they began to have abnormal discharges and skin diseases….”  The midrash is teaching then that those who are suffering from any of these maladies are doing so because they have sinned.  I find this reading to be very problematic.  Are we not all the creation of God, created in God’s image with the divine spark and thus, no matter what physical form we take, all holy and blessed by our creator?

I think the main thrust to learn from this passage is not the physical deformity or exile from the camp, but the temporary nature of the exile.  At some point, they should all be welcomed back into the camp.  Today, in our communities, there are those who suffer from any number of physical or other abnormalities (blindness, deafness, learning difficulties, poor nutrition, poverty, etc…).  Just as God has made it a priority to heal them to be able to dwell in the camp, we too must strive to make sure they are welcomed and embraced in our midst.  We must strive to maximise the potential of each and every one of the members of our community.  Each one of us, regardless of what abilities we have, is a sacred vessel for God’s presence in this world, refined through our long relationship with God as God’s people.  Standing before God in a wheelchair, or with the help of a sign language interpreter, or with an assistance animal, is still exactly that – standing before God.  It is our presence that matters, not our posture.  As I said last week, we should not simply be counting everyone, but making sure everyone counts.

I would also like to take this opportunity to invite you to share in two special occasions at shul this coming Shabbat.  The first, is we are officially welcoming in our two new Trustees, Niki Freedman and Susan Hamilton as well as our new Treasurer Nick Flitterman and our new Co-Chair Moira Hart.  At the same time we give thanks for the years of service to Simone Freedman, Alan Green and Paul Hoffbrand, as they stand down from their positions of Treasurer, Co-Chair, and Immediate Past-Co-Chair respectively.

Additionally, there will be a delegation from the St Albans Abbey accompanied by my good friend, The Reverend Canon Richard Watson, Sub-Dean of Abbey as they come to experience a Shabbat Service.  Please join me as we give thanks to those who have served our community, those who have stepped forward to serve, all our volunteers, and our good friends from our community of St Albans.

Jun 02

25 Friday Nights for 25 years

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Over 200 members of St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS) participated in a special this week to celebrate the synagogue’s 25th anniversary.

25 member families each hosted a Friday night meal where chicken soup and chicken (traditional Friday night food) as well as vegetarian and fish meals were the order of the day.

25 Friday Nights CollageFriday night is the eve of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. This is traditionally the time when families and friends gather together to eat, pray and reflect on their week.

“This weekend was the ultimate example of community.” said Simon Samuels, Co-Chair of SAMS. “Across South Hertfordshire, every single member of SAMS either hosted or was invited to dinner in a member’s home. It demonstrated above all the vibrancy of our community spirit and was such a success that I am sure we won’t wait another 25 years to do it again!” he said.

The event is one of a number of events taking place this year to celebrate SAMS’ 25th Anniversary. These have included a Question Time with all five Hertfordshire political candidates which was organised prior to the General Election and a Jazz brunch.  Other events over the year will also include a quiz and a garden party.

May 28

Shabbat – 22nd/23rd May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

There are a variety of different answers given, ranging from compassion to love.  At varying times, God orders a census.  In this case, the surface reading would seem to indicate that the Israelites are about to leave Mt Sinai, so this count is purely an administrative task, to help organise the march.

However, reading a little deeper reveals a fascinatingly different interpretation. The second verse of the book reads:

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community” – שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

S’u et rosh–literally translated means, “Lift up the head”.  According to Ramban (not to be confused with Rambam), the word s’u is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness (that is, holding high one’s head).  The point here is not simply to have the number of every male of military age.  We are not interested in that number.  We are not concerned with counting everyone, but rather, in making everyone count.  The meaning is not in the numerical value, but in what those people represent.

My Rabbinate is not defined by those numbers of events that I had the privilege of participating in, but rather in the context and meaning that I was able to bring to those events, by the joy and simcha, comfort and meaning, inspiration and reflection that was created then and there in those moments.  The Israelites are not defined by the sheer number of their mass, but by the meaning each and every one of them are able to create, by being an active part of their community. By counting each individual, God is helping us to realise our own self-worth.

As we come to this weekend where we on the precipice of renewing our relationship with God and our covenant at Shavuot, let us remember the special place we each have, not just in the number of our accomplishments, but in the deeper meaning that was created by us being a part of it.

May 14

Shabbat – 15th/16th May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

In our daily interactions with people, there are certain things we say to one another and don’t really expect a sincere answer back.  The most obvious example is a simple greeting, where we ask, how are you?  More often than not, the response is a canned insincere answer as there usually is an understanding that the asker doesn’t really care and is merely being polite and the respondent is echoing that politeness and giving an appropriate answer of fine, or ok, or something along those lines.  Something that conveys the same meaning and sincerity of the question.

Something I like to do, not to put people on the spot, but to actually illustrate my care, is to follow up with a question.  I want that person to know that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and I am not just asking to fill space or to fulfill some social obligation of making conversation.  For example, if someone says they’re fine, I will ask why?  It is revealing about the human condition that many times the answer to that question is simply, because nothing is bad.

We are conditioned to ignore when things are not going badly and to focus when things go awry.  The order of normality is disregarded because it is normal and expected.  This pattern is seen in this week’s parasha, Behar-Behukotai.  There are a series of blessings and curses, depending on if we follow God’s laws.  The rabbis were puzzled as to why the curses far outnumber the blessings.  Is it simply because we are human beings and we focus on the negative?  We are very specific when detailing things that are not going well, if we are in pain, or suffering a loss.  Indeed, when you stub your toe, you exclaim that your toe hurts.

But, what about when things go well?  How specific are you?  How detailed are you about the joy you experienced?  If you have not stubbed your toe and are not in pain, do you detail the lack of pain in your toe?  Of course not.  That is not the way we communicate.

Indeed, the rabbi’s teach that the Torah is written in the language of the people and therefore, the blessings are written about in a general, yet all-encompassing way and the curses are written in a detailed, yet limited fashion.  So, it would be incorrect to see the curses as outnumbering the blessings, as they are extremely constrained, whereas the blessings could be without limit.  The text needs to detail the potential ill effects of disobeying God in great detail, but just like our modern communications, if things are going well, the text does not need to convey what that would look like in great detail.  In broad generalities, we are given a picture of a society living in harmony with God’s will.

I would like to also thank all our hosts for this coming Shabbat as we continue to celebrate our 25th Anniversary with our 25 Friday night Dinners and also, welcome Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and family for Shabbat. Please join us as Rabbi Jeremy will be sharing some thoughts over the course of Shabbat.

May 07

Shabbat – 1st/2nd May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

In a week replete with tragedy, I find myself challenged to find something positive.  The world around us has reminded us in a humbling way that we, humans, are not as in control of things as we would like.  Following a massive earthquake, there was catastrophic loss of life in Nepal.  It is too easy sometimes to succumb to the horror, throw up our hands in defeat, turn our heads and walk away.  It takes a strong character to not only stay in the moment, but strive to improve it.

I was immensely proud to see, within a few hours, that Israel had dispatched hundreds of soldiers to Nepal to set up a field hospital and do search and rescue work.  This quick clip shows just a tiny fraction of the work ahead of them as they attempt to make a difference in the utter destruction around them in Nepal.  I am reminded by the words of this week’s parasha, Achrai Mot-Kedoshim: “Then the Lord spoke to Moshe immediately after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” (Leviticus 16:1) literally, after the death (of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu).  Why does the text make it the time of the conversation so specific?  What is the purpose of those seemingly superfluous words?  What does it matter when God spoke to them?

It is because it is immensely important.  Immediately following an act in which we cannot comprehend, God instantly comes to teach us that dialogue and action must continue.  The lesson: despite the suffering of sufferings, the horror of an untimely ghastly death, dialogue continues.

When confronted with such inexplicable suffering we ought to all remember the words of Esther Wachsman, mother of Nachshon (the young Israeli soldier murdered by Arab terrorists a number of years ago).  She said, “When tragedy befalls us we should not ask ‘why?’ but rather, ‘what shall we do now?’”  It is our choice whether to approach our tragedy by only crying ‘woe is me’ or whether to allow it to elevate us, giving our lives new meaning and direction and bringing us closer to God.

I pray for the lives of all those in Nepal and hope rescue and comfort find them soon.  As for the loved ones that were taken away in this tragedy, may their memories always be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rafi

May 01

Shabbat – 24th/25th April 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Rabbi RafiMany countries around the world have some form of a national holiday that celebrates the birth of that country, in some way shape or form.  It was always something to look forward to, growing up in the United States, when July 4th approached.  Many countries also have some form of official Remembrance Day for all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defence of their country.  Very few, if any, countries have those two days so intertwined except Israel.

This week, one follows immediately, one day to the next in Israel.  On Wednesday was Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance and Thursday is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence day.  After spending several years living in Israel, I was struck with how much of a communal, national holiday it was.  On Remembrance Day, sirens blare and people literally stop what they are doing, wherever they are and pause for a minute to remember the over 23,000 soldiers and civilians who have been killed.  Lists are read of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  The day is especially poignant as practically every household in Israel has lost someone in service to the State.  In each city, town, village and kibbutz, entire communities come together to recall those who are no longer with us.  And most sobering, that list continues to be added to every year.  It therefore becomes much more than a national holiday, but a family one.  Indeed, we learn in our tradition, Kol Israel Averim ze be ze, all of is Israel is responsible for one another.  This is exemplified by both the mourning on Yom Hazikaron and then the celebrations the very next day.  Never are we to forget the sacrifices of those that made the creation of and the continuing safety of Israel possible.

May we speedily see the day when the number of those who fell no longer increases and peace reigns in the entire region.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rafi

Apr 23

Shabbat – 17th/18th April 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Rabbi RafiThis week we are commemorating Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day according to our Jewish calendar.  People have asked why we have two different days to remember the Holocaust.  Simply, Yom Hashoa was instituted by the Israeli Government in 1953 to commemorate the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (in fact, the actual name in Israel is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

The day in January, the 27th, was chosen by the UK Government and only started being celebrated in 2001. That date was chosen because it coincided with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet Forces in 1945.  It is also dedicated to the remembrance of victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

There is debate about which day should be used to remember the horrors of the Holocaust.  Some hold that because the month of Nisan is a time of joy, it is inappropriate to have a time of remembrance.  In that case, some Rabbi’s, including Ismar Schorsh, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), say that days of mourning already in existence should be used and this extra layer of grief should be incorporated.  Specifically, Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the two Temples and many other national tragedies) and the Tenth of Tevet, which commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE by the Babylonians.

There are however many others who find that the scale of the Holocaust warrants its own day.  Perhaps because of our proximity to the event and the living relatives among us, I suspect many of us simply cannot fathom not having a separate day to remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust.  It is a day where in Israel, things come to a standstill, literally as seen in this clip.  It is a day where we pause to reflect on our past, the stories that are literally slipping away as the lives of those who survived are fading quietly into history.  It is an irreversible trend, but one in which we all have a part to play, to pick up that mantle and learn those stories so we can fulfil the pledge, never again.

This Shabbat, I urge you to come and listen to the family of Peter and Moira Hart, as they relate the story of Kitty, Peter’s mother.  It is not the story of what happened to her in the war, but a small taste of what she has accomplished since then.  Please come and take this opportunity to keep her and our, story alive and to pass it along to another generation.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rafi

Apr 22

Masorti Europe in Israel

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Masorti Europe in Israel by Liz Oppedijk
President of Masorti Europe

At the end of February, Rabbi Rafi and I had the pleasure of going to Israel for several special events, all designed to bring together the rabbis and lay leaders of Masorti Europe. It was our second joint meeting, following a first gathering in Brussels in 2013, and our first ever in Israel.

Highlights of our trip include: studying together at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem; visiting the new Herzl Museum; meeting with the heads of the Israeli Masorti movement at the Schechter Institute; touring the city of Tzipori, where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi codified the Mishnah (the first book of the Talmud), in the second century CE; spending Shabbat at the Masorti Kibbutz, Hannaton; and taking part in a Jewish/Muslim dialogue workshop in Kfar Manda, an Arab village.

As president of Masorti Europe, I am privileged to work with talented and committed lay leaders from Masorti communities in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary and Belgium as well as the United Kingdom. With about 25 communities, the Masorti/Conservative movement is relatively small in Europe, but its pluralist approach is attracting more attention; in fact, a new community in the Netherlands has just asked to join us.

The Masorti movement is also growing in Israel. The Schecter Rabbinical Seminary has graduated 87 Conservative rabbis, and there are now over 70 Masorti communities throughout the country.  In addition, 260 schools run the Schechter-sponsored TALI pluralist curriculum, reaching 40,000 Israeli children.

Our visit to Israel provided many enlightening educational, cultural and spiritual experiences, not to mention the food, which was both delicious and bountiful! Even further, it allowed us to get to know each other better, and building closer ties between Masorti rabbis and lay leaders from both Europe and Israel will help make our communities as well as the movement grow stronger.

Liz Oppedijk