Sep 10

A visitor’s review of SAMS from a born and bred Mancunian

By Editor | Blogs

A Guest post from a recent visitor – Stephen, Manchester

The late Richie Benaud, one of the greatest Australian cricketers of all time, was once interviewed for BBC Radio Test Match Special.  In what can only described as a male chauvinistic moment, when asked about the pitch he was just about to play on, he commented: “Cricket pitches are like women, you never know what you are going to get”

I don’t doubt in my mind that if the great Mr. Benaud had been Jewish he could have applied that same epithet when visiting a new synagogue. The mystery certainly does await you; you really never know what you are going to get.

So what is Masorti and how has it come about?

In order to understand this, I decided to take an introspective journey into my own Jewish Alma Mater, the so-called Orthodox way, (Middle of the Road but that’s my definition) as well as both ends of the religious spectrum. All of which I have had the pleasure to experience.  To me the shul that I am a member of, is no different to the shul my late grandparents attended, and may be, although I wasn’t around at the time, the shul my late great great ancestors attended somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Of course the chatter was different. Nowadays its football, golf and Brexit, while in the 1880’s it was cows, sheep and “it’s time to go and live with Uncle Moishe in New York”

But basically its the same, if you get the gist. Nothing wrong with that and in fact a warm fluffy blanket to wrap yourself in, so long as you go with the flow and don’t ask too many questions, or mention the opposite sex.

Several years ago it was my pleasure to attend a Jewish service in California. I cannot really pigeon hole or categorize it, but suffice it to say there wasn’t much Hebrew content. The Rabbi, very nice lady was dressed for Glastonbury, with a gypsy top that revealed not an unsubstantial amount of her décolletage. The accompanying Cantor strumming a 12-string guitar being dressed in a similar manner. My wife who knows about these things pointed out that perhaps the guitarist was a he, not a she and that the large Gay Pride kippot, was not really a true indication of gender, more an indicator of religion.

So what of the other end of the spectrum? The fundamentalist and Charedi service. No shortage of that variety in my neck of the woods. Attending in jeans and a T-shirt made me somewhat conspicuous amongst the silk coats and white socks. Yes I did know that together with the streimel this state of dress emulates a Polish nobleman of the 18th. Century. However the contrast to my own garb did make me feel as welcome as Jeremy Corbyn at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration! Things did change once the single malt came out, and my ability to get by in Yiddish opened up a whole new world. A world that offered me warmth and friendship, as well as the prospects of shidduchs for every unmarried member of my family. from 18 to 80 and even beyond!

Last week my family had the pleasure of attending a Bar mitzvah at St Albans Masorti Congregation. From the outset I must confess that I knew very little about the Masorti flavor of Judaism, and as a born and bred Mancunian even less about St Albans. Having said that, there is nothing that a good Google search cannot fix.

Firstly St. Albans. I suppose the clue is in the name and it’s not surprising that this city has many religious buildings and connections. Churches and cathedrals abound, with historical personalities such as the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear being born in the area. However not many Cohen’s or Levy’s or even surnames ending in “Berg” populate the great annals of the history of St Albans.

The Masorti Shul of St Albans, and I say this with all humility, is somewhat architecturally challenged, being located in what can only be described as a business park. In fact one Australian member of the bar mitzvah party quipped that it was so industrial he thought they were going to ‘bring the Torah out of the Ark on a forked lift truck!!!’  But that’s Australians for you. They should talk, they build concert halls that look like cathedrals!!! In truth, it’s not the building that makes a community, it is the people, and this community far outshines many other communities in more flamboyant buildings. Kind, gentle, welcoming and warm, and I hadn’t even got through the door yet! It was abundantly apparent that this community welcomes visitors and encompasses all it’s members, as well as encouraging everyone to take pleasure in its service. To those of the United Synagogue persuasion, for most part, the service is identical. A few superfluous bits missed out, with the addition of some nice touches. I particularly enjoyed the prayers for the Royal Family, Israel and the Community being read out by congregants, something I perhaps will take back to Manchester. Hopefully that shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

But the mention of female participation however will seriously ruffle many feathers.

And that leads me nicely on to “She who must be obeyed” My dear wife thoroughly enjoyed sitting amongst friends and family, and not as she rightly puts it ‘being corralled as an afterthought.’ Who can argue with her when she says, “there is more to female participation in our religion than making chicken soup and lighting Shabbos Candles?”

Thank you to the family for inviting us to celebrate your simcha with you. Thank you St Albans Masorti Synagogue for welcoming not only us but all your guests last Shabbos in such a warm and kind manner.

The late Dr Louis Jacobs dared to be different, and as I started this piece with “You never know what you are going to get”, his legacy with St Albans Masorti Synagogue is “You will always know what you are going to get”: warmth, strength and understanding that welcomes all into the heart of British Judaism.

Sep 09

Rabbi Rafi published on the front page of Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Sometime around the founding of Google, a discussion took place on whether to have a motto for the company. After much debate, the wording “Don’t be evil” was decided upon. The idea, as explained in a letter to shareholders, was this: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.”

As of today, however, that motto has changed into a less than watered-down version that does not even resemble an imperative. On the web page that describes Google’s philosophy, “Don’t be evil” has been replaced by “You can make money without doing evil”, a major departure from the original intent. The original conception has been reduced from a moral principle which involves constant struggle to a way of judging individual actions in pursuit of quite different goals.

This week’s sedra, Ki Tetzei, is one of the most expansive in terms of laws. There are a total of 74, quite a hefty portion of the total in the Bible. The organising principle of this collection is centred on individuals, their families, their neighbours, and the relationships between them. Following several of the laws given, an interesting phrase is appended: ubi’arta hara mikirbecha – thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.

Many laws in the Bible have no reason associated with them, such as not mixing crops of different kinds or combining linen and wool. But in this case, a very clear message is being sent. The purpose is not to prevent a specific action, but to prevent the mind-set that allows evil to occur.

Our collections of laws are given, not simply to prevent or encourage individual actions, but to craft a holy and just society. The lofty goal of eliminating evil entirely from our community is laudable, but the conditions need to be right for that to occur.

Laws that provide for the just (at the time) treatment of women or the poor take centre stage. In order for a society to eradicate evil, the lowliest among us, the most vulnerable, need to be made to feel secure. The impulse – or at the very least, the opportunity – to do evil must be purged.

But what exactly is this thing we are seeking to expunge? Today, we generally see evil as the polar opposite to good. But in Judaism, evil is not at all seen that way. Evil is that which defies or challenges good. We may never acquire a final sense of goodness or completeness, but we are in a constant struggle to improve or elevate ourselves. That ultimately is the concept of kedusha, holiness. I am not commanded to pray, or give charity, or keep kosher once. These laws are given to establish the conditions where evil becomes difficult to commit.

When the Malakh changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“struggle on behalf of God”), it was to signify that Jacob’s struggle is our struggle. Ultimately, whatever we do as moral human beings and as Jews is because we have agreed to live in that special relationship.

Evil is not a relative construct open to interpretation but rather an absolute, something against God’s will. God’s presence and evil are incompatible. They cannot coexist. Eradicating evil from our midst therefore invites God’s presence to dwell among us, elevating ourselves to holiness. That is the constant struggle which defines us.

Sep 09

Long standing member, Jonny Freedman is published in Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

As we approach the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) I’d like to offer some lifestyle prescriptions for good health and happiness:

  • Never overeat. Stop eating when your stomach is two-thirds full.
  • One should not eat immediately after exercise.
  • Older people need less food, and if they eat as they did in their youth they will become fat and destroy their lives.
  • Preserve peace of mind in all circumstances.
  • One should pay attention to the body’s signals.
  • People should sleep eight hours each night.
  • Spending time regretting the past or worrying about the future has no benefit.
  • Sick people should be surrounded by good smells and music, joyful stories and laughter.

Hands up, not my ‘prescription’ but just a few of the sayings of Moses Maimonides (Rambam), written between 1165 and 1174 CE whilst court physician to the Sultan (Saladin) in Cairo. Centuries before antibiotics, X-rays and MRI scans and even the thermometer, Rambam was a brilliant doctor who treated the patient rather than the illness and espoused moderation and disease prevention. Such was his renown as a physician that he was invited to return to England with Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) to become his Court physician but he declined out of loyalty to the Sultan.

My interest in Rambam was aroused by the discovery of a small treatise inherited from my Grandfather, part of the ‘Jewish Worthies’ series, and published in 1903. I vaguely knew that Rambam was a physician as well as a great Rabbi and Scholar but I had no concept as to how relevant his ideas could be today. He wrote ten impressive works in Arabic including volumes on asthma, poisons and their antidotes, haemorrhoids and digestion, as well as promoting health promotion and publishing a glossary of drug names in a multitude of languages. This task alone took more than 10 years and was a formidable and impressive undertaking and the first of its kind.

In order to properly assess his patients he insisted on examining them in their home environment. Modern day general practice has witnessed the demise of home visiting. Whilst undoubtedly there are efficiencies in patients attending the surgery, I can concur with Rambam that seeing patients in their own home grants a unique insight into their lives and many factors that influence their health and wellbeing.

Rambam only took up medicine at the age of 37 to support himself and his family. While he based many of his beliefs on the works of Hippocrates and Galen he was not afraid to challenge assumptions or change his views. He never claimed certainty, and constantly strode to scientifically validate his treatments. This also resonates today, with many supposedly ‘modern’ medical beliefs not standing up to scientific scrutiny, yet still routinely offered as ‘fact’.

Whilst I hope there is rarely any intention these days for doctors to deliberately deceive their patients, we should nevertheless take note of Rambam’s words here: “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen”. It makes me reflect that ‘medical certainty’ is as rare and unlikely as ‘religious certainty’.  So it seems that I am a Masorti doctor as well as a Masorti Jew. Perhaps we could say the same about Rambam?

It’s impossible to view him purely as a physician, or a scholar. Both were intrinsic and intertwined aspects of his personality and outlook. This is evident from his teachings and the manner in which he links the attainment of physical and spiritual health. In Chapter 12 of Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (c1190), he writes: “In so far as the soul is a force residing in the body; it has therefore been said that the properties of the soul depend of the condition of the body”.

Having begun with some of Rambam’s ‘prescriptions’ for physical and mental wellbeing, his commentary on this week’s parasha, overflowing as it is with blessings and curses, allows Rambam to impart a spiritual message that I believe has the power to carry us through the Days of Awe ahead. He reminds us in his Mishnah Torah (Helichot 3:4) of the awesome power of individuals to make a difference not only personally but to the entire world: “Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”

Jul 09

25th Anniversary Quiz update

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

We are delighted to let the community and friends know that our quiz held last week was a great success. The funds raised for the community amounted to just over £1,200 which, when put together with a most enjoyable evening made the quiz the success it was.

Our thanks go to all those that made this happen, and especially to those who attended and for bringing your friends and families with you.

Lauren McQuillan and Debbie Harris