Monthly Archives: November 2016

Nov 30

Mitzvah Day Report from Heartwood Forest

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Guest post by Darren Marks

tree6On 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.

tree3Amazingly, 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!

Nov 29

Letter to SAMS from Judy and Rabbi Carl

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29 November 2016
[Edited]

Dear SAMS,

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!

With Love,

Judy and Rabbi Carl

Nov 21

The Stolpersteine Project

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Guest post by Jon Meier

stol2I 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.

stol1The 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.