Monthly Archives: August 2018

Aug 31

30 August 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I’ve spent this week in Bratislava, taking a bit of a break to do some writing and prepare for the High Holy Days. Bratislava is an amazing city, with a lot of history, and a renewed life. Today, the tech sector and foreign investment have turned once quiet and sleepy Bratislava into a hub of activity in Eastern Europe. The old town boasts many amazing churches and historical buildings, plus a surprising amount of vegan restaurants!
Yesterday, on taking a walk through the city, I realised everything was closed, and it turns out 29 August is the anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising. The Uprising was an attempt, in 1944, to wrest control of the Slovak state away from Jozef Tiso, a priest and eager fascist who created a collaborationist government early in the war to partner with Nazi Germany. The Uprising was made up primarily of dissident groups of Slovak society: anti-Nazi conservatives, socialists, communists, etc. Ultimately it failed, unsurprising considering the tremendous military might they were up against– but the Uprising nonetheless became a central part of the story of the Slovak people in the new Czechoslovak socialist government formed after the war.
Thus it was interesting to me to see who was out on the streets yesterday. Mostly it was young families pushing buggies and people enjoying a day off from work by picnic-ing on the banks of the Danube. The only real ‘political’ thing I saw was a group of stalls set up around a stage in a local park. Swathed in ‘Anti-Fascist Action’ banners, I was curious to learn more– especially because Slovakia, like many of its neighbours, is currently struggling with a resurgent neo-Nazi, ultranationalist movement.
Suffice it to say that I was pretty disappointed when it turned out the only thing the ‘Anti-Fascist Action’ group was on about was Palestine. If you wanted a ‘Free Palestine’ sticker or a ‘Stop Apartheid’ t-shirt, this was the place to be. If you wanted to read literature which promoted conspiracy theories and counter-factual history, this was your ticket.
How strange it is, that today we find so many left-wing parties and movements which automatically assume that being against Fascism means being against Israel. Yet, as disconcerting as some of the ideas were, the ignorance of history was worse: we are talking about a country who eagerly Nazi-fied themselves. Tiso’s government actually paid the Nazis to kill their Jews. The Germans failed to liquidate them fast enough, so the Slovak government offered 500 Reichsmarks for each Jew that the Nazis would take off their hands and exterminate (probably about £43 in 1940).
There is much to say about our own struggles, today in Britain, to define anti-Semitism– much of it has already been said by people wiser and better-informed than myself. Yet it seems that we cannot escape this strange equivalence that has been made between being anti-racist and being anti-Israel. A ‘politics of correspondence’ has been set up to dictate that if you are a ‘moral’ person (in the eyes of the Left) then you must obviously be a friend and supporter of Palestinian causes (including some, like Hamas, which are very clearly opposed to the values for which well-meaning Western left-wingers stand for).
As an American, a Zionist, and someone generally sympathetic to left-wing values and ideals, I have watched the unfolding of the crisis in Labour with interest and concern, as I’m sure many of you have. I am doing my best to listen to everyone I can and to learn as much as possible. You may say it’s not my horse-race, as I am not a British voter, but the plain fact is that it affects all of you, and all of us, so deeply.
As a result, I will be talking more about this question regarding anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Racism on Rosh Hashanah. I hope that you’ll join me in making it a civil and productive discussion in our community and one that, hopefully, can lead to better and safer outcomes for our community in the UK. I ask your forgiveness, in advance, for whatever flaws my take on this issue may include. I feel that, despite the complexities and intricacies of the situation, it is one that we can no longer be silent about.
Shabbat Shalom
Aug 23

23 August 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
One of the benefits of getting older is suddenly realizing that the rest of the world is using words which make absolutely no sense. ‘Woke’, ‘normie’, ‘mansplain’ – thankfully English has never suffered from a lack of creativity in coining new and wonderful words. I even learned a new one today: ‘balconing.’
Starting back in 2011, Spanish authorities were dealing with so many cases of foreign tourists being radically unsafe around their hotel balconies– jumping from the balcony into the pool, climbing from one balcony to another, climbing up the balcony to get back in their room rather than use the lift– that they actually had to coin a term for it.

According to Juan José Segura, doctor at Son Espases´s hospital, 85% of the victims fall accidentally, usually while trying to jump from one balcony to the next or do some reckless movement near the edge … He estimates an average of 10 to 15 cases each year … and established the profile of the “average practitioner” as a 24 year old British male.

Obviously this is a tremendous tragedy, and 2018 has already seen at least 6 people killed via balconing. The lost of life is perhaps most upsetting because it is so easily avoidable!
It isn’t every week that something I hear about in the world around us coincides with the Torah reading, but balconing is actually shockingly relevant. This week, in parashat Ki Teitzei, we read one of the Torah’s more mundane laws (Deuteronomy 22:8):
כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלֹא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.
“When you build a new house you shall make a parapet around the roof- thus you won’t come to have blood on your house from someone falling.”
What a sad but welcome reminder of the relevance of our Torah. It seems that despite the many advances in human society in the last three thousand years, safety around rooftops and balconies has not changed in the slightest. A lot of the debate around the tragedy of balconing seems to be focused on blaming the balconers for their foolish behaviour. Yet, the Torah maintains no illusions about human behaviour. It does not rely on people always making good choices. Rather, it tells us that we have a responsibility to prevent accidents and harm on our properties, our roofs, and our balconies.
El País, in it’s recent coverage of this Summer’s crop of balconing tragedies, writes:

“Hoteliers refuse to take responsibility for the accidents, arguing that their establishments provide hotel guests with information pamphlets, always try to place groups of young people on the ground or lower floors, and comply with both the European and national norms that regulate construction conditions.”

It may be perfectly sensible for hotels and governments to call on individuals to be safer and make better choices- but in the eyes of the Torah, the first and primary responsibility falls on the property owner to ensure the safety of those using it.
Either way, if you’re travelling these last few weeks of Summer, please be safe, and please don’t try to climb your balcony.
Shabbat Shalom,
Aug 17

16 August 2018

By Editor | Blogs

*content warning: discussion of mental illness/suicide*
Dear Friends,
This past week I saw, on Facebook and elsewhere, a sudden influx of posts about Robin Williams, who died by suicide four years ago. I think for many people in my own life, particularly my peers in age-terms, Williams’ death was a tremendous eye-opener about the danger of serious mental health issues. It should not have been a revelation though considering what a disastrously large role it plays in our society.
Last year, in the UK alone, over 6,000 people died by suicide. I say ‘died by suicide,’ because to say ‘committed suicide’ is to adopt the language of criminality. To ‘commit’ a crime is to be a perpetrator of violence, but to die by suicide is to be a victim of violence. Of those, 3-5 times as many men died as women, with the largest cohort being men between the ages of 40 and 44. It may seem that a discussion of suicide should be independent of talking about mental health- but it is primary. Samaritans, who do leading work in suicide-prevention, suggest that at least 90% of those who die by suicide have struggled with mental health previously, and only 45% have a diagnosis of a mental health condition.
That means that a critical part of the work that we must do to prevent deaths is to enhance the care we can offer for mental health. For too long, mental illness has been ignored because it is invisible. As the numbers sadly demonstrate, mental illness is not just an inconvenience or an unfortunate reality– it is a killer. Suicide remains the number one cause of death for people between 20 and 34. Clearly it would be absurd to suggest that we can ignore the complex health needs that lead to such data.
Thankfully, in my own life time, I have begin to witness a sea-change around mental health. To the benefit of all people, we are finally starting to discuss mental health as a public health issue and a policy priority. Yet, there’s much more work to be done. I believe that the Jewish community can and should lead on both care and advocacy around these issues, and here in the UK I’ve been very impressed with the work that Jami does in both providing care and resources and raising awareness within Jewish communities.
To that end, I’m happy to say that SAMS will be a Jami ‘community partner’ for this upcoming year. That means that mental health will be at the forefront of our agenda, and we’ll be doing our best to make it a priority for our community. If you have any thoughts or ideas about how to help this effort, please share them. In particular, we’re looking for someone to be a ‘Jami Ambassador’ to help lead this work at SAMS. If you think that might be you, let me know, or see the weekly email for more information.
We’ll also be participating in Head On (Mental Health Awareness Shabbat) on 11 and 12 January and trying to incorporate the theme into programmes throughout the year. Obviously we have to go far beyond talking, but considering the stigmas that still surround mental health, talking is the best place to start. I’m glad that we can bring this important work into our community, and I hope that together we can begin to adopt a new and better discussion around mental health, one that can help those in need, and quite literally, save lives.
Shabbat Shalom,
*If you or someone you know is demonstrating signs of being at risk for suicide, do not hesitate to get help. In an emergency, contact 999 or Samaritans, who offer a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support service. Call them free on 116 123.*
Aug 10

9 August 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

This week I want to open with a quote from R’ Bradley Shavit-Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles:

“We have what to share with the world: our values, our stories, our traditions and guidelines, our love of a place, our ways of sanctifying time and family, our hunger for justice. Ours may be the greatest secret that humanity has yet to discover because it has been hiding in plain view. And it is our job to bring it out there into the world… To do that, you have to know the sources. How else can we transmit the wisdom that people are starving for if we don’t ourselves become fluent in it?”

To me, this is an excellent statement of the unquestionable importance of learning in Judaism. Ours is not a faith which one is expected to follow blindly; You will not hear me suggest that you must believe without knowing why or that you must believe even when it contradicts what you know. Jewish faith works in reverse to many others: faith and belief are built upon knowledge. The more you know, the more you believe, the more you can represent the values of the Torah and our traditions to the world around us.

To that end, learning is not a side-step in one’s spiritual journey– it is absolutely elemental. It is the culmination of the mitzvot, almost a meta-mitzvah, because through learning we can deepen our understanding of Judaism. Literacy and familiarity with Jewish sources must be a top priority for any community which wishes to claim the mantle of Jewish tradition.

In that frame, I’m very happy to share with you that we have a new adult education programme running at SAMS this upcoming year (5779.) I’ve branded it ‘Life-Long Learning,’ and I hope that you’ll join me in studying and sharing throughout the year. If you would like more information, please contact the Synagogue office. 

A few things to note:

-Our successful Hebrew class is returning, in a double-incarnation, with options for those who are complete beginners, as well as those who want to deepen their knowledge.

-The programme is divided into four areas: Learn Language, Learn Text, Learn Today, and Learn Skills. Aside from Hebrew, our Text classes will include an in-depth study of the Zohar (in English, accessible to all) as well as a regular Torah study group. Learn Today will focus on discussions and lectures on contemporary affairs and ethical questions (including a series on modern Israel). Learn Skills will provide an opportunity to become more familiar with the ritual of the synagogue and an empowering chance to practice them as well.

-None of these classes have any prerequisites other than an interest to learn something new. You can drop in and out, dress however you’d like, and don’t worry for an instant if you don’t feel like you know enough of the subject to be there (that’s why you’re learning it, isn’t it?)

-Lastly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be other chances throughout the year to learn new things in one-off programmes and there is the constant offer on my part to teach, discuss, and debate any topic you would like.

I’m so looking forward to another year of learning with all of you. I hope you’ll join me in studying the sources of our tradition in order to understand them, to share them with the world, and to build a foundation of belief through knowledge.

Shabbat Shalom

Aug 03

2 August 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, one of my favourite activities was the inevitable ‘scavenger hunt’– the more baroque and complex the clues– the better. The absurd combination of puzzles and geography was extremely satisfying. As I got older, the ubiquity of global positioning system (GPS) technology meant that there were new avenues of scavenger hunting: first geo-caching, then geographical alternative reality games such as Ingress.

However, this year, Mikayla and I have been participating in an all-new type of scavenger hunt, enabled by social media and smartphones. In 2011, actor Misha Collins started the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (GISHWHES), which has since been abbreviated just to GISH (thankfully). GISH brings together strangers from across the globe onto teams of 15, where, for one week a year they work together to complete absurd challenges and submit evidence of it.

Each participant pays a small fee to be part, one hundred percent of which goes to charity– and many of the challenges therein lead to different forms of charitable fundraising. Some are just silly! One of this year’s clues was itself a Caesar Box Cipher, which, when decoded instructed the reader to create an entire toga exclusively out of romaine lettuce leaves, snap a photo wearing it, and submit the evidence. Many challenges get people out of their boxes and out into their communities, often encouraging participants to meet up with others to complete tasks.

Although I have only just been involved this year, I can already see the amazing benefits of what seems like a silly endeavour. In a world in which people are increasingly isolated from one another, GISH uses technology to bring people together, and all for a good cause. It encourages us to transcend self-interest and cooperate for a greater good in a way we rarely have the opportunity to. Most of all, it cultivates a child-like fun and deeply encourages you not to take yourself too seriously!

GISH has won several Guinness world records, including: ‘Largest Online Photo Album of Hugs’ (2013) – 108,121 hugs, ‘Longest Human Chain to Pass Through a Hula Hoop’ (2014) – 572 participants, and ‘Most Pledges for a Campaign/to Complete a Random Act of Kindness. (2012) – 93,376 pledges. In my book, any project which gets nearly 100,000 people to pledge to do a random act of kindness is a net gain for humanity.

I’ve really enjoyed the somewhat-juvenile spirit of scavenger hunting this week, and I suggest that you keep an eye on it and consider trying your own hand at it next year. After all, there’s no harm that can come from getting outside your comfort zone to raise money for charity (although perhaps person #572 in that human hula hoop chain felt different.) 😉

Shabbat Shalom,


If anyone is looking for a worthy cause to donate tsedakahto this week, here is the fundraising page for this year’s effort: