Monthly Archives: October 2018

Oct 25

25 October 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Cheshvan offers many blessings for rabbis. Allowing a bit of a lull after the high holy days, Cheshvan is usually quite an enjoyable time in the annual calendar cycle. Yet, there is one major exception: there is nothing I dread more than the annual social-media debate among friends and family over whether or not Jews should be celebrating Halloween.

Perhaps a more acute argument in America, this annual late-October past-time of deliberating the halakhic acceptability of Halloween never fails to be incredibly aggravating. The amount of en vogue think-pieces that have proliferated in the last few years is exhausting: there’s (British) Dan Friedman’s scry, ‘Why All Jews Should Hate Halloween and So Should Everybody Else,’ the Jewish Book Council entered the fray with the confusingly-titled, ‘The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween is Exactly Why We Should,‘ and then there’s the alarmist paean, ‘Which is Worse for the Jews: Halloween or Christmas?’

Really sorry to clog up your browser tabs with this sort of drivel! The reason this all bothers me so much is not because I think that Halloween is a great holiday, or that it has some secret Jewish history- it doesn’t. Contemporary (that is, American) Halloween is simply a very superficial version of much older Celtic customs, the ancient Samhain, and the more modern Catholic All Saints’ Day. Usually it’s observed in the least-interesting way, with far more offensive costumes and high-sugar sweets than seasonal spiritual contemplation of death.

Despite that, Jewish invectives against Halloween really irritate me because they’re so new. Jewish parenting literature in the 1950s and 1960s never even mentioned Halloween- not because it wasn’t a big deal, but because it didn’t bother anyone. Jews who were struggling to sort out how they should adapt to the broader culture around them were far more concerned with responding to Christmas and Easter and making Jewish holidays interesting than staging a mass revolt against a silly and harmless relic of a far-distant pagan past.

Halloween returned to be a major part of the North American cultural calendar largely because of two unlikely culprits: child psychology and LGBT liberation. Halloween became a mainstay of the Greenwich Village LGBT community, who explored it as a symbol of changing identities and shifting selves. Meanwhile, gurus of pop-psychology proclaimed Halloween as an essential exercise to help counter the emotional repression of children.

In response to these two factors: an interest in the emotional needs of children and a struggle for recognition in the LGBT community, Halloween became public enemy number one for the newfound ‘Orthodoxy’ which grew after the Second World War. The rejection of Halloween for Jewish children is not actually about defending Jewish custom, but about isolating Jewish families from a non-Jewish culture which was perceived by the self-proclaimed Orthodox reactionaries as decadent and profligate.

As a result, I maintain the pre-reactionary position of most Jews to Halloween: do it if you want to. If the spooky themes and fancy-dress boundary-breaking appeals to you, feel free to celebrate Halloween in style without worrying about whether or not it is ‘permitted’ in Judaism. It is exactly the sort of narrow thinking that Halloween is meant to push against that decries it as the ultimate enemy.

Yet, perhaps we shouldn’t get carried away either, or else we’ll turn Halloween into this:

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Halloween),

Oct 19

18 October 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Aaron and Armando – not two names you typically see together. One Hebrew, one Spanish, these two have been on my mind this week through a remarkable real-life story of one of my colleagues and his community.

R’ Aaron Brusso is the rabbi of Bet Torah, a growing Masorti community in Mt. Kisco, New York. The Westchester community benefits from a great deal of affluence among the local white population, but that same population lives among another, very different one. Westchester, as I discovered when I worked there for a year, is surprisingly diverse. Much like Hertfordshire, it is full of fairly affluent bedroom communities side-by-side more diverse immigrant communities which make up the local infrastructure. They’re, as they always are, slightly less visible- but they’re there.

In the case of Bet Torah, where Aaron is the rabbi, Armando is the synagogue custodian. Armando Rojas has worked for Bet Torah for twenty years, and has been in the United States for thirty, leaving Mexico at 18 to seek out a better life and to escape the violence of local cartels. In those thirty years, Armando has built a career and a family, working hard to provide for himself and in all senses being a model citizen- except for one: Armando never was a citizen. Instead, he was one of over 12 million ‘indocumentados’ – one of the undocumented, who had come over the border without the proper paperwork.

For thirty years that posed no real issue, until one night there was a fight at a restaurant where Armando was eating with his family. He was listed as a witness on police paperwork, and eventually his name was run against an ICE database. Less than a week later ICE picked up Armando, brought him to Tijuana and left him there. They didn’t even notify his family that he had been deported. He’s since, with the help of Bet Torah members, sought asylum status in the States, but under new guidelines from the Attorney General, fear of gang violence is not grounds for sanctuary.

Sadly, this story is not unusual. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deports hundreds of thousands annually, many of whom have committed no crime other than crossing the United States border without the right paperwork. What’s unusual is the incredible role that the Bet Torah community has played in trying to return Armando to his family. R’ Brusso and the community chairs have been to Tijuana to help secure his release and they held, only a few days ago, a hundreds-strong vigil outside the synagogue to pressure the local authorities to reverse Armando’s case.

This week we read about God’s charge to Abraham, that he needs to go out and be a blessing to the people among whom he is being sent. To be a blessing means to stand up for those who are in need of help, and to stand with those who face injustice and oppression. God’s charge to Abraham is also one to us- and our community, wherever it finds itself, has a responsibility to live up to that ancient mission.

For more on Armando’s story, click here.

Oct 11

11 October 2018

By Editor | Blogs

At the very start of Parashat No’aḥ, which we will read this week, we find the following doom-laden verse: “The Earth was corrupted before God; all the Earth was full of violence.” (Genesis 6:11) This is actually part of the same narrative as the very end of last week’s reading, which is somewhat artificially split between these two parashiyyot. This week we get the context for the Flood: the Earth being full of violence, God has decided on destruction. Last week, we got the backstory.

These verses probably don’t register among the highlights of Parashat No’aḥ for most of us, eclipsed instead by the sidrah’s eponymous (anti-)hero and the world-erasing Flood. Yet, this subtle reference to the Earth’s corruption harkens back to the end of Parashat Bereshit and the casual mention of the Nephilim (Gen. 6:4), those fallen angels (literally, Fallen Ones) who rebelled, took on material bodies to come to Earth, seduced human women, and produced a race of semi-divine half-human giants.

All of those elements are present in the narrative of the Flood, but we typically gloss over them on the way to the much greater action about to come. However, to our earliest Sages, these verses about the ‘corrupt Earth’ existing in Noah’s life would have had a tremendous mythological context- with several books penned that detail the stories of these Fallen Angels and their misadventures on Earth. This may sound absurd to us, as the Sages who canonized the Tanakh carefully excluded the (mostly) Aramaic texts which contained these myths. Yet, many of them survived in translation, (Enoch and Jubilees, for instance) and there is much we can gain from studying them. No’aḥ gives us the tiniest window out onto the antediluvian world, but its most critical contribution to our modern minds may be this: to remind us of the potency of mythological story-telling.

Mythology may sound like an ancient relic itself, yet our modern world can likely learn a lot from our ancestors’ tales- these bits and pieces of our legacy that were never made into canon. In the words of author Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true- not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Similarly, it may be that in our twenty-first century life we need these millennia-old myths that give context and colour to the Torah’s text more than ever.

If we take the time to delve more into the stories beneath the story of the Flood, we can learn from the mythology of our ancestors how to cope with the problems of modernity. Perhaps it is us, today, who most need to hear that even an Earth corrupted by angelic disobedience can be cleansed, that survival is possible even in the face of total environmental destruction, and that even rebellious angels have to answer to a higher authority. Perhaps it us who can make meaning of the mystery of our ancient tales, and maybe we should.

**this week’s Thought will also appear in an abbreviated form in the Jewish Chronicle’s sidrah column, published tomorrow.

Oct 05

4 October 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

We’ve reached that point finally- the end of the high holy day season! Yet, in typically Jewish fashion, that ending only means more beginnings. Beginning with “In the Beginning…” this Shabbat with Parashat Bereshit, we start the Torah anew once again. In addition, there’s some beginnings kicking off throughout our community as well: this Shabbat is the first of our ‘family first’ Shabbatot, this Sunday is the first day of a new year of Cheder, and this Friday and Sunday are start of a new year of Jewish learning at SAMS.

Our ‘family first’ Shabbat is an effort to make sure that we can provide fun, good-quality religious services geared at children and teens once a month. Typically, this will be the first Shabbat of every month (with a few exceptions) and there will be activities running for four age groups: 1) Tots (Pre-School), 2) Ketanim (Reception-Y2), 3) Young Noam (Y3-Y6) and Noam (Secondary). There’s something for everyone!  Being able to offer these services for young people is really important to me, and really important to our community. Please do join us if your family falls into any of the above category for our first, ‘family first’ Shabbat.

Another new beginning is Cheder, which I’m happy to have had a role in redeveloping for this upcoming year. We have a lovely group of young people who will be coming together to learn and play and to connect with Jewish life. We’ve worked to upgrade the curriculum and re-organise the morning, and I hope that the result is an even better and more educationally-rich Cheder. If you’ve considered attending in the past but never have, feel free to get in touch with me to arrange a time to check out Cheder and see if it’s right for you. Cheder is for any child between Year 1 and Year 6.

Lastly, I’m really glad to be starting off a whole new year of adult education at SAMS, which we’re calling Life Long Learning. There’s so much going on, but in particular this weekend features the start of our monthly Torah study group and the start of our adult Hebrew class. If you’re interested in joining me for any of these programmes throughout the year, please don’t hesitate to come or to ask more. All of them are free and open to anyone, and there’s never any prerequisites– just come as you are, and with an open mind.

I’m confident, looking at Parashat Bereshit and the beginning before us as well as the whole year to come, that 5779 is going to be a year of learning and growing at SAMS. The last thing I’ll plug as we make resolutions and dedicate ourselves to a new year ahead, is that Limmud is a really amazing opportunity to take one’s Jewish learning to the next level. For those who don’t know, Limmud is a festival of Jewish learning, food, and culture- taking place this year at the Birmingham NEC over the Christmas Break.

It is a unique and phenomenally fun chance to spend a few days with several thousand other British Jews studying and sharing and building connections. I really cannot recommend it enough. Mikayla and Azi and I will be there, and I know that several of you will be as well. If you’ve thought about it in the past, or have never heard about it before- take a look and see if you’re up to join us in Birmingham for Limmud this year. The early-bird deadline to register is this Sunday, 7 October, and if you have any questions, please let me know.

Whether in Birmingham this Christmas, in shul this Shabbat, or in one of the many exciting child, family, and adult learning programmes on at SAMS throughout the year- I’m very much looking forward to another year of learning with all of you. Here’s to new beginnings!

Shabbat Shalom,

R’ Adam