Yad Vashem: A Place to Celebrate Jewish life

On top a mountain, adjacent to a forest and overlooking the beautiful hills of Jerusalem stands the campus of The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – Yad Vashem. It is the second most visited site in Israel welcoming around one million people a year to its Research, Archiving and Education Centres, Memorials and Museum. Here, myself and twenty other London-based educators spent a week grappling with the challenges associated with the Holocaust and Jewish Identity.   

In our first session the seminar leader instructed us to close our eyes and asked us to describe the images that came to mind when we thought of the Holocaust. For most of the group, the dominant image was that of gaunt figures wearing striped rags, leaning against fences lined with barbed wire. In our minds these people were nameless, devoid of identity. Yad Vashem wants to change this!

A key tenet of Yad Vashem’s work is to celebrate the lives of the victims and the Jewish communities that existed before the War. The driving force behind this is the re-humanisation of those whose lives were destroyed by the Holocaust. From the powerful Yiddish plays of I.L. Peretz to the insightful realist paintings of Maurycy Gottlieb; from the wealth of newspapers, poetry, and folk songs of the Jews in Salonika, Greece to the rich political life as exemplified by parties such as the Zionists and the Bund across Poland. In fact, it is through talking about this thriving tapestry of prewar European Jewish life that we are able to bring meaning and identity — to restore the humanity — to this lost world.

All modern Jewish Communities must wrestle with the complex task of placing the Shoah within the much broader landscape of Jewish life. Yad Vashem places the human being at the centre and emphasises that, “The story of the Holocaust is first and foremost a human story.” Perhaps this approach provides a good model of how we can balance commemorating the Holocaust with celebrating Jewish identity.

As the Holocaust shifts from memory to history, not only must we learn about the acts of the perpetrators, we must also ensure that the individual lives of pre-War Jews are also celebrated.


It’s Rosh Hashanah! Wake Up!

Each Rosh Hashanah Jews participate in a most fascinating and perhaps unusual act; the very public (and very loud) blowing of a ram’s horn. The shofar is blown every day during the month of Elul (except on Shabbat), then on Rosh Hashanah itself and finally at the end of Yom Kippur. What are the origins of this strange practice?

The Torah describes many different instances on which the shofar was to be blown. In the book of Vayikra, we are told that the shofar was used to announce the beginning of festivals, whilst the book of BaMidbar tells us that the sound of the shofar signalled the start of a war. Finally, Isaiah tells us that the sound of the shofar will usher in the age of redemption. The Torah offers us still other examples of when the shofar is to be sounded. Yet, what links all these occasions together?

Rabbi Nissan Mindel, recounts the following parable;

A long time ago, before the introduction of the fire brigade and when most houses were built of wood, a small fire could quickly spread leading to the destruction of an entire village. The ensure that this did not happen, tall watchtowers were erected and, when a fire broke out, they would sound an alarm which signalled to all the townspeople to stop whatever they were doing to help put out the fire.

One day a boy visited such a village for the first time. He stopped to rest at a nearby inn when suddenly he heard the sound of a trumpet. Confused, he asked the innkeeper what it meant. The innkeeper explained that, “Whenever we have a fire we sound a trumpet, and the fire is quickly put out”.

The boy left the inn in wonder and amazement; “A trumpet that can put out fires!” he thought to himself, “How wonderful! I must go and buy one for my village”.

The boy returned home, a trumpet in hand, and called all the villagers together. Excitedly he explained, “We no longer need to be afraid of fire. Just watch me, and see how quickly I will put out a fire!” The boy then went to the nearest house and set fire to its straw roof. As the fire spread the villagers looked alarmed but the boy said, “Do not be afraid. When I blow this trumpet the fire will be extinguished!” The villagers watched as the boy raised the trumpet to his lips and blew. A loud sound emitted from the trumpet but the fire continued to burn and soon the whole village was up in flames.

The villagers, angry with the boys foolishness, yelled at him. “You fool,” they cried. “Did you think that the mere blowing of the trumpet will put the fire out? It is only the call of an alarm, to wake up the people, if they are asleep, or to break them away from their business and work, and send them to help put out the fire!”

We all need a wake-up call every now and again; something that grabs our attention and help us to realise we need to take action to change a situation. In our lives and the lives of our families we are constantly balancing so many activities, thoughts and commitments that is is easy to lose track of our priorities. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah ‘Yom Teruah’ – ‘the day of shouting’. The medieval philosopher Maimonides says that it is as if the shofar is saying to each of us, “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds”.

The Yom Noraim and the sound of the shofar are a call to us to wake-up, step away from the distractions of everyday life and to refocus on the things that matter most to us. My wife, Robin and my daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – a good and sweet year.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2016

Pesach: A Story to be Lived!

The Passover Seder requires us to do something quite special; rather than simply learning about the Exodus we are instructed to experience the freedom felt by the Israelites as they journeyed out of Egypt all those years ago.

It is this experience – the idea that “in every generation a person is obligated to see himself or herself as though they had actually come out of Egypt” – that elevates the Seder from mere words and lessons into a personal journey.

On the surface the story of the Exodus appears quite simple, but embedded within it are a series of provocative explorations around ideas of belonging and peoplehood and the commemoration and reliving of our shared history. The Seder guides us through its insights by invoking our intellect, but just as importantly, our senses and emotions. Each year we experience the bitterness of slavery with each taste of horseradish, the sense of urgency in which the Israelites had to leave Egypt with each bite of Matzah and the desire for a place to call home as we sing out “לשנה הבאה בירושלים” (Next year in Jerusalem!).

In creating the Seder our Rabbis knew that true understanding comes from igniting all our senses. Each year as I sit round the Pesach table with my family and friends I am reminded that many methods, approaches and activities are necessary in order to inspire people to connect to what it means to be Jewish.

So far this year, NLS’s superb team of educators and assistants have led the children in a range of activities including building a Sukkah, exploring Tefillah (prayer) through meditation, making a Mezuzah, opening up a Torah Scroll, baking bourekas and latkes, making and lighting their own Chanukiot and singing a special Adon Olam in front of the community at Shabbat Shirah. The goal here is simple, rather than telling children a story we want to make them a part of one.

Now that I am over halfway through my first year at NLS – being both more settled in my role as Head of Youth and also having had the pleasure of getting to know many of you a little better – I look forward to working together to find new and dynamic ways of bringing the story of the Jewish people, our story, alive. Pesach is a reminder that this story is already a living, breathing journey. In order for it to remain fresh and relevant we need to ensure our tradition, so grounded in text, springs to life and is able to live outside the pages of a book.

As we move forward as a community I will be reaching out to you so we can look at new and unique ways of igniting both the intellect and imagination of NLS’s children. My wife, Robin, and daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family CHAG SAMEACH.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Pesach Magazine 2016

What’s New about Rosh Hashanah?

Another year has come and gone and soon we will be celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah, a day which marks the start of the Jewish New Year. But as we prepare to repeat this annual event, I am led to question exactly what is so ‘new’ about Jewish New Year? Is it simply the marking of the start of another calendar year? How are we supposed to feel and think on Rosh Hashanah when the coming of a new year can feel so old and familiar?

The word ‘new’ is not actually a part of the Hebrew name for Rosh Hashanah, which can most accurately be translated as ‘Head of the Year’. This name is similar to the monthly festival of Rosh Chodesh which translates as ‘Head of the Month’. Rosh Chodesh is the marking of the birth of a new moon and indeed, the word chodesh itself comes from the root chadash, which means new. Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Chodesh, however we do little to mark it as such. For example, Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is the only month where the custom of Shabbat Mevarekhim – the public declaration announcing the start date of the new month – is ignored. In fact, Rosh Chodesh is barely mentioned during any of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy at all.

So why this absence of chadash in the Jewish New Year? Many explanations and interpretations have been put forward, and here I will add my own thoughts. Rather than a time of ‘newness’, Rosh Hashanah is a moment for renewal, transition and continuation. It is the point in the year where we pause and take stock of our lives, our values and passions and think about how we would like to take these things forward over the next twelve months. In this sense Rosh Hashanah is not about newness at all, but about beginning again.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in the Talmud (Niddah 30b), which tells us that when a child is in the womb they are taught the entire Torah. However, at the moment that child is born, an angel touches the baby on the mouth which causes that child to forget all that was learnt. A reason for this is that the study of Torah should always feel familiar, a relearning of that which is already known. On Rosh Hashanah we learn from the past so that we can live a more fruitful and enjoyable future.

As Head of Youth, I look forward to building on the success of the previous year, and working together to create an even stronger future. My wife, Robin and my daughter, Aviva, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – “[a] good and sweet year”, full of hope and renewal.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2015

Pinchas: Inheritance and succession

Inheritance and succession are two important themes of this week’s Torah portion.

As Moses prepares to divide the Land between the different tribes and families of Israel he is petitioned by the daughters of Zelophehad to embrace a more egalitarian model of inheritance law. Their father has died and left behind no male heirs and, not wanting their “father’s name to be lost,” plea for “a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen”. At this time it was common for property to be transferred exclusively from father to son which makes the introduction of this new law, uttered by God no less, all the more special. Inheritance relates to more than just property though and can also be the passing on of characteristics, values and pride from one generation to the next.

Just a couple of paragraphs later we learn that Joshua, son of Nun, is to succeed Moses as leader of the Jewish people as they journey into the Land of Israel. At this point in the narrative it is difficult not to feel a little sad for Moses – a man who has lived in servitude of God and dedicated his entire being to helping the Jewish people grow and flourish – and now whose time as leader begins to come to an end. However, we celebrate the appointment of Joshua and the knowledge that the Israelites will continue to develop and prosper to even greater heights under his guidance. Like inheritance, succession is about the coming or passing of one person or thing to another. Perhaps this is why they are mentioned so closely together in our Torah portion.

Inheritance and succession can bring about mixed emotions; Sadness that someone or something great has come to an end but also joy for the great moments passed and enjoyed together and the exciting potential that the future holds.

As my time as Head of Education at Alyth comes to an end I am thankful for the great experiences we have shared together and all that I have learnt during my time here and know that this community will continue to go from strength to strength. I look forward to continuing my relationship with the Alyth and my wife, Robin and my daughter, Aviva, join me in wishing you and your family L’CHAYIM TOVIM U’L’SHALOM  -”a good life and peace!”

This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’ and coincided with my final week as there as Head of Education.

When cheder ends: Family engagement and the future of synagogue-based education

Why do we want our children to continue to learn about Judaism, – why should this ancient religion from a far off place matter to them? Why should it matter to their parents? And if it does matter, what are the most effective ways for educators to engage families in learning about their religion? These are important questions that need answering if we want our students to feel connected to, and to hold some level of ownership over their Jewish identity.

The reality is that a significant proportion of children who attend Synagogue-based programmes come in feeling little or no connection to Judaism. As such, Jewish educators often need to devote significant amounts of time ‘convincing’ young people that Judaism is worth a look-in before they can begin any formal type of study. This is especially true of children who have decided, been encouraged or pushed, to engage with Judaism towards the end of their primary school education (i.e. ages 9+).

Rabbi David Lister points out that there are many families for whom cheder is the sole or primary source of their child’s engagement with Judaism. This means that synagogue-based educators, “can no longer take it for granted that their students are motivated to explore and engage with their Jewish heritage.” Stacey Palevsky argues that, “Many Jewish parents —  let down by their own congregational education — are not knowledgeable enough to teach their children even the most basic Jewish ideas, rituals and stories. And so, what was intended as a supplemental tool has in many cases become the primary source of Jewish education: once- or twice-weekly two-hour classes imparting concepts that often are not reinforced at home.” For Hebrew learning – or indeed any learning –  to be successful we need to foster a Jewish learning that originates in the home, not the synagogue.

In my various roles running educational programming, I have noticed that many children spend more time in the synagogue than their parents. As Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz puts it in his article “Hebrew School: A Failed Experiment”, we need to “make Jewish learning experiential and include the whole family. For supplemental [- though I prefer the term complementary -] Jewish education to work the parents must also be bought in.” For Yanklowitz families must be “empowered to make life choices” and this means giving them ownership of their Jewish learning, not educating their children for them. When this does not happen, families – often unknowingly encouraged by the shul – develop the wrong expectations as to the aims and outcomes of these programmes concluding for example that Hebrew fluency is a likely outcome. One synagogue that clearly understands the importance of managing parents expectations states on their website that;

Ideally, this should say that the Religion School will train a child in the reading of the Hebrew language so that s/he can be able to read from the Torah for a bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, this is unlikely to be the case. Hebrew is a difficult language to learn in the best of circumstances; when it is being taught for 50 minutes a week for 36 weeks of the year (assuming 100% attendance at Religion School – a rare phenomenon) it is virtually impossible.

This type of upfront honesty from synagogues effectively manages family’s expectations of our programmes and will only help foster longer lasting, positive relationships between themselves and their members. However, synagogues must then create programmes that support learning outside of the synagogue walls. Judaism needs to be experienced in many spaces and at many times. Parents need to see synagogue-based programmes as supplementary to other learning experiences and not the primary source of Jewish engagement. Quite a lot of families that I interact with tell me that they want to provide their children with meaningful Jewish experiences outside of the Synagogue but feel unable or not confident enough to do so.

As parents are the first and most enduring educators we must seek to work in close partnership with them to deliver the best programme possible. You might want to consider some of the following engagement opportunities:

  • Run parallel learning sessions for parents and carers that allow them to continue to develop their own relationship with Judaism. These should take place at the same time as their children are enjoying their own learning experiences. (e.g. During Cheder or Bar or Bat Mitzvah classes).
  • Put together a Parent’s Group that comprises of representatives from each school year. They will act as a link between teachers, synagogue staff and other parents within the year group and can often help up with small tasks as well as hosting small fundraising or social events.
  • Organise home-based Jewish experiences and learning opportunities. These could be festival-focused events that bring together small groups of families in a members home. For example, a Chanukiah lighting and doughut eating evening for all families with children in school years 5 and 6.
  • Send a short Weekly Update via email that lets parents know what their child is learning as well as to inform them of special mornings or trips. You can provide links to your website which contain further information and resources to aid learning at home.
  • Run a number of events throughout the year where parents are invited to meet your synagogue’s education team.
  • Friday night dinners – These could take place after Friday night services either in your synagogue or at the home of a member family. Pot luck style often works best for these types of meals.
  • Encourage parents (or tell them it’s compulsory!) to accompany their children to at least 2 Shabbat prayer services a term.
  • Have Clergy and education professionals meet regularly with families. This valuable face-to-face time helps relationship building and shows parents that you are personally invested in their family. At the beginning of the year have each of your educators phone round the families of the children who will be in their class and introduce themselves.

A successful synagogue-based programme will help create a framework onto which families can create new Jewish experiences together outside the shul. It is to be expected that not all families will make use of this framework but a strong programme must be able to support those who wish to take their learning to the next level. As educators we should strive to instil students with a passion for Judaism that sees them and their families pursuing learning in other contexts. Synagogue-based youth programmes can be an excellent opportunity for families to re engage with their Judaism and in many ways these programmes are as much for parents as for children. Synagogues must work hard to win parents over to this way of thinking, providing multiple engagement and learning opportunities that will meet the unique needs of different families.

Disney’s Aladdin is the ultimate Passover movie!

For almost 100 years Hollywood has attempted to capture the Passover story on film: The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) to name a few. Film producers have spent millions of dollars recreating the dramatic scale and spectacle of the Israelite journey out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds and into the wilderness. (Charlton Heston looks even more spectacular as Moses when viewed in 3D!).

There is one film, not a typical ‘Passover movie,’ whose themes go right to the heart of the Israelite journey; Disney’s Aladdin (1992). Set in the fictional city of Agrabah, at first glance this story of princesses, evil sorcerers and magical genies appears far removed from our own story.

However, the Israelites and the entire cast of Aladdin share a longing for one thing above all else; freedom. Aladdin himself longs to be free from poverty, Princess Jasmine wants freedom to choose who to marry, Jafar and Iago want to be free from the Sultan’s rule and Genie ‘wishes’ he was free to be his own master. As the story of Aladdin illustrates, freedom is a shared ideal but the form of an individual’s bondage as well as the motivation that encourages one to seek freedom can differ dramatically.

The human catalyst for the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom is Moses. The first event of Moses’ adult life that is described in the Torah tells how he, disgusted at the brutality of the Egyptians, comes to the defence of an Israelite who is in the middle of being beaten by a taskmaster. Moses (at least at this point in the narrative) does not seek his own freedom but that of those around him. His first ‘grownup’ act is to try and reduce the suffering of those around him who are too weak to pursue liberty for themselves. Like Moses, Aladdin also desires freedom for others as demonstrated when he promises to use his third and final wish to set the Genie free. However, Aladdin’s own desires lead him to hesitate in granting this wish and this action becomes the catalyst for much of the tragedy that takes place later on in the story.

When Moses sees suffering around him his first instinct is to intervene, irrelevant of the consequences of these actions on his own liberties. In fact, it is this early action that leads to Moses own liberation later on in the Torah narrative. As central characters in our own journeys to freedom we must remember that by working to secure the freedom of others we are in fact working to guarantee our own freedom.

This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.