Transition and the Beautiful Sound of Children

Sermon Notes 11/07/15 - Pinchas 5775

The three recent parshiot – Chukat, Balak and Pinchas are texts of transition.  Chukat includes a chronological transition, in which the narrative skips from the second year of the Israelites’ desert sojourn to the 40th, in which remainder of the Torah takes place.  Balak is a transition of perception, in which our ancestors emerged from the bubble of the wilderness to experience the hostility of others, presaging much of Jewish history.   And in today’s parashah, Pinchas, the people are prepared for leadership transition – Moshe knows that he will not enter the Land of Israel and hands the reigns to Yehoshua some months before his actual demise.

This has stimulated me to think about recent transitions in our community.  There have been so many changes, not least to the physical infrastructure and the way we deploy the space for davening (more of this in a future sermon and post).  But I’d like to focus on the fantastic growth in the number of young families and small children attending the Shul on Shabbat morning.  In a few years, we’ve changed from a community with just a handful of youngsters to one swamped with babies and children every week.  This is a tremendous blessing, but also a challenge, as it represents a completely new demographic reality for our community.  And it’s one that we  must get absolutely right to ensure that this growth continues and everyone, without exception, feels welcome and loved.  Periods of transition are fragile and must be handled extremely carefully.

Many of the new families enjoy participating in tefillah, but others come along only for the children’s programmes or to hang around with their friends.  I am delighted that we can provide a range of Shabbat morning experiences that attract the widest range of people and this means that there’s lots of unfamiliar noise every week – the beautiful sound of children playing and babies crying.  We’re doing our best to try to ensure that davening and children’s programmes are synchronised and to encourage parents to look out for their children, but it doesn’t always work.

Some of us may be troubled by the new sounds around our building, but I have one clear message – when there’s a baby crying during the sermon, exuberant children whooping outside during the kedushah or the announcements are drowned out by chatter, love it!


Dunstan Road's Three Embraces

Centenary Sermon

GGS 20/06/15

Shehecheyanu, Vekiyamanu, Vehigiyanu Laz’man Hazeh

I know that everyone here joins me in thanking God for having brought our community in good health to a vibrant 100 years young.

As well as marking our centenary, this week has seen the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.  It is noteworthy that 100 years ago as we were founded, the 700th anniversary Magna Carta celebrations were cancelled due to the First World War.  That sobering thought provides an opportunity for reflection on how the world has changed in the 100 years that have circumscribed the life of our community to date.

This is not merely a curious coincidence, but a matter of great significance in the context of our community.  The importance of Magna Carta can’t be overstated: it had many flaws and foibles, but it remains the basis for the common freedoms, justice and fairness which have long characterised this wonderful country, the epitome of malchut shel chesed – a kind, benevolent jurisdiction within which we and other minorities can practice our religion freely.

At first glance, this seems scarcely worth mentioning, but throughout history, Jews have experienced prejudice and disadvantage in their host countries.  As we give thanks today to God for 100 years of the Jewish settlement and religious life in Golders Green, we owe much to the religious and lay visionaries who founded this congregation – and bless their memory today – yet we also give thanks for the conducive, loving and nurturing environment in which our great community has thrived.

I am often asked why wine is used to celebrate special occasions in Jewish life.  Whether it’s at a major life event such as a wedding or a brit or to mark the passage of time (kiddush to commence Shabbat and Yom Tov; havdalah when they conclude; seder night, etc), wine plays a major role.  The Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) offers an illuminating explanation for this.  He notes that there are two ways to understand our relationship with time.  The first recognises that everything in the physical world, including human beings, have a period of vigour after which they slowly decline into oblivion.  The second offers a more otherworldly perspective, in which we start life relatively ignorant and undeveloped and as we age, increase our spiritual capacities, and sensitivities.  The second, of course, is a Jewish way to conceive of the passage of time – as each Shabbat, festival cycle and major life-event passes, we ought to be aware of our growing spiritual capabilities.  As the only thing in the physical world that improves as it ages, wine represents our aspirations and encourages us to bear in mind Judaism’s mission for the spiritualisation of the material world.  In short, wine is perfect to convey the message that we get better as we get older.

It is in that vein that I invite everyone present to join me in celebrating the fine, delightfully-aged wine that is the Golders Green Synagogue, our beloved Dunstan Road community.  I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s an unpretentious but full-bodied vintage, one worthy of our love and gratitude.  We all feel deep appreciation for a century of Jewish history, tefillah, Torah study, fine leadership and inspiration.

What then are the unique selling points of our community?  How have we managed – with God’s help - to re-energise our congregation over the past few years?  What has enabled us to witness major membership growth, oversee the refurbishment of our infrastructure, build the wonderful Rimon School, and with a Shul bursting with young families on a Shabbat morning have been delighted to appoint Rabbi Sam and Hadassah Fromson to partner in developing the community?

I expect that every congregant past and present will have a different answer to this.  However, I will just mention three.  I’ve called them the three embraces:

·        First – the uncompromising embrace of serious, authentic Torah ideas. Communities that embrace learning and demand very high-quality content from their rabbinic leaders, thrive.  Torah lies at the heart of Dunstan Road.

·        Second - absolute embrace of a non-judgemental inclusivism.  We are delighted to welcome and provide high-quality Jewish life in all senses of the word for people of every level of commitment, belief, involvement and knowledge.

·        Third – the willingness to embrace tensions and recognise that we live within complex realities.  We recognise that our lives are characterised by competing demands: spiritual vs. physical; traditional Jewish life vs. modernity; subordination to community needs vs. expressing individuality.  Rather than denying these tensions or pretending that we can resolve them all, we acknowledge and embrace them and appreciate the creativity they engender.

We are proud to embrace these ideas, and I am proud to commit us to constantly bettering our provision in them all. And I am confident that they lie at the heart of our success.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to stand at the helm of this community for more than 12 years.  And it has only been possible in partnership with a host of remarkable individuals.  In my role as a rabbinic mentor, I’m often asked for advice in handling difficult lay leaders, but I can’t offer any, at least not from experience.  Vicki and I salute you and thank you from the bottom of our hearts; may God bless you all with health, success and the energy to do even more for our community.

Join with me in wishing our community lechaim, arichat yamim and a hearty mazal tov as we start our second century.  Thank you.


Anti-Semitism and Jewish Europe

Belovski Articles in Jewish Action

Spring 2015

Jewish Action, the Magazine of the Orthodox Union in the USA, commissioned this articles, which have just been published:

Rebbetzin Vicki Belovski (contributer) - Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?

Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski - Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred

Some may recognise my piece from Kol Nidre 2014 and a recent guest drashah in Toronto.

Purim 5775

Golders Green Synagogue Megillah Readings

Following Ma'ariv at 6.15pm (approx. 6.25pm) - GGS

11.00pm - Belovski Home

Following Shacharit at 6.45am (approx 7.20am) - GGS

10.00am - Beckman Home

3.00pm - JLE

Full details here

All welcome

Isaiah's Comfort and Today's Prophets: a Message of Hope

Sermon Notes 09/08/13 - VaEtchanan & Nachamu 5774

The palpable sense of relief that generally follows Tisha B’Av is absent this year.  I usually feel that having spent three weeks contemplating the destruction of the Temple and other horrors of Jewish history, I’ve met my obligation and can leave Tisha B’Av refreshed, ready for the summer holidays and with one eye already on Rosh HaShanah.  This year, however, given the recent conflict in Israel and the shocking increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, the air is heavy, laden with uncertainty and ambivalence – almost guilt – at having moved back to normal life post-Tisha B’Av.  It feels to me that the notoriously flimsy boundary between valid criticism and naked anti-Semitism is in danger of collapse.

This past week, the spectre of divestment from Israel again raised its head.  I suspect that for many it will be the anti-Israel instrument of choice for in the months ahead, in preference to the rather more demanding option of reasoned discussion.  Those it affects most are our students on campus, who often find themselves on the front line of anti-Israel hostility. Even if their convictions are strong, their Israel experience is characterised by the constant need to justify and defend.  The opportunity that I had as a student to create what Ambassador Daniel Taub once described to me as ‘my Israel’ narrative – the space that allowed me to consider what Israel meant to me, what I aspired for it to be and what my role might be in attaining that – is commonly denied our students, who are constantly on the back foot.

It is in that vein that we turn to today’s haftarah, the first of the so-called ‘seven of comfort’ read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah, selected from the 40th chapter of Isaiah.  It starts with the famous line:

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

To whom is God is addressing His words – who should comfort My people?  The Aramaic Targum offers the obvious answer – God is speaking through Isaiah to His prophets:

נבייא אתנביאו תנחומין על עמי

My prophets! Prophesy comfort to My people. (Targum Onkelos ad loc.)

This reading (also favoured by Rashi) does not address the repetition of the word נחמו – comfort, something that can only be understood properly with reference to the next verse:

 דברו על לב ירושלם... כי מלאה צבאה כי נרצה עונה כי לקחה מיד ידוד כפלים בכל חטאתיה

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem... her time of estrangement has been fulfilled and her transgression has been forgiven, for she has been doubly punished by God for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

It seems that the Jewish people require a double measure of comfort because their punishment has been doubled, a view validated by midrashic sources (e.g. Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 1).

Whatever the intention of the verses, we are only too familiar with this ‘double punishment’ – the media distortions, the obvious double standards of Israel’s detractors (where are the mass demonstrations against daily massacres in Syria and exterminations in Iraq?) and the frequent uncritical adoption of a single version of a war narrative, when, as always, there are multiple perspectives.

If we are subject to ‘double punishment’, we need double comfort, as God demanded from our prophets.  They must replace pain with comfort, negativity with positivity and despair with hope.

But today there are no prophets and so the call of Isaiah must go out to their modern-day substitutes – the leaders of our communities.  That call is not restricted to rabbis or other formal leaders, but it goes out to everyone engaged in Jewish life who is able to do something.  All of us can write a letter to an MP or minister, respond to a blog-post, speak out sensibly against all bias and bigotry, attend an event, support communal efforts to counteract the negativity and inspire others to do likewise.

An unfathomable aspect of the current situation is the unwillingness of many free-world leaders to articulate something obvious.  Many of those who violently attack and seek the ultimate elimination of the State of Israel, and especially their financial backers, harbour the same long-term intentions towards Christians and, indeed, the whole of Western society.  As much as we worry about events in Israel and Europe, we are not oblivious to the brutal, barbaric persecutions of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.  I believe that Israel and the Jews are just first in line; in reality, the very fabric of our society is imperilled for all people, regardless of faith or creed.  Emphasising these threats is one way of focusing the attention of others.

Yet as well as highlighting these wrongs, we must double our message of hope and comfort.  If the pain is doubled, the message of hope must be doubly powerful.

The importance of articulating the message is highlighted by Isaiah a few verses further into his prophecy:

על הר גבה עלי לך מבשרת ציון הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלם הרימי אל תיראי

Ascend a high mountain, herald of Zion.  Raise your voice powerfully, herald of Jerusalem.  Raise it, do not be afraid... (Isaiah 40:9)

 We have to carry our message of hope to high places and speak it where it can be heard.  We should never underestimate the impact we can have, nor where we have friends – sometimes critical friends – but friends nonetheless.  They are everywhere, members of every religious groups – Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – and of none.  They exist at the workplace, among journalists and at universities.  We must redouble our efforts to build friendly, functional relationships with them, even when we disagree about Israel, or, indeed, anything else.

This is one message of hope.  The other is that that our voice, even if it small, cannot and will not be silenced.

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Self, Family and Children

Sermon Notes 17/08/13 - Ki Taytzay 5773

This week’s parashah includes more mitzvot than any other in the Torah – somewhere between 70 and 85, depending on how they are counted.  They cover the entire range of human activity – from marriage and divorce to business ethics; from warfare to the correct treatment of animals; from hygiene to public safety and purity – and they appear to be assembled somewhat randomly.

Yet Devarim is a single text – Moses’ great valedictory sermon – and as such, forms a cogent whole, which means that the order of the mitzvot in this parashah is significant.  The rabbis interpret some of the juxtapositions quite creatively; two follow.

The parashah begins with three consecutive mitzvot: a) how to treat the beautiful woman captured in war; b) the prohibition of disinheriting the son of a hated wife in favour of the son of a beloved wife; c) the elimination of the rebellious son.  The rabbis comment:

The Torah speaks only to the evil impulse, for if God does not permit the beautiful captive, he will marry her anyway.  Yet if he marries her, he will come to hate her and will eventually father a rebellious son with her. (Rashi to Devarim 21:11, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 1)

The parashah ends with two mitzvot: a) the requirement to have honest weights and measures; b) the obligation to wipe out the memory of our arch-enemy Amalek.  The rabbis comment:

If you deceive people with weights and measures, you will worry about the assault of the enemy. (Rashi to Devarim 25:17, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 8)

These explanations may seem a little far-fetched and devised solely to explain away the juxtaposition, but I believe they are underpinned by a profound, yet simple, psychological message, one that is certainly germane to the upcoming Yom Tov season.

A common Chassidic interpretation of the ‘war’ with which our parashah begins is that is refers not just to an external war against a physical enemy, but to the internal war that each of fights with our own demons.  Going ‘out to war’ is a symbol for the inner struggle that constitutes a good part of all of human experience.  And if we don’t win the battle against crass desires, selfishness and the tendency to exploit others, we risk transporting the unresolved demons into relationships that could fail, and, in turn, dumping the problems on to our children.  This is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the three mitzvot at the start of the parashah.  Similarly, when we exploit others by robbing them with dishonest weights and measures, we should recognise (and fear) that we have really fallen victim to the demons within – the Amalek that prompts to behave selfishly and destructively.

The fact that the Torah worries not just about how we behave, but also our motivation, is illustrated by the final phrase of the mitzvah of restoring lost property, also in this parashah.  Having told us that we must not pretend that we haven’t seen the item, rather attempt to return it to its owner, the Torah says:

לא תוכל להתעלם (Devarim 22:3)

This phrase is usually translated as ‘you shouldn’t hide yourself’, or similar, but it really means ‘you should not be able to hide yourself’ – i.e. you should not be capable of turning aside when you encounter an item that has been lost by another.

So the Torah regulates how we think – in this case, about a lost object – but this is only illustrative.  We need to understand what motivates us: why and how we think about things, and to try to uncover what unarticulated needs or desires prompt us to act.  Only then can we avoid pernicious chains of experience in our lives and the lives of those we love.


Dancing in the Vineyard Today

Sermon Notes 20/07/13 - VaEtchanan and Tu B'Av

With Tisha B'Av behind us and a delightful cluster of weddings this year, today affords an opportunity to discuss a little-known day in the Jewish calendar: Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av.

Said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel: there were no festive days for Israel like 15th Av or like Yom Kippur, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards.  What did they exclaim?  Young man, please direct your eyes this way and decide what to choose for yourself. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, paraphrased)

It is remarkable that the Mishnah places Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and Tu B’Av, a day completely forgotten until modern times, side by side.  And equally remarkable is the unexpected dedication of Yom Kippur, a fast day usually associated with introspection and abstention, to matchmaking.

Yet putting each of these days into its original historical context will explain their connection and unexpected focus.  Yom Kippur is of course, the anniversary of the day on which God finally forgave the Israelites for making the golden calf, hence its selection as the annual day of  national atonement.  But the origins of Tu B'Av are more obscure.  The Talmud (Ta'anit 30b) offers a number of possibilities, one of which is that it was the day on which those condemned to die in the desert 'stopped dying'.  Rashi (ad loc.) cites a midrash which explains that each year on the evening of Tisha BAv, the anniversary of the fiasco of the spies, some of those doomed to die in the desert would lie down to die.  But on Tisha B'Av of the 40th year, no-one died.  Assuming that they had miscalculated the date, they tried again the next night, and the next, but again, no-one died.  Finally, when they saw the full moon on 15th of the month, they knew that the decree had expired and all those remaining could now enter the land.

So both Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are days of affirmation - festivals of survival.   Either the sin of the calf or the debacle of the spies could have ended the Jewish people there and then, yet we survived and thrived.  In that sense, Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are, indeed, the greatest moments of the Jewish year.

And when we affirm our survival, sometimes against all the odds, how do we celebrate?  By creating opportunities for singles to meet, to create loving, happy relationships and build new families.  We refute the prospect of our demise by making shidduchim.

In our community and across the Jewish world, it has never be more difficult for singles of all ages to meet each other.  Many live increasingly busy, atomised lives and create complex personal realities that are difficult to match with others. Yet most would dearly love to meet someone with whom to share their lives and despite all their professional and personal accomplishments, cannot.

There are many events in the Jewish community designed to bring people of all types together - dinners, trips and classes as well as agencies and individuals geared to this purpose.  Some are well established, others, like the shidduch.im initiative, are new.  (Don't assume that matchmaking is only for the very observant - singles from across the spectrum can benefit from a sensitive introduction).  All deserve our support and encouragement, and with God's help will facilitate many matches.

But I remain convinced that the best way for singles to meet is round your table, at your social event, through your introduction.  By which I mean that everyone in the community ought to be creating opportunities and comfortable spaces in which those who would so like to meet a life-partner can get together.  It's the responsibility of all of us, one that represents the greatest and most powerful affirmation of the Jewish future and our way to ensure that everyone has a chance to dance in the vineyard.