Coronavirus Thoughts (2)

On Coronaheterim and the Future of Jewish Life

I ended my previous post by mentioning that the quiet Shabbat and Yom Tov days during the lockdown have provided me with an unusual opportunity to reflect on the current situation and its impact on our Jewish lives.

One thought has dominated those quiet moments – a sense of awesome, almost overwhelming responsibility.  Of course, I must play my role in seeing my family, my community and the organisations I advise through the crisis in good form.  But what is playing on my mind is something bigger – my responsibility to protect and preserve Judaism itself.

The pandemic has produced religious dilemmas of a degree of import that I had not previously encountered.  Each requires the halachic decisor to navigate the tension between normative practice, pressing immediate need and the ramifications – short and longer-term of each possible ruling.  Some – such as at what stage to close Shuls, required the Office of the Chief Rabbi, the United Synagogue and the London Bet Din to follow medical and government advice.  Others – such as whether to conduct burials on second-day Yom Tov and which regular foodstuffs are permitted in extremis on Pesach – were taken centrally.  In the former, the London Bet Din allowed something that is technically permitted yet never usually practised; in the latter, I believe they demonstrated great sensitivity to those who simply couldn’t access Pesach-supervised foods due to isolation or location, while remaining faithful to the requirements of halachah in a situation where (unlike in historic cases of famine or conflict), there was no shortage of staples.

Yet some decisions have been left more to local discretion.  I believe that the way in which we handle them will impact on the future viability of Judaism in our communities.  This is best explained through two examples – minyan / kaddish and the ‘Zoom Seder’.  Both have been subject to detailed scrutiny in the Jewish press and on social media.

One of the consequences of necessary social distancing has been the inability to gather for regular minyanim and the impossibility of forming ad hoc minyanim at shiva houses.  This has led to the painful consequence that those recently bereaved or marking a yahrzeit cannot say kaddish for their loved one.  This is because kaddish falls into the category of ‘devarim shebikedushah’ – holy content that may only be included in our prayers in the presence of a minyan.  Many communities, including mine, have been hosting virtual weekday prayer service which provide an opportunity to ‘see’ each other, pray together and intercede on behalf of those who are ill.  Some are also including Torah study and memorial prayers for the deceased, reflections on his or her life and words of comfort to the bereaved.

Yet for many, the omission of kaddish remains vexatious and disappointing.  As such, some individuals and rabbis are relying on an eccentric, outlying view (almost certainly taken out of context) that has emerged from Israel which permits reciting kaddish even when the prayer group (I am reluctant to say ‘minyan’ here) is convened entirely by virtual means.  Despite its marginal nature (the ruling is rejected by virtually every other halachic decisor of repute in the world), its attraction is obvious.  Yet just as obvious is the threat to the very fabric of public prayer that adopting a ruling of this sort poses.  And while I admire the ingenuity of its originator (while rejecting its acceptability out of hand), I am deeply suspicious of how a ruling of this sort could have been issued, something I have attempted – unsuccessfully – to clarify directly.

The imperative to socially isolate radically changed the way most of us celebrated Pesach this year, with thousands of older and vulnerable people unable to enjoy seder with their families.  We all know people for whom Pesach – usually a joyful gathering to which they look forward for months – was transformed into a week they were absolutely dreading, with many facing it alone for the first time in their lives.  Again, communities did their best to provide not just shopping and other pre-Yom Tov support, but also familiar and enjoyable online content before Pesach and during Chol HaMoed.  Yet while certainly appreciated, this is unlikely to have mitigated the reality of a long Yom Tov in isolation and seder alone.

A couple of weeks before Pesach, a group of relatively unknown Israeli Sephardic rabbis issued guidelines for what has been become known as the ‘Zoom Seder’.  This allowed people to commence a virtual meeting prior to Yom Tov, leaving a device running into the festival, thereby enabling family members in different homes to ‘share’ their seder.  Apart from the technical difficulties of following even these guidelines, this ruling was also rejected by practically every halachic expert of note, some in the strongest terms.  And the ruling itself turned out to be a fiasco, as many of the signatories subsequently withdrew their support, some even claiming that their names had been appended without permission.[1]  For understandable reasons, some seized on this idea as a solution to their seder dilemma.  I am truly fortunate – while our sedarim were much smaller than usual – they were lively and beautiful family occasions.  I can hardly imagine the distress of those facing Yom Tov alone and I appreciate why those most affected by the lockdown and otherwise facing days of isolation – would choose to adopt this solution without consulting their usual rabbinic advisors.  Yet some rabbis – perhaps without thoroughly investigating the background to the ‘Zoom Seder’ – even promoted it to their communities.  Again, I can only point out the glaringly obvious – the potential long-term damage to Shabbat and Yom Tov observance caused by the dissemination of such blanket rulings.[2]

Virtual kaddish and the ‘Zoom Seder’ touch on two of the pillars of Jewish life – public prayer and scrupulous observance of Shabbat and Yom Tov.  They are the very lifeblood of Jewish communal life and our inability to gather in prayer as usual and the disruption to our usual Shabbat and Yom Tov practices are deeply painful.  They have held communities together from time immemorial and they will – and must – outlive the unprecedented challenges of the present crisis.  As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, ‘more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews’, an aphorism that might also be applied to public prayer.  I passionately belief that interfering with the core principles on which these constructs rest risks disastrous long-term effects, far worse than the very real – yet temporary – distress the current lockdown causes to those who cannot gather to pray or celebrate family-oriented festivals in the usual way.  We must be exquisitely sensitive, creative and bold to mitigate their anguish, but within carefully defined parameters, not with irresponsible, swinging changes to the underlying fabric of Judaism.  Shabbat, Yom Tov and public prayer – mainstays of our communal and private Jewish lives – are the heritage of every Jew and of the Jewish people.  They are entrusted to us by the collective history of the Jewish people and the tears and sacrifice of our forebears with the expectation that we will pass them on intact to future generations.  We are the guardians of a system that is not ours to fundamentally modify.  The extraordinary technology that enables virtual prayer gatherings and internet sedarim must not supplant core areas of Jewish practice, remaining its servant, never its master.

And as leaders we need to be realistic – with even the best intentions, members of the public will understandably draw general conclusions about the long-term permissibility of certain practices, however much we explain that they were only intended for one-off emergency situations.  We cannot easily undo the ‘Zoom Seder’, nor the virtual kaddish said without a minyan, once the genie is out of the bottle.

Misuse of the wise leniencies of this year’s ‘in extremis’ Pesach list may lead to someone purchasing unsupervised apple rings for Pesach next year – this is regrettable and should certainly be corrected, yet it is unlikely to have broader ramifications.  But misuse of virtual minyan and ‘Zoom Seder’ leniencies threatens the very foundations of Jewish life.  These rulings – to the extent that they can be called that – are popular, understandable and address genuine needs, yet at a great – I believe too great a – cost.  As Rabbi Shimon says ‘Who is wise? One who perceives the outcome of one’s actions’.[3]


[1] This shambles is described masterfully here by my friend Rabbi Pini Dunner of Beverley Hills.

[2] Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon – a great contemporary Israeli halachic expert – offered a beautiful alternative, what he called ‘a family Zoom pre-Seder meeting before sunset’ (see here for details).  This encouraged families to gather by Zoom an hour or two before Yom Tov to sing favourite Seder songs, discuss issues about liberty, share favourite moments from the evening and invite individual contributions.  Rabbi Rimon felt that this could offer what he called ‘an exciting reunion that will be a meaningful beginning to the Seder night’, potentially allowing dozens of family members to participate in an inspirational pre-Seder gathering.

[3] Avot 2:9.

Coronavirus Thoughts (1)

A Changed World

I was in New York on a short business trip a few days before Purim.  Early one morning, I received an unexpected call from my Shul chair to say that a group of scientists and medics in our community had advised that we cancel all forthcoming social events including Shabbat kiddushim and Purim parties.  We were slightly ahead of the curve, although in common with other communities across the globe, by a few days after Purim, we had held our final minyan. That was just five weeks ago, but it might as well have been five years ago.

Since then, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of communal life, creating new norms none of could have imagined a short while ago.  It has also had an extraordinary impact on the life, role and expectations of rabbinic leaders, something compounded by the suddenness of the changes and the proximity of the lockdown to Pesach, even in an ordinary year the busiest season for most rabbis.

Sadly, the impact of the crisis has hit many families and communities in the harshest of ways, with a marked increase in the number of bereavements and those who are seriously ill.  To make matters worse, social-distancing requirements mean that funerals may only be attended by a handful of people, shiva gatherings are forbidden and it is not permitted to visit the sick.  These rules add multiple layers of distress and anxiety to what are already life’s most painful experiences.  My prayers are with all those affected and their loved ones at this exceedingly difficult time.  And my thoughts are with those colleagues for whom this period has been unusually stressful.  They have been called upon to conduct numerous funerals in short order, while simultaneously supporting multiple bereaved families.  They have all risen to the challenge admirably.  I don’t underestimate the emotional and physical toll on them and their families.

As with all crises, this one has sorted the heroes from the zeroes.  Across the community, religious and lay leaders have set aside their personal anxieties, stepping forward to take bold, thoughtful decisions, creating a sense of engagement, care and spirituality for their flocks.  I am awed at what many of my colleagues have achieved in a short time and I am filled with admiration at what my own lay-leadership has put in place to support our community, something that I know is replicated in many others.

I have spent much of the past few weeks supporting our rabbinic and lay teams as we reimagine our community online, devise new programming designed to reach the largest possible number and create enhanced welfare systems to support those isolated by the crisis.  It’s been one of the most intense periods I can recall, notwithstanding that I’ve barely left the house.  Yet it has also been a time of introspection, especially as Shabbat and Yom Tov have been so quiet and free from formal responsibilities.

Where these quiet moments have led me and their intersection with certain recent developments will be covered in my next post later this week.

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.