Despite the darkness of these Covid-19 days, with the quiet, the isolation, the uncertainty and the fears that I have along with all of you, they have given me a chance to reflect on my ten years with the congregation, as my family and I prepare to leave Belsize Square Synagogue by the end of June this year.
I am most grateful for the many friends we have made during these years, bonds that will come with us when we leave for the next part of our journey. I have tried to make this synagogue a centre of pride for the whole of our community, a place that is noted for its learning, Jewish commitment, idealism, warmth and vision. In trying to remember the things of which I am most proud, I have assembled the following:
- Moving the congregation past its noted split on the issue of women’s participation in ritual and liturgical matters was a monumental development that was settled peacefully, despite the many warnings that it would lead to an irreparable breach in the community. That did not happen. In fact, it has accomplished the opposite — it has led to an increased enthusiasm, participation level and ideological consistency that had long eluded the congregation.
- Since I arrived, our adult education offerings have not been matched by any other congregation. Our sessions on Sunday mornings have covered a vast array of subjects from Talmud to the History of Ancient Israel and seen the visits of many distinguished speakers along the way.
- We continued our annual class with our neighbours at St Peter’s, led by Reverend Paul Nicholson, and over the past few years we added the participation of Imam Mehmed Stubbla. These opportunities for interfaith learning and dialogue are critically important for darkei shalom, the making of peace and better relations within our community. In the earlier years we enjoyed Lunch ’n’ Learn and have seen a steady growth of our annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a true highlight of the year.
- Belsize Square Synagogue now has one of the largest conversion programmes in the London area, if not the largest. Our Jews by Choice have become integral parts of our congregation, three have made Aliyah and the others who had to leave the area for personal reasons have continued to be in touch with me as they all have continued their commitment to Jewish life. This outreach is critically important for the continued growth of the congregation. It has been a privilege to practice the mitzvah of keruv, of bringing newcomers to the Jewish people with warmth and with full hearts.
- I am very proud of all our B’nei Mitzvah through these ten years. I have tried to make sure that each and every one had a positive experience, highlighted by their growth in Torah and their embracing and understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the future. Each young man and woman has been given personal attention, with the knowledge they have a home in the Jewish world, a sense of family and pride.
- Liturgical changes: I am pleased that we formalised our annual reading of the Torah to ensure that the entire Torah was to be read over the course of a three-year period with no gaps at all. I have also tried to ensure that leyning is always done directly from the Sefer Torah itself, without the aid of a Chumash. Our services are filled with beautiful music on a weekly basis because of the wonderful guidance of our Cantor, Musical Director and choir, and I have tried to make sure that our services run smoothly, at a good pace, and always filled with learning and perhaps some inspiration as well.
In the next Our Congregation, I will touch upon some other areas – leadership, Cheder, Life Cycle, social action and others – that I believe need more attention: projects still unfinished.
I have purposely not mentioned any names because once you begin that process someone is inevitably left out, but I will compile all my appreciations before leaving. There are just two people I want to thank now, who rarely get the attention that they deserve: Gordon Larkin and Paul Rowland, our caretaker and assistant caretaker. These two gentlemen have been gifts to me and to the entire congregation since I arrived. They serve us way beyond the call of duty and I am grateful for all the assistance they have given to me personally, while also meeting many demands from the entire congregation. Thank you, Gordon, thank you, Paul!
I hope these two months are times of healing and health, for looking forward to better days and for enjoying the blessings of our Shabbats, families and friends.
B’shalom, Rabbi Stuart Altshuler