Looking back and forward
I continue to be so proud of our congregation – the talent, the warmth, the compassion, the energy of our members is astounding.
As we look back at this past year together, my fourth with Belsize Square Synagogue, we have celebrated together during triumph and joy, reaching 75 years as a congregation. We have lost cherished stalwart members but we have also brought babies into the community and exalted our b’nei mitzvah called up to the Torah for the first time.
I am so proud to be your rabbi and look forward to another triumphant year, hopefully free from sadness and sorrow. Now is the time to prepare the groundwork for our future, and here is what I believe should be our ideological and religious starting point.
(1) We will continue to affirm our reverence and guidance of our rabbinic traditions and halachah (way of life), basing our actions on Rabbi Hillel’s k’lal gadol (main principle): “Do not do unto your neighbour what you would not want your neighbour to do unto you.” (Pirkei Avot)
No matter what the decision is about – ritual or liturgical changes, the way we deal with families, the holidays, or any part of our observance – we must never lose sight that the heart, the lev, is the key to knowing what God and our tradition demands of us.
(2) We will continue to affirm the centrality of am Yisrael, our connection to the people of Israel, the whole Jewish people, whether Orthodox, Masorti, Reform or Liberal. We must continue to be a bridge for the entire community.
I am proud that we have such warm relations with our neighbour, South Hampstead Synagogue and Rabbi Shlomo Levine, with the Liberal movement and Rabbi Danny Rich, with my many Masorti colleagues and the Reform movement. We Jews need peace based on respect for our different paths of Jewish life. We also need to engage in inter-religious dialogue with our Christian and Muslim neighbours, as we have done through various meetings.
We cannot live in an ideological or culture vacuum, an island unto ourselves. Our Jewish goal is to respect all paths to goodness, learn about who we are in the maelstrom of ideas, and be vital components for helping to improve the wider community and nation.
(3) Talmud Torah (education): One of my long-term goals is to improve our Jewish literacy. We have so many who thirst for knowledge and I am proud of the turnout at our regular courses and the special or occasional events taken by myself and Cantor Heller.
There will be more learning opportunities, including our 75th anniversary Lehrhaus on 9 November, and, hopefully, an educational trip to Jewish Spain. There will be opportunities to learn Torah leyning (reading) and other synagogue skills as we continue to increase people’s involvement in our services. There will be lay-led services next year, with guest darshanim (preachers), daveners and Torah readers. And we will bring in the Cheder to make Judaism alive, relevant and joyful to a new generation of Belsizers!
Learning is the key. I have devoted my entire professional rabbinic career to the classroom and I will continue to teach – in the classroom and at every Shabbat and Holiday service. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – learning of Torah is equal to everything else (ie all the other mitzvot).
(4) Shabbat and festival observance: The more we know, the more respect we give to our incredibly wise and beautiful Judaism. Perhaps this year we can pledge to increase our attendance in the House of Prayer and House of Study, to bring more Jewish observance into our homes, and to inspire our youth with our own devotion to Judaism.
I hope that you all enjoy quality time this summer to expand your minds and souls, to rest and sanctify the miracle of life.
I look forward to being back on the Belsize Square pulpit for Tisha B’Av, on 3 August, and the coming of the New Year 5775.
In shalom always,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler