Thursday, 24 April 2014

Living Below the Line

Next week I and a small group of Rabbis will be Living Below the Line (eating on £1 a day) for 5 days. We have a blog at http://rabbisbelowtheline.wordpress.com/ where you can read why each of us is doing it. This was my first post there this morning:

As a congregational Rabbi in one of London's wealthiest communities, it was perhaps surprising the regularity with which those in crisis, or serious continuing need, quietly and with deep embarrassment needed to come and ask for help. Sometimes I and sometimes my discretionary fund paid people's electricity bills, helped ensure children were fed until benefits became available, and ensured a disabled congregant could pay rent rather than go into a hostel. No one likes to ask for a handout, and receiving it from someone who knows them can be even more difficult, but these quiet, hidden voices are with us every day, and are growing in number.
So when Judith Williams asked me to Live Below the Line to support the work of Tzedek in tackling extreme poverty in developing nations, I couldn't think of a good reason to say no. Tzedek's work is very close to my heart, after a late beloved friend helped establish their Ghana programme, a friend who also campaigned tirelessly for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, another group constantly struggling to make ends meet. But what seemed like the bigger opportunity, was that of creating conversations around all this poverty, need, and hunger.
When I met with Molly Hodson from the Trussell Trust a few weeks ago, I was shocked to learn about the incredible increase in demand for their services. (Stats are here) and they are very much a short term stop gap. Campaigners like Jack Monroe who is also living below the line next week but who also knows just what it means to go to bed hungry so that her son could eat that day, has also been campaigning for us to challenge the system that required food banks.
Next Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is a Shmita year. A year of release. Biblically this meant that the land lay fallow and belonged to no one. Any perennials that produced food were there for everyone to help themselves to. This wasn't an easy year, and careful preparation and social cohesion was necessary. But wouldn't it be amazing to emerge from the next Shmita year with a system that gives access to our incredible resources to those who need them. The ways in which we consume has a huge impact on the world around us, from sweat shop workers in Bangladesh, to low paid farm labourers and shop workers receiving less and less because supermarkets are engaged in a price war. Shmita is not a simple answer, and there are no simple answers, but we should be angry about the reality as it is today. Living below the line isn't much, but I hope it is a small soap box from which other conversations and voices will be heard.

If you are able to support Tzedek as part of Living Below the Line, you can donate here: https://www.livebelowtheline.com/me/debbieys

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Jewish-Christian struggle

A few weeks ago I had the huge privilege of spending Shabbat with a group of Christians training for ministry and studying to further their own journeys. I was invited by the awesome Rev. Ray Gaston and supported by the Council of Christians and Jews to begin the students thinking about and engaging with not only Jewish-Christian relations but living Judaism as a faith which they will live alongside.
It was a heartwarming, open hearted space and I was glad the students felt able to question us and engage in Shabbat along with us. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, as Jewish-Christian engagement almost always is. Of course we probed differences and struggles, but the quality of disagreement was a good one.
After sharing our shabbat worship with the group (or forcing it on them!) we were invited to join the group for their worship. Evening and morning prayers were brief and touching, and I was impressed at the abilities of these brand new ordinands who have only been studying part time for a few months. On Saturday afternoon, a longer prayer service took me somewhat by surprise.
 I have hesitated to write about it as I don't wish to cause offence or upset to those who led it with great dignity and skill. However the feelings with which I left the chapel struck me as a clear sign of areas of work that still exist for both Jews and Christians in our engagement, with one another, and many others, and I hope this is taken in that spirit!
I am always keen that folk don't feel the need to change their worship because I am present, however those wiser than I have suggested no harm would be done if we always consider how 'the other' might feel or hear things were they sitting in our services. That afternoon I was not offended, just fascinated to find myself straddling gulfs I had not expected to.
The students prepared a moving 'service of Reconciliation' and from the outset highlighted how it was appropriate to explore reconciliation when studying Jewish-Christian relations; that there was still work to do there, and around the world. So I felt a little surprised to hear a sermon that described our reconciliation with God - through Jesus Christ. On the one hand this is a sermon that makes perfect sense in a Church service, and I am uncomfortable with others changing for me. However our understanding of 'reconciliation' was clearly different in this context. Mine has much more to do with learning to share our world, and coming together after centuries of pain and misunderstanding, not to mention persecution. A service meant to be about reconciliation therefore might perhaps try to avoid addressing that main point (the role of Jesus) which has divided us. That is not to say there isn't space for dialogue over this important issue, and a greater understanding on both sides about the others position, but in the context of joining the other for prayer and being invited to do so, it was rather uncomfortable, in that it excluded me from such reconciliation.
There were also incredibly moving elements to the service; a beautiful and evocative dance by a young pentacostal woman, something I had never  experienced before in a worship context (although again the music was entirely about surrender to Jesus Christ, not reconciliation). The students also created a beautiful prayer space in which we were encouraged to think about places around the world in need of reconciliation, and having heard just before Shabbat about the desecration of a Crimean Reform synagogue, I appreciated this space greatly and it was held with great thought and dignity.
For the closing song, we all stood for a rendition of Chris Tomlin - Our God - I hadn't heard this one before. Many hymns hold fond memories of my childhood and school assemblies (Lord of the Dance aside!)This particular hymn, however, left me feeling that as a Jew, I am perhaps regarded with pity having not found the God of the song. If you listen, I wonder if your ears will hear what mine did (and if your own faith will change your hearing of it). While I suspect the congregation assumed that their God (of whom they sang) was my God, the water into wine part quickly established for me that it wasn't really my God they were singing about. And even if it were the same God, the triumphalism in the words 'Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other' still struck a difficult chord for me as a Jew, and as a person engaged with Dharmic as well as Abrahamic faiths.
I also have to be honest - we too have liturgies (such as the Aleinu) that can seem triumphalist, even in some of the edited down Progressive versions, and down right anti-Christian in some older versions of it. But I also know many Jews struggle with texts like these, and change them, or, in the UK in particular, fail to engage with their real meaning at all because they are said in Hebrew.  This hymn was a recently composed piece, and is part of a musical approach that I suspect draws many people in. Reflecting a few days later, I find myself wondering if these trainee clergy struggle with their liturgy as I know I and my colleagues continue to struggle with and even change our own? Were they more conscious of what they were singing when doing so next to me? Will that experience affect their service choices in the future?
I  have attended Christian worship for many years in different contexts, from curiosity to friendship to dialogue. I have not had this experience before. Is liturgy changing? Have I been lucky in the services I have attended? Was I being over sensitive because 'A service of reconcilitation' meant something to me that it did not mean to those leading it?
I genuinely bear no ill will and came away from the weekend feeling positive about the content, the connections, and the conversations. Yet this remains a tricky part of Jewish-Christian relations, indeed of human relations; can we exist in our own faith, without it needing to be better than yours, stronger than yours, higher than any other?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Messages for HMD elsewhere

Over the last couple of months I've been delighted to guest blog for Tell Mama and The Council of Christians and Jews on (respectively) Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia and Some thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day. As it is HMD 2014 today it seems and appropriate time to return to them!

Let us remember so that we might change


Thursday, 23 January 2014

What goes in the boxes?

We last moved home almost 4 years ago. This was the sermon I gave that shabbat (at a Bar Mitzvah - I've removed the boys name). We are moving home again next week, and so much of it is still true... what do you put in your boxes and what is essential to your Judaism?


On Thursday I did what someone in Kiddush told me a few months ago is more stressful than getting divorced! I moved house! This has indeed been a slow, stressful, long project. But over the last few weeks, as the sorting and packing and chucking out intensified, it struck me, that what I was doing was very similar to what you X are now being asked to do as a Bar Mitzvah, and what we Progressive Jews take upon ourselves as an integral part of our Judaism.

Every Pesach, Gary and I work hard to clean and refresh the house. This year, we were also making an effort to cleanse the house of all the excess things that we didn't need. A friend advised that for each item one must honestly ask oneself ‘Do I really need it? Do I love it?’ if the answer is no to both of these questions, it is definitely heading for the charity shop or freecycle. As a habitual hoarder, this was quite a painful task, but it was also very freeing. Deciding what is truly essential in ones life is a difficult challenge, not only to the home buyer who is downsizing, but to each and every one of us as modern Jews.  As I sorted and cleared I found myself wondering what you, X, will choose to put in the box in your life labelled ‘Judaism’ and what are the guiding questions that will help you, and each of us, choose?

Critics of Reform Judaism often challenge our ideal of informed decision making as ‘the thin end of the wedge’- where do we draw the line in terms of what is acceptable. One of our starting points must always be ethics and morality – a central Jewish concept anyway, but of course one that shifts and changes. So for example, the traditional Jewish marriage document, was designed to protect a Jewish woman’s rights so that she would have her property protected should divorce occur. However, as it is an early medieval document, the way it protects her was an incredibly forward thinking methodology in it’s time, but one which today seems very one sided and unbalanced. So we have taken the ethical ideal of the ketubah – that a woman’s rights should be protected, but applied them in a way that fits modern relationships and weddings, as well as applying the principal in a more general sense. Ethics of many sorts guide our thinking, but they are not ethics that are external to Judaism, rather they are integral to it. The Talmud[1], for example, asks why the school of Hillel always won out over the school of Shammai in debate, even though both were considered words of Torah. The answer given is that the school of Hillel were kindly and modest, and studied not only their own rulings but also the rulings of Shammai. This gives us important guidelines as to how we should be forming our Judaism – with decisions made in kindness and modesty, but also based on wide learning and space for the other.

I know that to X, and I suspect many of us, family and tradition also form a key aspect of our decision making process. We cannot dismiss those things that form security blankets for us because of their repetition and familiarity, although we must also challenge ourselves to occasionally push our comfort levels and not consider ourselves ‘reformED’ but Reform – a work in progress. When the new siddur was under development, my mum would grumble and complain about the addition of the mothers into the amidah, and how she didn't like change in such a central prayer, it didn't feel comfortable. Yet the amidah she had become used to was already a changed prayer to what she had grown up with, being the product of a siddur from the 1970’s, and today, when she is asked to pray without the mothers, she stumbles and forgets. We quickly adjust to changes, although the process can be painful at times. We must remember that no change is rootless, and that we also have that tradition of family inheritance and community minhag to guide our decision making and help us fulfill our potential as Jews, and navigate our way through that change.

For me, returning again to Rabbi Hillel, I find that at the centre of my decision making compass is his maxim from Pirkei Avot 1:14:
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when"
Our Judaism has to make us happy, it has to be for us, and X I hope that from today onward your Judaism will be something that brings meaning and happiness to your life. But it also has to be about reaching out, about human contact, support, community, and changing the broken world we find ourselves in – and we can’t wait – we must use the gift of each day to it’s maximum. Keeping these three in mind has helped me navigate how to apply Judaism, but the reality is, we will all apply it in a different way, and this too is very Jewish! The many voices of our Rabbis ring out to us through the ages offering a Judaism that has always been varied, that has always had diversity, and that has always created space for a diversity of voices. I hope that I can create a little more space in my life by continuing to sort through boxes and establish what truly is essential, but perhaps it will always be a work in progress, and maybe this is as it should be.

Shortly before my ordination I managed to make this deeply spiritual experience into an opportunity to be a consumer, and in a wonderful workshop in the old city of Jerusalem, I had a bracelet made. On it was a verse from Psalms[2] and it reads Ivdoo et adonai b’simchah, bo’oo lefanav birnanah ‘Serve the Eternal in gladness, come before God with joyful song’. I wanted this bracelet to be a constant reminder to me of what essentially lies at the heart of my Judaism and my Rabbinate – joy and gladness, whether it is found in song, in study, in community, in cooking – whatever brings joy into your life, grab hold of it, and put it into the boxes of things to keep near. If we can’t make our Judaism a source of happiness for ourselves and for others, we are doomed, both individually and communally. X, I hope that after today your Judaism is a constant source of happiness, support and growth, and may we all be blessed with boxes of Jewish essentials that make us and those around us joyous and fulfilled.
Cain Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.
Venomar Amen.






[1] Eruvin 13b
[2] 100:2

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Sandy's Hook and Superman Sam, Theodicy and Responsibility

Last week was the anniversary of the Sandy's Hook Massacre. It took place a week before Eliana's 3rd baby blessing (at Radlett and Bushey Reform, held on my dad's Yahrzeit). I was giving the sermon that week and those reflections, on the horror of sending my new daughter out into a world where children and their teachers and carers are gunned down, has morphed into various pieces, one on Pause for Thought in November, the other in Faiths Initiative, an interfaith magazine published in October. The editor has kindly allowed me a pdf to share it with you - uploaded here to google docs, or here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0YedPgd3B4YelZxUGQwTEFHTk0/edit?usp=sharing (and with thanks to my wonderful Aunt Judie Waldman for the photo).

This year, the trauma that has left me in tears on an almost nightly basis is the amazingly powerful blog by the parents of Sam Sommer, both Rabbis, but largely by his mum, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer - Ima on the Bimah. In the blog they chart Sam's diagnosis of leukemia, his treatment, improvement, and then sharp decline. He passed away last week, and I'd already been in tears reading for over a month. Other than twitter exchanges I don't know Rabbi Sommer, but her words and grief have made me, and millions of others, a part of their journey.
Superman: Sam Sommer lost his battle with cancer early Saturday morning after a brave, year-long fightOver 1000 people showed up to Sam's funeral this week. His story has made it not only into his local papers, but into the Daily Mail here in the UK. A group of Rabbis are responding to this tragedy by shaving their heads in 2014 to raise money for research into childhood cancers. The most incredible theological response to this has come from one of the shaving Rabbis, who has written a Letter From a Pissed off God: we have been given intelligence and skills and many have money beyond measure. How are we still allowing children to die? How have we not sorted this? God doesn't want these children in Eternal company. God wants them to live full and long lives. We have to work harder to make that a reality.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Chanukah is here again!

The darkest nights, illuminated by little twinkling candles and oil lamps, and of course the smell of deep frying pervading all!
But for the climax of my month long rant leading up to Chanukah, repeatedly annoying you with posts about sustainability, here are two articles which expand on (or repeat!) some of the blogging for different audiences; The Jewish News this week features my article on page 20 (the Progressive Judaism page) asking us to re-examine the meaning of Chanukah for today: http://view.vcab.com/?vcabid=geaSenanpSclgrrpn
And for this week's Leo Baeck College D'var Torah, I further realised that the Parashah for this week - Mikketz - also ties in perfectly with the idea of using our resources carefully (as Joseph manages to see Egypt through famine with some careful planning): http://lbc.ac.uk/201311271801/Weekly-D-var-Torah/parashat-mikketz.html
I promise to change the subject now!
Chanukah Sameach!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Sustainable Gifting

"Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explains that Jews used to exchange gifts only on Purim, but in the late 19th century there was a shift from Purim to Hanukkah. Christmas itself became magnified in the late 19th century when it became a national holiday in America. The Jewish custom shifted in imitation of Christmas, as its consumerism grew".
But it's cold, and it's dark, and it's so lovely to have an excuse to be generous. I don't want to be miserly, mean, or a kill joy. But as I've been exploring in this Chanukah series, Chanukah is about making less go further, and instead, we fill 8 nights with trinkets and goodies, which are occasionally but I suspect rarely needed. 
Let's be honest, very few people are going to stop giving Chanukah presents, Christmas presents, or indeed presents generally, and in some ways it  would be sad if we did. So maybe it's time to start thinking about how we give gifts sustainably, buying locally sourced goods, making things ourselves, favouring fair trade, avoiding more plastic shipped from China. Perhaps we might look at cookery or photography courses as gifts, helping to skill our loved ones in things they want to make time for. How about giving the gift of our time? Children and families and loved ones shouldn't need stuff to demonstrate our love for them, but should feel confident in our support and love.
My inbox is filled with 5-10 emails a day at the moment trying to tempt me to buy. Catalogues keep coming through the front door (hmm, maybe some time for decoupage or papier mache!) and across the country we are stocking up, hoping to be generous even when resources are scarce. We manage to make our money go further through careful shopping and bargain hunting, when Chanukah actually asks us to make the resources we must all share communally go further. The Menorah of the Temple, which the miraculous oil kept aflame for 8 days was a central part of the Temple furniture and symbolism, there for the whole community. So this Chanukah let's focus on making it a festival in which we think beyond the needs of the 'I' and the immediacy of loved ones, and look at how we might consume in a way that is sustainable, loving, and conscious of the wider impact of each purchase on us as a human family, sharing those resources available to us.