Friday, 13 December 2013

New Realities

This Erev Shabbat is not like any other. We knew it wouldn't be, since it is one of the occasions when the Fast of Tevet falls on a Friday, a rare event that can only happen with this fast.

But this year in Jerusalem it has been different. Much has been made of the early snowfall this year, but could there be significance in its timing to coincide with the Fast of Tevet?

At Shacharit I wondered this when I saw that snow is mentioned in today's Selichot as a metaphor for being pure and clean from sin. But as the day progressed I saw a deeper correlation.

Although there were warnings of snow, the scale of the snow today still took people by surprise and it became evident early today that it would be impossible to leave Jerusalem. After I had internalised this reality and made different Shabbat plans, there was a power cut, which again changed the reality of the day. Apart from the lack of heating, there was the chance that there would be no hot food on Shabbat. Then I heard that the Eruv in Jerusalem was down, which forced many people to go out in the snow before Shabbat to give food and presents that they otherwise would have done on Shabbat.

It is certainly a day like no other, and it isn't over yet. We haven't gone through the odd religious transition of leyening for fast days followed by Kabbalat Shabbat and then breaking the fast on Kiddush. But over the day we have constantly adjusted to new realities that have made life, and specifically the observance of Shabbat, more challenging than they would otherwise have been. What started as an innocent piece of weather news ended up as an all-encompassing reality.

I would like to suggest that this is in fact the idea behind the Fast of Tevet. It is the anniversary not of a war but of the start of the siege of Jerusalem. Being under siege meant no travel out of the city, difficulty finding food and if it happened today, power outages. Normally when we fast we spend the day appreciating the blessing of food and drink. This fast has taught us to appreciate that and much more, and helping us to identify more with the historical events of the day.

The aim of fast days is to awaken thoughts of teshuva through remembering the sad events that have been inflicted on the Jewish people throughout history. However with the Fast of Tevet the event itself was not significant - life may have been fairly normal on 10th Tevet. But the effects would be felt in the weeks and months ahead. In religious thought, there was still time to do teshuva and stop the descent towards the destruction of the Temple, just as it was possible to end the siege. However the opportunity was not taken and the Temple was eventually destroyed.

The Fast of Tevet marks the beginning of a process where we are forced to adjust to new realities. If what we have learned from today is to appreciate more the source of all our basic needs, then that can act as the foundation for a collective teshuva and a catalyst for the process leading to the rebuilding of the Temple, which is the ultimate new reality we should aim to adjust to.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Elephant in the Classroom

This article was written in summer 2013 and was recently published by the Essex Jewish News (Chanukah edition).

“Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven...a time to be silent and a time to speak”. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7, written by King Solomon)

In 2013, we are approaching a significant milestone in the history of the North East London Jewish community. Our community will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its only Jewish secondary school. This particular anniversary is taking second place to the even bigger milestone of the rebuilding of Ilford Jewish Primary School on the King Solomon campus. However beneath the surface there is a major elephant in the classrooms of Jewish education on the East side of London.

It has been clear to all observers that there is currently a surplus of places at Jewish secondary schools across London. This has resulted in all of the mainstream Jewish secondary schools accepting non-Jewish children, with King Solomon at the forefront of this trend. However the reason for the large influx of non-Jewish students in King Solomon is not solely because of demographic decline. Rather there is a new phenomenon on the horizon – the opening of a new pluralist school in Barnet, JCoss. There are busloads of children who make the long schlep each day across London to take their place there. Many of these students come from Clore Tikva School, which is a feeder primary school to JCoss.

Perhaps, as King Solomon told us, everything has its season – and the time of King Solomon High School’s is at its end. Perhaps when we as a community decided to open a secondary school we only intended to have one for 20 years before another new school would attract our attention. Perhaps we should make it clear to the major donors for this project that whilst their donations are generous, we as a community are ultimately not prepared to support the project, and that the benefits of the investment will fall to the local populace. Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. I would like to share some inside information with you and make the case loudly and clearly that King Solomon is the only viable place of Jewish secondary education for our community.

King Solomon is a school which feels Jewish. Every student – irrespective of race or religion – studies Judaism, learns Ivrit, celebrates Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and dresses up for Purim. There is a Kehila department, whose primary purpose is to promote volunteering, community engagement and Jewish values amongst all students, developing children into confident leaders. The Year 9 Israel Trip and Year 12 Poland Trip have transformatory effects on the identities of hundreds of students. It is a school where there is respect and tolerance for all faiths. If anything, feelings of Jewish identity are increasing not decreasing. King Solomon is a happy place to be and it is inspiring to watch the children of our community learn, play and grow together, in the knowledge that one day they will have the tools and the passion to lead the community.

Given all of this, it seems surprising that JCoss is becoming incredibly popular. There are many possible reasons for this, not least the clash of ideologies between a pluralist and an Orthodox ethos. However I believe that if we as a community truly believe that we have a future then we have to resolve to solely support our local Jewish secondary school.

It is not just because the wider Jewish community is injecting millions of pounds into the future of Jewish education in North East London. It is because we need to rediscover the sense of community that inspired people 20 years ago to create King Solomon.

Education is not just about a building and good facilities. It is about values, identity and the concept of community. We are blessed with a modern Jewish school, talented and dedicated staff with a track record of success and the promise of a modern state-of-the-art campus from ages 2-18. We have hundreds of Jewish leaders-in-waiting enjoying their school life whilst interacting with students of other faiths, creating a unique multifaith community with Jewish values and practice at its core. It is time to spread the message that we believe we can create a Jewish school for the future on this side of London. As King Solomon says, now is the time to speak.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Defining Speech: Rabbi Sacks' Manifesto

He may not have the title of Chief any more, but to the thousands of people who came to, or tried to come to, hear Rabbi Lord Sacks speak, he is still one of the most sought-after figures in the Jewish world.

Having heard Rabbi Sacks speak many times in the UK, I thought that tonight might hold a sense of deja-vu, the only difference being the novelty of hearing him in Israel. However despite the fact that some of his ideas, and certainly jokes, were not new, there was a fundamental difference with the speech he gave at the Great Synagogue tonight.

It was more than a speech - it was a manifesto. Rabbi Sacks was unequivocal in his message. The Torah was always intended as a protest against the two early failures of man - the barbarian world of Adam and Noach which ended in the flood and the imperialist world of Nimrod which ended in the dispersion following the Tower of Bavel. Therefore, by definition, Judaism was always meant to engage the world. And now that we have a Jewish state, we are now able more than ever before to finally realise this mission.

He went on to explain that following the enlightenment and ensuing assimilation which was accompanied by growing and extreme anti-semitism, ending in the Holocaust, Judaism split into two parts: the inward-looking religious world which sprouted the most remarkable recovery of Torah learning in Jewish history and the outward-looking secular Zionist world which built the State of Israel. The time has come, said Rabbi Sacks, to bring these two sectors together and unite the ideas. The time for Sinat Chinam is over and we must build the State of Israel together, the greatest Kiddush Hashem in history.

Although neither of those two groups were represented in the audience, a third group that is capable of realising this message was. The Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist community have the tools to be able to unite the nation through their belief in Torah study, the State of Israel and an engagement with the wider world. And for this community, there is now a leader in Rabbi Sacks, who, free from his commitments to the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, is now dedicating his life to pursuing this mission and empowering others to do the same.

Rabbi Sacks singled out the youth as the people who can bring about this change. It may sound cliche, but a cursory glance around the synagogue showed that this was not just a mere throwaway statement. Of the audience, a very sizable proportion were aged between 18-30. It was the social event of the year for people on their gap years in Israel. Rarely does a talk from a rabbi attract the many hundreds of young people like this.

Rather than being a keynote speech of a retired public figure, Rabbi Sacks has started to lay down a manifesto for what it means to be a Jewish nation in the 21st Century. He has promised to inspire a new generation of leaders who will take his messages forward and actualise them. Today's speech in Israel was a defining moment in the career of Rabbi Sacks, and could yet be a milestone in the Modern Orthodox world.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Animals Went In...

Dvar Torah written for Shabbat Lashem, Bnei Akiva UK's weekly parasha sheet, Parashat Lech Lecha 5774

In the Brit Bein Habetarim (Covenant between the Parts), in which Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit the Land of Israel, Hashem told Avraham to take three heifers, three goats and three rams. In last week’s parasha, Noach was only told to take two of each impure species into the ark. The contrast of these seemingly random details can provides us with an insight into the mindsets of these two great characters.

In an age of turmoil and unrest, Noach saw his job to maintain the world, which he succeeded in doing. Hashem helped him upon this path, giving him instructions as to how to survive the flood in the most basic way. The command to build the ark reflected Noach’s limited ability to help the world – space was at a premium and the concept of two per species was the minimum necessary for life to continue.

However Hashem was really looking for someone to go beyond and proactively look for more people to save. In contrast to the ark, Avraham’s tent was open on all four sides. Avraham’s whole life was spent welcoming guests, bringing the concept of monotheism into people’s lives and being a positive moral influence on society. Avraham’s covenant is therefore built around the number three, because that represents the offspring of two – the need to build for the future and think beyond the minimum.

In Bnei Akiva, we also believe in a concept of a ‘three’: Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael, which means playing a leading role in the life of the Jewish nation (Am Yisrael) as proud religious Jews whose lives are steeped in Torah (Torat Yisrael), living in the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael).

Like Avraham, Bnei Akiva’s ideology looks to the future. If we are religious in Israel but don’t contribute to the State, if we are contributing to the community as religious Jews in Chutz La’aretz, or if we contribute to Israeli society but leave our religion behind, we are not building the future for the Jewish nation. Having two of these elements may represent survival at best, but having all three elements are essential for the Jewish people to develop and grow.

That is why Bnei Akiva offers Hachshara, our flagship gap year programme in Israel, which develops young leaders, allowing them to learn Torah in Israel whilst also making a contribution to society and preparing them to make their own mark on the Jewish nation. As chaverim of Bnei Akiva in Year 13 come together for Shabbat to learn about Hachshara, the parasha’s theme serves as a reminder of the proactive life that Hashem wants us to lead.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Reflections on leaving King Solomon High School

After two years teaching Jewish Studies and History at King Solomon High School, I am leaving to make Aliyah to Israel. I have enjoyed every moment of my time at the school, and I always use the phrase 'I'm going to school' rather than 'I'm going to work' because, much of the time what I do has been as much pleasure as work. It's hard to sum up my feelings in a short blog post, but I will try and do so anyway!

Firstly, the students are the best thing about the school. There are so many wonderful people with such great potential! I have enjoyed banter in the lessons, shmoozing in the dining hall and sharing deep and meaningful conversations about Judaism, Israel and Tottenham Hotspur. It has always been my aim to build strong kesharim (connections) with the students. One of my life's ambitions has always been to help Redbridge Jewry and encourage young people to be passionate about their identity and committed to their community - I hope I have gone some way to achieving that.

I have also really enjoyed working with the teachers, especially the Jewish Studies department. There has been no end to the support they have given to me and others and it is a very friendly and fun environment in which to work! There is so much more to say but I couldn't even start to thank individuals here.

I am a product of the Redbridge Jewish community: I learnt how to live Jewishly through going to Wanstead & Woodford shul with friends; I had an amazing Jewish education at IJPS, learning Chumash, Mishna and leyening as well as gaining an encylopedic knowledge of Jewish songs; I socialised and learnt so much at South Woodford Bnei Akiva, my local youth movement. I believe it was my family and community upbringing that enabled me to get where I am today, from learning in Yeshivat Hakotel and Birmingham University to becoming Mazkir of Bnei Akiva and a qualified Jewish Studies teacher with a Masters in Jewish Education. I am therefore in debt to the community - and these two years were a small way in which I was able to encourage the youth of today that they can achieve high and find their place in the Jewish community too.

The number one question I have been asked by others about KS is 'What is it like with non-Jewish students?' Having attended Ilford County High School, the school's ethnic make-up has always been quite familiar to me, albeit with the difference that here we are positively promoting the Jewish religion. I have enjoyed close relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish students alike and I am passionate about educating them about the Jewish faith as well as universal morals and ethics. If it is possible to generalise, they have enhanced the school in many ways and have even made Jewish students think a little more about their religion and identity - which is certainly not a bad thing. We are building a model of what society should look like, with strong moral foundations and respect for all beliefs, and I am proud to have seen, and helped, this ongoing project to develop.

There are many messages I'd like to have imparted during my time here - from the fact that one's religiosity is not based on what one wears to my belief that a gap year in Israel is the most important part of a young Jewish person's education, and many more besides.

But above all else there is one message that I would most like to share. That is that we must be maximalist in our approach, aims and content of our education. We must ensure that our Orthodox Jewish ethos pervades every aspect of the school, from the 'secular' classroom to the tidiness of the floors, from the way we connect to local shuls to our PR and social media activity and from the way we act in public to the way we act in private. We must never use the changing student intake, or the fact that we are from 'Essex' and considered by some to be 'inferior' to North London, as an excuse for not giving the best education we can. There is no reason why King Solomon can't be the most successful Jewish school, academically and Jewishly, if we all believe that it can be. We have shown this year that we can get a minyan for Mincha every week without fail, all because of a maximalist belief that has pervaded a growing number of students and staff that Mincha is the most crucial thing we could do on Wednesday lunchtimes!

I made a decision to turn down another job offer at a Jewish school to come to King Solomon because I believe more people should put this community first; I hope others will do the same, whether students, teachers or parents, for the good of the school and the future of the community. It's now time for me to put the dream of aliyah at the forefront of my life, fulfilling an important mitzvah and being part of the greatest journey home in world history, but I will never forget the time I have had at KS and I wish everyone connected with the school all the best for the future.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Four Seasons

This article was written for the King Solomon High School newsletter.

A short exercise: think of all the Jewish festivals and place them into the four seasons. What you will notice is that most of the key biblical festivals fall during Spring (Pesach and Shavuot) and Autumn (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot). This makes sense practically, agriculturally and philosophically.

On a practical level, Hashem ensured that pilgrims to Jerusalem for the three foot festivals would be able to fulfil this great mitzvah without unnecessary hardship of scorching heat or the rainy season. On an agricultural level, Spring and Autumn are times of harvest and gathering, and are opportune moments to celebrate what has been sown and reaped and thank Hashem for it. On a philosophical level, the fact that the natural world is changing in these times means that we are also more open to internalising new ideas and themes, such as Teshuva and personal development in the Autumn to freedom and national revelation in the Spring.

In contrast, Summer and Winter are times of extremes, hot or cold. For many people in history and even today, the challenge of Winter has been to stay alive. It is hard to have belief that things will get better when every day is dark, cold and wet. We tend to confine ourselves to the home at this time. In harmony with this idea, the only Jewish festival in Winter is Chanukah. The primary message of Chanukah is to maintain faith in ‘dark’ times of persecution and to show this, we put ‘light’ into our lives – and it is no surprise that the Mitzvah of Chanukah candles applies specifically to the home.

The challenge of Summer is more subtle. It is seemingly a more positive time, where we feel energised to be free, explore and take a holiday from our regular lives. The concept of a summer holiday has become enshrined in the western world. Yet in this time we have the period of the Three Weeks, which we are currently in, culminating in Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar commemorating the destruction of the first and second Beit Hamikdash. We learn that the reason for this destruction was senseless hatred between Jews. People were so caught up in their own lives that they forgot to see the bigger picture. In fact, the Jews were so busy in-fighting that they failed to unite together and combat the real threat of Rome.

As we approach the end of the school year, it is time for us to consider what we will do with our summer. Will we use it to seek pleasure for ourselves or will we continue to learn and practise the values we have learnt over the year? Our school motto, from Pirkei Avot, says “If I am only for myself what am I; if not now, when?” In the summer, when we do have time, now is the moment to help others, through volunteering, teaching and pursuing meaningful goals.

At King Solomon we aim to teach Jewish values, laws and ethics to our students so that they will make the choice to practise them throughout their year and throughout their lives. This is an underrated USP of a Jewish school – that the proof of our education does not solely lie in exam results but also in the life choices we make when we leave for the summer. This summer I will be making Aliyah, and I would like to thank staff and students for giving me a wonderful two years at the school, which I will sincerely miss.

Sharing Shabbat

I have just had a very enjoyable and meaningful Shabbat, and I'd like to share my thoughts on it with you.

This morning I ran a family explanatory service in Wanstead & Woodford Shul. This idea started informally as a group learning session for parents who wanted to know more about how the mechanics of the Shabbat service works. This Shabbat we ran an actual service and explained why we do what we do. It differed from a standard explanatory service, since rather than focusing on meaningful insights into prayer, we focused on issues such as: when we say Amen, when we stand and sit, when we are quiet, why we say a half not a full Kaddish etc.

The service was a success and I believe that many more people in regular United Synagogues would benefit from such a service. I feel that adult education in the community has somewhat neglected this aspect of shul, and possibly because some people feel that they already know it. Unfortunately, many don't, and we must find a way to bridge this gap, ensuring that as many people as possible can gain a fuller understanding of the structure of the shul service.

After shul, a group of students from King Solomon came for Shabbat lunch with my family. We had a really fun afternoon, enjoying the Shabbat atmosphere and having an entertaining game of Articulate afterwards! Reflecting on this, I really feel that this is what it means to be a teacher at a Jewish school (and not merely a function of being a Jewish Studies teacher either). When I went to a non-Jewish school, I enjoyed my time with my teachers but there is something fundamentally different about the relationship I aim to have with my students.

When you share Shabbat with someone, that leaves a mark that will always be remembered, as it is such a special and uniquely Jewish experience. The fact that the students and teachers would want to spend Shabbat together is a sign that the school, where the relationship started, is not where the relationship need end. It shows that Jewish education is not complete without Jewish experience - you can teach Shabbat in a classroom but you have to experience it to appreciate it. It also shows that King Solomon is not just a school, but a community, where people can interact informally outside of the hierarchical structure of school, yet still reinforce the lessons learnt in the classroom, being played out in real life.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

A School that Cares

Today hundreds of people gathered in Carlton Drive to relive old memories of Ilford Jewish Primary School since IJPS is relocating to a new state-of-the-art building on the King Solomon site. It was an amazing event to see so many generations of past pupils, teachers and parents associated with the school, entertained as ever by the IJPS choir and the singing of 'Na'aseh Venishma'. I went because I am eternally grateful for the start IJPS gave me in life, not just academically but Jewishly, and I attribute my observance - and enjoyment - of Shabbat, building a Sukkah and learning Torah to the education I received here.

If I had to define what made the event special, it was that an extra level of care and dedication had been taken to ensure that the school was adorned with pictures, year books and memorabilia from decades of school life. No effort was spared in making this event an appropriate end to an era in the life of the school. And when reflecting on IJPS in general, it is that spirit of community passion that has allowed it to thrive all these years, producing children who take pride in their Jewish identity and care for their community. I see this with my friends and I see this in the students I teach at King Solomon.

Behind this achievement lies a greater achievement. IJPS has been met with many challenges in the last fifteen years yet it is coming through them. The challenge of welcoming students from other faiths and making them feel proud of their school whilst still retaining a strong Jewish ethos has been great. Yet it seems to be working, for there is no change in the amount or quality of Limmudei Kodesh being taught, and the presence of non-Jewish children in the choir highlighted their families' desire to be part of the IJPS community.

The key to Jewish education, however challenging the situation in which it must be done in, is to maintain an absolute pride and belief in what you stand for. If you respect your ethos, others will respect it too. IJPS is a school where people go to great lengths to run events like these, where governor elections are contested and where past students speak fondly of Demonstration Sedarim, Israeli dancing and swimming galas. It is a cornerstone of the Redbridge Jewish community and it deserves its new building, which will rejuvenate the school and take it to further heights.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Shavuot: What next?

Many people know that Shavuot celebrates the time of the giving of the Torah - not as many people know what that actually entails. When we say the Torah, do we mean the Ten Commandments? The Tablets? The complete Pentateuch? And wasn't the whole thing ruined by the Golden Calf? To understand this, it is important to look at the chronology of the Jewish people's first year of freedom.

When the Jewish people prepared for the 'giving of the Torah' at Mount Sinai, today celebrated as Shavuot, they were preparing for the revelation of Hashem speaking directly to every Jewish person. Hashem was due to relate all of the Ten Commandments to the people however due to their inability to withstand His voice, Moshe took over for the last eight.

At Sinai, the Jewish people accepted the concept of the Torah and made a covenant with Hashem, as well as having a celebration to mark the occasion. Not all mitzvot had been given and many stories we find in the Torah had not taken place at this point - but that does not affect the events we celebrate as Shavuot, which are a key turning point in our history.

After the revelation, Moshe was then summoned to the top of the mountain to receive more laws and to write the two Luchot (tablets) of stone, containing the Ten Commandments. During this time, the Jewish people, who were being led by Aharon and Chur, grow anxious at Moshe's length of stay on the mountain and make a Golden Calf, which was worshipped on a festival they declared for themselves on 17th Tammuz. On this day, Moshe was already due to return from the mountain and upon seeing the celebrations, proceeded to smash the Luchot in public, an act which met with Hashem's approval. This is the root of the fast day on 17th Tammuz.

Following this incident, Moshe returns to the top of the mountain to pray for forgiveness for the Jewish people for another 40 days, returning on 29th Av. On 1st Elul he then returned to the mountain again for a third set of 40 days to re-write the Luchot a second time. On 10th Tishrei Moshe brought the Second Luchot down and the  Jewish people had atoned for their earlier sin. This date is now celebrated as Yom Kippur, a day where the Jewish people gain atonement for all sins.

After a summer that had not gone to plan, the Jewish people then went to work on building a home for Hashem in the desert - the Mishkan - which is one of the reasons why we celebrate the festival of Sukkot. Sukkot is the last in the series of biblical festivals and we can now see a clear historical linkage connecting it with the first festival, Pesach.

Each year as we celebrate or commemorate Pesach, Shavuot, 17th Tammuz, Yom Kippur and Sukkot we are reliving the momentous events of the first year of freedom for the Jewish people. It is important to not just see these festivals as merely marking an individual event but to appreciate how they fit together in the wider context of Jewish history.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

All in a day's work

I would like to share with you 10 things that happened during my day at work in King Solomon High School.

1. We organised a Shacharit minyan for Yom Yerushalayim attended by all the Jewish Studies teachers, the Deputy Head, students from Year 8 till Year 13 - and led by the Headteacher.

2. There was a Yom Yerushalayim breakfast for the minyan goers - smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels obviously - and everyone was given a 'super davener' novelty sticker!

3. Jewish music in the hall to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, featuring Matisyahu amongst others!

4. The regular Mincha continued with some students coming back for more tefilla - there was a good minyan, as there has been every time since it started (students have the choice to daven - Mincha is at the end of lunch break with no incentives - apart from super davener stickers!). Mincha was led by a sixth former, his second time as Chazan.

5. Year 11 went on study leave today and in the leaving assembly, there was a slideshow of all the pictures - many of which were taken on the Israel trip and on Purim.

6. There was a leaving BBQ for Year 11 provided for the school - a chance to say goodbyes properly before exams.

7. I had a conversation with a student who wants to go to yeshiva.

8. Year 9 students spontaneously joined in the singing of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav in a lesson about Jerusalem.

9. One leaving student said to me that they feel that KS is not just a school but a real community - not a cliche, but his genuine thoughts.

10. I had a meaningful conversation with my Head of Department in which we agreed that our purpose as Jewish Studies teachers is unique because it doesn't end when students leave the school. We will always be living role models, hopefully in contact with students in the future. Our job can never be completed - we can always continue to develop our Jewish pride, learning and identity.

These 10 things made me realise how important Jewish schools are as I reflected on what the students have come out with as a result. King Solomon High School is allowing the young Jews of North East London and Essex the chance to create meaningful friendships with like-minded people, nurtured in an Orthodox, Zionist, Jewish environment. When the final message from the Headteacher to the leaving cohort is a Dvar Torah based on Pirkei Avot - Know from where you came and where you are going - you see the greater picture of what has been achieved.

If you are a KS student reading this, be proud to continue your Jewish journey and let it flourish and develop as you continue to identify as Jews and learn more about what it means to have the gift of being Jewish.

If you are anyone else - this is what kind of a school King Solomon is. We should be proud to have it in our community.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Running for Building

On 26 May 2013 I will be doing something I've never done before - attempt to run 10km in the Community Fun Run. I don't have an incredible against-the-odds story of how I'm able to run this distance, since I enjoy playing sport and am training well. But until recently I didn't contemplate running for charity because I felt that there were many good people running for many good causes.

Until I heard of an idea to get 100 runners raise £100 each for the Redbridge Jewish Education Renewal Project - rebuilding Ilford Jewish Primary School on the site of King Solomon High School, creating a Jewish educational campus from 2-18, and building new facilities for King Solomon, such as new art, music and sixth form blocks.

I am proud to be running for this project - and I'd like to tell you why.

I am thankful to IJPS, my primary school, for the Jewish and secular education they gave to me, setting me on a good path in life. I loved school, and I left it well-prepared for secondary school life. Most importantly, it was my Jewish Studies teachers at IJPS who inspired me - never forced me - to start keeping Shabbat, build a Sukkah and be proud to be Jewish - and so I continued to wear a kippa all the time once I left. I bentsch the IJPS way, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish songs and I still sing the Demonstration Seder tunes with my family at Pesach! IJPS is still producing children in the same way, who are knowledgeable about Judaism, love Israel and are proud to be Jewish. The school deserves a new building, and the community will be the richer for it.

Having worked at KSHS for a year and a half, I believe that I have one of the most exciting jobs in Jewish education in the UK. I have the privilege of teaching hundreds of enthusiastic and proud Jewish students about how to lead a Jewish life growing up in Redbridge, and also sharing the wonderful values of Judaism with enthusiastic and respectful non-Jewish students. KSHS is a place where Jewish students are able to really develop their Jewish identity through Israel and Poland trips, Shabbatonim, celebrating festivals in school such as Purim and Yom Ha'atzmaut, charity projects and Jewish Studies and Ivrit lessons. I hope that I can give to students at KSHS what I received at IJPS and watch the next generation of the Redbridge Jewish community grow into leaders, proud of their heritage and identity.

IJPS and KSHS are invaluable to the future of the Redbridge Jewish community and they deserve our support. Someone told me that running for a building project is not the most glamorous thing to raise money for - but I hope I have demonstrated that this is far from the case. On 26 May, please support a real community effort where teachers, students, parents and governors of our schools will aim to raise £10,000 for a cause that matters. Click here to make your donation - thank you for your support!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Yom Hashoah - A challenge of memory

Two years ago, the Chief Rabbi held his annual Yom Hashoah service in Ilford United Synagogue, attracting many hundreds of people, including many local communal leaders and dignitaries.

Tonight, in the Redbridge JCC (Sinclair House), there were approximately 40 people who came to a Yom Hashoah service, run by the youth of the community and featuring Holocaust survivor and local resident Bob Obuchowski.

I do not intend to attribute blame for this clear discrepancy, as there may be explanations for why many people did not attend, but I do feel it is important to make people aware that it exists. Yom Hashoah is an important day in the Jewish calendar and, despite its awkward positioning in between Pesach and Yom Ha'atzmaut, deserves the highest priority on the communal calendar. The unifying nature of Holocaust commemoration can bring the Jewish community together more than most things and it is important to have large scale events where this is highlighted.

This evening's events should be a wake-up call to the community that we must reach a time where people do not let Yom Hashoah pass without attending a public commemoration of the Holocaust.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Hallel at the Seder

When we think about Pesach, our minds often turn to the special foods and traditions associated with it, such as Matzah, Maror and four cups of wine. We are well-prepared for these additions to our regular Yom Tov meal as we go through the Haggadah. However we are often surprised that in the middle of our Seder we find Hallel as a section. This is very strange, and we will see that there is a fundamental difference between the Hallel at our Seder and any other Hallel. Normally, the following rules apply to Hallel:
  1. It is said in Shul.
  2. It is part of Shacharit, following the Amidah repetition.
  3. It starts and ends with a bracha, and one is not allowed to interrupt its recitation 
The Hallel in our Seder seems to break all three rules:

  1. It is said at home around the table.
  2. It is said in the evening and is not part of tefilla.
  3. It is split into two sections, with the opening two paragraphs at the end of Maggid and the rest said after Birkat Hamazon.

Understanding the reason for this will help us to better appreciate what we go through on Seder night. There are two types of Hallel – the first is said in commemoration of a miracle, which we are familiar with saying, such as on the morning of festivals or Rosh Chodesh. The second is a spontaneous Hallel, which is said in immediate thanks for what Hashem is currently doing to the Jewish people. This Hallel does not happen often but when it does, is not bound in the same strict rules as the commemorative form of Hallel, simply because what you are doing is ‘live’!

The Hallel we say at our Seder is a spontaneous expression of thanks to Hashem for redeeming us on this night from Egypt. We ourselves have gone out of Egypt, so the natural instinct is to sing Hallel and thank Hashem for saving us. However this still does not explain why we split Hallel into two parts, one before the meal and one after.

The answer to this is that uniquely for Pesach, our praise to Hashem is not solely expressed through the words of tefilla. On Seder night, our eating of a meal is also part of the way we express our thanks to Hashem, since we are eating to commemorate the Korban Pesach meal, which was one of the most fundamental mitzvot. Therefore on Seder night our meal is part of Hallel since on this night we elevate our physical bodies to be able to express our feelings towards Hashem in a way normally reserved for our spiritual souls and the words we say. Although we no longer have a Korban Pesach, the Hallel at our Seder helps us relive the notion of what korbanot tried to achieve, namely that the ultimate way in which we thank Hashem is through a combination of mind, body and soul – a complete service, which can be done from the comfort of our own homes.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Seder Night Guide 2 (The Mitzvot of Seder Night)

There are 4 main mitzvot that the Torah directly obligates us to do on Seder Night:

1.      Korban Pesach: eating the Passover sacrifice
2.      Eating Matza
3.      Eating Maror
4.      Telling the story of the Exodus to children

The only one of these that we are unable to fulfil is the Korban Pesach since there is no Beit Hamikdash and instead we place a shank bone on the Seder plate as a reminder (although Maror is now considered a rabbinic mitzvah). In addition to this, the Rabbis enacted further obligations including four cups of wine, charoset, karpas, leaning to the left and reciting Hallel.

The Mitzvah of telling the story (Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim)

The mitzvah of telling the story to the Exodus is unique to Seder night. We do have a mitzvah to remember the Exodus every day, which we fulfil by saying Shema. However on Seder night there is a specific mitzvah to tell children what happened. The story of the five Rabbis in the Haggadah shows us that this mitzvah is not quantifiable, since the more one tells, the more praiseworthy one is. The Maggid section facilitates our performance of this Mitzvah. After starting with an invitation to the poor (Ha lachma anya) and getting children’s attention (Ma Nishtana), we discuss our obligation of telling the story, where the story starts and finally, the story itself. The Mishna in Pesachim 10:4 says that one should “start [the Seder] in disgrace and end with praise” and the Maggid section allows us to go through this process of becoming free through reliving the story. Once we have done this, we ‘end with praise’ and move on to the more celebratory parts of the Seder.

The Mitzvot of Matza and Maror

There is an argument in the Gemara in Pesachim 115a between the Sages and Hillel as to how to eat the Pesach, Matza and Maror. The Sages held that they should be eaten separately and Hillel would eat them together, schwarma style. This explains the next stage of the Seder:

Rachtza and Motzi are different names for what we do at every Shabbat and Yom Tov meal – wash with a bracha and eat two loaves of bread/matza. At this point we add in an extra bracha to denote the Seder-specific mitzvah of eating matza. Maror requires a bracha to denote the special obligation to eat it on Seder night, however the regular ‘ha’adama’ bracha for eating a vegetable is covered by the earlier bracha on the karpas.

Immediately after this, we aim to fulfil Hillel’s opinion through korech, eating matza and maror together. Following this, we eat our Yom Tov meal and bentsch, as well as completing the cycle of slavery-freedom by finding and eating the Afikoman.


By this point in the Haggada, we have been redeemed from slavery. We have eaten a celebratory meal and fulfilled the mitzvot so the obvious next step is to praise Hashem for this through saying Hallel. This is unique because it is the only time we say Hallel in our homes and not as part of a minyan, and it is the only time of year we say it at night. Whereas our regular recitation of Hallel in Shul is a thanksgiving for a miracle that occurred in the past, this is a ‘spontaneous’ singing of Hallel due to the fact that we have just experienced redemption from Egypt. This is a wonderful example of how the guidelines of Seder night allow us to transcend the boundaries of time and place through physical actions and words said around a family table. Following Hallel, we conclude the Seder with a collection of songs and praises, as well as the ultimate hope of ‘next year in Jerusalem’.

Seder Night Guide 1 (Introduction to the Seder)

We are required to eat a meal in the evening and morning of every Shabbat and Yom Tov – so what makes the first day(s) of Pesach so different that we make such a big fuss? Seder night even has its own book – the Haggada! This guide will outline the structure and principles of what we are trying to do on Seder night.

Let’s start by looking at which of these 14 components form part of the regular Yom Tov meal: The most obvious are Kadesh (1), referring to Kiddush, and Barech (12), which is bentsching. Parts 6, 7 and 10 are also familiar as they are the Yom Tov meal. But there’s a lot different about this night.

After Kiddush, why do we wash and eat karpas - when do we ever wash before eating vegetables? And why do we not make a bracha?

When the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) stood, one washed hands before dipping vegetables in water without a bracha for reasons of purity (some still do this today, though it’s not necessary). A major principle of Seder Night is to recreate life as if there was a Beit Hamikdash and prepare for the coming of the third one. Therefore when we eat the karpas we wash beforehand without a bracha. Some Haggadot say that only the leader of the Seder should do this. It doesn’t matter who does, since the act is merely symbolic and not a Mitzvah (like Rachtza – see section 6).

However why have karpas at all? Another principle of the Seder is that every Jew should feel like nobility. Since it was the custom of the rich to have an apperatif before the meal, we all indulge in this pleasure, though in a slight reminder of the bitterness of slavery we dip the karpas into salt water. This idea is also why the Mishna in Pesachim 10:1 says that everyone should ensure that every Jew, however poor, has enough money for 4 cups of wine – because on this night, we are all rich!

In Yachatz, we break the middle of three matzot on the Seder plate, half of which is used later for the Afikoman (see section 11). We have two matzot to fulfil the standard requirement of eating two loaves for every Shabbat or Yom Tov evening meal, but why the third?

One reason is to represent hoarding provisions on the way out of Egypt – but we’re only truly free when we don’t have to ‘ration’ our food because we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. Yachatz symbolises our slave mentality and it’s only after we get redeemed through the course of the Seder that we can re-connect the two halves and feel truly free. The process of re-connecting the halves is Tzafun (section 11), which means ‘hidden’, representing how we bring out the hidden. In fact, Afikoman in Aramaic could derive from the phrase ‘afiku man’, which means ‘bring out the manna’ and refers to the miraculous continuous provision of food by Hashem throughout the Jewish people’s time in the desert.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

New Year's Day

Rosh Chodesh Nisan is not usually referred to as the start of the new Jewish year - that honour goes to 1st Tishrei, which is designated as Rosh Hashanah. However the opening Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah explains that there are actually four Jewish new years, as this table shows:

1st Nisan
Counting years of Jewish kings
The cycle of festivals (e.g. Pesach is 1st festival of year)
1st Elul
Tithing (starting the count of animals to see that the tenth is given to Cohanim)
1st Tishrei
Counting years (e.g. 5772)
Counting Shemitta years (every 7)
Counting Yovel/Jubilee years (every 50)
Tithing (see above – but only according to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon)
15th Shevat*
Trees (*According to Beit Shammai this is on 1st Shevat)

In today's world where we have no Jewish king or Beit Hamikdash, the two most relevant dates here are 1st Nisan and 1st Tishrei. One is the start of the Jewish festival calendar and one is the start of the Jewish year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where 1st January is the start of the new year and January is also the first month, in the Jewish calendar, 1st Tishrei may be the start of the new year but it is the seventh month - the first month is Nisan. Therefore in Judaism there are two different cycles - the cycle of months and the cycle of years.

There are lots of interesting comparisons and contrasts between these two new years. The two start dates of these two cycles are exactly six months apart, which means that the Jewish year can be divided neatly into two periods. They also both signal the start of seasons - 1st Nisan heralds the start of spring whereas 1st Tishrei is the beginning of autumn. The months of Nisan and Tishrei contain some of the key festivals in the Jewish calendar (Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot etc) and are both considered happy months, throughout much of which we do not say Tachanun.

It is well-publicised that the theme of the month of Tishrei is teshuva, returning to Hashem. At this time we work on rectifying mistakes, doing more mitzvot and focusing on improving our character in the year ahead. However there is also reason to suggest 1st Nisan is a time for teshuva too. However the focus is less on our own personal religious journey but that of the Jewish people as a nation. Jews are always part of a dichotomy between the individual and the communal and our need to function in both spheres is reflected by these two new years. During Nisan, we should be doing collective teshuva as a nation looking at rectifying past mistakes and seeing how we can improve together. This is something that Binyamin Netanyahu would do well to focus on when putting together a coalition government for Israel.