Friday, 18 December 2015

Post-Chanukah Depression

Is anyone suffering from post-Chanukah depression? This condition is unique to Chanukah, for most other festivals have a happy ending. The story of Pesach ends with the giving of the Torah at Shavuot. The wandering in the desert, as celebrated at Sukkot, ends with the Jewish people reaching the Promised Land. On Purim the Jewish people are physically saved and the centre of Jewish life moves to Israel, where the Second Temple was taking shape.

For all the joy, miracles and salvations we experience on Chanukah, it all comes crashing down when we internalise the reality of what happened afterwards...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Israel’s leadership and the challenge of consensus

It’s getting unbearably hot in Israel. The aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attack, which bears all the hallmarks of being carried out by Jews, has led to anger, outrage and a sense that something needs to happen, fast. And rightly so — Israelis and Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s tolerant society and respect for all human lives, whether Jewish or not.

The problem is that many of the reactions from Israel’s leadership, however understandable, are lacking, and don’t present a real solution to the huge challenges Israel faces.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Reflections on visiting the King Solomon Israel Trip

I was privileged to spend Shabbat with the King Solomon Israel Trip two weeks ago, as well as seeing them at the Kotel on Tuesday night, just before they returned to the UK. In addition to being special on a personal level, since I taught many of the students in my time at the school, I believe it was a truly unique trip, and I'd like to share some thoughts about it.

1) The ruach on Shabbat was truly one of the most incredible I have ever experienced in my life - and I have merited to eat many a Shabbat meal with groups of young people. Everyone without exception stood on their chairs and sang at the tops of their voices - there was a palpable feeling in the room that something unique was happening. When you consider that tefilla and Jewish songs do not play a large role in the school, this is all the more remarkable. What I take from this is that Israel allowed these young people to express themselves in ways they aren't able to do in a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish school. In Israel, they felt free to be Jewish, sing Jewish and keep Shabbat (even though most do not keep Shabbat at home). Only here was I able to fully appreciate the words of our Sages, "The air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise", meaning that it has a transformational impact on people's lives.

2) Conversations with some of my former students reminded me of some key principles of education, which it is always important to remind oneself of: Never write anyone off - one of the children who was particularly disobedient in my Jewish Studies classes and could have been dismissed as 'disinterested' three years ago, was the same one who made up an optional Mincha minyan, and who is passionate about returning to Israel next year. There is not a moment when an educator is 'off-duty' - it was fascinating recalling events of years gone by, and being surprised at what still stands in their memories (usually the out-of-the-ordinary hadracha-style lessons and personal comments as opposed to the most content-heavy lessons!). Remember people's names, personalities and stories - young people want to be remembered more than they want to be taught.

3) In the time I was with the group, a few people tried to derail the amazing educational experience that was being had, namely the hotel manager who stormed into the dining room and told the group to stop singing so loudly and the two outwardly-religious men at the Kotel who told the group to be quiet when they were singing Jewish songs. If only they had known what experience they had the effect of damaging, I thought. But then, when I tried to explain it to one of them, he wasn't prepared to engage in any form of conversation. For this insensitivity, lack of understanding of one's fellow and unwillingness to engage in dialogue, I mourn this Tisha B'Av.

4) It is quite clear that what King Solomon students need most of all are madrichim, to serve as proud, Jewish role models that they can aspire to. They had them on the trip, and loved them. Sadly, because of the demise of youth groups in North East London - particularly JYSG, whose niche has never been filled and whose closure has been thoroughly tragic for the community - they are not exposed to many Jewishly-inspired madrichim, or for that matter, Jewish Studies teachers. To anyone in London reading this blog, who has the ability to fulfil this role as a formal teacher or in an informal capacity, I encourage you to get involved, and try and make a difference to a community that really needs you. You will be as enriched by the experience as they will!

Despite the fact that there are many challenges maintaining Jewish identity and education within the North East London Jewish community, I hope these words serve as a comfort to those who are working for it, and a motivation to those who could. The Jewish youth of King Solomon High School deserve only the best that the wider community can provide.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Jerusalem Day: Reroute the parade, reframe the day

I've changed my mind, though the High Court haven't. For years I've been uneasy about the Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) Flag Parade taking place in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem due to the provocative actions of some marchers, but this year I have become unequivocal.

The catalyst for this was my Facebook feed. Prior to Yom Ha'atzmaut, social media is filled with expressions of pride and joy at Israel's achievements, hope for the future and a religious appreciation of the miracle of the State of Israel. By contrast, the first article I saw for Yom Yerushalayim spoke of racism, incitement and "chilul Hashem" (sacrilege).

The full article can be found on my Times of Israel blog.

Monday, 4 May 2015

15th Iyar: The Origins of the Omer

“They journeyed from Elim, and the entire community of the children of Israel came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moshe and against Aharon in the desert. The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death” (Shemot 16:1-3).

In the Jewish calendar, we see many months contain an historical event of note on the fifteenth of the month, for example Pesach, Shushan Purim and Tu B'Av. The essence of these months are defined by the month's central event, hence Nisan is considered the month of redemption. I would like to suggest that in the same manner, the month of Iyar is also defined by the event that took place on its fifteenth of the month: the giving of the manna.

In the first year of the Exodus, the Jewish people did not have an easy journey from leaving slavery in Egypt to arriving at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. They had five major difficulties on the way: war with Egypt at the Yam Suf; no water at Marah; no food in Midbar Sin; no water at Masa U'merivah; war with Amalek at Refidim. Of these, the most serious and fundamental challenge to the Jewish people and its relationship with God was the manna, given by God in response to their complaints of food.

It is the complaint of food that first brought the accusation against Moshe and Aharon that their entire motive of the Exodus was to starve the people. Beforehand, when the people complained about a lack of water, their complaints did not reach this level of criticism, as they simply asked 'What shall we drink?' The manna, as a response to this complaint, was certainly the most difficult change for the people to implement. They struggled with the idea that they had to take all of the manna that fell, and not leave any for the morning - and even more so on Friday, when they had to trust that the food would last them two days.

Following years of slavery, the people could deal with the challenges of war, which required an immediate salvation. They could also deal with the challenge of a lack of water, since if it was there, they would drink it, and if it wasn't they would ask and immediately receive it. Yet the challenge of not being able to make food constituted a fundamental change in attitudes to daily life. It is not natural or pleasant to be reliant on someone else to provide food for one's family. However bad slavery was, it allowed people a modicum of this aspect of normal life.

The purpose of the manna, and the reason why it needed to be eaten for an entire generation, was to inculcate in the people the fundamental truth that wherever they are in the world, all sustenance is ultimately bestowed by God. The manna was never intended to be an ideal. Rather, it was a practice for the ultimate test: living in the Land of Israel, working in agriculture, producing one's own food and realising that at every turn, the final product was only possible due to God's guiding hand and providence.

It is fascinating, therefore, that the first time we encounter the word 'omer', it is in the context of the giving of the manna on the fifteenth of Iyar, and appears six times in the chapter. The omer is a measurement, and the amount for each person to take of manna each day. The Torah is very precise about this, mentioning that the people measured it, and describing the omer relative to other measurements (it was a tenth of an ephah).

And it is this very same measurement that the Jewish people are commanded to bring before God as an offering, "when they come to the Land...and you reap its harvest" (Vayikra 23:10). The Torah in brief, and the Mishna in detail, explain how the Cohen waves the omer before God as a sign of the people's acknowledgement that it is God who gives sustenance to the people. The significance of using an omer's worth of produce should not be missed: it is through the omer of manna that the people internalised this truth.

The ritual of Seder Night teaches us to appreciate our political reality - freedom as opposed to slavery, and how it was God who gave us it. The ritual of the Omer teaches us to appreciate something even more fundamental: our very existence as human beings depends on His sustenance. Perhaps this is why the Omer ritual was to be performed on the sixteenth of Nisan, the very next day after Pesach and the Seder night.

Yet the Torah does not merely proscribe the internalisation of this message to one day. Rather, after describing the Korban Omer (Omer sacrifice) performed by the Cohen, the Torah commands each and every person to count "for themselves" the days from when the Omer was first brought (16th Nisan) for seven complete weeks (Vayikra 23:15), after which a 'new offering' of bread is brought, on the holiday known as Shavuot. Through these mitzvot, we see that the process of the Omer is an individual and national journey of appreciating the level of interaction between God and the Jewish people. God is not 'merely' a power that can free the people from slavery, or conjure up water, but rather nurtures us constantly, creating the conditions by which man can produce his own food, and live each day in appreciation of how he is able to do it.

A month after the Exodus, the fifteenth of Iyar saw the biggest challenge of the post-Exodus plan. In the same way that the short-term response to it was far-reaching in its ramifications, with the people eating manna for 40 years, the long-term response was similarly far reaching, with the mitzvah of counting the Omer encompassing every day of the month of Iyar each year. Therefore as we count the Omer today, like all other days, and internalise the reality that God is the ultimate source of all our physical day-to-day needs, we transform a day that could have created an irreparable rift between the Jewish people and God to one that cements our interdependence, and everlasting relationship.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Israeli Elections Day: The Festival of Freedom

Whether right, left or centre, the one thing all Israelis agree on is that they are happy today is a national holiday. As a religious person, it makes a pleasant change to have a day off that doesn't include biblically-ordained restrictions. As a British person, it seems bizarre to miss a whole day of work for an action that takes a few minutes. But I have come to realise that the reason why we don't work is because today is truly a national holiday.

For most of the campaign, I have imagined that holiday to be somewhat of an extension of Purim. The extravagant warnings of dire consequences of voting for the other side that we constantly hear. The numerous amount of humourous political video clips. Netanyahu's narrative that if we don't vote for him, the Persians will finally succeed in destroying the Jews, who only he can save. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last few months of Israeli politics, but I wish it had only remained in the realm of the 'Purim Spiel'.

However as the day approached and the time came to finally decide who I was going to vote for, I realised that Election Day can really be compared to Pesach, the time of our freedom. On Purim, the Jews were bystanders as Mordechai and Esther contrived to save the Jewish people, but on Pesach every family and person made their own contribution to the Exodus by sacrificing the Korban Pesach and painting blood on the door. A small act, and indeed nothing on the scale of Moshe and Aharon's actions - let alone God's - but an act nonetheless. The moment when the people defied their Egyptian taskmasters and followed this mitzvah was when they became a free people, placing their destiny in their own hands.

My individual act of voting may seem a small act, making relatively little impact when cast alone. But as part of a nation, we as a collective are able to choose our own destiny. Today is a modern day Chag Hacherut, festival of freedom. It is unlike other Jewish festivals, both modern and ancient, in one stark way: You have to live in Israel. It is possible to celebrate great historical events and miracles anywhere in the world, but to create the history for future generations, you can only be in this land.

And it was for this purpose that I made Aliyah. When I vote in an Israeli election, I am able to play a part in shaping the future for the world's only Jewish state, and in fact the Jewish people entire. Rather than speculating and analysing from afar, I now have to get off the fence, choose a direction and be prepared to face the consequences. In football terms, it's the difference between being a commentator and a manager. Being a manager is much harder, and forces you to take risks - but that's how success is achieved.

It was only after this realisation that I decided how I would vote. One of my options was to vote for one of the two main parties because Israel would benefit from two-party dominance, and this would assuage the concerns I had in voting that party in. Another option was to vote tactically, based on who I would prefer to be Prime Minister, how the coalition negotiations would pan out and what I think other voters would end up doing on the day. But as much as I believe in the two-party system, and as much as I am fascinated by the coalition permutations to Carling Opta proportions, those shouldn't be reasons why I should vote for a certain party. With one vote, I can't second guess the entire population, and I can't single-handedly change the political system in one day.

Rather, I will vote for the party that I believe has the best vision for what Israel should look like tomorrow, with the desire to work tirelessly towards that goal. After all, that's what I came to the country to do. And as I prepare to place my card in the ballot box, I will for the first time understand the line of the Hatikvah, "To be a free people in our land". Chag Sameach!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Guide to the Persian Elections 2015

It's been a year of turmoil for Persian politics. Following a year of war, internal palace backstabbing and political maneuvering, Persians are once again going to the polls. Here's a short overview of the leading candidates and parties aiming to take control of Persia in the elections taking place in Adar 2015.


Led by Achashveirosh, nicknamed "King Achashveirosh", who is entering his 12th year in charge of the party, the Likud are seen as the most likely party to win the Persian elections. However recently the party has been rocked by an expenses scandal involving Achashveirosh's excessive spending at feasts paid for by taxes which he levied. Achashveirosh's major platform is security, and preventing the Greeks from obtaining a nuclear javelin. However, many people point to the wars, civil unrest and attempted assassinations and question Achashveirosh's security credentials. Despite all this, Achashveirosh's fluent declarations in each people's language and script still make him a strong candidate, and polls show that he is still liked by "most of his brethren".

Persian Union

The newly-formed Persian Union is the main challenger to Achashveirosh for the kingship, and their 'it's us or him' campaign, and calls for a 'revolution' have succeeded in making this a two-horse race around Shushan. The surprise of the campaign was the alliance of two former political rivals, Haman and Vashti, who have committed to sharing the throne in the next term of office should they win the election. The two leaders come from contrasting backgrounds; whereas Haman has always been a rival of Mordechai and a champion of the left, Vashti has had a nomadic career, which started with her being second on Achashveirosh's list, a position which ended when she refused to come to a crucial cabinet meeting and was subsequently sacked by him. Haman's lack of charisma means that he faces a battle to win over the electorate, who regularly make fun of his voice at public events all over the country.

Mordechai Hayehudi

Formerly known as the National Religious Party, the Mordechai Hayehudi party promotes the Jewish people's return to the homeland and is hawkish on many issues of religion and state. It's main platform is that Persia's provincial system does not work, and it wants Shushan to annex two thirds of Persia's 127 provinces and bring them under Persian law. This would mean that controversial laws such as 'making each man dominion over his wife' would be extended, thus placing into question Mordechai's attempts to modernise the party (though this is slightly mitigated by his placing of Esther as number 2 on his list). His publicity stunt of not bowing down to Haman, and social media campaign encouraging others to not bow down to things they don't worship, has elicited criticisms of scaremongering. However Mordechai, who once worked as Chief of Staff of Achashveirosh's office, is increasingly being touted for the top job in Persia.

Yesh Atid

This relatively new party was formed by Bigtan before the last elections, and took the country by storm. Previously a TV show host, Bigtan was famous for his on-screen partnership with Teresh, and the two co-hosted famous shows such as 'Persian Idol' and 'Xerxes Factor', which eventually produced Esther as a celebrity wife for Achashveirosh. Bigtan's political career soured following a fall-out with Achashveirosh, where the latter famously accused Bigtan of trying to mount a coup. The situation escalated when Mordechai told Achashveirosh that Bigtan was preparing an assassination attempt on him, and Achashveirosh subsequently dissolved the government. Disgraced, and the loser of a personal political dual with Mordechai, Bigtan is not expected to win many seats this time around.


Culanu is a new party led by Charvonah, and could be the surprise package of this election. Charvona is seen as a populist, whose main platform is the targeting of rich magnates who inflict evil on the population. His sudden rise to fame came in preventing Haman from destroying the Jewish people by hanging him on the gallows he made for Mordechai. However aides of Achashveirosh are at pains to point out that this policy was only successful due to Achashveirosh's strong leadership and approval of the plan. That being said, it was Charvona who took the credit and will be remembered for good.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue: End of an Era

This article was written for the Shul Times, the newsletter of Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue, Parashat Beshallach 5775.

"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us" - Sir Winston Churchill, MP for Wanstead and Woodford

Some shuls are renowned for their beautiful architecture. Others boast an illustrious list of famous rabbis or worshippers. Many can trace their roots back hundreds of years. Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue, in North East London, does not fall into any of these categories. Yet as we approach its final Shabbat before merging to form a new community, I believe that this shul leaves a legacy far more meaningful than design, history and famous people.

From the outset, the founder members designed a building to fit the needs of the community. The creation of multi-purpose open spaces as opposed to fixed furniture allowed the shul to be a 'Beit Knesset', a house of assembly, in the fullest sense of the word. And I would suggest that the very nature of the building has shaped the community: whereas some shuls prioritise the preservation of the building above all else, in Wanstead and Woodford, the focus was always on the people, not the building. We'll move the chairs and pews to fit the purpose, because that's what the community needs. We aren't beholden to what was, but rather embrace change to fit the present. Every person is important and precious.

These attitudes explain why when I was growing up, young people were encouraged to take part in services, hold youth service 'takeovers' of the main shul, run our own youth minyan, have free rein of the shul to run a very successful branch of Bnei Akiva and even paint a 'BA room' in a classroom! Shabbatot and chagim were geared towards children, and we were encouraged to take part in every aspect of shul life. It was in Wanstead and Woodford that I learned how to daven, leyen, give a shiur, dance at a simcha, run an event, speak to people of all ages, hold an explanatory service - and above all, care about the Jewish people. And it's not just me - many of my friends and peers gained tremendously from the responsibility they undertook, and it's no surprise to see those who grew up in Wanstead and Woodford active in all fields of Jewish life, such as J-Soc activists, youth movement workers, teachers, school governors, rabbis and much more.

The constant focus on education is entrenched in the nature of the Wanstead and Woodford community. When there was an educational programme after the Shabbat morning service, I was often amazed to see well over half of those who came in the morning staying to learn Torah. For many years, the shul's own nursery, staffed mainly by teachers from the community, gave hundreds of children a great start in life, and connected them and their families with their local shul. I have been privileged to run explanatory services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a project which grew in interest each year in spite of declining numbers at High Holydays services.

One of the most incredible aspects of the shul has been the absolute determination to maintain the highest religious standards, and particularly to ensure there is always a minyan. In the face of an ageing community and a gradual exodus to North West London of committed members, the fact that a daily Shacharit minyan has been maintained appears nothing short of a miracle, but was made a reality by a small group of dedicated people. I don't ever remember a time when more than 15 people came to Shabbat Mincha on a regular basis, but I have also never heard anyone question the viability of holding it.

However, the minyan wasn't just about getting 10 men and rushing through the service. There was always time to daven, time to sing Hallel, and sing new tunes. In recent years, a 'Carlebach' Kabbalat Shabbat became the norm, not the exception, including frequent bursts of dancing. Even the saying of 'Ma'aravot' and 'Veyiten Lecha' signalled a desire to go above and beyond, adding more holiness to the service. Whether it was the Hakafot on Simchat Torah led by the youth, which always lasted for hours, or Neilah services, with the entire shul singing loudly, Wanstead and Woodford has provided many people with countless religious experiences that are truly without parallel.

At the heart of all the amazing things listed above is the fact that the community displays a genuine warmth and kindness. Welcoming guests, raising money for tzedaka and Shabbat hospitality are just a few examples of the trait of chesed that runs through the shul. I am truly privileged to have been surrounded by these people for many years, and the community has been one of the greatest influences on my life. To have been a part of the Wanstead and Woodford community is one of the greatest honours I will ever have, and I will be forever indebted to all those who founded, maintained and led it. And the greatest testament to what Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue stands for is its decision to place the future ahead of the past and merge to form a new shul, Woodford Forest United Synagogue, which will serve the needs of the community for many years to come. B'hatzlacha!