Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5773

I would like to open my sermon tonight by asking for forgiveness from those amongst you who may feel wronged by me. There may be different reasons for this feeling, but I respect its possibility and am sorry for any mistakes I may have made – I am who I am and am aware that not everyone is able to tolerate every style of Rabbi. I will say extremely clearly however that in all I do, I have the interests of our community in my mind always – a community that I have so much good feeling and respect for. A community that I have celebrated with and a community that I have mourned deeply with. A community that challenges me constantly and so has encouraged me to develop my thinking on a range of topics.

One of the most moving relationships I have had as a Rabbi, was with an individual who had survived the Holocaust. He was born in a small town in central Poland and had been taken to Aushwitz as a young teenager from where he was taken on a death march and eventually liberated. Martin had found it hard to come to Shul for a long time. It reminded him of his family Synagogue back in Poland, that had been destroyed. It reminded him of his family, most of which had been murdered. And so he found it hard to come. But we hit it off and connected, and in time he found it much easier to come. Some attention, love and a listening ear were so important for this individual.

For us as a community, it is possible to say that a barometer of how inclusive we are, and how concerned we are about each other is a function of whether everyone is able to feel comfortable in the Synagogue on say a Shabbat morning, or on Yom Tovim or of course on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And this condition extends from those who regularly go to Shul to the many groups of individuals that come into our Synagogue less regularly but that nevertheless are members of the Synagogue.

How do those who are single mothers feel in Synagogue being there in the knowledge that there are so many married couples filling the Synagogue? How do those couples who cannot have children feel seeing so many children happily run around? How do those in mourning for a parent or other relative manage to deal with being in Shul? How do those suffering from illness feel able to drum up the strength to be in Shul and be asked by so many people how they are? How do parents with children with special needs and possibly diagnosed behavioural difficulties feel able to cope with the effects of their child’s behaviour in Shul, and the anticipated shushing by members of the community?  The ability for these individuals to cope, will be a function of how much as a community we are able to look around and listen to what is going on with those we know – and learn how to be able to listen to those we do not know as well.

I am going to explain this another way. I believe that at the present, here in 2012, at the beginning of the Jewish year 5773, Muswell Hill Synagogue is doing really well, Muswell Hill Synagogue is vibrant. And what is more, the vibrancy we have here is not expected to come from the Rabbi alone but is being talked about and acted upon by members and by the Board of Management. We have a flowering, burgeoning Cheder – did you know that 117 children enrolled in our Cheder this year? It has been lead well, governed well, has a great curriculum, teaches Hebrew reading and since I came in 2008 we have added 4 extra years – a Bar/Batmitzvah programme and a GCSE programme which have attracted great numbers. We are serious about Adult Education with our new B’yachad programme. We are serious about Israel here in Muswell Hill, and we are also serious about Holocaust education, hence our commemoration of the Holocaust in January and on Yom Hashoah as well as a trip to Poland which I am looking to repeat next year. We continue to organise great social events as a community. We host a Nursery that continues to thrive. The process to build an Eruv in Muswell Hill has taken on big steps this year. Other communities are moving forwards towards an Eruv and I am passionate that we cannot be left behind, an island where no one who wants to keep Shabbat would want to join if neighbouring communities had an Eruv. If you think an Eruv will bring an influx of ultra orthodox Jews, you are mistaken. But to deny the possibility for religious Jews to live and be a part of our community would seem absurd, and clearly against the inclusive nature of our ethos. And don’t forget that we have two wonderful, caring Youth Directors who have already made connections and impact with so many teenagers and children. They have so much more in store this year – and their hiring is a clear communal commitment to providing for our youth. I recently had a conversation with a teenager – and I asked him what he thought of our Youth Directors. He said that he was really impressed with them – and this is the best bit – and that they were young! I was of course initially crest-fallen…I mean I am not even 40 yet! But I realised that however much I develop relationships with the young, having two Directors working in this with a caring pastoral approach will mean so much more can be done. At the end of the day, I may be cool for some – but I am the Rabbi!

So we are doing really well, we are in a great position and we are a community that if it works out its membership strategy, can attract more members than at present we have.

But I am not interested tonight in talking about membership expansion. What I am interested tonight is something that can be wonderful. That can be beautiful. And that is that we need to knit this community together into a loving and caring community. As with any community, we are made up of different groups of people. Different backgrounds. Different life experiences. Different age groups. Different aspirations. There may be connections between different groups – but often there are none. So here is the challenge – to knit ourselves together. To build ourselves into a real Jewish community. A community that is built on Chesed, on loving kindness.

And I can tell you that there is no better day to think about this than on Yom Kippur. You see Yom Kippur shares a lot with Shabbat. Shabbat is a day when we shun the material that defines our lives. We stop working, driving, using our mobile phones. Shabbat is a day of the soul – and in this realm we are all united – I am sure there are some Mancunians who would have loved to record that statement!!. There are no differences – we all rest from life in the same way. Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton – it takes this unity of the soul to another level. Not only are we resting from work – we are resting from eating, drinking, washing and other pleasures. Do you see what I have done here – it is not that we are being commanded to fast – we are being commanded to rest from eating. So on Yom Kippur we are all in it together. We all come to Shul. We all fast. We all suffer about 3pm tomorrow in the same way. And hopefully – and this is such a critical point – we will all ask our neighbour, or someone we come across during the day, how they are faring, how they are feeling, how they are coping. So let me state it again – today, Yom Kippur is a day of unity for each and every jewish community.

But it is a day whose unity offers up an opportunity. Because at the end of Yom Kippur we will all be racing back home to break the fast – and we will be catapulted speedily back from the 10 Days of Teshuva into the year, into our lives again. Any connections with those we met and did not have any connection with before Yom Kippur will be gone. We may have all been in the same room together – we may have been a true community in unity on this holy day of Yom Kippur – but that will vanish and be experienced again at the next Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we can become closer and overcome the barriers that exist naturally in life – when the shofar is blown tomorrow night, the barriers will go up again and the chance lost.

This idea is beautifully explained by one of the great Chassidic Rabbis of the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leib Alter of Ger. His source is a famous Talmudic statement that states that one cannot receive atonement for sins that occur between one person and another without having appeased the other person first. If one sins to God, then teshuva, committing not to sin again is enough. But this is not enough when someone sins against another individual – one must surely make up with them first. In other words, there are sins that cause a split to occur between people. And this does not have to be only obvious misdeeds such as stealing – it can be bearing a grudge against someone, not liking someone, judging someone by their behaviour, developing a negative impression of someone. But on Yom Kippur it is about appeasing people – it is about becoming closer to people, not judging them, not talking negatively about them. This is the unity of Yom Kippur,  that we are removing the barriers that exist between us – and really achieving a pure fulfilment of the verse ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.

And there is a will, an energy in this community to be there for the other. We just had a successful morning for potential volunteers, to which many prospective volunteers turned up and many more said they were interested. We now know that there are many who want to help and be there for others – the challenge now is to organise and coordinate this desire from many members of the community and channel it to the benefit of others. We see each year how Mitzvah Day works so well – and this is a combination of good organisation and coordination with a large communal desire to give up time and help someone. Mitzvah Day has been so good for this community and we look forward to supporting it this year and for many more years to come. It is a model we should be and I am sure will follow in the immediate future.

And so it is of course about capturing the energy of ‘Love your neighbour’ from this time of the year, bottling it and using it throughout the year. It is about getting to know your neighbour. It is about listening to your neighbour. As I say so often, it is about listening to their story. I have to say that I love Yom Kippur for this and see it is a mission – and I am not a missionary type of person – to education people to think of Yom Kippur not as a solemn, sad or serious day – but a happy and joyous day. We rejoice that God forgives us today – and we rejoice that we become one as a community.

And we are even given an immediate opportunity to act on our new found closeness to others around us. Because immediately after Yom Kippur, within days comes Succot. It is amazing how well our calendar works, how God’s wisdom applied to when our festivals fall out. On Yom Kippur we draw closer to God, and we draw closer to others around us. In fact on Yom Kippur, our people should have as a whole feelings of peace and friendship towards other religions and peoples, feelings that should inspire how we feel throughout the year. And so with Succot we take these feelings and give them real application. Our closeness to God pours into the doing of mitzvoth such as Succah and Lulav – after praying all day, we are ready to serve God with something, through something – and Succah and Lulav are the answers. Our feelings of love to the non-Jew become rooted in our praying for rain not just for us – but for the whole world – we want nowhere to suffer from famine and starvation.

And our closeness – well Succot, and in fact the end of Yom Kippur gives us a tremendous opportunity – to invite someone new into our home who needs a meal for Succot or who would love to come back with you and break the fast. You need not look far. See over Yom Kippur if there is someone near you who you could invite back after the fast or for one of the many Succot meals. You would by so doing, be taking the energy of closeness we feel on Yom Kippur, and putting it into action – in fact you would be ensuring that the unity of Yom Kippur does not stop at the end of the festival, with the blowing of the Shofar but carries on through the value of hospitality. And if you have some spaces at the table let myself or Sara Boxer who is in charge of coordinating welfare, know that you would like to invite someone. Let’s start the year, how we mean to go on – putting people first.


And I have to say, this has always been my belief and conviction as a Rabbi – that what is most important is the people who make up the community. While it is true that I would always want to strengthen the orthodox identity of the community and its religious base; while I would want the values of the Torah to be what is behind the running of our community – that identity cannot leave a distance between itself and those who pay to be part of the community. It is sometimes important to build a fence around the Torah to protect it – it is after all precious to us, as it has been throughout our history. But if we build too many fences we will be shielding its beauty from the very people, from all of you who are part of this community. So we need to invest in people. That is the thinking behind a coordinated welfare structure, where some organise a network of volunteers and many others become part of this pool of volunteers. It is about helping those in need, but also about allowing those who want to help and support others a way to channel their blessed desire.

And there are times everyone when this need to invest in our members requires serious financial input. I want to take an example that this year is a central part of our Kol Nidrei Appeal. Our Youth Directors. We have hired Youth Directors before. This is not our first time at this. But we are seeing already how positive it can be for our young to have Youth Directors who care about them and want to engage with them. We must remember, we have an adult membership of about 610 individuals, men and women. But in terms of those between birth and 18 years old, we must have nearly 350 young members. And this is a constant challenge to deal with – because children, and even more teenagers need to feel wanted by the community. And however much they may get on with the Rabbi – as I said before, I am still the Rabbi, with grey hairs beginning to fill out his beard. Our Youth Directors Matt and Eliot have reached people that we did not yet reach and have great potential to impact on many of those from years 3 up to years 13. They are planning soon a club on Shabbat for years 3 up to 6 which I would highly recommend and ask parents of children in those years to really give it a try – you will not be disappointed.

But this all costs. It is not cheap – and so tonight we need your help. Give generously tonight to our Kol Nidrei appeal and you will be helping myself and the community together move forwards  a vision of investing in the needs of our members and their families. Help us allow the Youth Directors to have the financial backing that they can offer regular hospitality to our young members. Help us to ensure that our Youth Directors can live in our area and so be close to Shul, our members and be able to invite over teenagers to their house to give them the warmth of Shabbat hospitality. In terms of inviting teenagers over and giving them meals on Shabbatot, Eliot and Matt are a model to all of us.

And through a successful Youth Director programme this year, which can be made even better with your help tonight we will also benefit more from the support and work of Tribe, the young United Synagogue wing.  Let us remind ourselves, that Tribe was created to inspire young people to be proud of their Jewish identity and become active members of our communities. To achieve this Tribe run a variety of initiatives, including the Tribe Baby Gift Pack, Summer Schemes and Camps, Learn to Lead programmes, Israel Tour, Campus Ambassadors and TCM (Tribe Community Membership). Tribe has contributed significantly to supporting youth activities in Muswell Hill and is an important channel for our efforts to create a vibrant context for young people in our own and the wider Jewish community.

And with that we turn to our Israel vision at this year’s Kol Nidrei appeal. Our Israel vision, in supporting the Ayalim organisation, is firmly based on helping the people of Israel, in the State of Israel. Ayalim believe in what they call 21st Century Zionism, a Zionism that is centred on helping society, and working in the what is known in Israel as the periphery. Ayalim set up student villages in the north of Israel and in the Negev where students receive accommodation and in return must give a number of hours of their time each week to work with a local community. This may include working with children or youth, as well as cleaning local areas or helping to build important facilities.

I visited Ayalim in 2007 while Rabbi in Kingston when I went on a UJIA trip for Rabbis. I know also that a small group of our members have visited Ayalim and taken a great interest in what it does. They do such important work in each of the many student villages scattered around Israel. The students work with the elderly, support children, work with young families, and run women’s empowerment programmes. This really is a project that puts society and social involvement at the heart of all it does – and so as a community that values social involvement so much let us support Ayalim tonight as part of our Kol Nidrei appeal. Let us show our love for the State of Israel, by showing our love for the society in Israel and an organisation that does so much to make it a better, more ethical place to live.

And let’s not forget Tzedek. Tonight by giving generously, and I really encourage you to give generously; you will be giving for our those who are part of our community, for those are part of the State of Israel – and also for those who are not of our religion. We have supported Tzedek for many years and we are really proud of our communal involvement with the organisation. This year our contribution to Tzedek will go towards funding a vocational training organisation in Nalanda which is in the state of Bihar in northern India. 150 individuals benefit annually from training in trades of tailoring, carpentry, mobile phone repairs, crafts and becoming a beautician. Here the most disadvantaged are given an economic future.

So we are focussing this year on caring – caring for our young members and making them feel wanted in this community side by side with supporting Tribe to carry on innovating. Allowing Ayalim to do so much pastoral work in Israel and supporting Tzedek in its amazing micro investments, specifically for us in India. It is a wonderful opportunity to give to some amazing, worthwhile and meaningful causes. It is a chance to help to change lives for the better.