Rosh Hashanah Address 5778
Ist Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5778/2017 by Susannah Okret
The Haftorah we heard today is the story of Hannah, a woman desperate for a child, and despairing that those around her do not respect this longing. Her husband asks – am I not enough? And the priest in the temple, Eli, on seeing her lips move during her pleas to God - believes her to be drunk and reprimands her behaviour. Hannah’s response to feeling despondent at being judged by both social and religious authorities was to find a path for herself by offering a private and personal prayer directly to God. This was pioneering; this was a time when prayers were said out loud, so Hannah’s actions were courageous and her story had a dramatic impact on Jewish prayer that is still felt today: she spoke from her heart and focused her whole self on this specific prayer, which was answered in the form of the birth of her son, Samuel, whom she promised to the service of God.
The notion of gender specific roles and responsibilities – with the informal roles of child- rearing and keeping the home traditionally taken on by women, and the more formal, public roles by men, (encapsulated in the meeting between Hannah and Eli) is gradually altering, which presents its own challenges.
Writing this has given me pause for thought to reflect on various strands of community: this is the room where the late Wilf Faust - many of you knew Wilf well, but for those who did not, he was a long-standing stalwart of our community, who died in 2002, and is commemorated in the naming of the Wilfred Faust Hall in this building - saw my nerves just before saying kaddish for my mother Ruth in shul for the first time and told me not to worry about what others were thinking but to concentrate on myself and what I was saying meant to me. This exchange was the reverse of Eli’s judgemental scolding of Hannah, which resonates with what we learn from the Haftorah.
My daughter Anna’s Hebrew name is Hannah (our next door neighbour, who adores and spoils the girls, has tried to tell me in hushed tones on more than one occasion that our younger daughter, Mila’s, name means circumcision…) and it is an honour to be addressing you here today in the room where I met their father 11 years ago today. Technically speaking Isaac Garson introduced us in the foyer after the service, but… this is the room where I first saw Ale, sitting near the Ark above which read the inscription Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed (Know Before Whom You Stand), which is inspired by the halacha of focusing in your heart before prayer, of fully concentrating on the action of what you are doing, which is one of the many significant halachot that derive from Hannah’s prayer.
It was here that during the announcements for the Kiddush my brother Bernard Gowers sponsored on the occasion of my engagement to Ale, Jesmond Blumenfled referred to me as a ‘daughter of the community’, and it’s here that Ale and I got married under a chuppah made from the tallit remembering Renee Aronson’s parents, with Freya El Baz amoung our chuppah bearers. It is this tallit that my nephew and niece Felix and Leah (who were delivered by Sarah Montague and Lisa Clayden) are blessed on the Shabbat mornings that they are here in this same building my sister-in-law Kathrin comes to for Shul council meetings and where my mother taught Cheder for over 20 years. It’s here that my mother-in law Ushy, visiting from Buenos Aires, beamed as her granddaughters were named and blessed. And this is the room where I have stood next to Naomi Clayden during Yizkor on Yom Kippor for the last 19 years.
Yet as I have largely lived outside Oxford over the last 20 years, while visiting often, I feel that this provides me an opportunity to reflect on some of the distinctive elements of the kehilla.
I find a great source of comfort in these threads of the congregation that echo the vital nature of community within Judaism. I see that the fact that the Presidents of the OJC I heard giving the Shabbat morning announcements as I was growing up were more often than not women is not usual. Bernard and I were fortunate enough to grow up here in no small part due to the possibilities this congregation offered our mother to transcend traditional gendered roles and live a rich and involved Jewish life unencumbered by social judgementalism.
As Miriam Kochan said of her at her stone setting, mummy was “a totally committed Jew and an active member of the Oxford Jewish community”. She took pleasure in this involvement and would have been overwhelmed by the reaction to her death and the way it seemed to me, through my numbness, to shock and to unite the community in endeavouring to find ways to help me and Bernard in order to honour her. Both of her parents were pillars of the Jewish community in Leicester for many decades, but it was only my grandfather, Papa Eddie, who was able to sit on shul committees. Grannie Rosie was a frequent visitor to the shul in Oxford, who appreciated both the warm welcome she always received, and the manner in which the community functioned – allowing her family to experience our Jewish identity in a way different to her own.
We are fortunate that the Oxford community is usually so supportive, as communities can also be stifling and disapproving: it is all too easy to imagine versions of Eli’s assumption about Hannah in different Jewish contexts, from generation to generation. This sort of judgementalism often stems from what is seen as appropriate for men and women. Attitudes that praise a decisive man yet castigate a bossy woman for the same behaviour (or that praise a nurturing woman while disparaging a weak man) are still deeply embedded. But what I want to focus on is neither the progress that has been made, nor the work still to do. Rather it is the new challenges that are created by the process.Abandoning ready-made gender categories for Jewish practice is liberating but also potentially disturbing. To invert the challenge ‘Know before whom you stand’, we also need to know ourselves, and we have more work to do if we don’t have clearly demarcated gender roles to fall back on.
The danger is that people might not feel they have any role for themselves: for instance a man who isn’t confident in leading synagogue services, but also doesn’t feel it is appropriate to volunteer for the kiddish rota. This needn’t only be through gender, of course. Oxford feels mercifully free from the ‘simcha inflation’ that one sometimes sees elsewhere. It seems to me that here people can celebrate their simchas as they feel appropriate, without fear of social judgement on the nature of their hospitality.
Looking beyond our haftarah, the family stories of Hannah and Eli cast more light on their scene at the sanctuary. The sincere and questioning Hannah became the mother of Samuel, judge and prophet. In contrast Eli’s sons inherited their father's priestly role, but were an intense disappointment. Their greedy and self-indulgent conduct was a sort of precursor to contemporary ‘men behaving badly’. They went far beyond the inappropriate behavior that Eli ascribed to Hannah.
The challenge for Hannah was to find a way to have her prayer heard, in the context of the expectations of gender and community in her world. The challenge to us all, both individually and collectively, is to find the path we want to set ourselves on, and a way to navigate it. Now seems an opportune moment to consider how we may undertake to achieve this during the year to come. I wish you all a Happy and Sweet New Year.
Donations to the Ark Project
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Kol Nidre Address 5777/2016
Kol Nidrei Appeal Oct 2016 by Penny Faust
There's a phrase we use at regular intervals in the High Holy Day services, Oo tshuvah Oo tfillah Oo tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a hagtzerah – ‘And Penitence, Prayer and Charity avert the severe decree’.
It's interesting that the three go together without any indication of which might be most important. We can't cherry pick, we can't decide that we'll do only one or two. In our liturgy, hopefully in our practice, they're linked inextricably together.
But they're not all put into action in the same way. Penitence may be a private affair but we can demonstrate it through what we do both before and during the High Holy Days, and most of that is done publicly. And we spend more time praying as a Congregation in these 25 hours than at any other time in the year - prayer for Jews is particularly public.
Charity is a different matter. Because that's what we do when we go home - in a way it demonstrates at a purely personal level whether we're serious about what we have said in shul. And although we learn later how much the Congregation has raised overall here in Oxford, there's no public recognition of how much we have each given individually or as a family. So charity at Yom Kippur is a matter for each one of us.
In Oxford it's our minhag, our custom, for the Council of the Congregation to choose two charities as the recipients of our donations, one Jewish and one from the wider community.
This year there's a certain synchronicity in the choice that the Council has made. At a time when the standard of living in the West is as great as it's ever been, there are an increasing number of people who cannot afford to feed themselves and their families.
Perhaps this evening, when we have all arrived for Kol Nidrei having eaten well, may be having eaten too well, to prepare ourselves for the Fast, it's particularly appropriate that our chosen charities are two food banks; The Bet Shean Food Bank in Israel and the Oxford Food Bank here. They work in very different ways.
Let me start with the Bet Shean Food Bank, a small local charity which works under the auspices of the umbrella charitable organisation, My Israel.
As you may know, Bet Shean is a very low socio economic area in Israel with much more than its share of disadvantage. The food bank was set up over 20 years ago to help needy families, the elderly, underprivileged children and people who live alone. Its' brief then was specific: to provide hot meals on Shabbat and Holy Days for those in the community who otherwise would not be able to afford them. For us, it may be unimaginable - to be in a situation where it would be considered an impossible luxury to start the Fast with a special meal?
Today there are more than 100 families who need the Bet Shean foodbank. They are drawn from across the local community and include Ethiopian and Russian Jews and those who come from Bet Shean's large Sephardi community. They are referred to the bank by the city's welfare department, local GPs and occasionally by local contacts who know they are in need.
The Bet Shean Foodbank distributes more than 800 portions of hot food and dry goods every Friday afternoon or before Yom Tov. The food itself is largely donated by local kibbutzim, wedding venues and local families. The bank also buys in staple foods locally such as soft drinks, schnitzels, rice and challot.
The bank operates out of a community centre and is staffed entirely by volunteers, mainly teenagers, who meet on Friday mornings to collect, prepare and deliver the food.
In addition, the Food bank, recognising that food is very much part of any family's celebrations, has built a special facility with a kitchen and function room which can be used for family events when appropriate.
The Foodbank has become very much part of the local community extending its remit to meet local needs, distributing second hand clothing and eyewear, and giving assistance for marriage, brit and Bar Mitzvah celebrations.
A typical example of the range of its current activities is demonstrated in the story of Avraham a young man with mental health issues. Aged 21, he was expected to fend for himself in a small totally unfurnished apartment outside Bet Shean. A local contact alerted the food bank who provided a truck full of second hand furniture including a bed and fridge. They also filled his cupboards and the fridge with food. He now receives the standard food package on Shabbats and festivals giving him both nourishment and a feeling of self worth.
Currently the Bet Shean Food bank has set a target of £10,000 specifically to cover the cost of Shabbat and holiday meals.It costs just over £80 to donate a food package for a family of five, to give them appropriate celebratory meals for three days over the High Holy Days or Pesach. They have already raised just over £5000 and are delighted that half of our Yom Kippur Appeal will go as our contribution towards reaching their target.
Oxford Food bank is a very different operation.
Starting with the knowledge that 15 million tons of food are wasted in Britain every year and yet more and more people are going hungry, the Oxford food bank was started in 2009. The formal aims of the foodbank are straightforward: simultaneously to reduce both food waste in the Oxford area and reduce food poverty in the local community.
Its founders had a simple idea: take fresh food that's considered to be waste and destined for animal feed or a hole in the ground, and recycle it to people in need.
They start by collecting food from a variety of local suppliers. It's not food that's going bad but it may be past its sell by date in a supermarket or not quite in its prime enough to be sold on by a wholesaler. The Oxford food bank collects it, sorts it out and stores it overnight in its own chiller rooms. The following day it's distributed to around 60 local charities, large and small, across Oxfordshire that provide meals for people in need: from shelters for the homeless to mental health charities, from Childrens' centres to refugee and asylum seeker charities. Places such as Simon House, Asylum Welcome, and Emmaus, Donnington Doorstep and the Community Soup Kitchen.
All the organisations receiving food from Oxford Foodbank can choose what they want to take, what will be best for their specific needs. They can then plan their menus according to what is available on any particular day using the fresh ingredients. They benefit enormously.
Unlike the Bet Shean food bank, the Oxford food bank does not provide food directly to the needy. That's the responsibility of the Oxford Community emergency food bank which provides for people referred to them by social services, charities and medical practices.
Suppliers for the Oxford food bank include supermarkets, fruit and vegetable wholesalers, restaurants and food processing companies.
When I was there a couple of weeks ago, trays and trays of pineapples came in from a restaurant which had over ordered, there were lettuces, tomatoes, and other salad vegetables from the wholesalers and a rich variety of other fruit and vegetables, all being sorted and stacked away.
The food bank does not take in meat or fish for obvious reasons. But on the shelves were bottles of sauces still well within their sell by date but not fresh enough to go to supermarkets which need a 9 month lead in time. There were loaves of bread, both the ordinary sliced kind and from specialist bread shops. There were sacks of potatoes, flour, rice, packets of pasta and much more. I was simply astounded by the range of food - they recycle some 1.5 million pounds worth of food per year.
There are two paid directors of the bank taking responsibility for raising funds and administration but the collection, sorting out and redistribution are all dealt with by volunteers, some 120 of them at the moment, each working half day shifts. There are 4 vans in circulation during the working day, collecting food and distributing it; the foodbank operates 7 days a week all the way through the year.
And it's enormously efficient - for every £1 donated to the Foodbank, £20 of food is distributed.
In addition - remember this is part of the food industry - at the moment, there's a special offer! A local donor has guaranteed matched funding for all donations received before the end of this month. So if we can collect and donate the money from this Appeal quickly, our money will go twice as far. I'm asking you not only to give generously but also to do it as fast as possible.
As I said previously, in Oxford our giving is anonymous. We trust each individual member of the congregation to go home and remember to give in the days following Yom Kippur. Inevitably some of us forget or simply decide that we’re not going to give this year. It might surprise you to know that less than half of the OJC supports the Kol Nidrei Appeal.
It would be great if it was a much higher proportion than this - that we all now make a personal commitment to send a donation to support these two foodbanks.
Please don’t just rely on good intentions, remember to send off your cheque, made out to the OJC Kol Nidrei Appeal before the end of this week – it can be for any amount, however small or large. There are Reply Paid envelopes in the lobby for you to take home but if you don't take one, just send it to the Treasurer at the OJC, 21 Richmond Road OX1 2JL. If you prefer to make an electronic transfer, you can use the bank details that you received with your subscription reminder, just identify the transfer as KN Appeal.
The Council of the OJC has chosen two worthy recipients. Food is not just a luxury but a necessity. Fasting for just one day can give us only an inkling of what it must be like not to afford to eat. Please be generous - our contribution right now can and will make a enormous difference.
Shana Tova to you all - and I'd like to wish everyone well over the Fast.
The New Ark
Our Ark, over 40 years old, is now beyond repair, and must be replaced with something fireproof and waterproof. Robin Furlong, a well-known furniture maker, will produce the new Ark and design new external and internal lighting.
Robin will also update the front of the 40-year-old main shul with a new bimah, lectern, disabled-access platform and seating (picture).
The Ark will be made of walnut with a pattern representing the sound of prayer. The seat backs are designed to hold the Torah mantels and bells.
We expect the work to be completed by December 2017.
How you can help
- The project will cost about £130K and, thanks to some generous donations, we now have over 50%. We are now asking all OJC members to contribute – even the children at cheder will be baking biscuits!
- We also hope that Oxford alumni and other friends of the OJC will want to help - you can download a donation form here.
- If you want to discuss a donation or any other aspect of the project, please contact us here.
Yom Kippur Address 5777/2016
Yom Kippur Address Oxford 5777/2016 by Jeremy Montagu
There are two things in Judaism that came to us directly from God. Everything else in the Tanach was passed on to us by Moses and then by the later prophets, but the priestly blessing, with which we bless our children every week, and the shofar, which Benjy blows for us so well, came to us direct. God said to Moses ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them This is the way in which you shall bless the Children of Israel – so that they shall put My name upon them and I will bless them’. So when we hear the Cohanim, or when we hear the reader during the repetition of the Amidah, it is not they who are blessing us; they are merely the channel through which God Himself will bless us. It is not I who blesses my children on Friday nights or when they go off on their travels, nor is it my children who bless my grandchildren – we are just opening the way for Him to bless them.
When the shofar was first heard at Sinai, that shofar was sounding from heaven. ‘The voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice’, giving us those Ten Words that we see above the Ark here.
In legend, that shofar, ringing out from heaven, was the left horn of the ram that Abraham had sacrificed instead of Isaac, and the right horn, the larger of the two, is still in storage up there, waiting until it will be heard ‘in time to come’. It is because it was the horn of that ram that on these Days of Awe we read so many references to the Akedah, and indeed why we read that story itself as a Haftara.
But it is not the shofar that is so important during these Days of Awe – what is important is its sound, its calls. In the biblical period we never read of Rosh haShanah – instead we read of Yom T’ru‘ah, a day of blowing an alarm. It is an alarm to tell us that it is time to remember our sins and to seek repentance for doing so many things we should not have done, and for not doing so many things that we should have done.
We have heard these calls for thousands of years. Two of them, t’ki‘ah, a blast, and t’ru‘ah, an alarm, are biblical; their combination with the triple sh’varim is Talmudic, and it was laid down in the Talmud that we should blow those three calls in the triple series that we all hear today, t’ki‘ah, sh’varim-t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah; t’ki‘ah, sh’varim, t’ki‘ah; and t’ki‘ah, t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah. Here all Israel is united in blowing the same calls in that first main group between the Torah service and Musaf. What we do after that first group of calls differs in different communities. So do the actual sounds that we blow, and the type of animal whose horn on which we blow them. So does when we blow them, and how often we do it; what we do during the month of Ellul also differs, and so does whether we blow or not on Hoshanah Rabbah, when the Gates of Repentance are slowly swinging shut, reminding us that this our final chance to return to God in repentance. But the calls themselves, there with that first group, unites the whole house of Israel.
We are united because it is there that all Israel stands together before God, preparing to address our sins and transgressions, preparing us once again to return ourselves to God on this day of Yom Kippur. It is today that we make our resolutions not to do it again, and to do what we should have been doing. And when Benjy blows that final blast in a few hours time, we hope that this time God may accept that we have meant it, even though we know, and He knows, that we are not likely to succeed. That is why next year we shall need to hear those calls again on next Yom T’ruah.
The calls are powerful – they affect us all, all of us in different ways. They are a summons, a summons to Judgement, and few of us can resist that summons, however temporarily, for it is on this day that we stand before God in Judgment with the book of life and the book of death open before Him. That Judgement swings between the terror of the Un’taneh toqef and the Thirteen Attributes of divine mercy. This is why as we blow those calls, and this is why, as we hear those calls, we feel again that those calls are coming to us once again from Sinai. As blowers, we feel that yet again we are just a channel and that the calls that we blow are coming, through us, directly from the Heavens.
This is why, just as when the priestly blessing comes to us directly from God, that we bow our heads, so as not to see God hovering over the Cohanim while they are reciting those words, and why we men cover our children with our tallit, and why women hold their children close to them. So, similarly in many communities, when the shofar sounds on Rosh haShanah, again we bow our heads so as not to see the shofar blower, and in some communities why we cover our children with our tallit, because year after year, once again, we are hearing those sounds that come directly from the Heavens.
May we all have a good year. Jeremy Montagu