Much has happened since I departed on sabbatical from the IJC at the end of February. We have suffered the murderous attack at the Jewish Museum in May. Israel has come under attack from Gaza, and has responded fiercely. The resulting shockwaves have caught up with us here in Europe, and much ink has been spilled about the future for Jewish life on this continent. I am adamant that despite recent events, such as in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, Europe does have a strong Jewish future, and the IJC is at the forefront of this. I say that sincerely, yet, in a few months I will depart this continent where I have lived my whole life and where, despite my well-known desire to live one day in New York City, I expected to spend my entire working career.
Yet "man plans and God laughs", as the Yiddish expression goes - and you never know what will happen next. During my sabbatical I also made a huge personal decision. After over a decade spent working to revitalise European Judaism in several countries, including seven happy years at the IJC, I decided to take on a fresh challenge as a pioneer for Jewish life in Asia.
New York it ain't, but the United Hebrew Congregation of Singapore - where I will begin serving as rabbi in January - are a largely ex-pat and international congregation, with a demographic not unlike our own. Between the Bermans and the Benskys, and now of course the Nijkerks, the IJC and the UHC are already linked through their past and present members. Still more have lived in both places - including Andy Lester and David Sapiro - and despite the distances involved, and the difference in weather, I hope that we are able to maintain and nurture these intercontinental links in the years to come.
This year I have used my sabbatical to broaden my horizons in Jewish Europe. Without a doubt, the highlight was the ten-day mission that Paco Bataller and I embarked on to Azerbaijan, where we met with rabbis and community leaders in the capital, Baku, a town with two synagogues, Oguz, and the 100% Jewish village in the north of the country, Qirmizi Qesebe. The shabbat spent in the latter village "over the red bridge" was a unique experience; the Mountain Jews opened our eyes to one of the lesser-known corners of Europe's rich Jewish tapestry.
A sabbatical is designed to refresh and renew. It acknowledges that the rough-and-tumble community life can leave a rabbi jaded. I am excited to be back in Brussels this weekend to lead once more our Shabbat services, and in particular to welcome new and welcome back our members, including celebrating the fruits of our latest conversion cycle on Saturday morning. Please join us also on Friday night, when my close friend and colleague Rabbi Leonid Bimbat will talk to us about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union and particularly about the current situation in the Crimea - where he has been serving Reform communities since Russia took over the peninsula in late February. It is another contemporary story about modern Jewish life in Europe that we in Brussels should not overlook.
Meaning in the Celebration of Purim
I want to thank you all for the way my family and I have been embraced by the warm, welcoming IJC community. Being with all the kind, committed people at the IJC makes being at services and events a true pleasure. Special thanks to our teachers and Hebrew school participants for their regular contributions which enrich our Shabbat services.
Every so often we hear in the news about a postman who has been fired for hoarding mail. The most recent example occurred in New York when a postal worker was found with 40,000 undelivered letters in his apartment, some of which had stayed with him for over a decade.
Dear Members and Friends of the IJC,
This has been a difficult and scary time for us all. Innocent people have been killed and others have been wounded. We worry about our children, about ourselves and about the future.
It is also a moment when we as a community stand together, when we extend a hand, an ear a shoulder to each other, to those of us who need support or just want someone to talk to. We also do our utmost to make sure that when our IJC family joins together, when we come for services, a meal, Hebrew School or another activity, that we are safe.
We stand in solidarity with the people of France, with all those outraged at the horrific attacks on lives and on our values and freedoms. We stand together with the Jewish community here in Belgium, in France and elsewhere around the world. We also extend our sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of all those who have died at the hands of terrorists.
We have a reason to be wary. But there are those who would make us more afraid and use our fear to turn us against our fellow human beings. Let us not allow the extremist minority of any community to cause us to hate. Each individual, whatever their beliefs or faith deserves to be judged on their words and actions, not by the hateful words of extremists members of their or our community. That is what it means to be a progressive Jew; we look not only inward, but outward. We reach out to each other and we reach out to others to build bridges of peace. Let us not forget that the extremists’ agendas will be advanced by us all hating and fearing others. Together we stand against all hatred and bigotry, whatever its source and whoever its target.
May we find the support we need and have the strength and courage to face the future. Together, as people affected deeply by what has happened, as a community, we refuse to give in to terror and hate, and we move ahead with the determination to continue being who we are and standing for the best in each of us and in our IJC community.
In the Jewish calendar we have entered the saddest time of year, the three weeks that culminate with the fast day of Tisha b’Av. It is the height of summer, the sun blazes down relentlessly, and both people and animals are at risk of imminent death unless they find shade. Crops are also in jeopardy; if the weather gets too hot, a whole year’s tilling and cultivation can be destroyed. It is in this period that we remember the historic destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as several pogroms and dark days in Jewish history; and going back to the Bible, this was the time when Moses smashed the tablets of stone after coming down from Mount Sinai and seeing the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf.
It was a proud moment to see ten of our teens called to the Torah in the liberal community of Beit Warszawa. As their student rabbi back in 2005, I had played a small part in the historical revival of Jewish life in Poland by teaching and officiating at the first child (Rachel Goodman) and adult (Ludmila Krewska) bat mitzvahs since at least the Second World War. Returning there after some years, as part of our recent IJC Teen Weekend in Warsaw, was a most satisfying experience.
Bringing Out a Voice of Hope
Despite our shock and utter desolation at the murderous attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, in its immediate aftermath our community rallied around remarkably. Organizing the relocation of the Magevet choir’s concert at such short notice was no mean feat.