The street sign read “Via della Guidecca”. I had travelled to Sicily over the New Year holidays and while in Syracuse, had stumbled across this street. I thought this must be the old Jewish quarter and maybe, just maybe, there was something left of it to see. Indeed there was. Further down the street was a sign “Ancient Jewish Ritual Bath”- a mikvah. What I found was one of the oldest and largest mikvahs in Europe.
At this time of the year, despite many uncertainties in the world, I, as president of the IJC, see many reasons to be grateful. It is now Hanukkah. Viewing things first from a longer perspective, I am grateful for the Maccabee revolt 2,300 years ago against the Greco-Syrian King Antiochus. That king was trying to make the Jews abandon their faith and instead worship the Greek gods. Without that revolt, there would not be a Jewish religion today.
Holding Havdallah potluck dinners 15 years ago was the basis for founding the IJC. The dinners attracted a large group which demonstrated clearly the need for an English-speaking progressive shul in Brussels. Last weekend, to mark the end of the summer season, the IJC held another Havdallah potluck as a BBQ in the backyard of my home outside Antwerp. Again, we attracted a large number of attendees - over 60 with all age brackets represented.
Around the High Holidays, I often point out to my non-Jewish friends and acquaintances that it is Jewish New Year. Many times the response is to ask whether there will be a big party. Of course, they are thinking that Rosh Hashanah is celebrated like the calendar new year on December 31/January 1. I sense I disappoint them when I say Rosh Hashanah actually is a solemn observance with much time in shul linked to a 10-day reflection period culminating in day of repentance, Yom Kippur.
Prague holds a special place in Jewish history. On April 26th, making a conscious link to that history, the European Reform/Liberal Jewish movement (EUPJ) held opening ceremonies for its four-day Prague conclave at a very special location: the Smetana concert hall in the Municipal Hall, an art nouveau treasure. This was the first major Jewish meeting held there since the 18thWorld Zionist Congress in August 1933 (see photo).
The plan for Shabbat morning on October 27th at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was something I would recognize as president of IJC. Or L’Simcha, one of the three congregations sharing the building, was holding its regular service but would top it off with a baby naming. What a nice way to introduce a new member of the congregation, draw in the family of the newborn and tighten the bonds linking all members. There would also probably be a nice celebratory kiddush. But events took another course and October 27th became a black day, a day of infamy.
Our civilization at its core is run on principles and values. In the rush of daily life, they can be overlooked or forgotten. Being reminded of them is well worth it to individuals and society in general. They allow society to see things in a wider context and hopefully avoid sacrificing them by, for instance, confusing means with ends. I found a good example of this in my recent tour of Washington DC.